Norwich...the Athens of the east?

Norfolk's principal city is up against Birmingham, Sheffield and Derry to become the first UK City of Culture. Nick Coleman finds out why it thinks it can win
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The Independent Travel

It's nice to be between places. To be located on the route to somewhere else. That way, people drop in to see you all the time: you are a diversion, a comfort, a service-provider. It's easier to be popular when you are convenient.

Poor old Norwich. It isn't on the way to anywhere, not unless you're following the arduous overland route to Hindolveston from Beccles (known since the earliest days of the silk trade as the Pork Pie Road). Norwich isn't even on the way to the great ports of East Anglia, although it can reasonably claim to be one itself. Yes, the argument can be offered that no weekend-cottaging Londoner can get to Holkham or Wells without taking the Norwich ring road, but it's an argument that stands up neither in theory, nor practice. What do you think Swaffham and Fakenham are for, if not a leg-stretch and a bundle of kindling from the garage? Poor old Norwich, bypassed again. At least the good people of Hindolveston know your value.

Then again, perhaps the very fact of Norwich's non-status as a halfway house is what makes Norwich the place it is. To go to Norwich you have to want to go there and, for that very reason, the city can reasonably claim to be its own place. It has no need to pander. It is beholden to no one. Except, of course, that it is very keen for people to stop on by.

I am sitting in Frank's Bar in the middle of town being given what-for by a quartet of hard-boiled Norwich advocates. Two work for the council; one is marketing manager of the Norwich Writers' Centre, the fourth programmes the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which has evolved into one of the most impressive provincial arts knees-ups going.

"B-b-but I like Norwich," I protest feebly, "I really do."

"No," says Norwich Council's head of communications and culture, twisting a tassel on her bag meaningfully. "No, you only think you do."

And it's true, I do only "think" I like Norwich. And it isn't enough. Not for these guys. What can I say? That, despite speaking as a loyal East Anglian raised in a fen barely 50 miles away, I've only ever been to Norwich twice in my life – because it's, like, not on the way to anywhere else? No, of course I can't say that.

And, of course, Nikki Rotsos is charming really and isn't really twisting her tassel meaningfully, but the point still stands. Norwich has an image problem – what the council prefers to call an "issue of perception". People think about Norwich ... well, what do they think? They think Delia Smith, Alan Partridge and Colman's Mustard. They think nice cathedral – or is that Lincoln? And they think "Tractor Boys", or are they fans of Ipswich Town FC? When prompted, they might think Malcolm Bradbury and the University of East Anglia's famous creative writing course. Hardly a reason to go miles out of your way.

What they don't think is: handsome medieval city of 135,000 inhabitants with an arts and music scene to rival any in the country; a fat dozen first-rate "heritage" buildings, spanning the 11th century to the 21st; a real airport; a thriving bar scene ("like Krakow and Barcelona" say the Norwich advocates); and an ancient higgledy-piggledy shopping centre called The Lanes which is home, it is claimed, to no fewer than 300 independently owned shops and is, as a consequence, rated the fifth-best retail hot spot in the country by one of those mysteriously weightless institutions that take it upon themselves to rate such things. And here's another thing people don't think: Anne of Bohemia's painted ceiling in Eagle Ward at the Great Hospital. But more of that later.

Norwich has added to the burden of its ambition by getting itself on to the shortlist for the UK's first "City of Culture" title, to be awarded in 2013. Its rivals are Birmingham, Derry and Sheffield. This is a government branding exercise, of course, a beauty contest designed to make the most of the perceived success of Liverpool's European "Capital of Culture" status in 2008, and it will benefit the burghers of the winning city only indirectly.

But it is pretty clear why Norwich felt the urge to go for it (it's one of those things you actually have to bid for) and why they think they stand a very good chance of winning the gong. If they do win, they reasonably surmise that it will cause more pilgrims to make their way across the gaping Norfolk steppe, there to discover a new Athens of the East. Or Krakow. Or Barcelona. Norwich has also lobbed its hat in the ring to become a future "Unesco City of Literature". It is already an "International City of Refuge". There's no stopping this lot.

So what are their credentials? Why should any of us bother to take the Pork Pie Road when there are so many others to take with many alternative destinations at the end of them?

Well, it's a fact that Norwich is immensely cultural. Its hefty arts festival (established: 1770) is the oldest such city festival in the country. The city has its own Writers' Centre which runs a formal "salon" in addition to an impressive networking and outreach operation. It has a cracking music scene, decent theatre, Anglia Television, and it claims the biggest concentration of food and biotech research in Europe. All right, the last one isn't very cultural but biotech research makes an interesting textural contrast to the countless flinty churches that teem throughout the city like currants in a bun.

What Norwich also has, which is rather clever, is Norwich HEART. The Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust is "a private charitable company set up as an umbrella organisation for all the city's heritage". The idea is to yoke the interests of those diverse aspects of the city's historical corpus which might, otherwise, miss out on the benefits of big-picture strategic thinking. The idea is to get those interests singing from the same hymn sheet; you might say to sell the city well.

The chief executive of HEART is Mike Loveday, ex-town planner and citizen-sage, who, after elevenses at Frank's, gives me the Norwich experience on the hoof, cobbled street by re-paved precinct by crumbling friary Chapter House. There isn't time to do the crowning "Norwich 12" in all its glory but we can examine some of its jewels.

The Norwich 12 is the collective name given by HEART to the city's premier heritage destinations, a sort of Norwich hit parade: the Norman castle, obviously; the handsome Georgian Assembly House; the remarkable St Andrew's and Blackfriar's Halls, which constitute the largest complex of medieval friary buildings in the country and stand as an ongoing regeneration project of massive substance; the lovely limestone cathedral and its new refectory development; the Dragon Hall, a very attractive half-timbered medieval wool trading hall ... and so on. That's less than half of an impressive list. The only item on the list that strains the guy-ropes a bit is No 12, the Millennium Lottery-funded Forum (1999 to 2001), which crouches glassily at the top of the market square in between City Hall and the church of St Peter Mancroft with a slightly belligerent mix of civic smarm, retail gloss and nasty signage. I am assured by independent-minded Norwich folk that the building is good to use, but it remains incontrovertibly the case that, as modern pavilions go, it is contrived very much in the spirit of The Millennium.

Mike Loveday is, I suspect, a man for the telling detail over the grand or self-congratulatory gesture. One of the small details for which he is partially responsible is the way The Lanes shopping warren has been lent a sense of added historical depth without the deployment of nasty signage. On the contrary, the discreet monochrome annotations and blue plaques to be seen every now and then on walls and buildings of note are exemplary of their kind. They give you interesting information in a clear, tasteful, stimulating, permanent-looking way, then they shut up. They don't appear to be sponsored by anyone. Other civic bodies of England and Wales please observe.

We pound up and down the little hills of the city – in this respect Norwich is less Athens than Rome – and as I goggle at the sheer number and range of coffee bars and "intimate venues", and, somehow, we bypass the only listed concrete urinal in the world. This is because Mike wants to show me Anne of Bohemia's ceiling in Eagle Ward at the Great Hospital. And who can blame him?

It is 1383, a couple of years after the Peasants' Revolt. Somehow the boy King Richard II has managed to get away with plugging Wat Tyler, and he and his missus, Anne of Bohemia, are doing a national tour of influential locations, as shaky royals did as a matter of political and spiritual expediency in those days. Norwich is one of the two or three largest and most prosperous cities in the country and not to be missed, even if you do have to make a special journey to get there. The Queen, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor and sister of "Good" King Wenceslas, is widely considered to be a good thing and the ceiling of the chancel of St Helen's Church at St Giles Hospital is painted with the black eagle of the Holy Roman Empire in honour of her visit to the institution.

They are still there, the eagles, in extraordinarily good condition, row upon row of them in the vaulted ceiling of the church which still stands as an integral part of what is now called the Great Hospital – an old people's home of some distinction. You can see them by visiting Eagle Ward.

The ward was built to house the widows of the Hospital, constructed at first-floor height right up in the roof of the chancel. It remains exactly as it was left in 1984 when the last widow died: beneath the feral gaze of black medieval eagles, row upon row of roofless cubicles with curtains for doors, planks for walls, giving arched views into the Hospital's precincts from the very tops of the 13th-century church windows, everywhere the smell of old dust. It would appear that nothing has changed up here in the roof for a couple of centuries. There are teapots on tables, ancient pamphlets in bamboo racks, knitting needles on wooden chairs and spartan little beds in tiny sleeping cubicles, not one of them endowed with a roof of its own.

The ancient relicts of the city of Norwich would have gazed straight up at those eagles every night as they lay alone on their tiny beds, trying hard not to disturb each other through their thin partition planking and, in the way of old ladies, most of them will have considered themselves fortunate indeed to be able to do so. The eagles must have stood, over the years, for many things.

It is an incredibly moving place and worth any amount of effort to pay a visit. There is really no need to be on the way to anywhere else.

COMPACT FACTS

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Nick Coleman travelled to Norwich courtesy of Visit Norwich (visitnorwich.co.uk) and National Express East Anglia (nationalexpresseastanglia.com).

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