Summer in the city: Norwich offers secret gardens, mercantile history and a wealth of architecture
Saturday 21 August 2010
With its riverside setting, unexpected nooks and mediaeval crannies, Norwich is a perfect destination for a summer visit.
Starting from the station, a stroll to the oldest crossing over the Wensum River at Fye Bridge will take no more than half an hour. The leafy Riverside Walk offers rewarding views of the 14th-century defensive Cow Tower, the three-arched medieval Bishop Bridge and a ferry house and watergate, Pull's Ferry.
The soaring cathedral spire is best seen from here, the very place where the honey-coloured stone used in the construction of the cathedral arrived from Normandy on river barges in the early 12th century. It is said that men building the great cathedral refreshed themselves at the Adam and Eve pub (Bishopsgate; 01603 667423; adamandevenorwich.co.uk).
With a garden right on the river at Bishop Bridge, the nearby Red Lion (01603 620154) is more friendly.
Discovering the city's rickety byways, flint houses with sagging lintels and Gothic overhangs can best be started at film-set perfect Elm Hill, not far from Fye Bridge. If in need of refreshments, climb the narrow stairway at the back of the Briton's Arms Coffee House (9 Elm Hill; 01603 623367) to discover a charming overgrown garden where you can sit in a jasmine-scented bower to consume carrot cake and cappuccino.
In fact you could spend a happy day tracking down some of the city's other secret gardens. Crossing Fye Bridge you come to picturesque Colegate, lined with houses once occupied by merchants and weavers.
On the north side, the non-conformist Octagon Unitarian Chapel, built in 1756, has a delightfully deserted garden. Relax among the lavender and hollyhocks and examine the footpath composed of memorial tablets to long-lived dissenting worthies.
Secret even from Norwich residents until 1980 was a three-acre Victorian garden not far beyond the ancient city walls west of the city centre. Patient volunteers have been restoring the Plantation Garden (01603 621868; plantationgarden.co.uk) with its water-lily-filled Gothic fountain, mature copper beeches, serpentine paths and Italianate terrace built up the side of a mediaeval chalk pit turned secluded dell. Located behind the Beeches Hotel at 4 Earlham Road, the garden opens 9am-6pm daily. Admission is £2, to be deposited in a Victorian postbox that serves as an honesty box. Teas are served on summer Sunday afternoons or you can bring a picnic – possibly one you have ordered a day in advance from the Cherrytree Coffee House less than a 10-minute walk away at 50 St Giles Street (01603 699955). The café owner will prepare cream teas (£10 for two) or picnic lunches (£15 for two) to be enjoyed in a local park.
Another recent rediscovery is a unique timber-framed merchant's hall built on the riverside around 1430. Dragon Hall went unrecognised until the late 1970s, because the building had been sub- divided into shops, tenement housing and the Old Barge pub. Now restored to its original glory is the 88ft timber roof resembling an upside-down ship's hull with the eponymous dragon carved in a roof spandrel. The hall vividly demonstrates how rich and important the wool trade made Norwich in the Middle Ages. Dragon Hall is open daily except Saturdays, with a superb guided tour on Tuesdays at 2pm (115-123 King Street, 01603 663922; dragonhall.org); admission is £5.50.
More dragons can be spotted among the vigorous roof bosses of Norwich Cathedral. George slays a red-eyed fire-breathing dragon among more than 1,000 images carved at points where vaults intersect, most easily viewed in the cloisters.
Among the saints and Bible stories, pagan green men peek out from carved foliage, a fitting image to end a day of exploring the verdant corners of Norwich, river and city.
Three great days out
The Norfolk Broads
For a taste of the rare and precious wetland habitat of the Norfolk Broads, take a riverbus from Norwich station or hire a day cruiser from downstream to pilot yourself along the River Yare into a world of kingfishers, dragonflies and boat-potterers.
With luck, the river cruiser commentary will point out Charlie the resident cormorant, small vessels that helped evacuate Dunkirk and tell tales of river characters.
City Boats operate within Norwich and from its main base in Thorpe St Andrew three miles east of the centre (01603 701701; cityboats.co.uk). Out-of-town cruises last up to half a day (£12); eight-person picnic boats can be hired for between £40-£90 for two to eight hours.
Gressenhall farm and workhouse
The harsh conditions endured by the rural poor are hauntingly evoked at the Gressenhall Museum of Norfolk Life, 20 miles west of Norwich. The main building is an authentic 18th-century workhouse, and the extensive grounds contain a reconstructed blacksmith's workshop, school, laundry, and chapel. But it is the stories of particular residents told through press-button recordings, videos and displays that bring the whole place to life.
Riverside walks, a working farm with rare breeds, an adventure playground and a good courtyard café make it a great destination for families.
Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse, Gressenhall, Dereham NR20 4DT (01362 860563; museums.norfolk. gov.uk). Open daily 10am-5pm. Admission £8.40 adults, £6 children.
Ten miles north-east of Norwich is a whimsical 50-acre family attraction aimed at children, though family members of all ages will enjoy this un-Disneyfied fantasyland of natural features.
Access is via BeWILDerboat (actually pensioned off Broadland ferries). Aerial walkways, rope tunnels and bridges connect painted treehouses, and pairs of zip-wires cry out for impromptu races.
The middle of the Mudlde Maze is endlessly elusive but there is no doubt which way to go on the near vertical-drop 70ft slide. Care for the environment is obvious at the food outlets which serve locally produced organic food.
BeWILDerwood, Horning Road, Hoveton, NR12 8JR (01603 783900; bewilderwood.co.uk). Open daily 10am-5.30pm. Admission £11.50; £7 for 3-4 year olds.
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