Bomb damage at Norwich during World War Two. Rescue workers at a bombed site after the an air raid search for people who may have survived. Circa 1941. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

The ghosts of Norwich

The callous destruction of an ancient city in the name of efficiency, modernity and a failed utopian vision of “the Good Life”

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Norfolk is not Merry England. It never has been, never will be. Cut off from the rest of the country, this waterlocked land of barley fields, ruined churches, sandy lanes and Viking names lingers at the end of a long road that leads to nowhere else. At its centre is Norwich, a city to which, in the words of the novelist Ralph Hale Mottram, “most Englishmen have never been”. 

The stones of Norwich are flint. Brittle and sharp, they are the stuff that arrows are made of, not statues. Beyond Norfolk is nothing but the North Sea: historically, Norwich has looked to its neighbour Amsterdam as much as London, and even now the daily flight from its little airport connects at Schiphol, not Heathrow.

Norwich has been a cut-off city facing east for centuries. In the Middle Ages its great wealth was built on worsted woven by the Flemish. After them came Dutch weavers, who left their mark on the gable ends of brick buildings. At one point, a third of the city’s population was Flemish, Dutch or Walloon. These newcomers were called “strangers” by locals, their number increasing with the arrival of French Huguenots after Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. 

Such was Norwich’s wealth that it grew second only to London in size. Daniel Defoe called it “an ancient, large, rich and populous city”, a gateway of trade between England and Europe through Norfolk’s two ports, Yarmouth and Lynn. Worsted was sent as far as Naples, Venice and Spain, as well as “a very considerable trade with Holland, whose opposite neighbours they are”, while timber and flax was brought in from the Baltic. Yarmouth provided a stopping point for the transportation of coal between Newcastle and London.

Detached, wealthy and full of strangers, it is no surprise that Norwich became a haven of nonconformists and dissenters, with strong Quaker, Presbyterian, Unitarian and Baptist movements. England’s first non-denominational burial ground is in Norwich (there is also an important Quaker cemetery). The city’s Jews worshipped in a temple on Synagogue Street, and its Catholics built a church which, when it was completed in 1910, was the largest post-Reformation Catholic church in the country. 

The nonconformists included the sociologist Harriet Martineau, the abolitionist Amelia Opie and the novelist, Ralph Hale Mottram. The Norwich School of painters emerged as the most important regional movement in England, with Cotman and Crome compared by later historians to Constable and Turner. 

When a friend of Constable visited the city in 1814 he found it “a place where the arts are very much cultivated … some branches of knowledge, chemistry, botany, etc are carried to a great length. General literature seems to be pursued with an ardour which is astonishing when we consider that it does not contain a university, and it is merely a manufacturing town.” Martineau described Norwich as the Athens of England.

This was the Athens where I grew up in the 1990s. As the boy Leo says in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, “My spiritual transformation took place in Norwich: it was there that, like an emerging butterfly, I was first conscious of my wings.” For me it was the whole world: a few magical square miles stretching between Eaton Park and Mousehold Heath. Rows and rows of terraced streets. Sash windows, peeling paint. The old flint city, glistening like a dark stone in the morning rain, seagulls overhead. A dreamy, distant city. This was the kingdom of my youth: black Sobranies, Sonic Youth, first kiss. 

Some cities lie undisturbed. Norwich does not. Much of it was attacked in 1942 when the Luftwaffe struck the city as a target of its Baedecker raids. More than 30,000 houses and 1,000 public buildings, including ancient pubs and churches, were damaged or destroyed. The church of the mediaeval mystic, Julian, took a direct hit. Thirty miles away in the village of Saxlingham, my grandmother stood on tiptoes at her bedroom window to watch the burning city, the far-off orange glow flickering on the horizon. 

After the bombing came the rebuilding. In 1944, Mottram provided the text for a report on the damage to the city. Now the war is drawing to a close, he wrote, “We hope soon to be replanning Norwich, and only the broken-hearted can fail to hope that a better and finer city may arise on these ashes.” This hope was echoed by the local historian, Andrew Stephenson, who in 1948 wrote that “though beauty dies it can be reborn, and cities, like the phoenix, can rise anew and beautiful from their ashes”. 

Mottram and Stephenson wrote of hope and beauty. The response from the city authorities was the City of Norwich Plan — a comprehensive template for a new Norwich which called town planning “a new science” and offered “for the first time … a conception of the city as a whole”. 

Arguing that “the devastation caused by bombardment from the air has given Norwich and her sister cities in the front-line an unrivalled opportunity to replan their physical structure”, the plan put forward a utopian vision to achieve “the Good Life” through a “Design for Living” (its capitalisation, not mine) which sought a balance between “maintaining the most worthy” of the city’s old buildings as landmarks while “improving” the rest of the city through the creation of new, clean lines and open space.

At the end of the plan is an appendix which, although just three pages long, represents one of the most important moments of Norwich’s history. It was written by City Engineer Herbert Rowley who expressed reservations with several of the proposed changes. Rowley made no mention of the Good Life in his appendix. Rather, his notion of the new science focused on the traffic circulation of the city, writing that “to the stranger the central area of Norwich presents a bewildering series of narrow winding streets, without any apparent pattern of lay-out or well-defined focal points. For this reason, and in the interests of efficient traffic movement, simplification of the road system is essential.” 

Rowley provided a map of his proposed changes — two major road systems running through the old centre, with the mass clearance of ancient buildings for a new “civic centre”. His map is to Norwich what Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin was to Paris.

Mercifully, many of Rowley’s reservations were ignored. But some of his scheme was implemented, especially in the north of the old city. There, instead of following the boundary of the mediaeval city walls, his recommendation was adopted for an inner ring road carved through the area of Magdalen Street with two roundabouts and a concrete flyover. This was despite the fact that much of that area had not even been damaged during the war. 

The consequences were inevitable: the part of Norwich north of the flyover was cut off from the rest of the city, a mediaeval church was demolished, and a vast space was cleared to build Anglia Square, a 1960s concrete jumble of shops, walkways and offices. Poorly designed, poorly lit, built in a way that any engineer could know would never last, the result was predictable decay. When I was a teenager just 25 years later, Anglia Square was already a desolate place where we went on Saturday afternoons to play pool and drink beer underage. Another 25 years on, it is now a sorry mix of pound shops and boarded-up windows.

Anglia Square should have been a cautionary tale to the anacondas of Norwich City Council. Yet their appetite to replace ancient places with retail units continued unabated. Instead of renewing Anglia Square, the Council left it as scorched earth in the 1990s and built a new shopping mall in the centre of the city by the Norman castle. 

This was a particularly sensitive location. According to archaeological reports, the excavation conditions for its “joint occupancy urban site” were difficult, with some graves damaged by the drilling of the foundations and some “excavated at speed”. More than 400 bodies were dug up at the Castle Mall site from a range of different graves and cemeteries — including one skeleton from a prison burial site still restrained by a leather strap attached to its ankle.

None of these bodies were laid to rest again. Instead, they are held in a storage facility by the Norfolk Museums Service. As the seventeenth-century Norwich scholar, Thomas Browne, wrote in his book Urn Burial, “who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?” 

The Castle Mall turned the historic heart of my Athens into Edina, Minnesota. Spread out over several open plan storeys, it became a spot where desperate people sometimes threw themselves from the upper level to the final judgement of the atrium floor below. Muzak, air con, plastic plants. Like Anglia Square, the Castle Mall’s decline was rapid; today its shops have been replaced by escape rooms, crazy golf and a food court.

There is no park to speak of in central Norwich. Either the empty Anglia Square or the Castle Mall could have been turned into a green space for the Good Life. So too the little Chapelfield Gardens could have been extended when the adjacent chocolate factory closed in 1996. Instead the factory site was turned into — I am not making this up — another shopping mall in 2005. The new science of the cat litter tray. And when the owners of this new mall, Intu Chapelfield, went into administration in 2020, the site was bought by LaSalle Investment Management and rebranded as Chantry Place, with the PR manager for Visit Norwich saying she was delighted that the new name reflected the area’s history. Today Chantry Place is the home of the Apple Store and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. 

There are three stages of iconoclasm

There are three stages of iconoclasm. First comes the physical destruction of the old. This is achieved through sledgehammers, bulldozers, bullets and incendiary bombs. Second comes the building of the new, signed off by bureaucrats thumbing their way through piles of plans and documents. Finally comes commodification: the cynical rebranding of the new as the old. 

The first two of these stages are not fatal to a city’s heritage. Every city knows loss and change. It is like snow: in Norwich, in Rome, in Kassel, in Königsberg, in Mariupol, the centuries settle in layers on layers, new stone on old bones on even older stone. Yet memory of the city lives on, a cat among the ruins. Only the third stage is fatal — because it is moral instead of physical destruction, and not loss but the control of memory.

All cities change, of course, and Norwich is no exception. For centuries it has been a place of remnants and ruins: of the 58 parish churches which once stood inside the city walls, 22 were abandoned, amalgamated, attacked or demolished during the course of the Middle Ages and by the iconoclasts of the Reformation. In turn, these mediaeval buildings were built with something far older, the flints of Boudica and the Iceni. Their remnants are the foundations of the city today. 

Nor has Norwich ever flinched from the new. The city is the home of several celebrated landmarks of modern architecture, including its vast 1930s City Hall, its Brutalist university and the futuristic steel cuboid of the Sainsbury Centre. In this cycle of change, the old and the new speak to each other.

But commodification, the final stage of iconoclasm, puts an end to this cycle between the old and the new. An artificially-engineered fusion of the two, it is a sterile hybrid that speaks only to itself. The result is this: today the map of Norwich consists of fabricated labels dreamt up in the laboratories of PR agencies, the marketing departments of private companies and the pen-pushers who sit in City Hall.

Chantry Place. The Castle Mall rebranded as “Castle Quarter.” The streets under the shadow of Anglia Square called “Norwich Over the Water”. A Golden Triangle. A Silver Triangle. The “Norwich Lanes”. Second homes and hipster shops. And the Colman’s museum and mustard shop, where tourists browse rows of mustard pots still stamped with the old logo of a bull’s head next to the words “Of Norwich”, even though Unilever moved the production of Colman’s to Burton-on-Trent in 2019.

Untethered, unhinged, let loose in its own echo chamber, the consequence of this process is the closing down of a city to a series of symbolic components which no longer have any meaning. There is nothing more to build and nothing left to destroy. Culture, land and history are replaced by an abstract sphere of symbols and space. 

Thus the final stage of iconoclasm reaches its grim conclusion. All that is left is the management of this sphere, encapsulated in a 2017 consultancy report commissioned by the city council which gave a “health check assessment” of the city’s “current retail and leisure offer and performance” and, as part of an “updated retail study to assess Norwich’s current ‘retail needs’ to inform retail policy in the emerging Greater Norwich Local Plan (GNLP)”, recommended “a need for an additional 15,000m comparison retail floor space” — while existing malls like Anglia Square and Castle Mall were continuing to lose shops at an alarming rate. 

In his book On The Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald wrote about the psychological effects on the German population of the large-scale bombing of their cities. He suggested that the scale of the destruction was so great that it overwhelmed the collective consciousness: “the reality of total destruction, incomprehensible in its extremity” led to a kind of self-anaesthesia, a mechanism of repression that was “a means of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms”. 

Sebald was describing the destruction and rebuilding of the physical landscape between 1942 and the 1990s. But what of us who are the generation faced with the third and final stage of iconoclasm — the loss of the moral landscape and the control of our memory? I have seen in my own lifetime as much of the old Norwich disappear as my grandparents did during the Baedeker blitz of 1942. Yet as Sebald said of the Germans, the more I try to recall “the more clearly I realised how hard it is for memory to make any headway”.

Some of it remains, of course. In Colegate, in Pottergate, by the river and in the market, life goes on, the cathedral stands tall, and for a moment the city feels like home. 

There are still many good people left in the nest of rebels, doing what they can to resist the control and commodification of their memories. But I am not one of them. 

Gone is the city I knew. My Athens became my Tenochtitlan, disappearing without trace into the waterlogged land. The city of my youth does not pardon, it does not bury, it does not leave the dead undisturbed. Crooked houses, crowded bookshelves. A garden under a catalpa tree, two clear eyes fixed on mine for a moment then gone. Beauty and innocence. The stones of my Norwich are ghosts. 

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