The character and needs of Norwich in a nutshell
Artwork by Meg McKenzie evoking the original form of Norwich, said to represent a bird’s head
Norwich is a richly cultural city, friendly and tolerant, with a high student population. It has many superlatives, including the number of historic churches, pubs, and non-religious people. Norwich is ranked 4th of all local authorities tackling climate, it has strong Green representation, and there are a lot of eco initiatives. There are more plant-based eaters and vegan food providers in Norwich than in other UK cities.
Its geography is dominated by the rivers Wensum and Yare, and the wooded heathland to the East. It became wealthy from production and trade of wool and leather, and the proximity of fertile agricultural land. [You can read a blogpost about Norwich rivers here.]
It is increasingly popular as a cultural tourism destination, with nearly half its visitors coming from outside the county. Although there are plenty of cultural offers, it lacks elements often seen in cities, such as a purpose-built concert hall, a City centre contemporary visual arts centre or a science centre.
Norwich has a radical history, with many stories of its people resisting injustice or spreading radical ideas. However, this radicalism sits within and in response to both rural conservatism and a long-standing inequality. There is currently extreme inequality across the City, with four of the UK’s wealthiest and four of the UK’s most disadvantaged wards. This indicates a threat to future peace as Earth crisis conditions intensify.
Norwich needs a food supply that is resilient in the face of climate-change drought, excessive plantations of feed crops and depleted soils in the farmland, and the decline in a pool of agricultural workers. Although Norfolk is the UK’s breadbasket, there is high demand for food banks, and Norwich people mostly consume from a highly processed globalised supply of food. This supply is under threat from climate breakdown, the pandemic, Brexit and war. There is a lack of food processing infrastructure in the city as granaries and factories have closed. A Food Enterprise Park aims to tackle this but needs to do so in resilient and ecological ways.
Norfolk is at a nexus point of an energy transition from North Sea gas to offshore wind & other renewables (as well as Sizewell expansion in Suffolk). Norfolk is threatened by rising sea levels in the Wash area, and its Eastern coastline and inland riparian landscape, which threatens the settlements around Norwich’s rivers. From wet to dry, Norfolk is the driest county in the UK, and 300 field fires were reported on July 19th 2022.
The wider area of Norwich is 52.6 km sq. It has a population of 143,135 in the City and 213,000 in the wider urban area. It’s a small city although it used to be the biggest English city in the early Middle Ages, until it became second in size to London before the industrial era.
Its population is 90% white. Historically it was Anglo-Saxon but from the 12th Century there were migrants of European Jews (Huguenots and Flemings). In recent years, the population has become much more diverse.
The biggest age group in the current population is 20–24 year olds, due to the two universities.
In Norfolk, 15 areas are among the richest 10% in the country while 32 are in the poorest 10%. Those poorest neighbourhoods are in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. In Norwich the most deprived wards are Mile Cross and Lakenham, with poverty evidenced by demand for food banks. So, Norwich contains four of some of the most and four of the least deprived wards in the UK. The Government’s Levelling Up strategy is ignoring East Anglia. Many are in council rented housing (25% compared to 9.5% in other UK areas). The biggest employers are in the retail sector, but this has been pressured by impacts of Covid-19. In terms of health, on most measures, Norwich people are less healthy than the English average. The worst indicators are for the incidence of suicide, diabetes (linked to diet), and under-18s conception.
In Norwich North, in February 2023, 33% couldn’t afford to turn the heating on when cold in the past month; 17% missed a rent payment in the last six months; 28% are worried about having to use a food bank in the next year; 37% of peoples’ mental health has worsened due to the cost of living crisis. See https://costoflivingmap.com/data/
Employment in Norwich used to be production of agricultural resources (shoes / leather, mustard, confectionery, beer), but after these factories closed it has been more substantially in retail, as well as insurance / finance and technology.
In terms of religion, there has been a strong dissenting tradition with many Quakers and Unitarians. 44% are now listed as Christian, 42% no religion, and 8% unwilling to say, which has made it the least religious city in England.
Any intervention has to be designed to take into account the essence of a place, its environment and histories, as well as voices and statistics in the current moment.
Norwich is a place of meetings:
- of two rivers (Yare and Wensum, a tributary)
- of two geological types of land (chalk and crag)
- of grassland, wet woodland and heath woodland
- of two Roman roads running North to South, East to West
- of Christianity and agnosticism
- of pragmatism and spirituality
- of radical innovation and slow conservatism.
Culturally, the essence of Norwich is the articulation of problems and rebellion against them:
- It has been characterised by people good at describing both inner and outer worlds, feelings and landscapes.
- It has been a place of radical resistance, from Boudicca, to Kett, to the Norwich Radicals during the French Revolution.
- It has also been a site of injustice, conservatism and apathy, which has triggered reactions.
Words have been used to shift consciousness and rally people to make change:
- Boudicca roused a massive army to rebel against Roman occupation with her speech that began: “I am fighting as someone like you who has lost their freedom. I am fighting for my bruised body…”
- Julian of Norwich, the first published female author in English, wrote the Revelations of Divine Love, resisting a patriarchal suppression of embodied, natural expressions of belief. She wrote, “Be a gardener. Dig a ditch. Toil and sweat. And turn the earth upside down. And seek the deepness. And water plants in time. Continue this labour. And make sweet floods to run, and noble and abundant fruits to spring…”
- Robert Kett wrote a list of 29 demands headed with: “that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more”.
- Sir Thomas Browne wrote of a compassionate approach to science, religion and the natural world: “No one should approach the temple of science with the soul of a money changer.”
- Harriet Martineau, the first published female sociologist, and feminist, wrote “The imagination, once awakened, must and will work, and ought to work”.
The Earth crisis, and the particular local problem of inequality, govern what Norwich needs:
- A resilient, local and biodiverse food supply.
- Resistance to excessive non-sustainable development.
See, and add to, this mapping of local current groups and initiatives working to address the social and environmental needs of the place. Some particular needs they are discussing include:
- Stopping the Wensum Link road, a 3.9 mile road proposed to cut through an ecologically sensitive area
- More ecologically sensitive development in sites earmarked near the river in the South East of the City
- A socially-just regeneration of the Anglia Square area (and Norwich Over the Water in general)
- Limiting the out-of-town big box stores that draw people away from City Centre shops
- Protection from rising sea levels and rain storms that will cause varying and increasingly high river levels.
- Local, renewable energy sources to help people with the rise in the cost of living.
- Access to affordable and healthier food to address diet-related health problems.
In addition to these protective measures, Norwich also needs to contribute to the mitigation of these harms, particularly climate breakdown, that are having global impacts.
Deeper dive into ecological and cultural history
There are 20 National Nature Reserves and 39 Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Norfolk, often designated for the geology that creates favourable ecological conditions. Norwich is at the juncture of two stretches of white chalk and crag on either side of the county. Unusually for Norfolk, there’s a hilly rise to the north east, where the Norwich Crags lie beneath Mousehold Heath. There are also deposits of glacial sand and gravel.
The city centre and suburban stretches beyond are low-lying, built up around the rivers Yare and Wensum, and new regeneration projects are planned on flat lands that used to be industrial around the east of the city.
Surrounding Norwich the landscape has provided materials for the life & wealth of the city e.g. soil, water, building materials such as flint and clay, sand for glass, lime and marl, and ironstone.
This has been largely an extractive process. Much land has been grazed for livestock for meat, dairy, wool and leather products. The Broads originated as peat digs, with the peat used as a (polluting) fuel.
The heathland, which stretched much further than the current Mousehold woods, was used as a source for fuel, gravel, sand and clay.
The river Wensum runs through the City, and is a tributary of the Yare that comes inland from Great Yarmouth estuary. The rivers are key biodiversity habitats for the City.
The Norfolk Biodiversity Plan includes plans to create Green Infrastructure Corridors. In Norwich these are the rivers and Mousehold Heath, which almost links up to the river Wensum at Cow Tower, separated by a main road. Significantly, these riverside sites are allocated for housing, with much development already happened.
Norwich itself, as a small and dense city without much high rise housing, so it has several inner city and suburban areas that lack woodland, combined with wooded areas such as Mousehold Heath and wet woodland in Trowse. There are some plantation woods further west and north, outside the City. There are wet woodlands East and West of the city (willow, alder etc), which is necessary for flood mitigation but there’s much planned housing development and the Wensum Link road proposed. This adds to suburban sprawl since the 1920s that has eaten into these biodiversity-rich areas. This contrasts with its character when Thomas Fuller described it in 1662 as “either a city in an orchard, or an orchard in a city, so equal are houses and trees blended in it”
There is also a large grassland heathland corridor to the West of Norwich. The image below shows the original ecology / geology, with overlapping areas of riparian woodland, wetland and grassland around Norwich.
Looking at this for patterns: The Norwich Crag lies to the East. Crag is a deposit of marine fossils, so this rests on land made of watery plants and animals. Also Norwich remains a watery city. The main shape is like a cross with the rivers running in one direction and the boundary between two different geological types running in the other direction.
As well as development, the biodiversity landscape is threatened by climate impacts — both drought and flood. Norfolk has always had less rainfall than the rest of the island, but the lack of rainfall is putting pressure on agriculture and biodiversity sites in the region. Also, there is a threat of rising sea levels that is already causing significant coastal erosion in East Norfolk, threatening Norwich as a built up area around rivers that are fairly close to the sea.
Norfolk in general has productive soil — if enough water — so there’s potential for areas such as heath, parks, and gardens to provide local food. There are e.g. biodynamic farm projects outside Norwich and some small community gardens e.g. Grapes Hill but perhaps there is potential for more regenerative food production in people’s gardens, potentially on the UEA campus, and in the East Norwich development area.
There is a lack of biodiverse green spaces within the City centre, with 80% of these provided by church grounds. There could be more street trees linking up existing green spaces. Chapelfield Gardens is a formal garden just within the centre, bounded by busy roads, meaning that it’s very noisy.
Outside of the City there is scope to increase larger scale green infrastructure, for example, 2000 trees are being planted in West Earlham (near the UEA campus).
Culture and heritage
Initially, an Iceni and Roman settlement (Venta Icenorum, now Caister St Edmund) just south of where Norwich is today, on the river Tas. Anglo-Saxons and then Norman invaders settled and built a dense city, at first using wood from surrounding forest, then increasingly brick and imported stone. The City had a port, a defensive castle on a constructed mound (by 1121), and cathedral (by 1145), and these two structures still dominate the skyline. The land around the rivers was reclaimed from marshes, to create more farmland, which benefited the city as its population and wealth grew.
Its wealth grew in the Middle Ages, due to wool. Wool merchants built churches to show off their wealth, so that there were 57 within the City walls. It’s still one of the country’s most complete mediaeval cities, although it was badly damaged by WW2 bombing and brutalist development.
Its geography is dominated by the rivers Wensum and Yare, and the wooded heathland to the East. The mediaeval city centre, bounded by the remnants of stone walls, contained 57 parish churches, which is more than any city north of the Alps. Many of these are used as antiques markets, arts centres or community centres and 10 are in use by the Church of England. The city centre is largely pedestrianised, so it’s a lovely place to wander round its lanes, with independent shops and a colourful market. (The market used to be full of fresh food stalls but is now mostly street food.)
You’ll also find characterful streets such as Elm Hill, Timber Hill and Magdalen Street. Distinctive historic buildings include the Assembly House, the Guildhall, Tombland and the buildings in the Cathedral Close, as well as the historic buildings that house the Museum of Norwich and Stranger’s Hall.
More modern architectural history can be found in the disused shoe factories, old breweries and granaries, Jarrold’s print factory, the brutalist development of Anglia Square, the former Norwich Union buildings and the out of town UEA campus. There are a small number of tall modern buildings (Winchester Tower, Normandie Tower) but no skyscrapers.
Norwich is known for the phrase ‘a fine city’, but the most meaningful phrase is ‘a City of Stories’. It’s a UNESCO City of Literature, known for creative writing at UEA and its long heritage of thinkers, writers and publishers. The National Centre for Writing in Norwich describes it as “a place of ideas where the power of words has changed lives, promoted parliamentary democracy, fomented revolution, fought for the abolition of slavery and transformed literature…a place for writers as agents of change”.
A lot of change-making heritage in Norwich is related to innovative understanding of the natural environment. Its wealthy landowners were forerunners in the Agricultural Revolution (e.g. the four course system of crop rotation). More recently, and looking into the future, the John Innes Centre is internationally renowned for its research into plant science. The UEA has been a fore-runner of climate science, celebrating 50 years of the Climatic Research Institute (in 2022) and the Tyndall Centre.
Going back in time, Norwich was a Roman settlement, more or less. Venta Icenorum was an Iceni (Brittonic) and Roman town, just south of Norwich on the River Tas, but in those days it would have been a port on the wide estuary that is now reclaimed land between Norwich and Great Yarmouth. Boudicca, the Iceni queen, was famous for leading a rebellion against Roman rule in AD 60–61. 70–80,000 Romans & Britons were tortured and killed by her forces. She has been a symbol of resistance to Roman rule since Victorian times.
The other famous Norwich symbol of resistance was Robert Kett who led a Rebellion in 1549 against wealthy landowners who were enclosing common land, leaving peasants with nowhere to forage and graze animals. This month of trouble was called “the commotion time”. This has resonance today as so much of Norfolk is owned by the Crown, aristocracy and ultra-rich investors.
Norwich was a significant and large city from the early Middle Ages, a centre for both commerce and ‘the contemplative life’. The most famous early writer was Julian of Norwich (1342–1416), one of Europe’s great mystics who wrote Revelations of Divine Love in an anchorite cell in Norwich, and the first woman to be published in English. St Julian’s church is open to visitors. Her revelations offered an ecological and feminine perspective on Christianity. Other famous early literature is the Paston Letters, a collection of family letters that offers insight into politics, property law, love and manners in the 15th century, with Margaret Paston the most notable writer. Sir Thomas Browne, polymath writer and medical doctor, an inventor of words and scientific philosopher with religious leanings, lived in Norwich for 45 years in the 17th century.
It’s the only UK city in the International Cities of Refuge Network — a Sanctuary city status, which is expressed partly in resistance to the censorship and persecution of writers and thinkers. Although there’s a tendency across Norfolk towards othering outsiders, Norwich is more welcoming to refugees and migrants, with diverse cultures reflected in events and venues across the city, as well as in shops and restaurants.
It’s also a city supportive of queer people, with a vibrant Pride celebration and several supportive groups and spaces e.g. https://norfolklgbtproject.org.uk/
Visual arts in Norwich, historically, reflects the landscape of Norfolk, in keeping with its wealth coming from land. The Norwich School was the first provincial art movement in Britain, arising in the early 19th century, led by self-taught working-class painters Crome, Cotman, Stannard and others. You can see their work in the Castle Museum. From the mid 20th century, the Norwich 20 Group was formed in part to revive this movement, to create opportunities for local artists and to do this in a spirit of enquiry and dedication to quality. The East Anglian Art Fund was formed out of a plan to create a Tate in the East, responding to the lack of a city centre contemporary art gallery. The fund supports exhibitions and programmes at the Castle Museum and elsewhere. The major visual arts venue for Norwich is the Sainsbury Centre, on the UEA campus, which receives major touring exhibitions and shows its permanent collection of indigenous / world art and modern art. There are small spaces, including NUA’s gallery, the Cathedral’s Crypt, Mosey Gallery, Anteros, Greenhouse Gallery and Offset Gallery.
Norwich has an impressive music scene, with many venues, music in pubs & festivals. There is a lack of large dedicated space for orchestral music. This summary of the music scene from Ash on the Norwich Radical blog sums it up: “[Norwich] local music scene is a hive of energy which fuses together networks of people from all walks of life. It’s as much an awkward social battleground as it is an arena where ideas can be shared and explored in confidence and solidarity; it sustains avenues of expression which promote unity and mutual aid and offers sanctuary for people from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds to let off some steam. So as we enter a political chapter dominated by censorship and surveillance, we should all be asking ourselves what we can do to keep it alive.”