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City walls.

For a ramble around the city walls, click here.

The year is 1422. Norwich's city walls encircle an area larger than the City of London. You hear the sound of the city before you see the gatehouse, approaching in your cart, on foot or horseback: the clang of smithies; the crackling of sentry fires or the low roar of forges; the peddlers lining the roadside; the shouting stream of citizens, bartering, chatting; the braying of livestock; the cries of beggars in the dirt on either side.


The gatehouse ahead of you is one of twelve ringing the city. Forty watchtowers overlook the streets within and defensive ditches outside. And, yes, there are heads displayed on pikes. On the river, a huge chain spans two Boom Towers either side of the water, to prevent or allow boats to enter the city from the Broads.


Through the archway, as you approach St Stephen's Gate, you can see the narrow, winding lane of St Stephen's Street, and the frontage of the Bull public house. For a moment, the archway frames the Cathedral spire, the tallest building you have ever seen, and then its weightless grace is lost amid a jumble of jostling gables and smaller church towers.


Two Norwich gates before their demolition, in a series of 19th-century engravings.

On 15th August 1792, the City Council pass a motion to pull down the crumbling gatehouses, and allow larger horse-drawn vehicles easy access into the city. The thoroughfares are widened and the chain blocking the Wensum is drawn back for the last time.


Portions of the old wall remain, though, many of them obscured behind rows of tumbledown houses. Back gardens at the edge of the city centre are separated by a barrier of medieval flint. The stones are clad in toadflax, the plant that teems in the corners of old masonry, also known as Kenilworth ivy, pennywort, mother-of-thousands or wandering-sailor.


Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis).

Mutilated remains of the gatehouses can still be seen around the border of the old city centre. In the 1860s, James Benest and William Gilbert raise a military building in the Gothic style, Drill Hall, incorporating the ruins of a watchtower into its masonry. Instead of medieval sentinels, amateurs recruited from among the citizenry and armed to the teeth against Kett's rebels or Royalist armies, now the site plays host to professional soldiers from the Royal Norfolk Regiment.

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Drill Hall in 1931, three decades before its demolition. Photo by George Plunkett.

In the early 1960s, planners from Norwich City Council undertake a massive project, perhaps the only successful attempt to reconfigure the city in the image of the modern world. They build a ring road. The city walls are surrounded on both sides with back gardens and Victorian streets, but this is demolished and replaced with multiple lanes of traffic, with pelican crossings, Belisha beacons, roundabouts, intersections and bus lanes. The city is wired into an unbroken network of traffic and tarmac spreading across the whole of the island of Great Britain.

There are some casualties. Drill Hall is demolished and replaced with a roundabout at the corner of Chapelfield Gardens. Long sections of the city wall remain, embedded in grass banks, fossilised but still part of the urban landscape.


Nowadays, in the 21st century, there are occasional calls to undo the damage caused by the concrete-mad 60s planners, and reintroduce retro-style gatehouses to the city's great arteries. The artists' impressions are not very pretty, but it would certainly be a bold move, in an age where we fetishise the past, and half the innards of old Norwich are pedestrianised, as they were in the Middle Ages.

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An artist's rendition of a rebuilt St Stephen's Gate.

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