This main corridor follows the line of an ancient trackway, spanning several present-day streets across the breadth of the city and out into the Norfolk countryside to the village of Dereham. The bit outside the city wall is the present-day Dereham Road.
Less gentrified than its cousins Earlham and Unthank, Dereham Road is distinctly rough around the edges, and home to numerous diaspora communities. The area is still full of student houses, but there's less danger of any artisanal vegan bakeries opening up along here. There is a brambly junkyard full of dessicated car parts, overlooked by 70s housing blocks; there are frayed wire fences and peeling billboards; there is a military surplus store, Romanian, Turkish and Polish grocers, a halal butcher's, betting shops, shisha bars, and a no-frills Bulgarian cafe. It's a road with a distinct identity, or rather many.
The Norwich photographer George Plunkett was born on Dereham Road in 1913. Plunkett's enormous oeuvre of street photography, taken between the 1930s and the 1990s, is a civic treasure, a record of the changing face of the city during a tumultuous century. Plunkett used the same Ensign Carbine Number 7 camera from the mid-30s until his death in 2006. By this time, his entire archive, carefully labelled by location, had been digitised, and it remains available for free on his website. His son Jonathan Plunkett is particularly generous in allowing his father's important work to feature on websites and in books by local historians. Many of the photos appear here courtesy of Jonathan.
One of Plunkett's photographs depicts a row of houses at the bottom of Dereham Road in 1937. The old-style terraces have been plastered with a sign: 'A MODERN SUPER CINEMA WILL SHORTLY BE ERECTED ON THIS SITE ...' You'd hope the terraces would be empty at this stage. A year later, a photograph from the same angle depicts the site, which has been demolished, concreted over and replaced with the Regal cinema, as part of a wave of art-deco-isation that gripped Norwich in the late 30s. The cinema closed in the early 60s and has variously been a bingo club, a certain Brexiteering pub chain and a Big Lebowski-themed bowling alley.
The crossroads with Heigham Road has a grim significance. For centuries, local law decreed that if someone killed themselves, thus forsaking their right to the Kingdom of Heaven, their body must be buried by a crossroads at midnight, apparently to confuse the ghost:
“…when the ghost of body issues forth from the grave and finds that there are four paths stretching in as many directions he will be puzzled to know which way to take and will stand debating until dawn compels him to return to the earth, but woe betide the unhappy being who happens to pass by when he is lingering there perplexed and confused.”
- Montague Summers, clergyman and occultist,
in his book The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928)
The local hangman would be tasked with driving a stake through the suicide's heart before the burial, to fix the unfortunate person's soul to the ground, and prevent them from rising up to meet God on Judgement Day (this is where the vampire-stake connection originates). Thus, Heigham Road was originally known as Hangman's Lane, and the surrounding plots of land either side of the Dereham Road junction were the Hangman's Lane Closes.
The last person to be buried at the crossroads, with or without the stake through his heart, was John Stimpson in 1794. Stimpson was a porter who had hanged himself at the Bull Inn on St Stephen's Street (which closed in 1948 and was demolished when the street was widened in the 60s), and the coroner ordered he be 'buried in the crossroads of St Benedict's Road', which was then the name for Dereham Road. The practice was formally outlawed in 1823 but it remained illegal to commit suicide, and if you did, your family would be excommunicated and your possessions seized. This only changed with the Suicide Act of 1961.
At night, under the glare of traffic-lights and high beams, the crossroads does not seem to be appreciably haunted. But there is a desolate feeling to it, especially when a passing car illuminates the peeling billboards or the graffiti-splattered street furniture.