The food is foul, the air is bad, the company not choice;
'Twould make you scowl to hear that mad old turnkey's rasping voice.
'Twould make you wonder would you ever live to tell the tale
Of the hardships and the miseries you've known in Norwich Gaol.
Our water here is scummy-green, our beds is heaps of straw;
There's water running down the walls, rats running o'er the floor.
There's naught to eat but rotten meat that'd make a dog turn pale;
Oh, it's dainty board-and-lodging when you visit Norwich Gaol!
- 'The Ballad of Norwich Gaol', written by Peter Bellamy
for his 1977 opera The Transports.
Gaol Hill plunges down one side of the Market, from St Giles and St Peter's Streets to Gentleman's Walk. It is dominated by posh shops and a soon-to-be-closed supermarket on one side, and on the other, the Norwich Guildhall, which was the city's centre for government, as well as its gaol and armoury, for five hundred years until the new, art-deco City Hall was unveiled in 1938.
Norwich's local government was known for centuries as fantastically corrupt, and the checkered flint Guildhall, or Norwich Gaol, was a symbol of that abuse of power. It was a site of guerilla fighting between townspeople and the royal army in 1549, during Kett's Rebellion, with bands of rebels struggling to seize the armoury on the top floor. Of course the rebels were doomed and slaughtered or imprisoned in the Guildhall itself.
'The Vegetable Market and Guildhall at Norwich', lithograph by David Hodgson (date unknown). Gaol Hill runs up the right of the building. The houses on the left are all now demolished.
The dungeons are in the undercroft below street level. Nowadays the Guildhall is privately owned, but a friend of mine was once allowed into the undercroft and recalls being deeply spooked by the oppressive darkness, the weight of the stone around him. Prisoners would have spent weeks and months down here awaiting trial or execution. Sounds and voices filtered through from the market at street-level, through narrow, barred window-slits cut through damp stone.
There is a jewellery shop in one of the rooms on the ground floor, facing out onto Gaol Hill, and a stall, also selling jewellery, is normally set up outside. In the winter another stall pops up to sell hot chestnuts. Across the way, homeless people stoop in the doorways of shuttered shops on Dove Street and Lower Goat Lane. Halfway up the hill, the Library restaurant has been decaying for a couple of years now, set back in a courtyard. Until recently there were usually two or three sleeping bags bundled up underneath the portico, among dead pot-plants and inquisitive pigeons, but the portico is now boarded up, because depriving the rough sleepers of their shelter makes them go away.