Following the line of the River Wensum from the very centre of the city, King Street began its life as a track leading to the river and Tombland. It's another one of those streets that, thanks to a millennium or more of continual use, has worn itself so deeply into the landscape that it is indelible.
Since it follows the line of the river, and most of its houses used to back onto docks and quays, at one time King Street was Norwich's mini-maritime quarter, and by extension its red light district as well. At the height of Norwich's career as an inland port, there were fifty-eight pubs lining the thoroughfare, of which only one now remains. Sailors would wander the streets late into the night, looking for women, drink or places to gamble.
The embattled wreck of the Ferry Boat public house at the bottom of King Street, October 2021.
Behind the fronts of the inns and taverns were a set of typical Old Norwich 'yards'—courtyards surrounded by tumbledown houses, many of them medieval, where poor families crowded into the rooms and shared water from standpipes. The yards would often be named after the public house that backed onto them. Most of these yards and alleys were bulldozed during the great modernising of the city in the 30s and 60s, which doubled up as a slum-clearance exercise, but some remain (albeit in a much nicer condition).
One medieval building that still stands began life as a merchant's hall. Robert Toppe was an industrious man who was elected Mayor of Norwich four times and burgess Member of the Commons for Norwich four times, as well as holding the offices of City Treasurer and Sheriff. He was clearly central to the city's political and economic life. He built Dragon Hall, as it is now known, in about 1427. The name comes from the exquisite dragon carvings along the ceiling spandrels. There were originally fourteen, but only one survives now.
The Hall was used as a warehouse and trading venue for years, but after Toppe's death it was divided into houses, and then into rooms, and then this magnificent building fell into disrepair and eventually complete dereliction. The front end was converted into the Old Barge public house, popular with those rowdy sailors, while the back was extended with slum tenements and undercut with cellars. By the Victorian era there were some 150 people living in close quarters in and around the building. In the 1970s, by which time the building was an uninhabited and uninhabitable wreck, archaeologists and urban historians realised what an incredible find was hiding under their noses, so to speak, and began work restoring the site to (something like) its medieval glory. Today Dragon Hall is home to a 'National Centre for Writing', which charges quite large sums for workshops and lectures.
George Plunkett began his decades-long photographic survey of the city in the 1930s, and it was an opportune time: he captured some of the King Street yards before they vanished under concrete. Below are Murrell's Yard (August 1936) and Old Barge Yard (July 1937).
The raucous late-night street of yore is very different in the 21st century. King Street's red-light district vibe persisted long after the slum clearances, into the 1980s, when women would line up under street lamps waiting for clients. But today the road is pretty much silent after 10pm, unless there's a gig or an indie club night going on at the Waterfront music venue, in which case you'll get groups of youths swaying along in the direction of the nearest kebab shop, or passing through the archway that leads to Old Barge Yard, and then to the modern steel bridge named after King Street's most famous resident.
'Here es a vision schewed be the goodenes of god to a devoute woman and hir name es Julyan that is recluse atte Norwyche and zitt ys on lyfe anno domini millesimo ccccxiii'
A portrait of 'Mother Julian' in her chapel. Photo by Evelyn Simak.
Julian of Norwich was born here around 1342, a few years before the Black Death struck the city and killed 40% of its population. The plague would return in waves throughout Julian's early life, possibly killing her only child. She may have been married and a mother, living as an ordinary 'laywoman'—and her writings dwell on and describe motherhood—but we will never know for sure, as no written sources survive beside her own writings and the mention of her in some wills. She was struck by illness aged 30, and felt sure she would die. A priest came to administer last rites and held a crucifix over her bed, at which point she experienced a profound religious epiphany in the form of 16 visions or 'shewings'.
At some point she became an anchoress—an ascetic holy woman who chose to remain in a cell in the wall of a church for the rest of her life. The church in question was St Julian's Chapel, which has been carefully preserved to this day. It is not known if Julian was so-called because she took the name of her church's patron saint, or if it was indeed her birth name.
The day she entered the cell, the priests would have administered rites and sung psalms as if she was dying. And then the wall was sealed up behind her. She would have had a window through which to receive food, water and communion, and through which she would speak to people who wanted to hear her wisdom. She even had a maid, Sarah, and possibly a cat—the medieval 'manual' for anchoresses mentions that feline pets were permitted—but she certainly would never have left the cell. She may have lived into her late eighties, so she would have spent decades in that cramped, sparsely furnished room.
But she would have had a steady stream of visitors who wished her to pray on their behalf (remember, this was in the Catholic days of purgatory, indulgences and Mass-singing). She was admired in the community, and supported by it—hence the numerous wills, in which wealthy Norvicians left Julian and her maid Sarah money to feed themselves. These wills are the only documents that confirm Julian was still alive well into the fifteenth century. In her cell she was sheltered from outbreaks of disease, and from the civil unrest of Richard II's reign, which saw Norwich occupied by rebel aristocrats, and mass burnings of heretics at Lollard's Pit.
Julian wrote The Revelations of Divine Love at some point after her 'shewings', probably when she was an anchoress. It is the first known book written in English by a woman, and it is a deeply mystic and mysterious work. Julian's choice to write in vernacular English and her emphasis on the kindness, love and forgiveness embodied in God mean that it remains widely read (in modern English translation) by Christians all over the world, although there are no mentions of it in any other text before it was republished in the 17th century.
We know a bit more about Margaery Kempe, Julian's protégée, a laywoman who visited her in her cell and later wrote the first autobiography in English (not just the first one written by a woman, but the first one, full stop).
Julian's beloved chapel was stripped down by Henry VIII's monastery-dissolving squad. Later it was badly damaged in the Blitz, but it was rebuilt and still stands today off King Street, though the cell is gone.