London Street, historically, was a neglected backstreet leading off from the marketplace, called Cockey Lane. In the 1840s, when the railway station was being built, a road was needed to connect it to the rest of the old city. The Cathedral Close and the steep-banked Castle mound separated it from the bulk of the city centre, and neither of these could be cut through. There was a narrow gap between the two, running downhill, and this downhill passage was developed into the new, prestigious Prince of Wales Road. The lane that connected Prince of Wales with the Market was Cockey Lane, which suddenly bustled with energy.
The architects and workmen who built Prince of Wales didn't plan this. They just wanted to run a road through the neglected arse-end of Norwich. But the city, despite being made up of people and their designs, does not obey human laws. There is some sort of power at work that shapes the streets, and the lives of the people who live in them, and the most any generation of urban planners can do is work within its constraints.
Once enough foot-traffic was coming through it, Cockey Lane renamed itself to London Lane, and then London Street. The connection to London was deliberate, what we nowadays would call a rebrand: this was where all the rich folk shopped for clothes and trinkets, where the tailors, milliners, haberdashers, cobblers, ironworkers, goldsmiths and jewellers set up shop.
An elaborate marker outside Miller's Scotsman tobacconists, 1934. This fellow probably dated back to the founding of the shop in 1812. Photo by George Plunkett.
Much, much later, London Street had another quiet revolution. It was the first street in the UK to be pedestrianised, in 1967. This is par for the course now (as Alan Partridge says, What do you think about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre?) but in those days it was startling stuff. The trend for a hundred years had been to open up streets, to confine walkers to a narrow strip of pavement on either side and use the middle for horse-drawn traffic, and then trams, and then cars. Walkers had made the city, but they did not carry much economic weight, and that was what mattered. The city streets were choked with fumes. London Street saw 800 vehicles pass through every day.
But in 1964, a burst sewage pipe meant that London Street had to be closed to traffic for six months. The council worried that this would bankrupt local businesses, but it didn't; Norwich's pedestrians were undeterred, and the street stayed irrepressibly alive. So Alfred Wood, a town planner, put forward the idea of making it a permanent 'foot street'. Eventually he won the council over, and in July 1967, during the fabled Summer of Love, the Mayor of Norwich unveiled—or perhaps re-veiled—the new London Street, not by cutting a ribbon, but by tying it.
These dinosaur tiles are everywhere. This one, spotted in April 2022, is in support of Ukraine.
Today the street is still alive, and probably unkillable. There is a long sheltered walkway on the lefthand side, under the lee of a department store, and until recently it was home to tents, sleeping bags, buskers and beggars. Most of the walkway has been boarded up for construction. The horny pigeons chase each other round the benches at the junction with Bedford Street, and alleys and lanes snake away on either side.
Norwich's streets were not designed, but they were worn into the ground by people on foot. The whole city centre, Old Norwich, is walkable because it evolved that way. London Street is still pedestrian today. Obviously, the city planners in the 60s made some mistakes—this was almost five years before a flyover road of inhuman proportions was driven by brute force through Magdalen Street—but this is one of their finer moments.