The Heath stretches out to the north-east of the city, beyond the Wensum and the twin lookouts of St James' Hill and Kett's Heights. Created aeons ago by waves of chalk deposits on the tides of a pre-historic tropical sea, the Heath was once much bigger. Over the millennia it has been chipped away by waves of forest growth and human activity: land enclosure, farming, and housing development. At one time the Heath reached all the way to the Broads at Salhouse, and all of this vast open space was common land.
Mousehold Heath, c.1818-20, by John Crome.
The Heath was a favourite haunt of Romany gypsies, because none of the land was being farmed or worked upon. It was also frequented by a Norwich eccentric, the writer and long-distance rambler George Borrow, who lived in Willow Lane by St Giles, but wandered across Europe and as far as Morocco, on foot or riding bareback on his horse. In an age before the internet, he was a hyperpolyglot: there is evidence that Borrow could speak or write something in around one hundred (100) languages. He spoke fluent Romani and Welsh. He made enemies in Norwich, though, by using the city as the butt of an Anglicized joke in his translation of Dr Faustus:
They found the people of the place modelled after so unsightly a pattern, with such ugly figures and flat features that the devil owned he had never seen them equalled, except by the inhabitants of an English town, called Norwich, when dressed in their Sunday's best.
The Norwich public library denounced and burned his translation.
In one of his most famous works, Lavengro: the Scholar—the Gypsy—the Priest (1851), Borrow describes a visit to a gypsy encampment on the Heath:
We descended the hill in the direction of the north, and passing along the suburb reached the old Norman bridge, which we crossed; the chalk precipice, with the ruin on its top, was now before us; but turning to the left we walked swiftly along, and presently came to some rising ground, which ascending, we found ourselves upon a wild moor or heath.
... In the midst of this valley were various carts and low tents forming a rude kind of encampment; several dark children were playing about, who took no manner of notice of us.
...From this time I had frequent interviews with Jasper, sometimes in his tent, sometimes on the heath, about which we would roam for hours, discoursing on various matters. Sometimes mounted on one of his horses, of which he had several, I would accompany him to various fairs and markets in the neighbourhood, to which he went on his own affairs, or those of his tribe. I soon found that I had become acquainted with a most singular people, whose habits and pursuits awakened within me the highest interest.
The Romani presence in Borrow's day (the late 18th and early 19th centuries) was not new. In 1993, archaeologist Brian Ayres would uncover a skeleton with Romani DNA during the excavations near Castle Meadow, putting Romani presence in Britain four hundred years earlier than previously thought. The Heath would have changed very little from the time of that anonymous 10th-century Norvician to the 1820s.
An illustration by Claude Shepperson from Borrow's Lavengro.
Years after his initial encounter, Borrow (or his fictionalised narrator) returns to the Heath, stumbling upon a gypsy preacher, and finds his old friend Jasper watching the sun set over the hills.
“Life is sweet, brother.”
“Do you think so?”
“Think so! There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise the wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”
“I would wish to die—”
“You talk like a gorgio—which is the same as talking like a fool—were you a Rommany Chal you would talk wiser. Wish to die, indeed! A Rommany Chal would wish to live for ever!”
“In sickness, Jasper?”
“There’s the sun and stars, brother.”
“In blindness, Jasper?”
“There’s the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever ..."
Borrow himself was given to bouts of depression, and would use his rambles on the Heath and further afield to alleviate his melancholy. He cut a remarkable figure, being very tall, often barefoot, and often clad in a long black cloak—not to mention his habit of riding without a saddle. The Heath has a long tradition of playing host to solitary wanderers. 'For want of something better to do, I strolled up the Hill...'
Today, the actual heath is very small, with much of the wild space around it being given over to woodland and recreation grounds for the bland suburbs that march up and down the hills in place of the old Romani wagons. Still, there is plenty to discover, and it is entirely possible to get lost among the trees and long grass. There is a network of BMX tracks, with some almost-vertical drops and some island-like vantage points high among the tops of the Scots pines.
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris).
If you turn away from the reckless activity below you, you'll see the high wire fences of Mousehold Prison over the treetops. The prison was once an army barracks. Its redbrick clock tower presides over the Heath. Pigeons and grass spill from the crumbling eaves of the prison; it reminds the viewer of hair spilling from the ears of a very old man.
HMP Mousehold in 2010.
Photo by Adrian S. Pye.
The prison has been criticised by independent auditors over the years for the poor conditions inside. Its high-profile prisoners have included the so-called 'Black Panther' kidnapper, Ronnie Biggs (an accomplice in the Great Train Robbery) and East End gangster Reggie Kray.
The front view of the prison commands St James' Hill, possibly the most popular vantage point in the city. The area was quarried for chalk and limestone in the Victorian era; they carved out a steep-sided hollow, forming a long promontory, almost like a viewing platform, that juts out from the Heath.
On St James' Hill, looking towards Anglia Square, with the Mottram memorial in the foreground. Photo by Evelyn Simak.
At the summit is a memorial sculpture-map of the labyrinth's skyline, presenting a panorama of labelled buildings from Foundry Bridge on the left (south), to St James' Mill on the right (west). The bronze map panel has been stolen for scraps and recast three times, although the design has not changed, and still shows the old Norwich Hospital in the distant Golden Triangle.
The memorial itself commemorates Ralph Hale Mottram (1883-1971), another lover of the Heath. Mottram was a banker, soldier in WWI, mayor of the city, and president of the Norwich Society, where he fought to conserve the quirkier aspects of the city centre against wayward urban planning. He was also a novelist, penning dozens of fiction books, and an amateur historian. His book If Stones Could Speak is a major source for this website, and its prose feels like a conversation with him. It paints a vivid portrait of a forthright, eccentric, passionate and knowledgeable Norvician.