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  • Elliott Johnson

Following the city walls [i]

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

It is Maytime, and the ruins of the city walls seethe with life. Clouds of cow parsley, stately poppies, kingcup, red campion, wood squill, and ivy-leaved toadflax cover the flint. So much ivy-leaved toadflax. And English ivy, of course, but that's made a home of the flintwork all year round.

I begin my drift, however, in a brushed-aluminium cage. This is St Benedict's Gate car park, underneath the student flats of the same name. Along the exterior on the south side runs a poem by Jenny Pagdin, celebrating the women and the lost gatehouses of the city. Along the west side, between vertical slabs of concrete, runs the lush vegetated wall.

It is over six hundred years old and once enclosed an area larger than the old city of London. Long stretches of it have vanished entirely, and all of the city's dozen medieval gatehouses have since been demolished. Only a few of the ruined watchtowers remain, overgrown, gated, padlocked, their floors strewn with crumpled cans of extra-strong cider and their walls the home of birds. The whole edifice, or what remains, is tucked pretty snugly into the urban landscape. Before they built the ringroad in the Sixties, the ruined wall ran between the back gardens of Victorian terraces, concealed by curtains of laundry, lined with outdoor toilets instead of sentry-posts and wooden tollbooths.

But back to the car park. Some choice graffiti, a back-and-forth dialogue on a pillar:

pls kiss me
ps: I'm a communist ☭

Another, on a different pillar:

but its still tasty

I love the ephemeral, conversational nature of these. I assume they're by the yutes who sometimes skate or rollerskate in here.

I exit the car park and follow its west side, down a green path with the stretch of ruined wall on my left. Through the arches, the inner ring road: roar of traffic, miasma of carbon monoxide. It's warm. The wall sputters out in the weeds, and, crossing the bottom of Westwick Street, I am faced with a huge, empty lot where, until recently, there were Portakabins, a Covid testing site. Now it's just waste ground and two girls doing a photoshoot. The government has deemed the pandemic over. The path continues, flush with the River Wensum, and here, on the corner of St Crispins Road where the river enters the city, is the decagonal gents' toilets, cast from concrete in 1919, and apparently the first such toilets in the world. Its outside is stamped with a pattern like wallpaper in a hipster café. A bemused face sprayed on the plasterboard door, which has been kicked in. The urinals inside are obscured by a pile of industrial litter. It's an ornate skip.

I follow St Crispins Road, a tarmac streak of fumes and white noise, crossing at the bottom of Duke Street and cutting through the plaza at Anglia Square. Nothing left of the wall here, nothing left along Cowgate but a narrow lane of terraced houses. On Cowgate, the Blueberry Music House, once a sticky-floored haunt for local acts, is shuttered and laced with cryptic tags, signs of the sort I like to call 'corporate graffiti': DANGEROUS BUILDING, etc. etc. It will be flats soon. Of course it will.

St Cripsins Road becomes Barrack Street. The Puppet Theatre in a church's shell, a Pride flag in the blue above the steeple. More derelict buildings. I assume this white terraced building was a pub, because of the lights hanging drunkenly off the peeling frontage, but apparently it was a chippy. It is overshadowed by the vast shiny complex of 'affordable' 'luxury' (a tautology, surely) housing at St James Mill, behind it on the riverbank.

On the opposite side of the road is a broken watchtower, colonised by pigeons, and a short, low stretch of the familiar flinty wall. Bolted onto the far end is a razorwire fence, a green chainlink cage containing electricity, a new barrier retrofitted onto the old one. Everything in the modern city is bolted onto the medieval ruins, in a way.

I scramble up onto the wall, hoping to see inside the watchtower, which is open to the elements on one face, the city side. The flintwork makes a series of perfect footholds: I'm tempted to call it a ready-made climbing wall, like you'd see in a leisure centre, but then that's like saying 'grass is ready-made astroturf'. The climbable bit of the wall stops short of the watchtower, but then all that's inside it is a palimpsest of rubbish, and ivy, and generations of accumulated pigeon-cack.

Further on, coming up towards Kett's Hill, a bricked-up doorway that intrigues me. If it were open now, it would lead underground, beneath the flats at Cannell Green. The flintwork set into the side of the hill is probably repurposed from the city wall.

There are more patches of flintwork along a wall by the bend in the river, opposite Cow Tower, another sentry-point. Less evidence of the medieval fortifications along this stretch of the Wensum, because the river does all the barrier work for it, though that didn't stop thousands of Robert Kett's rebels swimming across and taking the city by force, twice, in the revolutionary summer of 1549. They swam across at Bishop's Bridge, a little further on.

But before that, right on the bend in the river, is an iron sign:

I find out later that William Petch ran a public house here, long since vanished and buried beneath the slick St James development. There was a boatyard on his land, too, at the water's edge, and here wherries, river boats, were built and dispatched out onto the Norfolk Broads. The American-style restaurant a few yards away was once the city morgue, and bodies would be loaded onto wherries and sent down the river to their various resting places.

By 1977 there were only three wherry masts left in existence, somehow. The Norwich Society sent a bunch of local schoolkids to winch one of them out of a ditch in the Broads. It weighed over a ton, made of Baltic pine, and it was repainted by the kids in traditional colours, and planted here as if it were once again a tree. There were information boards, too, now all gone. After a few years the unlucky pine trunk was felled a second time. God knows where it ended up.

The 'official' path terminates with some steep stairs rising up to Riverside Road, but a desire line, a track worn by foxes and solitary walkers, continues through the undergrowth on the east bank. I follow the path, ducking under hawthorn, chestnut and lime branches, to the Norman piers of Bishop's Bridge where Kett's fighters scrambled down the bank into the freezing water. Here, in a thicket where nobody can see it, is one of several plaques scattered along the riverline, commemorating the floods of 1912. A warning for the age of climate chaos.

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