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  • Elliott Johnson

Following the city walls [ii]

Updated: May 17, 2022

I wonder if any of the people enjoying a pint in the sun outside the Red Lion by Bishop's Bridge can see me scrambling about in the undergrowth on the opposite bank, just below pavement level.

I'd like to think I scale the balustrade elegantly, but probably not. Your urban correspondent stumbles out onto the pavement and continues walking along Riverside Road, towards the station. I pass Pull's Ferry and, beyond, the playing fields of the Cathedral school. Drowsy in the May afternoon. A quintessentially English sight, like an Edwardian picture-postcard. And, across the road, a Portaloo on the pavement outside someone's terraced house. Stone lions, in the Chinese style, stand sentinel on the steps of a boarding-house. If you're looking for seedier accommodation, trotting out of the train station, there's always the concrete chain hotel, sitting on the riverline by the Foundry Bridge.

Again, there's no actual city wall here, because the river did a decent enough job of defending us (Kett's swimming rebels notwithstanding). I follow instead the boundary line of the city centre, passing from the busy Foundry Bridge intersection at the bottom of Prince of Wales, passing the chain hotel, and coming to the Riverside shopping development, where a trail called Boudicca Way runs flush with the Wensum. Two men usher a pair of dogs onto their boat. Opposite, the old warehouses of King Street.

The Riverside development extends beyond the shopping precinct and becomes a new-build housing estate. I've done all this before, on my River Wensum walk in October last year. At the foot of the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge, where I left off last time, is something I didn't notice before. Two slim steel pillars, panelled with copper lettering. The letters tell a vertical story of the Boulton and Paul factory, which once stood on this site and made planes during the World Wars, making itself a target for German raids the second time round. 'over 100 of their workers became casualties', the copperplate proclaims.

Engraved at the foot of the second pillar is a peculiar word-salad:

Content summary

heroic,   crafts,

conservation, and 
Materials- Wire,
Wood, Iron.

Air         ship
Factory     worker

This last inscription seems to have been designed for artificial intelligence in some far-flung, apocalyptic future, when the robots have won and they're sifting through the debris of our heritage, trying to form links in their neural networks and piece together the history of the fleshy beings that programmed them. I am slightly disturbed.

I am also slightly disturbed by a woman walking a spaniel on the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge. This is because the spaniel is wearing, or has been made to wear, fake lashes. I do not have time to get a photo, which the spaniel looks grateful for.

The Novi Sad Friendship bridge flows onto King Street, and King Street knits together two Norwiches: on the south-east side, a citadel of luxury housing, flats rising high over the water, tiny little balconies with plants, property prices singing in the air. On the north-west side, the familiar wreck of an old pub amid the decaying remnants of maritime King Street. The pub was once known as the Ferry Boat Inn; it was continuously active as a pub, under various names, from 1822 to its closure in 2006. It was briefly run by a notorious serial killer in the 80s, and in its final years was more positively renowned as a live music venue.

Somewhere in the same direction is Argyle Street, once Europe's largest squat. Normandy Tower, too, a different sort of social-housing vision.

One of the shiny blocks of flats is called ALBION MILL. It indeed seems to have been renovated from an old textile mill. It reminds me of William Blake: he talked about dark Satanic mills, the capitalist nightmare consuming rural Albion in a blaze of coal smoke at the turn of the 19th century. Now, all that industrial heritage is itself being consumed by property investment firms, the old workplaces hollowed out from the inside by super-rich landlords, just row upon row and tier upon tier of flats with no one to live in them. Soon it will all be flats.

Finally, I spot another remnant of the medieval city wall. Either side of Carrow Bridge are the remains of two 'boom towers'. A huge chain was drawn from Devil's Tower on the eastern bank to the Windlass Tower on the western bank, to prevent unwanted boats from entering the city. This might seem a little excessive, but remember all the civil wars, and the Black Death—the boom towers could have worked as a quarantine measure as well. Also, keep in mind Norwich was founded by Saxon raiders, devastated by Viking raiders and colonised by Normans. The idea of an invasion from the sea seems to have persisted in folk memory. And will these towers be underwater soon?

The bridge here was designed in 1923 as a lifting bridge, to allow access for boats. It seems to have last been raised in 2018, and today I find the control huts derelict, their windows smashed in. Last year (2021), the Council announced plans to 'temporarily' weld the bridge shut, for five years minimum. The Norwich Society put out a press release expressing their concern, saying that this would symbolically end Norwich's millennium-long history as a port linking the East of England to the North Sea. Once the bridge was welded shut, they said, it would never raise again.

Across King Street, a path climbs uphill behind back gardens. Norwich is not as hilly as some might think, but amid the city's modest topography this is practically an Alp. I find two towers as I climb, joined by a long, uninterrupted section of wall. The lower, unnamed tower opens off a set of stairs halfway up the hill. But of course, like all the rest, an iron gate prevents access. I try the bolt, hoping pathetically that the padlock has been clamped in the wrong place and I will somehow be able to get inside, for a closer look at those piles of energy drink cans and withered baccy-pouches.

Litter aside, here at this well-preserved section of the wall, I find myself closer to the past than anywhere else on the walk. Perhaps it's because all the other sections wind their way along the ring-road or the river, amid Victorian terraces and new-build flats. They've been assimilated into the modern cityscape. But here, it's just greenery and wooden steps and the stark fact of the flintwork, the working defences where sentries once patrolled and fires were lit at night. In an alcove, I find a patch of white charcoal where a fire was recently lit, or maybe it's a ghost-fire. I can almost hear the watchmen laughing with each other and grumbling as they step out into the chill night air for a piss.

The Black Tower, also called the Governor's Tower or Snuff Tower, is the most impressive of all. It crowns the summit of the hill. In 1625 and 1636 it was used as a prison for 'unruly, infected persons', whatever that means. In 1833 it was struck by lightning and its insides burnt out. I almost miss the most exciting feature: as I walk away down the path, I turn around and glimpse a mossy doorway on the upper storey. Steps lead down to a crude battlement that runs along the top of the wall where it overlooks the sheer drop onto Carrow Hill. It's so easy to imagine the ghost of the sentry, poking his head out from that archway, shuffling out onto the battlement and making a quick, perfunctory patrol.

I walk over to the spot where the wall cuts off, and try to climb it. I'm obsessed with the idea of getting up to that doorway where the sentry stood. Or stands. As I said in the previous entry, the flintwork is pretty easy to climb, but getting down is another matter, and after a couple of attempts I give up. Right next to where I'm climbing, there's a shabby, elegant old building, derelict of course, with a barrage of signs claiming that THIS SITE IS PATROLLED 24/7. CCTV AND DOG UNITS. A camera points straight at me as I climb. I wonder if anyone will see the footage and wonder what a young transfemme in a polka-dot shirt is doing scrambling up this sheer rock-face, with a tote bag swinging round her neck.

I give up and resolve to come back another time. Despite my failure, I feel a little bit like Steerpike, the antihero-turned-villain in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books: he navigates the rooftops of a vast, crumbling castle, scaling thousand-foot walls encrusted with gigantic slimy trails of ivy. I wonder if Peake ever visited Norwich.

Round the corner, on Ber Street, a trio of police officers talk to a man, cuff him, and put him in the back of the van. He goes willingly. Under another ruined fortification, two men watch the scene, smoking. They watch me. I probably have ivy in my hair.

This whole corner of the city was derelict for centuries, after a third of Norwich's population died during the Black Death. The parish churches fell into disrepair and the houses collapsed. In 1900, the area was all orchards and gardens. Now it's concrete and paving-slabs.

On the corner of Ber Street is the Berstrete Gate pub, with a lovely mural on the wall depicting the gatehouse as was. The mural is based off an 1860s engraving by Henry Ninham, made after the gatehouses were demolished, and based in turn off sketches by John Kirkpatrick, from the 18th century when the gatehouses were still there.

After this I lose the trail for a while. No medieval ruins. Only the corroding, dystopian hulk of the old EDP building, looming over Surrey Street. There were once ordinary houses along here which used bits of flint and masonry from the ruins, and in some cases even built themselves around the remains of watchtowers. I find the trail again by All Saints Green, where a green plaque informs me that

Richard Spynke,

Directed the fortification of the City

gates and towers between

1337 and 1344.

This work was carried out at his

own expense.

Cheers, Richard.

Immediately next to this sign, on the front of an iron grille blocking entrance to one of the guard towers, a bright red sign informs me that THIS LAND IS PRIVATE PROPERTY, AUTHORISED PEDESTRIAN ACCESS ONLY... This is what we here at Norwich Remapped like to call 'subversive graffiti'. I am slightly cheered up by a little box in the alleyway opposite which dispenses maps, in the same way that little boxes in pub toilets dispense condoms. They should put these boxes in pub toilets. Imagine you're bevved up and you come back from the bog with a streetmap, plonk it down on the table, and you and your mates drunkenly argue over which is the best medieval parish church.

I take a shortcut that isn't really a shortcut through the St Stephen's/Queen's Road four-way underpass, on the former site of the giant gatehouse (which some have recently suggested should be recreated brick-for-brick).

Out onto Coburg Street, named after the German House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, whose descendents rebranded themselves as the House of Windsor, to sound more English during WWI. It runs between the Chantry Place shopping mall and another long section of ruined masonry. A tent, pitched in one of the alcoves. I can't help but glance through the mesh as I pass it, and see a prone body (female?) inside. Cars glide into the dark mouth of the underground car park. I remember being stoned with friends, when I first came to Norwich, and struggling to find a way out of the gargantuan shopping centre. No daylight inside the main plaza, just electric light, like a casino. I don't like spaces where you can't see the sky. We ended up walking, dazed, through the car park and up a subterranean access road.

The wall sputters out again at the entrance to Chapelfield Gardens, which was once a Georgian reservoir, built for a city with so many churchyards that the water was undrinkable. A peculiar piece of litter on one of the benches: a mobility frame. And all around, sprawling on the grass, the usual suspects in a British park in early summer: circles of teenagers after college, smoking and playing awful music, or in pairs snogging each other, and older gents watching the world go by, and mothers gossiping over coffee and the tops of parked prams. Avenues of lime trees.

At the other corner of Chapelfield is the roundabout which was once the site of Drill Hall, a military building opened by the Prince of Wales, scion of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, in 1866. It was built around a well-preserved tower from the city wall, which served as an officers' room. The whole building was faced with flint, to match the medieval tower. In 1963, when they were building the ring road, they demolished this beautiful Gothic complex and plonked the roundabout in its stead. But a semicircle of stone remains on the roundabout, marking the foundations of the old tower. In the winter, I was at a protest against the draconian PCSC bill, which is now law and makes such protests illegal, punishable by a hefty prison sentence. We blocked the roundabout, and I sat on the site of the military hall, not knowing the foundations were even there. I always get a childish feeling of rebellion, walking on a roundabout.

Across the mouth of St Giles to Wellington Lane, which runs parallel to the rush-hour traffic on Grapes Hill. The street sign has been folded in two by a car coming too quickly out of Pottergate. And once again we come to the crumbling archways at St Benedict's Gate, and the student housing development and the terrifying traffic lights, and the flintwork laced with ivy-leafed toadflax.

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