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  • Elliott Johnson

Transcripts: Terry George

When I was making the Norwich Remapped film, I spoke to Stephen Jarvis, who appears in the film talking about his photographs of the medieval chalk mines at various spots around the outskirts of the city. Stephen provided me with a treasure trove of information: he told me about the books Subterranean Norwich by Matthew Williams and Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Simmons Roberts. He also pointed me in the direction of Terry George, a local painter who also happens to be a lay expert on the city’s undercrofts. He made a video lecture for the Norwich Society about them.

I visit Terry on a boiling hot day, at his house in the Golden Triangle. The whole house is covered with his canvases, especially the attic studio, where they lie stacked by the dozen. Some are Norwich streets and pubs; snow on Avenue Road, snow turned to slush by cars on Unthank Road. The towering Plantation Garden fountain, on a floor-length canvas. Walls covered with plants, doors leading into hidden gardens. Views of Elm Hill and Tombland. He points to his chaotic palette, in one corner. On his computer, he has meticulously filed images of each of his hundreds of paintings, by location and date. Not just images of Norwich, but of cities around Europe: Sorrento, Riga, Vilnius. Landmarks in acrylic and oils. Still lives and portraits of his sons, his granddaughter, his dogs.

The Artichoke, Magdalen Street. © Terry George.

He also has a folder of hundreds of undercroft photographs: again, carefully organised by location. He periodically pops up on the internet—he has a Facebook group to share his paintings, and is also a member of various groups dedicated to Norwich and European subterranean architecture. Most of his write-ups are taken from his own unpublished book, written with the aim of cataloguing and describing every undercroft in the city.


The Pear Tree Inn, Unthank Road. © Terry George.

I’ve lived in Norwich since 1973. I joined the Civil Service—Department of Health & Social Security, Charles House, then Baltic House, then Chantry House, which is long gone—and worked there till I was about 40, and then went into teaching, eventually got a permanent job in Horsford, where I stayed until I retired. I’ve had some good years, but I had some crap years as well. It was often rewarding but got harder towards the end—planning, monitoring, justifying, et cetera just took the fun out of it. Even making a Christmas card had to have a learning objective and a measurable learning outcome.

I couldn’t do that now. My art is—well, it isn't a job, but it's my passion. I spend far more time in my studio than probably Elaine would like me to sometimes, but I manage to sell a few, so. I dropped Art at school when I was twelve, to take Spanish, and then in my twenties I did a little bit of drawing. Elaine bought me an oil paint set as a present for Christmas one year. I painted in oils. But after our second son was born, I lost my studio, our spare room, so I only did a bit of pastels and pencils. About 1999 I started doing acrylics, I painted during school holidays—summer holidays and the odd weekend. After I retired, I could devote a bit more time to it. In fact, I did 160 paintings last year. Our Sorrento trip was four years ago, that was when my son Scott got married. We had a week, I’ve got probably a thousand photos, and I've done probably a hundred paintings from that. I’ve got about three hundred odd listed on eBay.

In I think 2009, I started doing local paintings. I did a couple of Cromer, and they sold on eBay. Whenever I’d go to the coast, I’d take some pictures to paint, or when I was out with my dog Murphy on walks. Heigham Park. I’d like to be a plein air painter, I’ve done a couple, but very, very rarely.

I’d have painted anyway, with lockdown or not. I painted more local scenes, though. I went round and added more streets to my list.

Jurnet's undercroft, King Street. © Terry George.

It’s closed at the moment, but this place Jurnet’s had music nights on Friday nights. That’s the only one I’ve actually done in an undercroft. That’s Chad Mason at the front, he’s a local musician who runs that particular night, and that’s Shane O’Linski in the back, another local musician. Shane wasn’t in the original photograph, I added him. Whenever Richard Penguin used to introduce Shane on stage he’d say 'It’s Norwich’s answer to Syd Barrett!' And Shane used to hate that.

I went to Bedford’s to see my son Scott’s band Project Multivitamin, in an undercroft. If you’d want to choose one undercroft, I’d say that was the best one. I went to more on Heritage Open Days, the Bridewell. I thought, I’d like to find out a bit more, and tried to build up a list of undercrofts. In Michael Loveday’s Norwich Knowledge book he mentions that' there's about 69, 70. So I thought, where are they all? Started wading through English Heritage listed buildings, I’ve taken photos of all the listed buildings. Norwich HEART was based in the Guildhall, and they did things like the Heritage Open Days. Michael Loveday ran it, and when he retired the whole thing just folded. I discovered that they’d written a report, which they hadn't published, about known undercrofts that they’d reviewed and visited, so I said, could I have a look, and Michael Loveday was a bit sort of cagey, very protective—I think he thought I wanted to plagiarise the information. I showed him what I’d done.

There’s no published book about the undercrofts. I’ve written one, but it’s photo-heavy, so it would cost quite a bit to publish. I’ve tried a couple of local publishers, but they weren’t interested. The bulk of the book is a list of undercrofts that I’ve visited, with photos. I’ve got a chapter on ones that I’ve not visited, and one chapter of possible, or lost, undercrofts.

I emailed Norwich Preservation Trust, the project manager, Chloe, about looking at an undercroft beneath some houses, 28 to 30 Elm Hill. The Preservation Trust had taken on the building. And next day Chloe replied, saying, ‘Yeah, you can come down, but you’ve got to have a hard hat, boots, and a torch.’ So I went and bought myself a hard hat and boots and went down there. Most people have been really helpful. A few people … the guy at the opticians on Timberhill said ‘You can’t come down and look,’ I said ‘Why?’ ‘Oh, I’m not prepared to say!’ One guy said, ‘No, we haven’t got an undercroft’—so what do you say? You can’t say, ‘You’re a liar, I know you’ve got one!’ I went to the Glasshouse, the Wetherspoons, but they wouldn’t let me see theirs.

St Gregory’s Alley, there’s an interesting one: behind the hairdresser’s there’s an undercroft which is accessed through a manhole cover in the yard, and there’s a ledge down this far, and a ledge down again. I didn’t have the means to get into it. They said ‘Come round with a ladder.’ All you could see was a sort of slimy ledge, and I thought, if I get down there, I’ll be stuck forever!

Elm Hill at night. © Terry George.

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