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St Giles Street.

St Giles, or Giles the Hermit, was a monk and holy healer, born in the 7th century. Almost nothing is known for definite about his life, but he founded a monastery in France and is the patron saint of the poor, outcasts, breastfeeding, Edinburgh, forests, blacksmiths and disabled people.

St Giles Church is one of the tallest parish churches in Norwich: craggy, Gothic, fashioned from beautiful blue flint. When it was built, the street was called Nether or Inferior Newport, with Bethel Street being Upper Newport ('port' here meaning a road, not an actual port. No water here). The street followed the ancient trackway of Earlham Road, under the medieval gatehouse to the Norman market. People have followed this simple A–B line for a millennium or more. When you stroll in from the Golden Triangle, down St Giles towards the Market to buy jollof rice or paisley harem pants, you are honouring a very old tradition.


In the Victorian times, after the gatehouse was demolished, the street was paved with wood and renamed to St Giles Street, with the section behind the church becoming Upper St Giles. Later the streets were paved with stone and tramlines put in.


St Giles Street c.1910s.
Photo from Picture Norfolk.


Subversive graffiti.

St Giles' churchyard is bounded by huge, muscular wisteria, and circles round the back of the church to Willow Lane and Cow Hill, which both join the street with Pottergate. On Cow Hill the road drops away below the level of churchyard, revealing high flint walls which hold back the soil and the corpses (not that there's much left of them; the church hasn't been an active graveyard for well over a century). The residents of the flats on Willow Lane effectively have this lush, Morrissey-esque space as their back garden.


St Giles used to be the home of the Grand Opera House, a magnificent building unveiled in 1903. It never showed any opera, being more of a variety theatre, and played host to Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and the Goons, among many others. It also showed films. It was damaged during the 'Baedeker Blitz' on Norwich—so named because the Germans identified Norwich's picturesque buildings in the Baedeker tourist guides as prime targets to destroy British morale. The bomb hit the theatre in April 1942 and killed the manager, his wife and a sea-lion trainer.

In 1966 the building was demolished by power-crazy planners and is now a hideous multi-storey car park. Instead of mild carbon monoxide poisoning and concrete, we could have had this:

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The Grand Opera House c.1910s. Photo from Picture Norfolk.

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The Opera House in its later incarnation as the Hippodrome, 1935. The reason London was 'afraid to show' Morgenrot was because it was a Nazi film depicting the British navy as cowards. Photo by George Plunkett.

Another notable old building on St Giles is the Masonic Hall, a provincial centre for all the Masonic lodges in Norfolk. It was built of honey-coloured Bath stone in the 18th century, the heyday of British freemasonry. Today there is a free-entry Museum of Norfolk Freemasonry in the front rooms, and the masons may give you a full tour of the lodge's three temples if you ask nicely.

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