Tombland, Wensum Street
& Fye Bridge Street.
'I will not hesitate to prophesy that if ever Norwich were destroyed, Tombland would survive.'
- Ralph Hale Mottram, If Stones Could Speak (1953)
Tombland is probably the oldest street in Norwich. Its name comes from Tum-land, an old Anglian phrase for 'open space'. When the Anglian raiders arrived and settled in the Wensum valley, moving up the coast from the desolated Roman settlement at Caistor, they selected this open space for their base of operations. They travelled by water more than road, and their Tombland lay by the shallowest ford on the River Wensum, allowing easy access for marauding. The open space was used for markets and became the centre of the new settlement. It wasn't a street then - more of a showground.
Sweyn, King of Denmark (another raider) attacked and pillaged the place in 1001 A.D., but Tombland, and with it the fledgling village of Norvik that had grown up around it, bounced back. It bounced back again from the Normans when they invaded and occupied the country in 1066. The latest generation of colonial raiders brought in a bishop and an army of Benedictine monks, and installed the Cathedral, which now dominates Tombland and occupies most of the old space the Anglo-Saxon pirates would have used for their markets. The remaining sliver of the old showground became a street, running south-north alongside the Cathedral Close toward the Wensum ford.
Today Tombland becomes Wensum Street after the Maid's Head Hotel, which any Norvician, within five seconds of you first spotting it, will tell you is haunted. The Maid's Head claims to be the oldest hotel in the UK, although in reaching this record they've included the time when the site was occupied by the Bishop's Palace, where the rich monks would entertain guests in the Middle Ages.
Like any centuries-old establishment worth its salt, the hotel boasts two ghosts. There is the famous Grey Maid, an older woman in 17th/18th-century garb who appears in the bar and solemnly goes about her cleaning duties, before vanishing as she descends the basement stairs. Anyone who has worked a repetitive service job will empathise with the poor woman doing her chores in the Next World. Some Norvicians will also claim that the Grey Maid was murdered, possibly beheaded, and that's why the hotel has its name. Which is untrue. The other ghost is a middle-aged man who stands in the courtyard shaking his head and mumbling to himself. Locals say he was once the Mayor.
Tombland/Wensum Street takes on a third name at the bridge, where the Angles and Danes would do their marauding: it becomes Fye Bridge Street. There is a certain riverside tavern frequented by studenty types, who do their own sorts of alcohol-fuelled marauding. Plus ça change, as the Normans would probably say.
The Fye Bridge was the site of a ducking-stool, used to punish strumpets (women who had too much sex, or were accused of doing so), shrews (women who were too assertive with their husbands, or were accused &c.) drunks and dishonest tradesmen. These unfortunates were strapped to a stool and dunked, cursing and bellowing, on the end of a winch into the freezing cold Wensum. A crowd would gather around the bridge to watch and cheer. The ducking-stool was also said to have been used as a torture device by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General (who, contrary to the debunked hoax footage of him, linked above, would not have had an American accent).
The street then becomes Magdalen Street, which winds its way through Norwich-over-the-Water to the Silver Triangle.
It is hard to appreciate how imposing the Cathedral would have been, looming over Tombland in the Middle Ages. It would have been several times bigger than any other building the Tomblanders had ever seen in their lives, and it would have been occupied by a small army—a literal army—of monks and clerics. It's worth remembering that the Church was an instrument of oppression, a way for the Norman aristocracy to make money off the poor, as well as an ideological tool designed to reinforce the need to obey.
This is not exclusively a history site, but with Tombland, we inevitably end up focusing on the historical side of things, because the place is so bloody historical. It's got History coming out of its ears. It seeps out of the stones when it rains. You can practically smell the cattle in the Anglo-Saxon market, or the burning thatch during a Viking raid. You can hear the sound of violent scuffles breaking out at the Tombland fair in 1272 when the townspeople fought the monks en masse and ransacked the Cathedral Close (Norwich has never lost its spirit of rebellion).
Today there is a wide expanse of cobblestone to one side of the street, where the genteel offices are set back from the road, where students from the Cathedral school wait for their buses under the fume-soaked plane trees. There are posh restaurants. There are two statues, Sampson and Hercules, who stand sentinel outside a building that has variously been a club, a Mexican restaurant, and the home of a Tudor family who would not have understood what either of those things were.
There is Tombland Alley, off to one side, which is apparently aligned with an ancient trackway that ran east from Dereham Road, via St Benedicts Street, Charing Cross, St Andrews' Street, Princes Street, and continued from here under the north aisle of the Cathedral and over Bishop Bridge. The alley is enclosed by a jumble of crooked Tudor gables known as the Augustine Steward House. This was named after its owner, the one-time Mayor of Norwich. After Steward's death, during the plague of 1578 (or the more famous Great Plague of 1665, depending on who's drunkenly telling the story), a family who lived there were assumed to have caught the plague and were sealed in the house to die by paranoid authorities. When the bodies were retrieved, a young girl was found to have starved to death, but not after gnawing on the bodies of her parents to sustain herself in quarantine. This story is almost certainly false, but the ghost of the girl (known as the Lady in Grey, not to be confused with the Grey Maid, see above) is said to roam around Tombland Alley regardless of whether or not she existed.
Definitely untrue is the rumour that the raised beds of lavender on either side of Tombland Alley were once plague pits. Why would you bury the dead near a major thoroughfare?
On your left as you move north along Tombland, before you get to the Alley, is a door marked Strangers' Gate. The door is actually quite recent, and although it is always locked, leads down a narrow passage between buildings to St Mary the Less, a church frequented by 'Strangers' (immigrants) off Queen Street which has since been completely sealed in and hidden by surrounding buildings.