For the Love of God

For the Love of God

Come Christmas time, the patients at the surgery where Liam earns an honest crust are a generous lot. Gifts of biscuits, sweets, chocolates and the odd bottle of booze flood in. Liam comes home laden with festive fancies. We keep a few and donate the rest to St Stephen’s Church. It’s an ancient pile, founded over 900 years ago and now mostly dating from the sixteenth century. The roots might be old but the approach of the dedicated team of clerics and laypeople is bang up-to-date. Community engagement and outreach are the services of the day. Much of the nave is given over to a café which…

‘… provides an open place for people to belong, whether customers, volunteers or those experiencing tough times… the café is a place of welcome, refreshment and peace.’

St Stephens Church

It’s a Heaven-sent distraction from the hubbub outside and operates a ‘pay what you can’ policy where punters can pay the suggested price, more, less or nothing at all. The church also runs a seasonal food bank for those in need. When we dropped off the Quality Street, Fox’s luxury selection and Ferrero Rocher, I apologised for only bringing sweets and biscuits. A lady with a kindly face replied…

‘Everyone deserves something nice for Christmas, don’t they?’

It was a humbling experience. I’m not religious in the slightest but if this is what the love of God means, then long may it continue.

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Hardly breaking news is it? But it’s the title of a little something I wrote back in the summer of 2014 for the Visit Norwich City of Stories website. I was chuffed at the time when it was chosen as the opening piece in a series showcasing different aspects of Norwich life. I even pitched up at the red carpet launch and helped myself to one too many cocktails. The website has recently gone from literary showcase to shop window and content has been updated to feature the best the city has to offer. My article still stacks up I think, so I’m posting it here for posterity, with a few images to give it life.

City of Stories

Jack and Liam move to Norwich

Jack and Liam took up pole position outside a coffee shop to sup their lattes and people watch. The passing footfall was a bumper crop. A warm summer’s afternoon had delivered coaches of North Folk and charabancs of tourists to Norwich’s cobbled streets. Dutch lowlanders in sensible shoes mingled with happy snapping Koreans; local gentry in waxed jackets weaved through the hipsters in vintage garb; busy bees in smart suits hurried past, glued to their smart phone and a jester-hatted Big Issue seller competed with a line of smiley charity workers collecting direct debits for the cause. In the middle of the rainbow crowd, two men with well-fed midriffs and trendy whiskers paused to take in a busker crooning for his supper. They grinned as the Frank Sinatra tribute segued from New York, New York to a local interpretation of My Kind of Town (‘Naaridge is’) and when the final chords faded to nothing, they tossed some coins into a trilby perched on a Fender amp and vanished into the throng holding hands. Like everyone else in the surprising city, they were doing it their way.

Norwich Buskers

Jack ran his fingers along the cartoon tourist map. The tapestry of streets was weaved with familiar names of old London Town like Charing Cross, Blackfriars Bridge, Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, Haymarket, and Pudding Lane, threaded with roads of goats, cattle, dogs and a rampant horse, and stitched with more holy places than a mitred man could shake his crook at. But clearly this was not London. What the boys from the Old Smoke heard was an altogether different soundscape, just distant enough to escape the orbit of the great metropolis and the relentless surge of Estuary English. Somehow, Norwich had preserved a unique linguistic heritage, a melodic sweep of bouncing vowels and dropped consonants pickled down the centuries.

The inquisitive strangers downed their coffees to roam the streets. Their meandering took them to the Assembly House, a gorgeous pile of Georgian elegance and the perfect stage for Regency debutantes in ribboned bonnets to chase Mr Darcy and his magnificent britches around the courtyard fountain. Next door, the architectural show continued with the Theatre Royal, its modern overcoat disguising 250 years of board treading. A quick circuit of the front-of-house posters revealed an eclectic tradition of new and old, high-brow and kitchen sink, top hats and tutus, laughter and tears.

Back down the hill and along Gentlemen’s Walk, they passed neat rows of multi-coloured market stalls lined up like beach huts marooned at low tide. The vast City Hall, looking down on the medieval guildhall it replaced, provided an over-imposing backdrop.

Jack and Liam scampered down a maze of lanes and alleyways, a treasure trove of independents – shops, pubs and cafés. Norwich had bucked the national trend of sameness. Maybe the city’s relative seclusion had bubble-wrapped it from the commercial onslaught of identikit chains or perhaps wise burghers had protected the endangered. Whether by accident or design, it was a window shopper’s dream.

The most complete medieval city in Britain boasted the guide book, and as they pounded the streets up Saint This, down Saint That and along the lazy winding river that caressed the city like a feather-leafed boa, Norwich oozed the ages from every brick, paving stone and stained glass window. The city, it seemed, was triple dipped in history.

Finally, Jack and Liam came to rest on the far side of a handsome stone bridge and sat under the shade of a sprawling tree outside the Playhouse, the Theatre Royal’s little sister. A tree-top teapot in vivid yellow wafted in the breeze. The walk-weary old Londoners rested with a bottle of Merlot in the Playhouse beer garden. Close to the newly elevated University of the Arts, the bustling bar was the trough of choice for young fashionistas and their arty mentors. Jack and Liam took their seats in the refectory and imbibe an ambience that overflowed with naive optimism.

And that’s how it happened. One heady afternoon in the garden of the Playhouse Theatre Bar, Jack and Liam found somewhere new to lay their hats. An offbeat, theatrical, cosmopolitan, romantic, open-minded and open-hearted place set beneath the true-blue skies of Norfolk. Norwich, a surprising city. A place to live and a place to start living.

A random sample of Norwich’s medieval churches…

Twisted Cabaret

Twisted Cabaret

Norwich has more medieval churches than you shake a stick at, a church for every week of the year so the saying goes. You can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a stone steeple or Gothic arch. Back in the day, the cloth trade made Norwich rich and the top of the heap paid their way into Heaven by sponsoring medieval masterpieces. The cassock class were more than happy to indulge the myth and take the bung.  But in these more secular times, the Faithful are few: come Sunday, most pews are empty. Some churches have been mothballed – boarded up and padlocked to keep out the elements and the vandals. Many others, though, have been given a new lease of life as arts centres, theatres, museums and exhibition spaces. Such is the case with the Church of St Peter the Less on Barrack Street. The pretty 15th century building miraculously survived the Luftwaffe’s bombs which flattened everything else around one night in 1942, and now sits on a grassy mound by a busy roundabout. Since 1980, the church has been home to the Norwich Puppet Theatre, one of those amazing provincial arts organisations that flourish against all the odds.

When not stringing up the cast to amuse little people, the theatre is available for hire (including civil weddings, ironically). So, one Sunday we took our pews for a performance of Twisted Cabaret by the Knightshift Dance Company and jobbing drag queen, Miss Special K. The fusion of modern community dance with old-school gay showbiz was inventive enough but a man in a frock and ginger wig singing ‘Your son’ll come out tomorrow,’ in a deconsecrated church was deliciously subversive. Those God-fearing old merchants must be spinning in their graves. I loved it.

The Bells, The Bells

The Bells, The Bells

With Liam away in London on family duties, I was left to my own devices to troll the streets of Norwich. As I passed the rear of St Peter Mancroft, a divine shaft of light pierced the clouds and a sudden crescendo of bells rang out. Blimey. It was almost enough to make this sinner drop to his pagan knees. I resisted Peter’s temptation, it’s not something I tend to do in broad daylight (not even when the better half is away in the Smoke).

St Peter Mancroft is the largest church in Norwich after the two cathedrals. A ring of fourteen Whitechapel bells clanging high in its lofty belfry makes quite a heavenly racket, I can tell you. As it turns out, it wasn’t the Almighty calling, just a practice peel for the National 12-Bell Striking Contest Final.

Bell Ringing Contest

Who was St Peter Mancroft? No one. The Mancroft bit is thought to be a mangling of the Old English gemaene croft, meaning a common field. Nobody knows for sure. Fancy.

Wisteria Lane

Wisteria Lane

Unlike many houses of God poking up through the mishmash skyline of Norwich, the old church of St Giles, so ancient it got a mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, is still saving souls today. At this time of year, it’s ringed by a dripping abundance of wisteria and very pretty it looks too. As the old saying goes:

Norwich has a Church for every week of the year and a pub for every day of the year.*

I took some snaps on the way to my place of worship, the Coach and Horses.

*Sadly, this is no longer true pub-wise though there are still plenty of places to take communion.

My God’s Bigger Than Your God

Returning from one of our regular pilgrimages to the Great Metropolis, we took a different route home from Norwich Station. Just for the hell of it. Rather than hurry along the Prince of Wales Road and its grubby hotspots of ill repute, we headed for the Riverside development (all commuter flats and chain restaurants) and wandered across one of the fancy new foot bridges that span the River Wensum. The semi-industrial district on the other side is ripe for redevelopment. What the Luftwaffe hadn’t flattened was finished off by Fifties and Sixties planners. Thankfully, the breeze block and concrete grimness is moderated by a sprinkling of treasures, including the Dragon Hall, a stunning medieval trading hall on Kings Street and one of The ‘Norwich Twelve’ erections of distinction.

As we pushed up St Julian’s Alley (pun intended) we stumbled across St Julian’s Church, a tiny shrine now dedicated to Julian of Norwich. No, this Julian wasn’t a fella, but a lady named after the eponymous saint. She was a religious recluse who lived in a cell propped up against the wall of the building, a kind of hermit’s lean-to. It’s no surprise that prayful seclusion was the lifestyle of choice for many folk during the poxy ages.

The Lady Julian has quite a claim to fame. She penned the first ever book known to have been written in English by a woman. Fancy. She wrote her tome, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, in 1395 after experiencing intense visions of Christ during an illness that nearly saw her knocking at the Pearly Gates. Unlike many of her contemporaries (and ours), Julian talked of love, hope and forgiveness rather than duty, sin and punishment. Regular readers will know that I’m not remotely religious, but I reckon we could do with a bit more of Julian’s kind of divine message. So much better than the my-God’s-bigger-than-your-God world in which we still live.

Julian's Shrine

The Norwich Book of Records

The Norwich Book of Records

Norwich is stuffed with the biggest, finest, oldest and firsts in all the realm. There’s a gem on virtually every corner. These are a few of my favourites. Hover over the image for a brief hint and click for more scintillating facts that you never knew you wanted to know.

With thanks to Visit Norwich for much of this treasure trove.