Lighting Up the Dark Ages

Following our friendly skirmish with modern Norsemen, we decided to give the Viking Exhibition at Norwich Castle a whirl and find out a little bit more about their hell-raising forebears. I’ve no clue what kind of history kids get taught these days but when I recently asked a history student what happened in 1066, he didn’t know. Now, I’m not one who thinks it should all be about dynasties and dates, but 1066? Really? In my day, the ‘Dark Ages’ (as they used to be called) were very much part of the curriculum and the Viking era was all about rape, pillage and good King Alfred burning his cakes. The aim of the exhibition – Viking, Rediscover the Legend – is to deconstruct the blood and guts myth and tell the more complex story of raid, migration and integration.

Sadly, I was a little underwhelmed by the show – a bit sparse, exhibit-wise. But it was a welcome distraction on a very hot and sweaty afternoon. And I loved the exquisite York Helmet, the best surviving example of its type in Europe. It’s quite small. I imagine the owner, Oshere, was a bit on the short side. This may explain all that Viking aggro – small man syndrome! I know all about that. I was also struck by the size of the coinage – no bigger than modern-day pennies and easily lost down the side of a sofa. But then they didn’t have IKEA back in the dark days of the Dark Ages.

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…