Tag Archives: Norwich

1549 Kett’s Rebellion

During my Robin Hood phase, and unable to get to Sherwood Forest, I went to Nottinghamshire, and then to woods where other rebels gathered. Those woods have just been the backdrop to a play on the anniversary of that gathering, in Norwich.

And again, I’m led to decisive historic moments and battlers for justice. I haven’t forgotten Eliot’s Dorothea and Will – the more gentle kind of battlers – and I’ll pop up my article on their story shortly. I’m also returning to that famous forest so they’ll be more about Robin et al too.

But let me stay with Robert Kett – perhaps a name you don’t know, unlike Robin, or Boudicca, or Braveheart – our best known British freedom fighters, who’ll need little explanation, wherever you are reading this from. But Kett has much in common with all these. Perhaps he is Norfolk’s Robin. And let me link Kett, as the play did, with our current climate.

I’m not going to analyse the pantomime-like play, but its theme. The oft sung song reminded us that although the setting was nearly 500 years ago, it ‘could be any time’ – and ours. The mayor was doing a David Cameron impression. The mean ‘nobs’ all from the same school administered cuts to welfare and bullied plebs in a very familiar way.


The piece of news that I’m most thinking about from the last few days is the police shootings in America. I feel a little intrepid to comment, for it’s emotive and needs to be expressed well.

What I will say is that the  events at the Dallas protest turned the focus from the shootings by the police to the shootings of the police. I note that there was 1 officer for every 8 people at that demo, which is heavy. And that the demo which followed involved the police using smoke against the people.

The brutality of the killings – and sorry ‘fatal shootings’ won’t do – and the disproportion of the police’s reaction to the situations – over motor offences! –  has made me livid. I join those (isn’t that the whole world?) calling for justice and the curtailing of armed police and this heavy, ugly way of dealing with the public. A public who pay for the services of those who should be keeping us safe – but instead are unjust instruments of the establishment, and from whom we can be in danger.

I think many of us must feel that our growing resentment for the police, wherever we are, has been augmented by these shocking not even lone incidents.

I abhor that black people were the victims of these killings. It wasn’t hard to learn the names of the most recent ones – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But I noted that the day before, two more American young men were killed by the police, yet they are less talked about – I struggled to find their names. These both were from Latino heritage. It is significant that they too aren’t white – but also that the African Americans garnered the greatest attention.

Surely ‘Black Lives Matter’ should be ALL lives matter? I hope that’s a given.

There’s also a lesser known “Brown Lives Matter” movement.

I felt a huge de ja vu last night at the play, watching the king’s forces rush to stop the rebels in Norwich, who were slaughtered in battle or executed. Like the events of recent days, the aggrieved side, however we might understand their aggrievement, did things to their aggressors which I couldn’t condone.

But I did note that Kett’s army took England’s second city for a time. I know Bristol and York will want to squeal at this point ‘We were England’s second city!’ Can’t we share that title? But isn’t the point not a petty division (watch for those) but the empowering thought that people can hold a major city from the establishment.

Did the people of Norwich in 1549 feel any safer with the mob at the helm; was that their definition of democracy?

When I look at all those iconic historic symbols of independence, there’s a sadness that their effects were not only curtailed, but that were are still facing those issues, centuries later.

But did they fail? Should we give up trying to change the fact that, as the chorus sung last night “the many serve the few” and that the rich and powerful’s minority interest continue to crush everyone else?

No and no I do not. I do take hope from the fact that these names of freedom fighters are remembered and commemorated. We’re not cheering the mayors and earls who routed Kett’s group, we remember him.

Last night, we lit a beacon on a hill overlooking the city to not only remember the 3000 killed and hundreds hung in Kett’s rebellion, but all those who have struggled against oppression and still do – and feel under it. It was an exciting moment, to see the flames sweep in way I’ve never seen fire do before, to join with cheers and a banner.

Although not mentioned, we were asking and committing to the kind of world that Robin Hood, Boudicca, Braveheart and Robert Kett stood for coming into being. We are wanting a world which is against austerity, against unfair private ownership, and where the brutality of police and other law enforcers (what a phrase!) and the prejudice behind these recent incidents is history. We wish for justice and for reform – the sort that Will Ladislaw of Middlemarch wanted, the peaceful kind.

There was irony that I realised that no-one other than those at the play could see the beacon, despite its prominent position. Even knowing where to look, as I left Kett’s Heights I could just make out a tiny orange glow between trees.

It was also ironic that given this was a play about power to the people, the city council had to give permission for the beacon to be lit. A council that has many failings – lack of accountability and support to the vulnerable and providing basic reliable services; making heavy licensing laws which involve police in civil liberty abuses – but which also hung its flag at half mast for the recent homophobic shootings in Orlando.

Robert Kett, like Robin of Locksley, was one of the rich who instead of squashing the poor rebelling at his gate, joined and led them. In the play, the Mayor changed sides and opinions.

Out of the many warrior princes and princesses I admire, there is one who comes to mind who insisted on never killing, never using unreasonable force, and who stopped wars with love. She saw that forgiveness and change were more powerful than routing enemies. She saw too that the most powerful way to create change was through mind changing – and I add, heart changing.

I refer to my last post and that wonderful quote of Caroline Lucas, ‘where hope is powerful than hate’ – even when we feel we have a just cause; and that healing and uniting communities is more important than demarcation of difference, even self defining; brothers (and sisters) before otherness.

And as Kett’s county’s police motto says – we all need to feel our police’s priority is us.

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Last part of Edith week – The Edith Pilgrimage

Comments and tips for those following the cycle/walking trail from Swardeston to Norwich

Sometime in the summer, stickers began appearing on lampposts, with a 19th C style silhouette. The Edith trail had arrived in Norwich.

I’ve had the leaflet, available free but now scarce, for some months. At the end of Edith’s fortnight of centenary commemorations, I did the trail. It felt a fitting end to an intense week.

Signage is often good – except towards the village itself, on that country lane where you most need assurance that you are on the right route. It’s brown for walkers, blue for cyclists but I found the cyclists’ route on the whole better for both – the outward leg, anyway, via Unthank Rd.

The leaflet doesn’t give directions, just a map to follow which is NOT TO SCALE. That is like having a clock not on time. It misleads about the length of the route.

I’ve oft read that Swardeston is 4 miles from Norwich and the signposts in the village say just that. As the crow flies perhaps, but not as the Elspeth walks or cycles. Although the fastest route is via the A140 Ipswich Road and the B1113, these include not nice bits for non drivers, such as a huge roundabout intersection on to a main road and then a fast traffic but lonely stretch on the B1113, though there is a path suitable for cycles or pedestrians along much of it – but like many paths, it stops and starts.

I am confident that the most direct route by cycle or foot is nearer 7 miles from Norwich rail station, which is included in the trail and is close to the Close.

I am shocked that Edith walked this journey daily to school – not marked on the trail – at the Assembly House on Theatre Street, which you are directed right past. Today’s Norwich High School For Girls is on Newmarket Road which is a direct route from the city centre to Swardeston.

However – beware.

Many of the roads chosen are dull and have nothing to see or to do with Edith.

Ipswich Rd is a fast road with 1930s housing along it and a retail park with Tesco’s on it at the extreme, country end. I recall no other facilities – perhaps one pub? – and do not recommend the Marsh Harrier just beyond Tesco’s, which is not easy to access without a car anyway.

Hall Rd’s farthest end is basically industrial estate with no facilities.

Lakenham Way is an ex railway line running from behind Sainsbury’s on Queens Rd/ Brazen Gate to Hall Road. It’s fast and straight and flat, but as a shared path, can annoy all types of users. Mind the kink at the outskirts end.

Marston Lane is for cycles only – it’s too weeny for anything else and there’s little life down it except the private golf course. There’s nowhere to tie your bike if you want to walk on the marshes and I should warn walkers that for at least the second time on this trail, you are plunged into a wood. This is not a suitable lane for after dusk, nor is much of the route beyond Eaton – which you are now entering.

Newmarket Rd is full of fast traffic and many buses, but whom rarely stop here. Grand houses hide behind trees and open woods, so it’s eerie after dark, despite being so built up. There’s a shared cycle path and walkway, but there are few on it. After the Eagle Pub near the old N&N hospital, there are no facilities until you reach Eaton Village.

Unthank Rd – the city half – has shops and a little bit of buzz; there’s some nice pubs and cafes along or just off it. It rightly features on the trail, and feels safe by day or night, and there’s plenty of people about. Unthank Rd might be a better way to do this journey, especially if you’re coming back after dusk. The grand houses at its top (outskirts) end aren’t so tree lined as Newmarket Rd and it’s also quieter traffic wise – though the cars that are don’t drive slower and I saw some maniac driving into a well known mini mansion. It’s lit but again, not loads of people on foot.

As you cross the ring road, whatever arterial road you’ve chosen, beware – it has few pedestrian crossings and is too busy to do otherwise. If you’re on Newmarket Rd, stay on the left as you come out of the city, and use the crossing on Daniels Rd. If you’re on Unthank Rd, also stay left and go slightly down Mile Cross Road to get over the junction.

However, there’s an issue at the top of these roads and I am shocked that the Edith trail sends you over it, and without warning!

Unthank Rd at its outer end finishes at the top of Newmarket Rd, and so both roads make you face a terrifying crossing. If you are not on the left side of Newmarket Rd, you will need to cross a fast arterial road as it becomes a dual carriageway and major trunk road – and the cars prepare to go full legal speeds, or just start cutting back. There’s a tiny ‘watch out for people’ sign and a little half way point to stand. It’s crazy. Not on the map are a few roads between Newmarket and Unthank Rd such as Upton and Judges Walk. But there’s not a good solution to this.

Then go down the slip road into Eaton Village. (Note that if you try to avoid this crossing by going via Bluebell Road, there is also a lonely bit and a wooded bit and I wouldn’t recommend this after dusk either).

Once you arrive at Waitrose in Eaton Village centre, you are on the last of everything – shop (Waitrose, closes 8pm weekdays, 4pm a on a Sunday), cafes and pubs, toilets, and village shop a little further up on Intwood Road, Cringleford. Often the trail map doesn’t name streets and misses some off. This is your last chance to withdraw money, and soon the pavement will disappear as you reach the crossroad at Intwood Rd Eaton. Coming back there’s no sign to Norwich but it’s straight on if you’re following the cycle (brown route).

Keswick Hall can be accessed with one of the other turnings, but I don’t recommend it on foot as there’s high verges and as ever, fast drivers coming round bends in country roads.

I am shocked that you are led by the A47 – a thundering bypass – and onto what seems to be a private horse field – and not well signed. I couldn’t see how to get off and it and rejoin the trail. You meet the thunder of traffic (originally if not oddly likened to warfare) as you cross it on the Intwood road, next to some ominous pylons, and then dip into Intwood village, or the lack of it. After the Intwood Hall gate we’re-very-private-signs comes the church at which you go left. There’s a dribble of a stream and a barn about healing and a tiny mud track called Swardeston something. Don’t deviate, keep on this road which is long and lonely and has a wooded bit, and not great for jumping aside when traffic appears.

I never saw a sign to Swardeston or telling me you’re in it, but when at last houses start again, you are almost at Edith’s birthplace. The road kinks at a cattery and then on the other side is Cavell Barn and next door, Cavell House. The trail doesn’t say it but the signs on it do – this is private house!!! Keep walking – it still doesn’t look like much of a village yet – next to the large common whose growth is as high as a person, until you come to a proper T junction. You can go either way but the trails sends you right and then up towards a sports ground. Walkers are directed through what Lady Catherine De Burgh would call a pretty sort of wilderness – which didn’t look at that safe – so I followed the cycle path and the road. You’ll glimpse the vicarage which has a sign about a hair salon, though the church is on the other side of it.

I found that the trail wasn’t so accurate in the village, which never does have a cohesive centre. The church is found off Main Road, which is the B1113 from Norwich, and there is the bakery, garage (not a petrol sort), a farm shop open til 6 Mon-Sat but only til noon on Sunday, and the ex pub. So little food buying opportunities and no toilets or drink stop.

Note the memorial to Edith and others who died in the village in the first world war as you walk up the lane to the church. It’s not mentioned on the trail.

There’s a window with Edith on behind the altar and a display re wartime participants of the village. The Cavell Room is like a mini scout hut on the other side of the church which you can find by going through the door next to a picture of her. There is a DVD and a display on her.

On the main road, the B1113, towards Norwich, is the village sign not mentioned on the map but worth seeing as it’s about Edith.

The trail doesn’t tell you opening times for the church or the Cavell Room, without access to which your trip would feel wasted. I think it’s about a mile to walk round Swardeston.

I wouldn’t attempt this after dusk or evenings generally as I don’t think anything is open by night. Norwich is considered a safe city but some places on this route, the country bits especially, can feel eerier and dark. Today 18th Oct, dusk began ant 6 and it was dark by 730pm, but next weekend, the clocks change and it’ll be an hour earlier. Note if you’re visiting from elsewhere in Britain, daylight varies and the north enjoys more in summer but less in winter.

Despite calling it a green pilgrimage, I would actually say it is better by bus or car.

Warning re buses: they are expensive and a single is often nearly as much as a return.

Rural buses can have big gaps in the timetable and stop early (c4pm) and not run on Sundays or Bank Holidays. The recommended bus is a First bus 37, the purple line, but there are buses to Cringleford (by Konnect) and Eaton (Anglia) but not the same bus company and tickets are not valid between companies. Buses do not run on the outer part of Unthank Rd but the inner part has regular buses which run to the railway station via the city centre.


I used the walk to think more of Edith; perhaps I’ll write about her myself, as I still feel the woman, her feelings and relationships are not unlocked by anything I’ve seen or read so far.

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Hovel(l)s, homelessness and hope

On a prime spot on attractive historic streets filled with the independent shops and cafes is something that makes more than my eyes sore.

It is not just happening in this city.

People who have known Norwich a while will likely think of the shop on the corner of Bridewell Alley and Bedford street as Hovell’s. The basket makers come furniture department store ran for over a century, almost as well known as the Mustard Shop that used to be next door. It is a multi levelled building, larger than the exterior appears. Since Hovell’s moved out, it has been mostly empty – for over 4 years. A series of fashion boutiques at last filled the vacancy. But within a couple of weeks, the doors were heavily padlocked and a bailiff notice served from the landlord with breeze blocks around the entrance.

Builders came in and there’s a for sale sign from Arnold Keys, but with such a landlord, who would want it?

This makes me especially angry, for the unnamed landlord called in the Sheriff’s office of Croydon before trading had got off the ground. It’s a problem too common in times of hardship and debt, where owners try to exact power over others, using money and law as leverage. And it’s ugly.

In walking distance is a former office block on Rose Lane, perhaps not Norwich’s prettiest building, but it did have some thought to local architectural trends. Now with metal grills over every opening, the building is uglier than it ever was in use. A man was at the reception desk late at night, and there were signs about 24 hour security and police dogs.

Further up the street was a bunch of regular homeless people.

As around the world, there are many people out of work, struggling in their own businesses, suffering from government cuts, and who live on the streets. All of those could benefit from those empty premises, which someone has found the money to defend and have watched, yet not offer low or even no rents to those who need them.

The effect is uglier than the dereliction itself.

I’d like to see the council wrest ownership and offer fair terms that don’t involve paid bullies. Both owners should be ashamed.

Hope is an act of defiance

On the old Hovell’s building is some graffiti, in beautiful script, which says  “Defiance is an act of hope”.(I preferred the reversed version – “Defiance is an act of hope”). These and similar messages (another was “Resistance is Fertile”). appear only on places that are being repainted, or on skips That message, more attractive than the empty building, indeed gives hope. I hope that the landlord and sheriffs read it and act accordingly.

Ironically, this article was accepted 2 months ago for local Triangle magazine, who now declines as the editor ‘wasn’t comfortable’ with questions about pay and copyright. This is another issue I address elsewhere.

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Unscorched – play review

I was intrigued that a provincial small amateur theatre had taken on a recent national prizewinning play on such a difficult subject. I was very proud of Norwich’s Sewell Barn for doing so, and for offering the amateur premiere after a 4 week run at London’s well regarded new writing theatre, the Finborough (close to Earl’s Court), only a year later.

On arriving at the difficult to access venue, 3 miles from the train station and with no pavements around the campus on which the barn is sited, I found out why SBT were especially interested. The writer, Luke Owen, has long been connected with them and lives in the city. But they have chosen challenging, award winning and fairly new plays before.

As a playwright who’d also entered the Papatango competition, I was interested to know what had won it. And for the first scene, I felt sadly disappointed. A man enters an office, makes tea, puts on music and wiggles his bum, to a few audience laughs (not shared by me). A second man, Simon, appears and after a dull and clunky exchange, soon goes into meltdown. It felt over egged and as if they were not quite comfortable on the stage. The first man (Nidge) is ridiculously distracting and almost afraid of his colleague’s grief.

But that was the only duff scene – I think the play would be stronger if it began with scene 2: a young, well turned out keen man in a interview, reeling off his computing prowess. As the ordinary sounding interview progresses, we begin to gather the nature of the job – this isn’t your average IT role. The nature of the work isn’t spelt out. As Tom tries to describe what he sees in the file he’s been handed, with the sense of threshold he is crossing, the play becomes excellent. I felt nervous with Tom about what he’d see and have to tell us – but the play manages to be powerful and uncomfortable without showing or saying anything explicit. I do think following Tom into the video room would have added to the story: not to learn what he saw but to see his reaction, his will to sit through it and to accept the job.

And then there’s a cut to the other story – Tom is dating. And immediately, the obvious “So what do you do?” seems set to squelch any romance with “Tinkerbelle…”- which is where the audience also learns that Tom spends his day looking at images of children being abused, to be passed to the police for action.

We see less of Nidge’s outside life, except the recurring cinematic wordless episodes where he crouches over his model plane to piano music – brave for theatre, but welcome and well used. Nitch has learned to cut out the emotional core of his work and lets daytime TV and X-boxes and absorb the horrors of the video and pictures he has to assess.

The characters’ awkwardness and naturalness was excellent, especially in the dating scenes, due to both acting and script. Emily’s rising end of sentences and trying too hard when not fully socially comfortable – as teens and twenties often do – are perfectly captured theatrically.  The office manager, Mark, could easily feel bland, but this is avoided as he is overly casual with but disconnected from his staff. Only Simon at the start was a problem, and apart from one later mention of his name (we could guess at what that meant) he is never needed or part of the story again.

There was a scene that I felt needed something before it. Tom is head in hands, talking to Mark, but we see no catalyst; it doesn’t follow from the last scene. And it didn’t work for me as a “come in late” and disorientate the audience kind of scene.

The meltdown scene was an uneven increase in the volume and drama; and the final arc, whilst neatly drawn, was to not where I’d hoped. Despite the first scene with Simon, colleagues Nidge and Tom are more articulate and open about feelings than Tom is with Emily. The latter relationship seems emotionally immature, based on only flirting and attraction, with sex being obligatory after their first ‘official’ date. Tom shuts Emily out when she triggers a reminder of his work with her childlike pyjamas and stuffed animals around the bedroom. I didn’t really invest in their relationship, because I could see little real affection or connection or openness.

There are many challenges to the nature of Tom and Nidge’s job: the intensity and boringness of it (ironic for an IT whizz), along with pressure of time and volume of work. It queries that images of adults being harmed are coolly written off as ‘not our remit’. It asks whether becoming inured to horror and tragedy is ever good – and that is a conundrum for all of us. It made me question if any job – including the counsellors with whom it is obligatory to speak  – ought to continually be around such disturbing material. The play asks if talking about the videos – and thus reliving them – helps. It led me to wonder what would alleviate, and also how to deal with the perpetrators, and questions of forgiveness and healing for those who do the ultimate crimes.

The arc of the story is ultimately a sad one. Apart from the scenes I mention, it is a well crafted one, but it’s hopeless and doesn’t go far enough in questioning the job description or letting anyone get to a better place.

I would still encourage people to see it for themselves and for a welcome change to the usual theatre we get in this region.

New Writing needs more platforms!

Unscorched is showing til Dec 6th 2014 at Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich NR3 3BB, and directed by Michelle Montague.

http://www.sewellbarn.org or 01603 628319 (Prelude Records on St Giles St)


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City of Churches IV: Conclusion

What I’ve realised is something about myself…

Firstly – what are my favourites among the cities we’ve been to?

Thinking about other cities (and not just those I’ve been discussing), I realise that Norwich, Bristol and Ipswich all have several special medieval churches – but like London’s classical ones, I can take them for granted.

Bristol churches22 Bristol St Mary Redcliffe crossing

St Mary Redcliffe Bristol – my favourite parish church in Britain

I like St Mary Redcliffe best – perhaps that’s why I’m so dissatisfied elsewhere as I’ve got such a high precedent. I would have work to do to any Norwich church to put it on this level. It’s also 60ft longer than Norwich’s largest parish church and its spire is only 23ft shorter than Norwich cathedral’s. It has modern glass, a neo medieval crypt for meetings, and it has interesting historical associations (that’s a whole other aspect I’ve not touched on).

What makes SMR stand out is its vault and a satisfying tower/spire, and no-one’s got such an unusual porch

From Norwich’s churches, I’d pick:

St Peter M Norwich churches at night6

I would want to put tracery on the arches inside, and do something about that Victorian spirelet and parapet.

St Giles   for its tall tower and porch – but only the latter has the kind of detail I seek

St Stephen’s  though the ceiling could be more carved and coloured and the glass is heavy and murky. Does the tower need a parapet?

St Andrew’s Norwich churches at night4 as it’s big, airy, partly stone, and has tracery on the arcade, but it needs many more details

 St Miles for its flushwork, but I’d like it all over and with a big east window. The inside needs renovation and it’s hard to assess the church in the state I last saw it in.

That’s not to say that none of the other churches have anything good.

Norwich churches at night2 St Michael at Plea, Norwich – good porch, well lit

My wish list from elsewhere

I’d like Cambridge’s round church

a classical church  – St Stephen Walbrook I think being my favourite out of several

modern stained glass – Bristol would be best for that

an octagonal open tower from York – St Andrew’s Halls lost theirs

There really are some great churches in Suffolk and also in the East Midlands and Cotswolds area; Norwich/Norfolk as a city and county may have the most, but not necessarily the best. To make Norwich’s 31 churches superlative, I’d have to pinch heavily from the West Country and Lincs/E Yorks/Notts too.

By cutting out Catholics and nonconformists, I’ve undermined the full picture in many cases. I don’t like Victorian gothic, but two great Catholic churches of that era are to be found in Cambridge and Norwich. Nearly these towns have great Nonconformist chapels and that evens out the lack of classicism. In Norwich, there’s a 17th C red tower and a bank that resembles a Wren style church (and another huge former bank has Gibbs-like rhythms in its ceiling arches) so it sort of does have all the eras and styles, for the missing Early English is made up for in the Catholic cathedral. And the synagogue opposite has modern stained glass. Perhaps Pevsner was right when he said Norwich has everything. I was beginning to doubt him.

Perhaps Suffolk’s finest and the best parish churches of England are posts for another time…

What I realised about me:

I realised that what appeals to me in a church is about space and atmosphere; that my non conformist roots, for all my 20 years of Anglican church interests and wide faith journey, are still very strong. I often pick out the preaching box like churches. I don’t miss furnishings: I like the damaged churches who sweep out as much as they’re allowed and start with a fresh open space – not that I’m condoning bombings, arson etc – but their aftermath is actually an opportunity.

But I also asked myself why this church stuff mattered, for as much as this is focussed on buildings, human emotions creep in. What is my relationship to these cities and to these churches, whether as worshipper, employee, citizen, customer, passer by, or tourist? Many of these churches have strong emotive attachments for me. The stories about being near or in those churches…. that might be a creative writing idea….

Sense of place is hugely important to me and churches are a part of that, both as my environment and as a spiritual person looking for a community. Why is perfection important? Perhaps it is about feeling I have chosen as my home a city that I feel really proud of and one that meets my needs; whose boasts I can believe first hand rather than accept those of others, and sense of belonging and having the same perspective as other citizens. Perhaps this reflects my own disillusions and doubts about where I live now and should live, rather than on bricks and plasterwork…

Perhaps this comes down to issues nothing to do with actual churches and things too personal to reflect on here.

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City of Churches III Norwich vs London

London, I think, is the most remarkable of British cities for its church collection. On one level, it’s like Norwich – a large group of much the same, in this case, Stuart churches. There’s little medieval here and nothing externally of that era to please.

St Andrew Undershaft has an interior like an inferior version of Bristol’s St Stephen’s and Lord Mayor’s Chapel. St Helen’s has potential, but both St Helen’s and Undershaft are diminutive outside. The great Norman priory at St Bartholomew’s is not only shorn in half or less, but insensitively and anachronistically restored externally – and mean enough to enforce an entrance fee. I like round 12/13 C Temple church which doesn’t count under parish churches – I like it less now that it too imposes an entrance charge. Out of the classical ones, it’s hard to choose as I have not spent the time with them that I have in other cities. For the interiors, domed St Stephen Walbrook is supreme, but overall I think St Mary le Bow is my favourite; and I’ve just discovered St Mary at Hill near Monument.

St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook London

Above: St Stephen Walbrook – the photo on the right captures the City.

Perhaps we take London’s churches for granted – would they would seem more special in other cities where there are none or few of these? If you visit several in one day, they can run into each other.

St Mary Abchurch By analysing them, you come to see the brilliance of Wren and his office. He used gothic as well as classical; and not all the same type of classical. There are white stone and red brick ones (St Mary le Bow being both), and some of more beigy stone (St Dunstan in the West), whereas the pre-Fire ones are of flinty rubble or whitish ragstone. Some have traditional spires (St Margaret Pattens), some have cupolas (St Magnus), some have little hats (St Benet) and some have tiered wedding cake toppings (St Bride). St Mary Aldermary has long parapets. Three have round ceilings (St Mary Abchurch left, St Mary at Hill and St Stephen Walbrook) as did the wonderfully named Barton [Bat] Fink (now gone). Bombs from the war and the 1990s have meant there’s several modern windows and other fittings.

Wren did not build all the City’s churches; some are pre Fire survivors, some by other 18th or 19th C architects; and some like bat eared St Sepulchre are mishmashes of several centuries, Classic and Gothic.

London churches

The rest of London has many more ecclesiastical treasures, but most are fairly central.

In the West End, there’s rightly famous St Martin in the Fields with its delectable plastered ceiling, but there’s other special classical churches around there – St James Piccadilly, St John Smith Square, St Clement Dane…

Hawksmoor’s 6 1/2 highly original churches are also quite central (one in the City). There’s one of these top left:St George in the East, in the Shadwell area.

London perhaps is the most remarkable city for breadth, but it lacks what Norwich and Bristol have by way of gothic and I don’t think that even Westminster Abbey really makes up for that, though the Lady/Henry VII Chapel is a supreme example of gothic.

Final thoughts in the next piece…

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City of Churches II Norwich vs York, Ipswich, Cambridge

These are the next nearest cities in terms of having the most parish churches in the old city.

(Note I use town and city interchangeably; all but Ipswich are cities now but Bristol and Cambridge weren’t in medieval times).

York churchesSo what of York? Even York books concede that though it’s better for variety and showcasing different building eras, its churches do not compare with Norwich. I like the local open octagonal belfry style but none of the churches individually really inspire and there’s no modern or classical here either. There’s no tracery within or out, no exciting ceilings; it seems the bombed one, St Martin’s Coney Street by the Picturehouse, was actually the best. (The wonky spire in the photo is on purpose!)

Ipswich St Peter'sIpswich is pretty special to have kept up with these major cathedral cities, although none of its churches are outstanding; it’s again more about the group than individuals. The two that are converted (St Lawrence and St Stephen’s) look better now than I suspect they would have as churches. Maybe that’ll make church crawlers gasp, but I confess I’m not interested in fittings, it’s more about the space, and my own expression of faith means I prefer the new floorboards and uncluttered vistas to statues, altars and even pews. The best church may be St Margaret’s for its painted ceiling. There are some big churches (like St Peter’s, left) and interesting flushwork in Ipswich (St Lawrence’s being the best though it’s Victorian). St Mary At Elm has a lovely red brick Tudor tower. But Ipswich doesn’t have variety, being as much about black flint high gothic as Norwich.

Ipswich St Margaret's Ipswich Mary Le Tower Oak Lane

Above: St Margaret’s and St Mary Le Tower, Ipswich

Cambridge chapelsCambridge isn’t so special either, even if I let the prereformation college chapels in. Only Kings and Jesus stand out. St Mary the Great parish church isn’t so great, it’s just the tracery in the nave I like. I’d pick out the rich honey coloured Saxon tower of St Bene’t’s and what I consider the best of the Norman Round Churches. The colleges run from classical to High Gothic but the parish churches don’t. Except King’s and St John’s college chapels, churches do not feature strongly in the overall look of the city, unlike the other towns.

Let me come back to Norwich and say that although its churches are all the same era and style, and there’s nothing outstanding to pop Bristol’s Redcliffe off its perch, it does have several excellent ones, though I’d like to change them all and to swap bits. The exception to that statement is St Stephen’s with its jaunty patterned side tower cum porch. It has a pitched hammerbeam roof with angels, big windows, a mix of stone and flint externally, and tracery on the arcade wall. Full house to my mind! And better still, it’s alive inside too, and restored with most pews save a few 16th C ones taken out. I don’t miss the others.

Norwich churches at night4

St Stephen’s and St Andrew’s, Norwich

I like big St Andrew’s but it’s not got any decoration externally – the tower especially feels a bit flat – and so does the ceiling. The east window should be larger (and no Victorian reredos would be even happier).

Norwich  St Miles Norwich St Miles inside

St Miles (above) is a favourite for the flushwork and for being unusual as having its nave and aisles the same height (is that a hall church or would the chancel have to be all one?). Simon Knott, he who has given us the huge online resource of Norfolk and Suffolk churches, thinks there’s a missing porch. I hope he’s right and it would account for the disappointing plastered over space in front of the beautiful chapel and the fine tower. He thinks it’s his favourite Norwich church and I am not far off agreeing, it’s just there’s no tracery internally, it’s got a small east window (the Victorian restorers got that wrong) and it’s not in good repair, whereas St Stephen’s has just had a refurb.

St Giles has got the highest tower, a great fan vaulted porch and is a pleasing space but I would like to make changes to the chancel. St Laurence might have potential if it was restored; but I only like the tower at St John de Sepulchre, Ber Street.

St John Ber St Norwich Norwich St Giles

St John de Sepulchre and St Giles, both in Norwich

(The parapet being cut off is by Boots the chemist, not me!)

Others might be pleasant places – St John Maddermarket, St George Colegate  – and do important functions. But as individual church buildings, I would not miss any of the others. What I would like Norwich to have is a classical church (eg St George’s Yarmouth) and a small Romanesque church. There’s a few of the characteristic local round towers in the city but no church bodies to match. Perhaps an urban Hale/Heckington (from south east Norfolk) would complete the set better.

There are several other towns with 6-8 central parish churches but I don’t think have a great grouping overall. The one I would consider a rival is Worcester, which has little gothic and impressive but some wonderful Classical churches, more than any city in Britain after London. I’d like to know this city far better. I also think that Coventry could be interesting to compare because it’s got a few but all good ones. Could Norwich’s be reduced to just 3?

Next time, to Norwich’s biggest rival:

I’d like to say – these pictures are not displaying how they look in the editing mode – WordPress, take note – they were aligned exactly!

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City of Churches I: Norwich vs Bristol

Is Norwich the best city in England for parish churches?

Norwich often boasts of having  “more prereformation churches than anywhere else north of the alps.” ! You can see from the chart in my last post that Norwich and London each have many more churches in their old centre than the British cities with the next most; but I have squashed Norwich’s claim put about for 40+ years from that John Betjeman documentary about having more than York, London and Bristol together. My chart in the previous post explains.

An old video on Norwich named “City of Distinction” called the collection “an embarrassment of riches”. The fact that Norwich’s are nearly all perpendicular (late gothic) and made of dark flint is both something that makes it special, and potentially boring.



In my editing screen, they are beautifully lined up with their captions. Please imagine this if they are not

Think it doesn’t help, Word press makers, that what we edit in is not the same width as the published page!

St George and Bacon House NorwichSt Laurence Norwich

St George’s Colegate (right) and St Laurence’s in St Benedict’s St, both Norwich

I even had a little mental exercise with distilling the overall number to a tiny proportion of the best, keeping them as varied as possible. I do it to Norwich and various other cities and areas, especially the ones featuring in these 5 posts on cities of churches. It’s usually easy to pick a few really good ones – though none are perfect. What would be missing is their place on the townscape. St Benedict’s Street in Norwich is characterised by its churches; much of the street is churchyard. The towers welcome on corners and end vistas. I also realised these offer functions which are important to the life and character of the city: not only would some  mean a loss of a particular kind of congregation, but that there’d be no puppet theatre or artist run exhibition centre or community spaces. Separate buildings mean that not only can congregations diversify, but so can other uses – all artists don’t have to vie over the same space under the same management. But I’m not suggesting we actually pull any churches down, just analyse where the really good ones are.

I thought that Bristol’s bunch might beat Norwich because Bristol’s so varied. Norwich has no Georgian churches – I can think of only 2 in the whole of Norfolk (plus a private chapel). But Bristol has one whole one, two part ones and three in suburbs, including a Gothick one. Bristol can claim to have important church buildings from 1160 -1960 (1140 actually but 1160 has more of a ring about it). To be fair, in that statement, I am creaming from the entire city. In walled Norwich, there are no modern churches or major furnishings (save the new Cathedral windows and two in St Margaret’s) and nothing of interest in the suburbs – not in my opinion. The only church within the whole extra mural conurbation of Norwich that I’d single out is at Eaton for having a thatched roof next to a modern extension.

Inside Christchurch Bristol Bristol churches10

Christ Church, Bristol in and out; and with tower of All Saints (right)

It’s not true that Bristol has a wider selection of gothic than Norwich; it too focusses on the last period, including St Nicholas which was rebuilt in pastiche by Georgians (and again after being bombed). Neither city has anything seriously Early English, both having their best examples in Victorian neo Gothic churches (Christchurch Clifton and St John’s Catholic cathedral in Norwich).

But actually, several of Bristol’s churches are not of interest. I’m not missing any of the ones destroyed by bombs, only the leaning tower of Temple – I’d have preferred the earlier round church for its main body.

Bristol bombed churches Bristol abbey gate

St James Bristol Temple church Bristol

All Bristol c-wise: St Peter’s, Cathedral gateway, St James, Temple 

The Norman of Bristol other than the cathedral’s chapter house and arch of its gatehouse is quite mediocre (St James and a few bays of All Saints) and if we’re bringing cathedrals in, Bristol has nothing on Norwich cathedral which is one of the very great Norman churches of Europe and thus the world (a statement sure to please Norwich organisation HEART).

Bristol has Britain’s very greatest gothic non cathedral, in my opinion and in old Queen Bess’s – St Mary Redcliffe. It’s supremely satisfying and apart from adding a little more colour, there’s nothing I’d change or add, unlike almost any other church – including cathedrals and abbeys – that I an think of. Best of all is the gilded stone ribbed vault – only one other British parish church has one, to my knowledge (St Mary Otterly in Devon).

Redcliffe porch St Mary Redcliffe with graffiti

St Mary Redcliffe Bristol – porch (left) and with some contrasting local specialism – graffiti

Inside St Stephen's BristolSt Werburgh's Bristol by meBristol churches3

St Stephen’s (inside and out) and St Werburgh’s (with corner turret), Bristol

Also late gothic, St Stephen’s isn’t in the same league but it is consistent and satisfying. It  could be merged with the Lord Mayor’s Chapel (not counted with parish churches) for its similar long box shape and gilded flat wooden roof, adding the Lord Mayor’s fan vaulted chapel; but tall, pinnacled, traceried, Somerset-like St Stephen’s tower is far more striking than the Lord Mayor’s hidden one. Displaced St Werburgh’s also has a good tower – once at the crossroads of the old town, it’s now a climbing centre in a eco conscious suburb.

I like the idea of a church on the town gate, but the church of St John’s itself does little for me.

Bristol churches6 St John's Bristol

Crypts of St Nicholas (top) and John; St John on the Wall, Bristol

The interior of St Thomas has something that Norwich hasn’t and I quite like the Classical/gothic mix and match idea, it’s just not successful here. St Michael’s and Pip ‘n’ Jay are not architecturally interesting, I think.

St George's Bristol Inside St George's Bristol Although Anglican: it resembles a Baptist chapel

City wide, if I were to choose my favourites for outstanding or varied examples of churches in Bristol, I’d pick Regency St George’s (the concert hall) and the glass from the two 1960s Pembroke Rd offerings in Clifton; Georgian Redland Chapel and possibly the displaced medieval St Werburgh’s, now of the hippy suburb of allotments.

I’d keep Christchurch (old city) as the all Georgian church, possibly swapping the spire for neighbouring All Saints’ cupola.

St Paul's Portland Sq BristolSo Bristol perhaps isn’t richer in some ways than Norwich, but it does have that superlative medieval church, the only one in the country that completely satisfies me, and it also has Georgian and modern. Although Norwich has more medieval undercrofts than any other British city, I don’t know of any crypts under its churches (only the Canary Chapel in the Close), but Bristol has at least the two pictured. There’s no tower as good as St Stephen’s Bristol in Norwich and no ceiling there like Bristol’s St Stephens’ and the Lord Mayor’s Chapel have. Bristol’s red and light stone give a warmth not found in Norwich, although the grey stone is duller than Norwich’s ubiquitous flint.

Left: St Paul’s in Portland Square. Unnerving eh?

I would like to borrow some of its churches for Norwich – as I’ll summarise in the last part.

I’m fond of Bristol, as a city, and its church collection. I may well do a post with pictures of all Bristol’s central churches and chapels, on my new blog.

Next time, we go to three other cities of churches….

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Cities of churches – intro


Is it true that Norwich has more medieval parish churches in its walls than any other English city?

It even says it’s got more than most of Europe, in some daft marketing phrase that is so beloved of Norwich’s promoters. I can personally only account for the former, so that is what I’m sticking to – places I know and have actually counted myself in England.

Norwich also likes to boast it has as many churches as York, London and Bristol – England’s three other greatest medieval cities – put together. That claim has never felt right. It is also misleadingly phrased. The claim can only be to have more medieval churches in the centre – that’s medieval fabric today, not medieval foundation. There will follow some lovely tables to put this matter to rest.

Norwich has been a little sneaky with its boast because lots of other important medieval towns spread its walls but Norwich was neatly contained by them till medieval church building was done. And “medieval” is vague, as most central parish churches were founded in medieval times, but have often been rebuilt, whereas Norwich’s are all the same style of Gothic, built in the 14-16th centuries: remarkable, or dull?

I’ll come to that question in another post. This one is about numbers. Here are my definitions:just outside the wall = allowed; but not ones in the suburbs, nor who have been moved, nor utter ruins; and I count only Anglican parish churches, not cathedrals, friaries or private chapels.

I’ve enjoyed comparing the English cities with multiple medieval parish churches – mainly the 10+ group of Bristol, York, Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich and London. Multichurches does seem to be an English phenomenon – Scottish or Welsh cities seem to have had one of two original parish churches. It’s interesting that several important medieval towns (Edinburgh, Hull, Coventry, King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth) had only 1-3, opting for few large churches, which makes me wonder something for my next article… I’m aware of larger former numbers in Lincoln, Winchester and Exeter but I don’t know those cities well enough to personally vouch. Here is my table:

City # churches now medieval now prewar reformation
London 39 7 c48 c100
Norwich 31 31 34 c60
York 19 19 19 47
Bristol 10 6 15 21
Cambridge 13 c5? 13 U/K
Ipswich 12 12 12 12?
Canterbury 9 8? 11 14+

Colchester has 6 (+1 further out) and Worcester 6 (with 2 just outside the walls); Chester 6 including St John’s (had 9), Nottingham 3, Newcastle 4, Northampton 4…. this is sounding like football results!

But what’s more interesting – the greatest number or the greatest collection? There are going to be four more on this subject.

I made a full list of the churches in the 10+ cities but it won’t fit on these pages!

Reeling it off makes me feel like that character in a Count Duckula episode whose party trick is to recite the digits of pi – suffice to say the list is available to the curious and I do know the names and locations/look of all the churches in my chart. I have seen and visited many of them and made an effort to count personally, not copy figures from other sources.

I am being generous with “medieval now”  as Norwich claims that title for churches that have been bombed who have been substantially renewed and rebuilt by the Victorians, and whose furnishings nearly all come from other eras – the can also include glass. Nearly all its churches, whilst appearing medieval, actually have some fabric that isn’t. There is a blatantly C17th tower, also counted among its 31. So I am offering the same spirit of generosity in my definition of medieval to other cities. St Martin le Grand of York counts as it has a roof, windows and is used for worship..

Does Norwich really have as many medieval churches as Bristol, York and London?

Norwich  31/31 Bristol, London, York
1 All Saints All Saints                 B 6/10
2 St Andrew St James
3 St Augustine St John on the Wall
4 St Clement St Mary Redcliffe
5 St Edward SS Philip and Jacob
6 St Etheldreda St Stephen
7 St George Colegate All Hallows by the Tower    L 7/39
8 St George Tombland St Andrew Undershaft
9 St Giles on the Hill St Bartholomew the Great
10 St Gregory St Ethelburga
11 St Helen Bishopgate St Helen Bishopgate
12 St James St Olave Hart Street
13 St John Maddermarket All Saints North Street      Y 19/19
14 St John de Sepulchre All Saints Pavement
15 St John Timberhill Holy Trinity Goodramgate
16 St Julian Holy Trinity Micklegate
17 St Laurence St Andrew, Andrewgate
18 St Margaret St Cuthbert
19 St Martin at Oak St Denys
20 St Martin at Palace St Helen Stonegate
21 St Mary Coslany St John the Evangelist, Micklegate
22 St Mary the Less St Margaret
23 St Michael at Plea St Martin le Grand
24 St Michael Coslany/Miles St Martin-cum-Gregory, Micklegate
25 St Peter Hungate St Mary Bishophill
26 St Peter Mancroft St Mary Castlegate
27 St Peter Parmentergate St Michael le Belfrey
28 St Saviour St Michael Spurriergate
29 SS Simon and Jude St Olave
30 St Stephen St Sampson
31 St Swithin St Saviour

No – it’s the same. It has AS MANY medieval churches NOW as those three cities.

Adding up Bristol, London and York’s full set would mean 10+39+19 =58 – somewhat higher than Norwich’s 31!

So Norwich, your boast is wrong! I will never get a job at Norwich’s HEART now.

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Pride and Prejudice: Minister accused of gay hate crimes

It’s ironic that on the day I finish editing my novel about synthesising being gay and Christian, there’s a news story on just that in the city in which my story is set. The front page of the local rag has a picture of a pastor set against the recent gay Pride parade. His email to the organisers has earned him a hate crime allegation with the police.

I felt many things as I read that story.

First was the irony that this same newspaper published the faces and names of men at a homosexual gathering which got raided to shame them. It was mentioned at a Pride event – local gay people have not forgotten how their paper treated them.  Perhaps fearing hate crimes allegations directed at itself, the paper now covers the Pride celebration like any other local event. Its tone in this article seemed to be firmly with the LGBT community and against this local evangelical minister.

My second feeling is that this paper’s article is very biased and poor. We do not know what the email of “homophobic language” contained. We are only told that the minister, Alan Clifford,  went up to a stall at Pride and offered an exchange of leaflets. His were called “Good news for Gays” and “Jesus – Saviour of us All”. Too true, I thought; for God loves gay people and is here for us as much as anyone else. Further research confirms the tenor of the minster’s views – that ‘gays’ are perverts who need curing – which has become international news. His views are upsetting, angering – and make me sad.

My next thought was regret that the Pride organisers made this email into a police affair. If I had received an email of the sort I am assuming was sent from Dr C, I would have written back, explaining my views and challenging his. I’d have directed him to George Hopper’s pamphlet “The Reluctant Journey” about a Methodist who, on exploring the Biblical teaching on being gay and actually meeting some, had a complete change of heart. He is celebrated as a supporter of gay Christian people, whilst retaining his more evangelical and Bible based faith. I hope my own book might assist with this too.

I believe that challenge and heart changing is far more productive than crime making. What the latter does is reverse the oppression, so that traditional Christians and other faiths feel they’re persecuted ones, and wonder how equality and anti discrimination works when they are being silenced. You give prejudiced people more reason to feel it, and more reason to band together – Dr Clifford is already hailed as being persecuted for witnessing. Two papers copying each other ended that the minster is anti Muslim too. But saying that Jesus is greater than Mohammed is not Islamophobic  – for Christians, Jesus as God is higher than any prophet, and banning or deriding that statement is not allowing freedom of belief. There is far more genuine Islamophobia in the media and from politicians, which I abhor.

I also note the irony that complaints about Dr Clifford being offensive to lead to investigation; but he cannot call the other side offensive and register a complaint.

I would like to see an end to all such offensives.

I’ve now read Dr Clifford’s response. He makes two other valid points – that the intention was compassionate campaigning, not to harass; and that ‘homophobia’ is a misnomer, for prejudice is not fear. Perhaps there is a little fear in anti gay sentiment, of the notion that they are set to break up the order of your society, and what being open to them might mean for your faith journey. It’s something I can relate to, but I am glad of where that journey took me and to whom I now embrace, not decry.

The other concern is – we have too much police control, and that police were experienced as aggressive at this event. Like the local paper, they have turned from breaking up gay meetings to supporting gay people. This is admirable in principle.

It seems we are now in a minefield where freedom of speech as ever is being eroded – even on matters where one sympathises. Sentiments which hurt and insult others who have perhaps already been through stress should not go unchecked – they should be challenged.  But not be afraid to broadcast a view lest it leads to a police record.

I am deeply saddened when people use their freedom of speech to curtail the freedoms of others. I cannot understand why those whose central message ought to be about love see a legitimate expression of it as an aberration, something abhorrent to be campaigned against rather than celebrated. When a faith should be about a better world – more free, more loving, more understanding – I am despondent that some preach hatred and separation instead of inclusion. I refer them to the Easter sermon that was preached in the film version of Chocolat.

It’s PR like this that harms evangelical Christianity especially – you are not serving, you are doing a disservice.

But I am sad at the other team too. Subverting and reversing freedom and anger is no way to be better understood and accepted by those not yet able and willing to do so. It’ll keep those Christians with feeling they’re misunderstood victims who must stick together and fight for the cause. It means the circle might go round again, spinning between bashing gay people or Bible bashers, depending on who has the most sway on leadership.

We don’t want any bashing. We want a world where such differences are no longer divisions, and people don’t not say or do something for fear of reprisal, but because they no longer feel it.

It also seems my novel’s message is still much needed, for both sides.

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