The small medieval city of Norwich, off the beaten path yet close enough to London for an easy day trip, is one of England's best-kept secrets and a delightful place to visit. Somehow, it never makes it into the top 20 UK cities for visitors and we certainly don't understand why because it's really one of the best little cities in which to while away a day or more. But maybe the locals just want to keep this jewel of East Anglia to themselves.
The City that Time Forgot
The atmosphere in Norwich is unique and unspoiled. How it got to be that way is a story in itself. When the great era of UK road building took place in the 1950s and 1960s, most of the big motorways headed north and south, from London to Scotland and to the great industrial cities of the Northeast and Northwest of England - Newcastle, Stoke on Trent, Derby, Birmingham, Manchester. The bulbous lobe of sparsely populated East Anglia, northeast of London, was largely overlooked by the highway builders.
So the big corridors lined with industrial parks and huge shopping centers, the steady, heavy traffic of giant semis (or articulated lorries, as they say here) never made it to Norwich. The city, that at one time was one of England's most important capitals, was left off the highway grid, able to amble into the 21st century with its own unique style.
Why You Should Go
That style is a combination of the best of old and new. Norwich has the contemporary sophistication you'd expect of a great university city, full of students and faculty from the University of East Anglia (home of the UK's first and most prestigious Creative Writing program) and Norwich University College of the Arts, in the center of town.
Yet right beside a few modern shopping malls, the city's open-air market and its pedestrian shopping areas are like something out of Dickens. Its Cathedral district hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. It has a castle right in the middle of the city, scenic walks along the River Wensum and surprising green spaces waiting to be discovered.
What There Is to See
- Norwich Cathedral is almost 1,000 years old and is surrounded by a 45 acre "Cathedral Quarter" (the largest in England). The Cathedral is notable for the dizzying height of its fabulous vault (dotted with 1,000 bosses) and for the largest cloister in England. The surrounding area, the Cathedral Quarter, is crisscrossed with cobbled streets, many lined with houses that have changed little since a great fire destroyed most of the older houses 500 years ago. Make sure to visit Elm Hill the most atmospheric street in the quarter.
- Norwich Market The largest Monday to Saturday open-air market in England has 200 stalls under colorful striped awnings. It occupies its own special square, under the castle and the city hall. The awnings were recently replaced and some purists object to the gentrification of the market, but we think it looks much the same as it did years ago when we first visited.
- Norwich Castle Built by the Normans as a royal palace 900 years ago, Norwich Castle is today an art gallery and museum of local history. That includes exhibits on Queen Boudica, queen of the Iceni, an East of Anglian tribe, who led a rebellion against the Romans. The Iceni exhibits include examples of their fine work in gold.
- The Norwich Lanes, a short walk from Norwich Market is a district of narrow, cobbled lanes, tiny historic buildings and a very good selection of individual shops and galleries. It's one of the most atmospheric and creative shopping areas you'll find and great fun to stroll around in. Look for Upper and Lower Goat Lanes, Cow Hill, Dove Street, and Pottergate.
- The Norwich 12 A collection of Norwich's most architecturally outstanding buildings, ranging from the earliest - Norwich Castle ( built one year after the Norman Conquest in 1067) to the newest - The Forum, built to celebrate the Millennium. Don't miss the 15th century Dragon Hall, a medieval trading hall with a timber-framed ceiling that includes a wonderful dragon carving.
- The Plantation Garden A surprising, hidden walled garden on Earlham Road, just a few hundred yards from the city's main shopping area. It's not easy to find but there are good directions on the garden's official website. And the sweet little summerhouse was newly rethatched in 2016 making the garden even more fun to visit.
- The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts This airy public art gallery, a short bus ride from the center of the city, is on the grounds of the University of East Anglia. The building itself is notable as it was the first public building designed by British architect, Sir Norman Foster. Admission to the gallery's permanent collection is free, and there's also a pleasant cafe for a tea break.
How to Get there
Trains from London's Liverpool Street Station leave every few minutes and take just under two hours. If you book in advance, the lowest round trip fare (as of January 2018) is £20 when purchased as two, one-way tickets.