Norwich is a city with many, many claims to fame. And not just the ones you’ll probably already have heard on numerous occasions (I’m thinking churches for every week of the year, pubs for every day of the year and Alan Partridge… because why not?!); there are plenty of other fascinating ‘firsts’, largests’, ‘oldests’ and various other superlatives that set Norwich apart from other cities, both in England and over most of Europe.
Michael Loveday, formerly Chief Executive of Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), takes us through them:
Image: Norwich Cathedral Cloisters - photo by Paul Tyagi
Image: Julian of Norwich
At the top of any list of ‘firsts’ list should be that Norwich, for most of the medieval period and up until the 1780s, was England’s first provincial city, a modern Birmingham.
In terms of ‘people’ firsts, our best claim is probably Dame Julian of Norwich, the first woman known to have written a book in the English language (read our blog post all about her here). She produced Revelations of Divine Love in 1395 following a series of religious visions or ‘shewings’. Other ‘people firsts’ include the first black circus proprietor in the UK (Pablo Fanque, celebrated in a Beatles song), the first industrial nurse in the country (Philippa Flowerday became Colman’s Industrial Nurse in 1872) and the first recorded reference to a barber – John Belton in 1163 – although we must assume people did get haircuts before that!
Other firsts are numerous and range from the remarkable to the bizarre. Just a few examples include:
• The first English provincial newspaper (1701)
• The first recorded battle despatch in English history (1075)
• The world's first recorded true peal of 5,040 (bell) changes (1715)
• The first non-denominational cemetery in England (1819)
• The first surviving English caricature (1232)
• The first published poem in blank verse,
• The first printed plan of an English City
• The first English Delftware pottery (1567)
• The first British made carpet (1583)
• The first provincial city to establish a municipal library and the first to implement the first Public Library Act of 1850
• The first mass production of shoes (1792)
• The first provincial psychiatric hospital (1714)
• The first long distance commercial phone call in the UK (1878)
• The first all metal aeroplane to be made in the UK and the first all metal, biplane bomber
• The first driving school in the country (1919)
• The first municipal garden housing estate to be developed in Britain – the Mile Cross Estate
• The first British city to be specifically referred to in the Luftwaffe's bombing records
• The first use in the UK of the post code system
• The first English local authority to install a computer
• The first conventional street to be pedestrianised in Britain
Image: Norwich Cathedral
As well as firsts and inventions we can boast an impressive range of ‘largests’. Principal among these is that we are the largest walled medieval city in England, bigger than the City of London and Southwark together. We can also claim the largest collection of medieval churches in northern Europe, the largest provincial civic regalia collection and largest civic portrait collection, the largest cathedral close in England and the largest castle mound, the largest collection of decorative roof bosses in the world and the largest monastic cloister (both in Norwich Cathedral).
In addition to all of that, we even have some ‘one and only’ examples. These include Norwich Cathedral’s apsidal plan (architecture based on a succession of semicircles) which is unique in Europe; the dubious distinction of being the only city to be excommunicated by the Pope (following the Riot of 1274); the only English example of a beguinage (a community of lay women living a life of poverty and chastity); the only medieval friary to survive the Reformation intact (The Halls – St Andrew’s and Blackfriars’); the only English residents to have their portraits painted by Rembrandt (the pastor of the Dutch Church in Norwich, Johannes Elsom and his wife); the unique Norwich School of Painters; the only Synagogue Street in England; and Castle Mall – the first example of a major shopping facility developed with a park on the roof.
Image: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
And almost finally we have a few things that acknowledged experts think are the best! Norwich Castle is regarded as ‘architecturally the most ambitious secular building (of its period) in western Europe’. The Guildhall is the largest and most elaborate provincial medieval guildhall in the country. The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell contains what is ‘esteemed to be the finest piece of flintwork in England’. The Market has been described as ‘the grandest market place as well as the very best single market in all England’ and its near neighbour City Hall is regarded as the ‘foremost English public building between the wars.’
The last beheading at an execution in Britain occurred accidentally at the Castle in 1885 when Robert Goodale was hanged, but the noose severed his head - lovely!
Abellio Greater Anglia have Advance fares from £9 one way between London Liverpool Street and Norwich. Trains run every 30 minutes. Abellio also serves Colchester, Ipswich and Diss on the Norwich line. Direct trains also run from Cambridge.
East Midlands Trains runs services from Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.
Flights into Norwich served from Edinburgh, Manchester, Exeter, Aberdeen, Jersey*, Guernsey* and Amsterdam.