On a grey morning, as invisible drizzle fogged up my glasses and aggressive umbrellas dominated the streets, I made my way to Norwich Castle to visit their new exhibition, 'Square Box on the Hill'.
Having spent the previous night researching the Adam and Eve pub (for this blog post here), I had entered a weird black hole of local history and stayed awake into the small hours watching cartoon re-enactments of the Castle's past on YouTube. Not only was I tired, but that morning I saw Norwich Castle with new, slightly horrified eyes.
What stuck in my mind most was the story of James Rush - a man executed at Norwich Castle, in the place where now stands the entrance to the museum. When Rush was hanged in 1849 for the murder of two wealthy Norfolk men, his crime was a sensation. He himself was a tenant farmer who had fallen from grace, and had murdered the landowners after he was unable to meet his mortgage repayments. Rush's execution also coincided with the opening of Norwich's train station, which meant travelling into the city was easier than ever before. Perhaps as a result of this, 20,000 people descended upon Castle Mound on the 21st of April, 1849, to watch James Rush's final moments. One of those in the crowd is reported to have been Charles Dickens.
Looking up that morning at the Castle's bridge, surrounded as you can see in this picture with a grim mist and bare black branches, it was hard not to imagine what it must have been like that day, and how far the Castle has come since then. Now it is a museum, and home to wonderful artwork, local collections and touring exhibitions. There is a nice café inside, and groups of all kinds of people can be found within its walls, wandering around the galleries and the magnificent Norman Keep.
Fitting then, that 'Square Box on the Hill' has brought together the Castle's past through a stunning mixture of prints, photographs, paintings, architectural plans, memorabilia and archives, many of which have never been on display before. The geek in you will absolutely love it, and if you're at all curious about local history, it is an incredible opportunity to get a very visual picture of a time almost beyond our recognition today.
The exhibition is curated chronologically, beginning with its build in 1094. A palatial residence for Norman Kings, visitors to the exhibition will be immediately greeted by a scale model of what the Castle would have like looked like in 1121 - vastly different to anything we would know today.
Walking further into the exhibition, there is another enormous model of the Castle of what it would have looked like in its Medieval heyday. The 'square box' model is complete with figurines going about their daily castle-y lives in the royal residence (which is apparently a lot of feasting).
It was in the 14th century that Norwich Castle became a prison, and not only that but the land around the castle became open to the public, and as a result fell into disrepair; litter was everywhere, and the moat was quarried. The next part of the exhibition tells the story of Norwich Castle in its (quite long) lifetime as the county Gaol. On display you will see a stone that has been carved into by a prisoner, maps and plans of the prison as it went through many changes as prison laws were reformed, and drawings of the castle as it was extended, built upon and knocked through once more.
My favourites were the pristine watercolours by William Wilkin in 1755, and a painting of an extension to the castle, that never quite made it...
Eventually, the prison was no longer suitable for purpose, and in 1883 the prisoners were moved to Mousehold Heath. The question now: what would become of Norwich's Castle? Many ideas were presented (the most obscure of which was to use it as a Train Station), but in 1886 plans were presented to turn the castle into a museum and gallery, for generations of people to enjoy.
The next part of the exhibition tells the story of how the dilapidated gaol was totally transformed into the elegant building it is today, including the 'space-age' rotunda. Expect models, memorabilia, and a surprising interactive exhibit...
Concluding your journey, you will see plans for the regeneration of the Castle Keep, and how you can help restore this incredible space to its former glory. If you’ve not been in the Keep before, I can’t recommend a visit enough. It is so rare to be in a space so vast - let alone one so atmospheric. The current Keep Giving campaign was launched in order to re-instate all five floors of this amazing structure (including battlements, fighting gallery and the dungeons). To find out more about the campaign, read this blog post from last year.
So just before I left the castle again, I had to see the Keep. It is beautiful, and very special. It is an antidote to the traffic outside, your smartphone and formica desk. It is so very, very old and I think it is only within those stone walls (which are 3m thick in some places) that you can really find the edges of 'Square Box on the Hill', and the story that Norwich Castle still has yet to tell.
'Square Box on the Hill' is open now until the 3rd of June, and if free with Standard Admission to the Castle. For more information please see our website listing.
COMING TO VISIT?
Greater Anglia has Advance fares from £10 one way between London Liverpool Street and Norwich. Trains run every 30 minutes. Greater Anglia 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.
To plan a trip to Norwich check out our website www.visitnorwich.co.uk