Thirty Ipswich Society members travelled up the A140 on a bright but cool June Saturday. The visit was something of a 'return match' as a large group of Norwich Society members was welcomed to Ipswich last year. In return we had been promised a chance to see old and new developments in Norwich.
We arrived at the Assembly House to a warm welcome from Vicky Manthorpe and Alec Hartley, the Vice-Chairman of the Norwich Society together with our two guides for the day, Jan and Helga. Whilst we enjoyed the coffee and biscuits provided, Jan gave us an excellent potted history of the site and building from 13th century college of secular priests to its 20th century uses as a dancing school, cinema and girls' school. Saved from demolition by the Norwich Society after suffering the ravages of dry rot, beetles and the blitz, the building is now owned by the Norwich Arts Trust.
Two walking tours were on offer, one to explore the latest developments and the other to look at historical buildings. A difficult choice was unnecessary as each group was able to enjoy one walk in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
Highlights for me were the most recent developments. The Theatre Royal, given a 10m overhaul by Tim Foster, a specialist in theatre design, successfully combines old and new buildings and has an excellent sound system suitable for concerts. Chapelfield shopping centre, built on the site of Caley's chocolate factory, includes a simple, high timber roof construction that echoes the city's Norman heritage, and well designed information boards. The centre is surrounded by 'wrap around' flats on three sides and the medieval St Stephen's Church is incorporated into the scheme sympathetically with high quality decorative ironwork gates to the churchyard. The newly installed 'quincunx' sculpture on Hay Hill was inspired by the essays of Sir Thomas Browne. Marble and granite representations of the human brain, eye and seed pods were much in use as ad hoc seating - something intended by artists, Anne and Patrick Poirier.
The Forum, a 63m Millennium project designed by Michael Hopkins has risen from the ashes of the old city library. Hopkins has also designed the impressive new Refectory built alongside the cathedral. Helga, our guide, drew our attention to a number of decorative bollards, an attractive feature in the street scene, each topped with a design relevant to its location. Never too old to enjoy a game, Society members spotted doves, a ram and a swan!
After a brief stop for lunch we re-grouped for our afternoon tours. Our guide, Jan, introduced us to many fascinating areas of ancient Norwich, some well known but some 'hidden corners'. The Maids Head Hotel, a coaching inn in the late 18th century, retains part of an earlier Norman building and is mentioned in the Paston Letters. The impressive houses, built by wealthy cloth merchants on Elm Hill after a devastating fire in 1507, were saved from demolition as slums by the casting vote of the Mayor in the 1920s. Blackfriars (St Andrew's Hall) was bought by Augustine Steward, a merchant Mayor, from Henry VIII for a mere 80. We admired the fine flint wall of the Bridewell now used as a museum celebrating Norwich industries and housing the first loom for wire netting and original pattern books for exquisite Norwich Shawls. Would we have noticed the terracotta frieze depicting stonemasons and carpenters, or urns and scallop shells decorating the skyline on George Skipper's London Street office? Skipper's Royal Arcade, modelled on the Burlington Arcade, has fine peacock tiles in art nouveau style and is unmissable after a 3m renovation in the 1980s. In St Peter Mancroft, entertained by a rehearsing choir, we admired the fine tapestry and seven sacrament font.
At the end of our walks we re-grouped at the Assembly House for a very welcome afternoon tea. Thanks are due to the Norwich Society for their generous hospitality, Chris and Lois Terry for their impeccable organisation and our two Norwich guides for their knowledge and enthusiasm.