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How Norwich became the city of lost churches

PUBLISHED: 11:08 19 June 2016 | UPDATED: 08:01 20 June 2016

St Paul's, one of dozens of lost Norwich churches. Built around 1120, it was bombed in 1942, its blackened remains finally demolished in 1970.

St Paul's, one of dozens of lost Norwich churches. Built around 1120, it was bombed in 1942, its blackened remains finally demolished in 1970.

Archant

Norwich is world-famous for its churches, but beneath its streets are even more treasures. Lost churches and churchyards lie ghost-like below the modern city.

A drawing of the now-vanished St Peter Southgate church in Norwich, which stood on King Street. Its ruins still stand on Southgate Lane. A drawing of the now-vanished St Peter Southgate church in Norwich, which stood on King Street. Its ruins still stand on Southgate Lane.

Churches cluster on corners, crowd every view with turrets and towers, hunker down at the heart of city squares, and jostle for street frontage with shops and offices. But even in Norwich, the city with more medieval churches than there are Sundays in a year, more than any other city north of the Alps, we are missing dozens of churches.

St Winwaloy, St Vedast, St Mary Unbrent, St Margaret in Combusto, and not just one, but two, St Olaf’s. All missing.

The flint and sculpture, tracery and stained glass, gothic arches and angels soaring among roof beams of our treasury of medieval architecture is matched by a litany of lost churches, the ghost buildings beneath our feet.

Walk past Cinema City and you are standing over the charred remains of St Christopher’s, burned down eight centuries ago; come out of the John Lewis car park and, less than a century ago, you would have been looking at the pinnacled tower of St Michael at Thorn.

Now the lost churches are being uncovered, not necessarily literally but as part of new walking trails.

I meet archaeologist Brian Ayers and church historian Kristi Bain at a café on Upper King Street. We are surrounded by churches, with the Cathedral, St George’s Tombland, St Mary the Less, St Michael at Plea, all close by.

“So where is the nearest lost church?” I ask. “Right here,” says Brian.

If we had been sitting in the same place 500 years ago, and probably 1,000 years ago too, we would have been in the church of St Cuthbert.

Historians Kristi Bain and Brian Ayers on the hunt for the sites of long-lost places of worship in Norwich. Historians Kristi Bain and Brian Ayers on the hunt for the sites of long-lost places of worship in Norwich.

It was once a substantial stone building, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, but demolished in the 1530s when the site given to Thomas Godsalve, who built a house over the ruins.

No trace of a church is visible from the street, but a vestige remains. Leaving the café, Brian points to the 20th century office next door – St Cuthbert’s House. The name has survived ten centuries, although the stones themselves are gone.

Just around the corner are the (now closed) Tombland underground public toilets. Even further below ground is the lost church of St Michael.

It might have been the St Peter Mancroft of its day – a mighty church on the Anglo-Saxon market place. Or it could have been the chapel to the neighbouring palace of the Saxon Earls of East Anglia. In 1878 an exquisite cross, carved from walrus ivory, was unearthed here. Brian called it: “Probably the finest piece of pre-Conquest art to come from Norwich.” It would have been worn by a priest in his great church, long before Norwich Cathedral existed, and predating the Castle, where it is displayed today, on loan from the V&A.

The area thought to be the site of the now-lost St Michael Tombland. The area thought to be the site of the now-lost St Michael Tombland.

There are written records of most of these lost churches, and some still exist as ruins. But one was completely unknown until Brian, then county archaeologist, led a dig at the Anglia Television site and discovered evidence of a Viking church.

“Until I did that excavation we didn’t know about that church, and there could certainly be others,” he said.

Today, as he walks into the Cathedral Close he admits he would love to forage beneath the lush lawn to the left of St Ethelbert’s Gate.

Nothing has been built here since the church of St Ethelbert was destroyed in rioting in 1272. Just around the corner, on Bishopsgate, the fascinating church of St Helen is part of the Great Hospital complex – but in the cluster of homes across the road might lurk traces of an even earlier church of St Helen. “What I really want to do is go and knock on the door and ask to come in and remove all the plaster from the walls and see what’s there!” admits Brian.

So, in a city blessed with churches, there are still more to be discovered. Some have been buried for centuries, others survived into the 20th century; no trace remains of some, others live on in exquisite works of art; but they are all part of the story of Norwich and Norfolk.

I return to the Archant offices, across from the castle, to write up the story, sharing space with at least two churches, and two churchyards, beneath me.

A new walking trail of the medieval churches in Norwich’s Cathedral Quarter has been put together by The Medieval Churches of Norwich Research Project, with Visit Norwich, the Norwich Historic Churches Trust and the Cathedral Quarter. The free leaflet is available from the Tourist Information Centre in The Forum, the railway station and churches and businesses along the route.

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