Thursday, April 15, 2010
Today a quiet nature haven in the heart of Norwich, Mousehold Heath has seen its fair share of strife – as well as acting as inspiration to artists and writers.
During Tudor times the heathland spread 22 miles, as far as South Walsham from the edge of Norwich. In 1549 it acted as encampment for Robert Ketts rebels. As it contracted in size in later times, it first became enclosed, then reverted to its original state of common ownership in the late 19th century. It is thought the heath takes its name from an Anglo Saxon word moch-holt or thick wood. For centuries, Mousehold was used as common land for people to pasture their animals as well as gather firewood, building materials and manure. Today it is largely covered by broad-leafed seminatural woodland, but up to the 19th century was mainly bracken heath, vegetation kept down by the constant chomping of generations of animals.
Is was regarded as held in common, and villagers let their animals graze undisturbed by manorial lords. However, the church owned a lot of it. The church of St William in the Wood was built there. It got its name from William, the boy martyr, who is said to have died in a ritual killing on the heath in the 12th century. Founded by Bishop William Turbe in 1168, it had a cell of monks and belonged to Norwich Priory. It was demolished at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, but the mounds where the building stood can be seen east of the Wingfield football ground. Visitors will notice the dips and rises of the landscape. These did not occur naturally but as a result of extensive diggings for flint, lime and clay that scarred the area in the 17th century. This was strictly illegal and, occasionally, people were fined by the courts.
In summer 1549 Robert Kett, a landowner from Wymondham, led a 10,000-strong army of discontented Norfolk men. Marching round the walls of Norwich they camped on the heights of Mousehold Heath. After talks broke down, the rebels fought a pitched battle with the royal army, seizing the Bishops Bridge and looting Norwich. Much of the subsequent action took place in the area around what is now Gas Hill, where the rebels sited a captured artillery piece and bombarded the city, damaging the fortification known as Cow Tower. Eventually, Kett was drawn away from the protection afforded by the heights and fought another battle against a second royal army at Dussindale, east of Norwich, where his rebels were massacred.
The heath reverted to its traditional use. As late as 1779 it stretched as far as Woodbastwick, east of Norwich. But as the 19th century dawned, the enclosure movement threatened this rural idyll. By 1799 it had been parcelled out as fields and was largely in private ownership. That did not stop people exercising their traditional rights to the heath. The Norwich writer William Taylor took a daily stroll over the heath while his protege, the author George Borrow, immortalised his meetings with gipsies there in his autobiographical work Lavengro. The artist John Crome captured the stark beauty of the heath in its original form. But less-celebrated Norwich citizens also loved their heath. The late Victorian era saw growing awareness of the importance of open space in cities, and pioneers set up organisations such as the National Trust to campaign for land to be opened to the public. In 1880 the decisive moment came. The Church, via an Act of Parliament, gifted Mousehold to the citizens of Norwich to hold... for the advantages of lawful recreation. But the people of Pockthorpe resented the loss of their common land, and challenged the Norwich Corporation in court; they were defeated, despite demonstrating the passions the heath could arouse. This passion lived on; nearly a century later the Mousehold Heath Defenders were created to campaign for its upkeep and conservation. In 1886, John Gurney, Mayor of Norwich, officially opened the heath to the people for ever. As lifestyles changed, fewer people owned animals to be grazed there and trees gradually replaced gorse and bracken. Windmills were once a common sight, but one of the last was a postmill burned down in 1933.
During the first world war Mousehold was used as an aerodrome. The Norwich-based company Boulton and Paul produced aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel at its Riverside factory, and the Royal Norfolk Regiments cavalry training ground was taken over by the Royal Flying Corps. During the second world war the site was used as a dummy airfield with decoy aircraft to fool German aircraft attacking Norwich. A Beaufort DE121 plane crashed on Mousehold in July, 1942 and another bomber came down in Long Valley in the same year. A bandstand near Gurney Road was demolished in 1962, by which time it was dilapidated; a replica was eventually built and opened 30 years later. During the early 1970s legendary Norwich City manager Ron Saunders had his players running up and down the hills of Mousehold in the snow.
The heath covers nearly 200 acres. It is, as the city councils signs declare, the country in the city. The Victorians would be delighted to see it used by so many people for sport and recreation, while naturalists are thrilled by resident wildlife. The Rangers House, built in 1886, was used until the 1960s. In recent times it has fallen into disrepair and was a target for vandals, but last year an interpretation centre was opened to promote the heath. Vandalism remains a problem here. Nevertheless, the site is protected by wardens, and remains treasured by most Norwich people. The Mousehold Heath Conservators, created in 1884, are responsible for its upkeep.