A medieval chapel, a rebel’s ‘castle’, a gasworks manager’s garden and a piggery. The place in Norwich known as Kett’s Heights has been all these things and more in the space of 900 years.

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Where is it?

For many years it was abandoned and forgotten. It still takes some finding, but the investigation and the subsequent climb are worthwhile. Halfway up Ketts Hill, in the steep eastern part of the city that belies Norfolks reputation as flat, you will come across a gate. A sign indicates that this is an abandoned garden that has become a wildlife haven. Thats true enough, but it only tells a fraction of the story. A climb up to the heights takes you back in time to an age when Norwich was a fraction of its modern size, and the only inhabitants up here were monks and grazing animals.

What brought the monks there?

In the late 11th century Herbert Losinga, the first bishop of Norwich, embarked upon an ambitious building programme. In the then marshy valley of the River Wensum, next to the growing but still small Anglo-Saxon town known as Northwic, he began putting up a mighty cathedral. At the same time he also had a priory built on a clearing made in the wooded hills above the river at the top of what is now Gas Hill. It was dedicated to the French saint Leonard, and covered 24 acres of land. An existing Saxon church dedicated to St Michael had been among the buildings demolished to make room for the cathedral. To make amends, Losinga also built a small chapel about 200 yards away from St Leonards, and named it for St Michael. Dramatically positioned, it jutted out over the highest point of the city, overlooking the river, the castle and the growing cathedral. For several centuries the monks of St Leonards held daily services in the oblong-shaped building, about 42 feet in length and about 18 feet in width. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, St Leonards Priory was given to the Dukes of Norfolk. The third dukes son, the Earl of Surrey, built a fine house called Mount Surrey on the site while little St Michaels fell into disuse.

What about the rebels castle?

Robert Ketts 1549 rebellion left many memories in this part of Norwich. Initially denied access to the city itself, the growing rebel army camped across Mousehold Heath. They sacked the Earl of Surreys beautiful new house, and Kett was installed in what was left of the chapel as his headquarters. From this commanding position he could see exactly what was happening beneath him in Norwich. His forces eventually fought a battle at the Bishops Bridge, routed the government forces and looted the city. Later they withdrew, but bombarded the fortification known as Cow Tower from the heights using captured artillery. It was only when Kett abandoned the heights to fight on level round at Dussindale that he was defeated. The heights were left in peace, but the growing city soon began closing in.

Nice spot for a garden...

During the 19th century it seems Norwich people used the site for leisure. The romantic ruins were dubbed Ketts Castle. Although an 1834 map showed no path or access to the heights, the Rev Henry Neville wrote of finding his way to the spot via rough ground near a windmill at the top of the hill.
John Berney Ladbrooke, a member of the celebrated Norwich School of artists, lived at St Leonards Road. Apparently, some of the ornamental follies he built there were made of material from the chapel.
Industrial growth brought about the next change. During the 1830s the construction of a gasworks at the base of the hill meant housing soon began to sprout up. The coming of the railways in the next decade spurred this on.

By the end of the century the whole area was sprawling with terraced houses for the new city dwellers in the suburb called Thorpe Hamlet. The manager of the gasworks turned the slopes of the heights into a garden; terraces were dug with steps leading to them that used material salvaged from the works. Local people grew produce on allotments on the hillside, including Alexanders, a plant used as a substitute for celery. Pear and apple trees were planted, and a greenhouse put up on the site of the chapel, of which only a flint wall now remains.

When was the garden forgotten?

During the second world war the need to produce food locally became critical. The ruins of an old stable block were converted into a piggery, while a concrete-lined pond was used as a source of water for the livestock. After the war the heights were neglected and soon became overgrown. As the city grew around it, it was forgotten. And so it might have remained had it not been for an anonymous benefactor who gifted the site to the city council in 1970. Local residents volunteered to clear the area up, and it was renamed Jubilee Heights. During the 1980s the Norwich Wildlife Group took the lead. With an eye to the areas history it was rechristened again as Ketts Heights, and reopened in 1986. The grassland is managed as a haven for wildlife, oak, birch and ash trees were planted, and the site is open to the public. During the 1988 anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada a beacon was erected at the highest point, and lit along with others across the country. Today, a climb to the summit rewards the visitor with the same panoramic view of Norwich that Kett enjoyed in 1549.

Anything else?

Local legend has it that witches were burnt at the stake on the heights, but that may be a confusion with Lollards Pit at the bottom of the hill.


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