Celebrating Norwich’s state-of-the-art ‘pencil of light’

PUBLISHED: 19:32 26 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:31 27 July 2020

Westlegate Tower pictured in 2004

Westlegate Tower pictured in 2004

Archant © 2004

It was described as a “pencil of light” which rose from the ground in Norwich 60 years ago. Derek James tells the story of a tower of strength

Westlegate House pictured in 1992Westlegate House pictured in 1992

There was a time when the likes of Iron Maiden, Squeeze, The Specials, The Cure, not forgetting many local acts such as Boy Bastin, played in an unlikely city centre venue.

Back in the 1970s, before the hits, they were blasting out their music in the basement of a controversial building which has been the talk of the Norwich ever since it rose into the air was built.

And one which had a café like no other. As we say today it was open, 24/7. All through the night.

This was People’s Night Club, this was The Boogie House, this was Purdy’s, this was McDonalds, this was Westlegate House.

The changing face of Norwich. The reconstruction of Westlegate tower. Photo: Bill SmithThe changing face of Norwich. The reconstruction of Westlegate tower. Photo: Bill Smith

There were many years of neglect and insults, dark times indeed, but the 11-storey pencil of light is shining brightly again with shops and upmarket townhouses and apartments.

It was described as the ugliest building in the city, an eyesore, a white elephant…pull it down, some said.

Today it is a landmark on what has become the traffic-free little byway between what was known as St Stephen’s Plain and All Saints’ Green.

It stands proud on Westlegate – the name is thought to have been derived from Wastel Gate, which came from the bakers who lived in the vicinity and sold white loaves known as wastels.

Work on the “skyscraper” ultra-modern 11-storey building (at the time it was) began in 1959. It was put up, no easy task, by R G Lawrence of Stratton Strawless.

Costing around £130,000 architects J P Chaplain and Robert Burgoine said it would bring new character to a city already famed for its antiquities.

“It is time we had some architecture in Norwich which is alive. This new building will not clash with our beautiful old buildings. In fact it will enhance them. They will look better and their beauty will be brought out,” said Mr Chaplin in 1959.

And he added: “It will give the most wonderful effect in daylight, You will get a reflection of Westlegate, Orford Place and the sky and you will lose that sort of dead effect you get with solid things.

“And at night…it will stand out as an attractive pencil of light.”

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Office workers soon packed the place out, Purdy’s opened. It was a symbol of the swinging 60s and it was open all night long. Do you remember it? I certainly do.

Pat Edge, managing director of Purdy’s, said he and his wife had been touring America to pick up tips for the best way to operate the new-style, self-service, eating house which employed 80 people.

One of the greatest figures on the booming Norfolk music scene in those days was Howard Platt, a man with a vision.

A DJ and so much more he opened up the Peoples Night Club in the basement in 1976 with Cluster featuring our own Lucas.

Howard was the DJ appearing with the likes of Kid Jenson, Johnny Walker and even Canary star Kevin Keelan – and Carlo Valori.

“The club is called People’s because it is for everyone. We are even planning a children’s disco on Saturday morning’s,” said Howard at the time.

Trouble was, he loved being a DJ all over the county – from King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth - and running a club was very time consuming. Up popped Peter Bailey, who already ran Rixy’s Café Americano above the club.

He and Chris Ayre turned it into The Boogie House, bringing the best new bands to Norwich – Iron Maiden and the rest. Westlegate was shaking. And this all happened so quickly.

It opened in September 1978 and then suddenly closed in the following August after the council pulled the plug on the 2am drinking licence.

McDonalds later took over the ground floor but when they moved it remained empty and until it was given a new lease of life.

So what was it like working in the building all those years ago?

Twenty years ago Mrs I W Fitzgerald of Wymondham told us she worked in Westlegate House from 1964 to 1971. “We could see over the city in most directions and at least we felt that we had lived during the day time rather than the night time atmosphere of many dusty offices at the time,” she said.

Purdy’s was well used, she said, but at the time the basement often flooded with sewage and then there were those…MODS.

”They arrived at all times on their scooters, dressed in parkas and became a nuisance in Westlegate. Often it was difficult to get into the office because of scooters parked everywhere and fighting broke out occasionally,” she said.

For the fascinating story of the music scene in these parts over the years, see the online East Anglian Music Archive, one of the best of its kind in the land, created by Kingsley “Mr Music” Harris.

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