Ancient street with right royal stories to tell
- Credit: Archant
It was the main entrance to the walled city of Norwich from London and in 1578 thousands lined the route cheering and clapping as Queen Elizabeth, riding side-saddle, arrived. She was followed in 1671 by Charles II and his much-loved Portuguese wife, Queen Catherine.
But this once proud thoroughfare took a pounding over the centuries which destroyed its medieval gems. Planners and the Luftwaffe all helped to pave the way for the St Stephen's we have today. It's history gone forever.
Now the road, once described by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, as the 'Ugliest Street in the East of England,' is making news again... this time because the cars the buildings were knocked down to make room for have finally been banned.
The first blow came in 1793 when the great and grand Gate was demolished opening up the road which was packed with shops, businesses and homes. There was the beautiful thatched Boar's Head, dating from 1456 on the corner with Surrey Street, which became the first music hall in Norwich and had such a rich history.
St Stephen's was known as a street of taverns with a dozen licensed premises. There was The Crown and Angel, built between 1434 and 1492, then there was the Unicorn and the Loyalty. And at the top of the street, now a multi-storey car park, was the Great Eastern where the men who worked at Victoria Station enjoyed a pint of Bullards and 'hot purl' (warmed beer) at the pub on the corner of Queen's Road at 6am. Just the job on a frosty morning.
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The station was built in 1849, on the site of the once majestic Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, and thousands of people from the country used the trains to get into the city and the railway company also operated bus services far into the country to complement its rail service. The rotunda at the gardens become the station ticket office.
Narrow St Stephen's was one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city and it was said that the pavements were so crowded you could roll a ball on the heads of the people from St Stephen's Gates to Surrey Street.
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There were some fine buildings of historical merit. The 15th-century wine merchants Barwells at No 12 had a magnificent, moulded ceiling. Others were medieval and Georgian. There was also a maze of yards and courts running back from the street but they didn't impress the planners of the day... a century ago councillors were talking about widening St Stephen's.
They debated for a long time over which side should go. But even then the planners and councillors, the people who wanted the Guildhall and Elm Hill to be destroyed, were worried about the reaction to knocking down the popular thatched Boar's Head. And big shops, run by powerful traders, stood on the opposite side of the road.
Come 1942 and the debate was over. The Luftwaffe destroyed much of the area during the Baedeker Blitz... and the poor old Boar's Head went up in smoke along with many other properties including nearby Curls (now Debenhams).
Buntings (now Marks & Spencer) was saved but the writing was on the wall for the rest of the street.
It was time for the bulldozers to move in. The buildings, many which would be cherished today, were smashed to pieces. In the late 1950s and early 60s St Stephen's took on a whole new look. Everything went... including the old post office which had once been used by weavers when Norwich was the centre of the wool trade.
In the 1960s old was bad and modern was good – remember the old Hippodrome which once stood on St Giles and was demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park?
Buildings which were centuries old came tumbling down. The first multi-storey was built where the Great Eastern stood. A roundabout and subway arrived and St Stephen's became an 80ft four-lane highway bordered by new buildings.
Time has not been kind to this ancient thoroughfare. We cannot bring the buildings back but let's hope it has a brighter future in 21st-century Norwich.
- St Stephen's Gate marked the end of long and tiresome journeys from London and other towns to the south-west of Norwich, including Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds. By the 1500s this gate had earned its special regard as the grandest entrance, and grand it was, decorated for visiting dignitaries, with colourful banners, shields, flowers and musicians made merry.
For others it warned of the terrible punishments that could fall upon any who broke the law in Norwich. Cause trouble in the city... at your peril.
Severed heads could be seen on spikes along with quartered body parts of traitors. The gallows were by the gate.
From 1315, there was a leper hospital with a chapel and cottages: in 1469 it became a poor house. Near the site, in later years of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
In August of 1578 civic leaders heard Queen Elizabeth was due to arrive in Norwich two weeks earlier than expected. The gate was quickly repaired. Heads were taken down and the gallows hidden from view.
She arrived, riding side-saddle at the head of a 'very great traine, eight of the privy council, diverse noble personages, both lords and ladies, and three French imbassators.'
Norwich certainly pushed the boat out. Her visit cost a fortune, and when the Queen left, the plague followed. Some historians believe it came with her huge entourage. The plague claimed the lives of almost 5,000 citizens over the next two years.
The welcome wasn't quite so grand when Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Queen Catherine, arrived in 1671 but the crowds still turned out in their thousands – and how they loved Catherine.
By 1793 the gate was destroyed and yet, had it been preserved it would have proved no hindrance to modern traffic.
It would have stood harmlessly on the north-east half of St Stephen's traffic island. Later in the 20th century, with no consideration for the history hidden there, the broad junction was ripped apart to build subway tunnels for pedestrians and the roundabout we have today.
- With thanks to writer/illustrator Leo R Jary, author of Through Ancient Gates: The Medieval Defences of Norwich. The book was published by Larks Press in 2011 at £9.50.