The famous scholar watching from the hill
- Credit: Harold John Murrary
What changes he has witnessed as he sits with his head resting on his hand. But the world around him continues to shift before his eyes.
A place where there were once crowds of people, pubs aplenty, busy shops and a grand cinema. But now it is almost deserted as the third national lockdown continues.
He is Sir Thomas Browne - described as the greatest scholar, writer, physician, botanist, antiquarian, philosopher and most original thinker to have lived in Norwich. Sir Browne was born in London in 1605, moved to Norwich in 1637 and in 1905 his statue, by sculptor Henry Pegram, was erected amid much pomp and ceremony.
He used to sit amid a plot of grass with a background of limes before he was moved as Hay Hill and Haymarket was turned, described by our Jonathan Mardle, into a “plaza of reinforced concrete which lends no grace to Norwich.”
Sir Browne was one of the greatest writers of English prose in the 17th century. He could speak no less than six languages and was a man of enormous talent and knowledge. Within striking distance of his statue was his house and garden described as “a paradise and cabinet of rarities.”
There have been many changes in this part of the city which was once a tough old place surrounded by pubs.
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There was the White Horse where the hangman stayed while doing his business in the city and the White Hart where prize fighters performed. And before that there is evidence of the Haymarket Synagogue, in the area near Primark, thought to have been built in around 1154.
Let’s move forward a few hundred years to 1911 to be precise when a picture palace which played a leading role in so many lives opened on a site where Topshop stands today.
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The Picture House/Gaumont became a place which claimed to be the top cinema, which was also a theatre, in the city.
It opened as a small 372-seater in a building which used to be a bank. But demand grew and 10 years later it was practically demolished and rebuilt to accommodate 1,700 people. It was blessed by Canon Meyrick of St Peter Mancroft and became a true palace of entertainment.
More improvements were made and it became the sixth cinema in the country to be wired for sound. A stage was installed, an orchestra played and there were variety acts.
In 1931 it installed the city’s first cinema organ and the famous John Bee, a talented musician, became a star on BBC radio.
The name changed to the Gaumont in 1955 but it closed in 1959 and the name transferred to the Carlton on All Saints Green – now also gone.
With the cinema demolished, a shop which many of you will remember well was born. Rising from the ruins came Peter Robinson, a true symbol of the swinging 60s.
I remember as a young lad sitting in the trendy Kenco coffee bar upstairs while ladies twirled around the tables wearing the latest fashions. One smiled at me… I was in love.
A few years I spoke to former manageress Marjorie Todd who started in the cafe as a waitress in 1961, then cashier and finally manageress. “We would often have people by the door waiting for a seat. It was always so busy and popular.”
And her colleague Jean Harrison, who sadly died a couple of years ago, added: “There was something very special about Peter Robinson’s. The customers became our friends.”
Eventually the name disappeared to be replaced by Topshop and Joanna Lumley opened the new Topman store in 1979. Jean shared her pictures of Joanna and another visitor Patrick Mower with us.
As to the future for the area overlooked by Sir Thomas Browne only time will tell.