Areas in the centre of Norwich have suffered real loss of character
- Credit: Archant
The lower end of the market: The Haymarket. Character is a quality that is hard to define but you know when it is present. I would say that it consists both of robustness and distinctiveness. You can sense it in the built environment as well as in people. Yet it need not be sombre or puritanical – good humour can be a livening part of character as we often see in George Skipper's buildings around Norwich.
Loss of character in people can have moral overtones – as in losing one's reputation – but in a city loss of character seems to be more about loss of authenticity. For example, the new entrance to the Castle Mall at the Back of the Inns has destroyed the authenticity of Michael Innes' design.
We were told the illuminated perforations in the steel façade would be reminiscent of the Norwich shawl designs. To me it looks more akin to a fairground attraction than anything else.
To me the central public area which has most obviously lost its character over the decades is the Haymarket. Historically, it was, indeed, a hay market, although according to The Norwich Knowledge, that function moved to the cattle market in the early 19th century. The open space was surrounded by public houses, some of which were demolished to accommodate the statue of Sir Thomas Browne in the early 20th century.
At the same time a public square was created – a green park with flower beds which remained until the 1970s. Twenty years later the space was covered in Portland stone with the feature of a low bronze fountain depicting characters from The Wind in the Willows. This has subsequently been rather brutally filled in.
The steps down from what is now Next (and was C&A) are filthy with chewing gum and often covered in small litter. The Poirier sculptures are still unexplained. It looks a messy and dirty.
On the Walk side of the Haymarket, the building that houses Primark and the Card Shop sits on the site of what was once a traditional coaching inn. More recently there was a four-storey Victorian building which was home to a shop called 'Green's. The building which now houses Wallis and Dorothy Perkins replaced one that had an early Victorian frontage but may have been older.
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The major demolition and rebuilding took place in the 1960s leaving us with a bland brick wall at 5 and 6 and a high glass a white stone frontage at 7 (currently Primark) and 10 (currently The Card Shop); you might find them in any shopping precinct anywhere. Yet these buildings lie sandwiched between George Skipper's old Stock Exchange (currently Prêt a Manger,) and the listed II* 16th-century Curat House (currently Fat Face).
Historic England in its 2013 report The Changing Face of the High Street pointed out that the benefit of investing in historic environments is that it engenders a sense of civic pride in the wider community. The report also noted the importance of a commitment to high quality design and the careful consideration of scale and mass in sensitive areas of historic townscape.
The poor old Haymarket has had to put up with many indignities of style but it also contains remaining elements an historic environment that need the utmost consideration – not least St Peter Mancroft.
Not only is this a city-centre conservation area, but there are six listed buildings in the immediate vicinity– no 3, (the Curat House), no 14, No 18 (the former St George and Dragon, currently McDonald's), No 19 – 21, No 22 and 22a, and No 23 and 24.
Further along the Walk, The White Company has produced a well-proportioned and appropriate frontage for its new shop. Should there be any future developments around the Haymarket we should accept nothing less than first-class, authentic modern designs that are comfortable with the historic buildings in the area and bring new energy and optimism to this unkempt and disparate public space.
• Vicky Manthorpe is administrator for the Norwich Society.