How one of Norwich’s hidden gems is enjoying a new lease of life
- Credit: Steve Adams
A rebel's 'castle', a medieval chapel, romantic terraces, the remains of a piggery, a gaswork manager's garden and one of the most beautiful views in Norwich – Kett's Heights boasts a treasure trove of delights and a new preservation group keen to shout about it.
It was a commanding view for the commander of a rebel army in 1549 and it remains one of the city's most impressive vistas.
For years, it was quite literally one of Norwich's best hidden secrets, a veritable fairytale tangle of ivy and brambles that prevented all but the most hardy of visitors from reaching its famous sweeping view of the city which in truth was, until recently, itself hidden by overgrown trees and vegetation.
A short walk from the Riverside Road roundabout, almost opposite a Chinese takeaway, there is a gate that leads to a steep path and onwards to one of the city's most historic sites.
Recently taken under the firm hand of the newly-formed Friends of Kett's Heights, the beauty spot is slowly being brought back to its former glory – paths once overgrown and littered are now clear, terraces are bursting forth with flowers, rails are being painted, signs erected and events planned. Like its own wildflower meadows, Kett's Heights is beginning to bloom again.
John Trevelyan is chairman of the organisation and says that it is a pleasure to work in an area so steeped with history, imagining Kett's viewpoint over the city and those who have lived and worked on or close to the heights, including the former manager of the famous gas tower nearby.
'As you work, you find yourself thinking about the people who have been here before – whenever I look at the terraced garden I think about what the original planting here was like,' he said, 'I wish there were records we could look at to find out.'
In the late 11th century, Herbert Losinga, the first bishop of Norwich, embarked on an ambitious building programme – at its heart was the city's Anglican Cathedral. At the same time he had a priory built on a clearing made in the wooded hills above the river at the top of what is now Gas Hill which was dedicated to the French saint Leonard.
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An existing Saxon church dedicated to St Michael had been among the buildings demolished to make room for the cathedral and to make amends, Losinga built another chapel close to St Leonard's and named it after St Michael.
In its dramatic position, it jutted out over the highest part of the city with a stunning view over the river, the castle and the growing cathedral. For centuries, it was a place where monks held daily services but at the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was given to the Dukes of Norfolk. The third duke's son, the Earl of Surrey, built a fine house called Mount Surrey on the site and St Michael's fell into disuse.
When Robert Kett's army camped on Mousehold Heath, they ransacked the Earl's house and Kett was installed in what was left of the chapel as his headquarters, a vantage point where he could see precisely what was happening beneath him in the city he'd been denied access to. His forces eventually fought a battle at the Bishop's Bridge before looting the city, bombarding Cow Tower from the heights using captured artillery. It was only when Kett left the heights to fight on level ground at Dussindale that he was defeated.
During the 19th century, city dweller used the heights for leisure and the ruins were known as Kett's Castle. During the 1830s, when the gasworks were built, housing began to spring up around the site and the manager of the works created the slopes of the heights into terraced gardens complete with steps and salavaged material.
Locals grew produce on allotments on the hillside, orchards were planted and a greenhouse erected. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the need to produce food was key and 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 site became neglected, overgrown and largely forgotten – it was only when an anonymous benefactor gifted the site to Norwich City Council in 1970 that it came back into the collective consciousness and local residents volunteered to clear the site which was renamed Jubilee Heights. Norwich Wildlife Group took the lead in the 1980s when it reverted to its original name and in 1988 a beacon was erected at the highest point to mark the anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The Friends of Kett's Heights, which formed at the end of last year, now boasts more than 70 members and carries out practical work on site to help create a welcoming space for the community and visitors where events can take place and where wildlife and plants can continue to flourish.
Work in partnership with Norwich City Council began in January, clearing sacks of rubbish from the site. Further work has involved cutting back undergrowth to clear both views and paths, repairing walls, cutting down dead trees, maintaining trees and collecting wood for the lighting of the beacon.
The Friends were joined by a group from the Community Payback scheme in February who assisted with tasks on the four acre site such as path clearance, ivy stripping and tidying and recent work has included painting railings, removing graffiti, planting, clearing the pond, levelling ground and creating a hedge.
Walking round the heights, and taking in the breathtaking and panoramic views of Norwich and in particular the cathedral, the surrounding close, north city and the riverside area, it is immediately clear how much love there is for this precious green space a stone's throw from the city centre.
Trees have been freed from choking undergrowth, terraces and steps are clear, meadows are filled with wildflowers – speedwell, buttercups, daisies, yarrow, forget-me-nots, ragged robin, Queen Anne's Lace – and the sweeping walnut tree at the base of the central green is being cut back in preparation for some very special guests: Norwich-based theatre group The Common Lot will be presenting a free outdoor performance of 1549: The Story of Kett's Rebellion on July 9 at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.
'We're really looking forward to The Common Lot's appearance and hopeful for good weather so that we can light the beacon for the first time in a very long time after the evening performance!' said John.
'We're also holding regular tours on the first Sunday of each month so that people can find out a little bit about the site, the history and the work going on here and we have plans for other, more specific tours, and will also be taking part in the Heritage Open Days in September where we will lead tours from St Matthew's Church on Telegraph Lane.
'There are plans to have more information on-site for visitors about the history of Kett's Heights from medieval times to the present day, we're looking to have a new sign placed on Kett's Hill and a noticeboard so that people can find out what's happening here. We're also keen to work with local schools and encourage more children to visit.'
John explained that a £500 Community Grant from Norwich City Council is being used for a public consultation on the Friends' proposed vision and for practical work.
'We are very grateful to our members for all their hard work, whether it means running the website or clearing paths, raising money or leading tours – it all makes a big difference and we are very proud of how much we've been able to achieve in a relatively short time,' he added.
Friends treasurer Mike Button is often joined by faithful friend Harvey when he comes to work at Kett's Heights.
'I always knew the heights were here but I didn't get involved until I saw a flier asking local people if they were interested in being part of a project to improve the area,' he said.
'Harvey loves coming here for a walk and in a fairly short space of time it's become somewhere that is a real pleasure to walk around because so much has been achieved. We have a lot of plans and hope to be able to do a lot more. We often hear people saying 'I've lived in Norwich all my life and never knew this was here!' Hopefully soon everyone will know about Kett's Heights and what a special place it is.'
Find out more or become a member at www.kettsheights.co.uk