Share your memories - as the City of Stories campaign comes to a close we look back at Norwich’s Christmas past



The festive season is nearly upon us.

Soon, the streets of Norwich will be glowing with twinkling lights, warming glasses of mulled wine will be on pub menus and the sweet, smoky smell of roasting chestnuts will linger in the air.

And as the City of Stories campaign comes to a close with the A Norwich Christmas Carol week, organisers are taking a look back at Norwich's Christmas past.

The 12-week themed campaign to promote Norwich has been run by Visit Norwich and sponsored by groups including Norwich BID and Holiday Inn Norwich North.

In the first half of the 20th century, the residents of Norwich's King Street - a street so old it predates the city itself - had a very special Christmas tradition.

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At that time there was a greengrocer's, bakery and fish and chip shop on the street, which were all owned by the same family. Early on Christmas morning, the family would light the bakery's coal fire, and wait for their King Street neighbours to appear.

Festive greetings were exchanged and the turkeys handed over to the family, who would cook them for the price of a ha'penny.

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This December at Norwich Castle, you can look back at Christmases that have been shaped by this kind of camaraderie in the most difficult of situations.

Christmas in the Trenches is a special exhibition which will contain WW1 objects from the Norwich Regiment, including the bullet that shot the Christmas goose and a tin whistle played by a Norwich soldier on the front line on that famous Christmas morning in 1914.

Christmas traditions which have a particular significance in Norwich are crackers and chocolate - thanks to a factory in Norwich which once made both.

Founded in 1857 by A.J. Caley, Caley's was originally a chemist's that made mineral waters and fizzy drinks, until 1886, when, to keep his workers employed during the winter, Caley branched out into making chocolate.

Today you can still enjoy Caley's chocolates at Caley's Cocoa Café at the Guildhall.

The festive season in Norwich wouldn't be complete without a market.

In the past it was the city's covered market that overflowed with holiday spirit during December but now Christmas markets spring up all across the city - including the Clutter City Yuletide Market or the Norfolk Diet Farmers' Market outside the Forum.

• Christmas in Norwich by Jan Casey

They sat on the couch in descending order of height, egging her on. 'Hurry up, Mum,' Connor said. 'Just get on with it.'

'Yeah.' Crystal chimed in. 'Close your eyes and stick the pin in.'

She looked at the four pairs of dark eyes watching and waiting. They'd been so young when it first happened and now, seven years on, this was the first time they could remember having money to spend on Christmas and they'd decided to get away to somewhere different.

'Okay, okay,' Carol said. She screwed her eyes tight but made sure she knew how the map was positioned so she would stab Norwich. The other choices were York, Brighton, Bournemouth and Winchester, but she and Chris had visited those places together and she didn't want the memories spoiling this occasion.

'Oh, Norwich,' She squealed. 'How exciting. None of us have ever been there, have we.'

'Is there lots to do in Norwich?' Callie wondered.

Caleb, her oldest, who'd taken being the man of the house so seriously that it worried her for his future said, 'Of course there will.' He took his youngest sister's hand and they sat in front of the laptop. 'Come on, let's have a look at the deals online.'

The washing machine beeped. 'Your turn to choose,' she said. 'And try not to argue.'

Carrying the wet clothes to the airing horse in the conservatory, she tried to imagine what the break would be like. Fun, she hoped; cosy and relaxing. Worry free, too, with any luck.

She draped jeans and shirts, sweatshirts and socks over the rungs of the airer. Once there had also been a man's overalls and fleeces, shorts and t-shirts in the summer. Then one day Chris left for work and never came home. Slumping into the nearest chair, she held her head in her hand and listened to the chat and laughter from the living room. One of them said 'The Maid's Head?' And another, 'The Holiday Inn.' Then Caleb, 'Dunston Hall, and that's the shortlist.'

Chris would have loved this, she thought. Wouldn't he? Why hadn't it been enough for him? Fruitless questions that had gone round in her head for years. She didn't want to start thinking about it again, but it was hard to stop herself. The day he left was one of the first of Spring, when everything seems hopeful and fresh. He'd kissed her and the then new baby Callie's head, ruffled Connor's hair, picked up his packed lunch and bundled Crystal and Caleb into the van to drop them at school. At first, she was sure he'd been murdered or abducted but an appeal brought no news. After six months, the police said they had made the decision that he was alive and didn't want to be found; so case closed. Sure, Chris's business hadn't been doing well, but whose had? Someone came forward to say he'd seen Chris in a pub on the other side of town with a woman with cropped blonde hair and she couldn't be found for questioning, either. There were unconfirmed sightings of him in Ireland, on the Isle of Man, near the oil rigs in Aberdeen. During the first year she was numb, going through the motions with the children, the housework, trying to make ends meet with their accounts frozen. The children asked for him every day and when they stopped, the visits began to a counsellor recommended by the school.

The courts had ruled Chris's death in absentia and it felt like a new beginning. Except, she couldn't shake him. Almost every day she spotted the back of him disappearing into a pub or shop or round a corner, but when she thought she'd caught up with him, he vaporised again. Once, she thought she saw him boarding a bus, but there was no sign of him when she studied the face of each passenger. She knew, of course, that she only saw him hanging around the periphery of her life in her mind, but enough was enough; now she wanted rid of the last traces of him from her imagination.

The hotel car park was powdered with a sprinkling of snow when they pulled in, and there was Chris, walking across the street with his collar turned up. They dragged their bags to their rooms and the children flung themselves on their beds, not two minutes after she saw Chris ducking into the room across the hall. 'Let's have tea by the fire,' she said, and they traipsed downstairs in their oversized jumpers and slippers. While they read the menus and decided and changed their minds about what they'd have to eat, Chris sat at the bar, his head tilting back as he drained his pint.

He beat them to The Lanes, and was waiting outside Jarrold's while they bought last minute presents; as they ooohed and aaahed at the decorations along Gentlemen's Walk, he ducked into a market stall selling tinsel and wreaths. He left the Theatre Royal by a side door before the end of the panto, and blended into the crowd on the sidelines as they whizzed around the outdoor skating rink in front of the Forum. She felt as if she would scream with frustration and the injustice of it all.

On Christmas Eve they stopped to listen to a group of carollers outside the Cathedral before heading back. She'd expected to spot him amongst the crowd, but he didn't turn up until she saw him lounging against the door of the hotel. This time though, his image wasn't blurred and he looked straight at her, gesturing with open palm for her to step inside. When she did, he didn't follow but put his hand up in a salute. She nodded and he turned, melting into the dark shadows. He didn't turn up on Christmas Eve, the day itself or Boxing Day. They had a wonderful time in the luxurious confines of the hotel. She felt as though she'd been given the chance to take a deep breath and cleanse herself of the past on the exhale.

As soon as they started for home, all the children except Caleb fell asleep, clutching toys in their fists.

'Oh, I meant to ask you, Mum,' Caleb said. 'Who were you waving to on Christmas Eve?'

She thought for a few minutes. 'Just a man I used to know,' she said. 'Nobody important.'

'I didn't see him,' her son said. 'Whoever he was.'

'And I doubt I ever will again.'

They were quiet for a few minutes, then Caleb said, 'It was a great holiday,'

'Perfect.' She smiled at him. 'In every way.'

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