Fine buildings on new city walk

Angi Kennedy Not just the best of Norwich but the best in the country. That is the proud boast behind the Norwich 12, a collection of some of the finest of our fine city. ANGI KENNEDY discovers which buildings have made the grade.

Angi Kennedy

A dozen delights have been chosen from Norwich's rich heritage to show 1,000 years of the city's history. And a new walking tour is about to open the eyes of the people who live in and love Norwich - as well as visitors - to what gems they have about them.

The Norwich 12 is the idea of Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), which is about to publish a new leaflet highlighting the buildings.

Mike Loveday, HEART's chief executive, explained: “We say that they are probably the best collection of heritage buildings in any city in England, representing the past 1,000 years of history. That's a bold thing to claim, but honestly, where else can say it has two cathedrals, a hospital complex that goes back to 1249 and a city hall that Pevsner called the finest municipal building built in the country between the world wars?”

“There will of course be all the arguments about why not this or that building. Why not St Peter Mancroft or Strangers Hall for instance?” said Mr Loveday. “Essentially choosing this 12 was about picking the best in the country - not just the best in Norwich. You can say something absolutely stonking about any one of these. We wanted to pick 12 that were individually sensational, but as a set absolutely remarkable.”

So which buildings make this exclusive Norwich 12?

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The collection begins with The Forum. “The landmark millennium project for the East of England and a stunning example of 21st century design,” said Mr Loveday. Designed by Sir Michael Hopkins, this £65m project was built to mark the Millennium and now, of course, is home to the library among others. Its stunning glass entrance has made it a great architectural talking point ever since it opened in November 2001.

A stone's throw away is the art deco City Hall that was opened by King George VI in 1938. There we find Brian Morrey, the Norwich city councillor who is one of the group of “heritage champions” across the region, appointed to help use the historic environment to encourage economic prosperity and educational opportunities.

He commented: “These buildings are part of historic Norwich and what makes Norwich so special. What I feel pleased about is that all these old buildings are still in use today. They are not empty examples of historic buildings. I am a great believer in buildings being used - I don't like mothballs!”

Moving from the municipal to the business heritage of the city, our next destination on the Norwich 12 walk is Surrey House, the Grade One listed building that was designed by George Skipper as the new headquarters for the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, now Aviva. Still very much in use, this building includes the must-see Marble Hall. “It is one of the most elegant and opulent Edwardian office buildings in Britain,” said Mr Loveday.

The Roman Catholic cathedral is another fine inclusion on the list. This stunning example of Victorian Gothic architecture was gifted to the city by Henry Fitzalan Howard, the 15th Duke of Norfolk, to provide a new centre of worship for the Catholic community of Norwich.

The cathedral became the major church of the new diocese of East Anglia in 1976 and is now the second largest Catholic cathedral in the country.

A real contrast comes in the form of St James Mill - “the quintessential English Industrial Revolution mill” said Mr Loveday - that was built for the Norwich textile trade and is owned today by Jarrold and Sons.

Another quite different view of Norwich architecture is the Assembly House, that Mr Loveday described as “one of the most glorious examples of Georgian assembly rooms architecture in the country”.

Designed by Thomas Ivory, it has had many uses including a wartime camouflage school! It is now a registered arts charity and a popular city venue.

Dragon Hall is another favorite on the list - “A magnificent medieval merchant's trading hall, unique in Europe” - that was built by the merchant Robert Toppes as a trading complex including a showroom and warehousing. Recently restored to its medieval splendour, this King Street building is just a short walk from the Market Place and the Guildhall, “England's largest and most elaborate provincial medieval city hall”.

This was the centre of the city's government from the early 15th century until it was replaced by City Hall. Its memorable frontage has an excellent example of flint work and it is the fitting offices today for the HEART organisation behind the Norwich 12.

For Mr Loveday it shows how these buildings are a real part of Norwich today. “We think it is very important that local people get involved and know what their heritage is,” he said. “I am very proud of my city and I believe that unless you know what you've got here you cannot fully appreciate your history and heritage.”

The Halls of St Andrew's and Blackfriars' are the next stops, built over 600 years ago as part of the medieval precinct of the Dominican or Black Friars and the only English friary to survive intact from the period.

Onwards to the Great Hospital that is, as Mr Loveday explained, “an exceptional set of medieval hospital buildings, in continuous use for more than 750 years”. Established when Bishop Walter de Suffield decided to fund a hospital for elderly clergy, poor scholars and the sick poor, it continues to provide housing and care for the citizens of Norwich today.

Then, of course, we have the glories of Norwich Cathedral, the iconic Norman cathedral that is one of the most complete major Romanesque buildings in Europe. The cathedral was founded by the first Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, and has the second tallest spire and the largest surviving cloister in England.

The final stop of our Norwich 12 tour is architecturally the most ambitious secular Norman building in Europe - Norwich Castle. Built as a royal palace 900 years ago, it was used as a prison from the 14th century and became a museum in 1894.

HEART hopes that bringing the 12 buildings together will help to create a more “joined-up” approach to caring for as well as marketing these jewels in the city's crown. The leaflet, due out in July, will be followed in September by the launch of a guidebook as well as a Norwich 12 film.

“Altogether these buildings show perfectly how an English city has developed,” added Christina Lundberg, HEART communications manager. “We see what businesses have developed, what civic institutions and international visitors particularly should be fascinated by this.”