Historic hidden gems set to open
MARK NICHOLLS Many of Norwich’s hidden secrets will be open to the public during the Heritage Open Days in September. Mark Nicholls has a sneak preview of some of the spots that will open their doors.
You could easily be forgiven for missing the iron staircase in the modern entrance to Norwich magistrates' court.
But its steps lead down to another age, back in time hundreds of years to the medieval city of Norwich.
Few who pass through the courts are aware of this archaeological treasure beneath their feet, the remains of a magnificent 12th-century Norman property that once stood on the riverside.
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Yet it is this aspect of Norwich that Heritage Open Days (HoD) hopes to bring to a wider audience; those hidden treasures, the sites not normally open to the public.
Norwich is the launch city for the national Heritage Open Days 2005 event, with a formal ceremony at Norwich Cathedral on September 1.
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The city has already proved an excellent choice, having created a programme of more than 130 events - a new record - over the four days of the festival that runs from September 8-11.
Co-ordinated by Norwich Heart (Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust), the organisers hope to bring the full spectrum of the city's hidden heritage to light.
Not only will people be able to see medieval sites and churches, but also attractions spanning the centuries right up to the modern day, encompassing the ecclesiastical, architectural, social, economic and industrial history.
HoD also showcases places that incorporate the old and the new, bringing them to life in sympathetic parallel.
The Norman House at Norwich courts can be seen by appointment, but during Heritage Open Days there will be regular tours of the below-ground site, which shows the intact walls of the undercroft of a grand Norman house, unearthed during excavations for the new courthouse in 1981.
Heart's HoD manager Sophie Cabot said: “This has got to be a major attraction, you normally have to go to some effort to get to see this place.”
During the festival, the courts will also be staging events, including mock trials and tours.
Elsewhere in the city the Costume and Textile Study Centre at Carrow House will be offering tours and will open the recently restored Boulton and Paul conservatory on the site.
Visitors will be able to see the library and archives as well as costumes, shoes, accessories, wedding dresses, jewellery and corsets from the 18th century to the 1980s.
Behind the shoe shop façade of Bowhill and Elliot in London Street is a last relic of one of Norwich's great industries.
Through the shop and below stairs, footwear is still manufactured. Slippers and house shoes are made by a small team of skilled workers to be sold in London and exported.
Because of the confined conditions, tours to the small shoe factory will have to be booked.
Sophie said: “Shoe making was such an important part of Norwich's history and this could be the only chance some people will have to see it.
“It will interest people who worked in the trade or remember their parents working in the trade or others who just want to see part of the industrial history of Norwich that shaped it as a city.
“This also demonstrates that what we are trying to show is the heritage of Norwich right up to its present day.”
Bowhill and Elliott managing director Roger Jury said: “This is a great chance for people to have a look around the factory, something that under normal circumstances they would not be able to do.”
Some of the events have to be booked. This can be done from August 8 through the Tourist Information Centre at The Forum, but generally people can simply turn up for most events.
Everything is free over the four days of the festival, even sites where there is normally an admission fee.
Walking through the city, it is easy to miss many of these hidden gems.
Behind an iron gate in Queen Street is the entrance to the 13th-century church of St Mary the Less. Now totally enclosed by offices, the church still remains, although it has not been open to the public for two decades.
It was used as a place of worship by French-speaking Protestant refugees, “the strangers”, a group who among other things also established the interest in breeding canaries, a pastime that eventually led to the nickname of Norwich City FC.
Some of Norwich's more modern architectural attractions have within them medieval secrets, showing a desire to incorporate rather than obliterate, medieval architecture.
Take the Mills & Reeve solicitor's office at 1 St James Court. Opened in July 2003, it was built on the site of Whitefriars, the 13th-century Carmelite Friary.
Incorporated into the modern building is the medieval undercroft and a surviving wall of the original structure.
The solicitors' office will be open for tours to show modern, as well as medieval, architecture in one visit.
During the festival, passageways, undercrofts, meeting rooms and other fabulous hidden interiors that are often away from the public gaze will be on show.
Chapels, synagogues and medieval churches - or parts of them not normally open to the public - will be revealed too.
There will be suggestions for themed routes and tours and volunteer guides to bring to life many of these hidden attractions.
With so many open to the public for the first time, Heritage Open Days is bound to be a real eye-opener for visitors to Norwich.