My City by Sheridan Winn

Norwich is named as England’s first
UNESCO City of Literature

‘Do different’, they say here. There is a stubborn independence in the Norfolk character, born from centuries of invasion by Romans, Danes, Vikings, Angles and Saxons. This low-lying county, once home to Boudicca and the Iceni people, has over one hundred miles of coastline. It is a wild place of heath, flint and big skies. In some parts of Norfolk you can drive for miles without seeing a house.

Burnham Overy Staithe

And in the middle sits Norwich, the most easterly city in the UK. This former seat of the Saxon Earls of East Anglia became the capital of what was the most populous region in Norman England. By the 14th century, the walled city of Norwich covered an area bigger than London. With more medieval churches than any city north of the Alps, Norwich became one of Europe’s great seedbeds of religious art and architecture. As Nicholas Pevsner wrote: ‘Norwich has everything'.

Norwich Cathedral: the most complete Norman cathedral, 
founded in 1096 and boasting 1000 bosses in the cloister, 
the largest in the country

It was here that, sitting in her anchorite cell on King Street, Julian of Norwich penned The Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in the English language by a woman. The medieval Christian mystic was a contemporary of Chaucer. And close by lived the medieval Hebrew poet, Meir ben Elijah.

As you approach the city by road, you’ll see the Norwich sign with an image of the cathedral, and underneath it the famous quotation by the 17th century writer, George Borrow, ‘A fine city’. And it is a fine city – a city on a human scale that you can cross on foot in half an hour passing flint churches, Tudor merchant houses and the massive Norman castle. My family, on both sides, has lived here for generations and I have a sense of deep local pride.

Norwich Castle: the most elaborate Norman Keep to be constructed in England 
and the first English castle to be built on a mound 

And I would like to share its success with you – for Norwich has strengthened its place on the world literary map. On 10th May 2012, Norwich was accredited as England’s foremost literary city by becoming its first UNESCO Creative City of Literature. It joins an elite network of cities comprising Edinburgh, Dublin, Iowa City, Melbourne and Reykjavik. The accreditation provides international recognition to Norwich’s literary heritage, its contemporary strengths and future potential in the field of literature and all the literary arts.

So why Norwich? Think of this provincial city and Nelson, the Canaries, the Norfolk Broads and Colman’s mustard will probably flit through your mind – but Norwich has a sensational literary past. It’s a place that makes a difference.

People sometimes refer to Norfolk as a slow-paced, staid backwater, but throughout its history it has been associated with poltical dissent, radical politics and Nonconformist religion.

Robert Kett, our very own Robin Hood, led the Peasants' Rebellion from Norwich in 1549. Thomas Paine, whose book The Rights of Man influenced the American Constitution, was born near the city. In 1713, the UK’s first provincial psychiatric hospital opened on Bethel Street – hence the word ‘bedlam’. Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer and philanthropist who features on our £5 note, was born in Norwich. So, too, in 1796 was the UK’s first-ever black circus proprietor, Pablo Fanque, immortalised by The Beatles’ song, ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!’
Norwich also has a long reputation as a city of refuge. In the 16th century a large influx of Dutch, Flemish and Walloon refugees brought weaving skills, which helped to build the city’s wealth and influenced its architecture. It was the Flemish who brought the canary, later adopted at Norwich City Football Club’s mascot.

 River Wensum

Until the Industrial Revolution, Norwich was the capital of England's most populous county. It vied with Bristol as the second city. By the 18th century, Norwich was already on the cultural map. The country’s first provincial newspaper, Norwich Post, was published in 1701. Sir Thomas Browne, the great polymath scholar, medical doctor, philosopher and encyclopaedist lived in the city. Luke Hansard, the printer who published parliamentary debates was born here. In 1758, the Theatre Royal, the country’s first provincial theatre, opened and is still the most successful today. And in 1772, Norwich was home to the first arts festival in Britain.

A century later, the local Quaker writer, Anna Sewell, published Black Beauty. Her story, which aimed to induce an understanding treatment of horses, became an all-time bestseller with sales of over 30 million books. As Sewell helped to put Norwich on the literary map, John Crome and John Sell Cotman put it on the artistic map with the Norwich School of Artists, founded in 1803.

It also has its share of heroes: Admiral Lord Nelson was schooled in Norwich. Edith Cavell, the nurse and local heroine who was executed by firing squad in 1915 for helping hundreds of allied soldiers to escape, was born near the city.

As you might expect, Norwich was one of the first cities to have a library in 1794. In 1850, it was the first municipality to adopt the Library Act. Today, the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library, housed in The Forum, is the most successful library by far in England, with over one million visitors and users a year.

 The Forum, which houses the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library 
and BBC East, as well as restaurants and conference facilities

Norwich is also home to the country’s first – and now leading – course in creative writing. In 1971, Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson founded the MA Course in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. There have been some luminary graduates including Ian McEwan (its first student), Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Anne Enright and Angela Carter.

So what will the City of Literature status do for Norwich? In 2016, Writers Centre Norwich, which put forward the UNESCO bid, will open a £7 million International Centre for Writing. The aim is to create a world-leading centre for creative writing. The flagship project is a partnership between WCN and the University of East Anglia, and will be housed in a building granted by Norwich City Council.

No doubt there will be more writers coming to the city. Ask any local about Norwich and they’ll tell you the old adage: ‘Norwich has a pub for every day of the year and a church for every Sunday’. We may soon be able to add, ‘And a writer a day for every coffee bar’.

 Elm Hill, Norwich

And if you are a writer living in East Anglia, you might like to join East Anglian Writers. We are a group of 240 professional writers affiliated to the Society of Authors and a jolly bunch.

On this Diamond Jubilee Day, I give three cheers to Her Majesty and three cheers to Norwich – our new City of Literature!

And if you haven't yet been to Norwich, then please visit. It's a lovely city.

My thanks to fellow EAW member John Worrall for supplying the photographs 

Sheridan Winn is author of the Sprite Sister books

 Salthouse, North Norfolk


Vinay khanna said…
Thanks for your post, i have enjoyed your article and will be waiting for future posts.

Marcus White Lisdoonvarna
Margaret said…
I now know so much more about the city I have lived in since 1977. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. I have loved living here and now feel even more appreciative of its heritage, and the possibilities that are being continually offered to enjoy lifein this part of England.
CallyPhillips said…
I never knew that... in fact I'm amazed how many 'that's in that post I never knew! Thanks. So many interesting things in one place. Here in Turriff the last thing that happened was in 1913 - The Turra Coo riots! Not quite Tom Paine! And I've been to Norfolk several times but never knew all that. Only knew about Cromwell and that's more Cambridgeshire isn't it? Best leave now before I show more ignorance than is good for me!
Judith said…
Beautifully written! And the photos are a lovely addition. I quite enjoyed learning so much about Norwich and its inspiring literary heritage. Hope I'll get a chance to visit it one day!
Anonymous said…
Y'know, I've never been to Norwich, but I really want to see the place now!
Lesley Zampatti said…
Oh you made me so homesick for my old city ... Beautifully put together and written. I'm going to share it with all my fb friends.
Love to you XXX

PS: My cousin, Susan Curran, also lives in Norwich, another writer.
Kevin Faulkner said…
Thomas Paine born in Thetford which is some 30 miles from Norwich. Typo alert- George Borrow was a 19th century author. Please no more UEA graduates re-locating to the city posing as writers, there are many more honest forms of employment.
Kevin Faulkner said…
Ever read any Borrow, Browne or Julian ?
Rory Clements said…
Sheri, you have summed up Norwich superbly. I’m still not sure what being UNESCO City of Literature involves – what’s going to happen and when? – but I know it’s a huge honour. Do keep us all posted about upcoming events.
Anonymous said…
A well-written and engaging piece about Norwich. Makes me want to visit!
Susan Woodward said…
Great article Sheri. Who knew that Norwich had such a lofty literary pedigree? All the upcoming initiatives for writers make it an exciting time to be an author. I look forward to your name being added to the list of Norwich Literary Luminaries. Susan Woodward
julia jones said…
I live in Essex and Suffolk and hadn't even realised that Anna Sewell - writer of the book that gave me nightmares throughout my childhood - had lived in Norwich. It seems so far away! But not any longer. Thanks for a really interesting and enjoyable piece.
Hilary Brown said…
A superb and informative piece about a charming city - and what wonderful clarity of writing!
Sheridan Winn said…
Thank you to Vinay, Margaret, Cally, Judith, Simon, Lesley, Rory, Susan, Julia, Anonymous and Hilary for your lovely comments - much appreciated!

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