A look at underground Norwich

Jon WelchNorwich has the UK's largest collection of undercrofts, and there are also other ancient cellars, passages and subterranean structures, which together represent a unique but untapped historical resource.Jon Welch

It was where Protestant martyr Thomas Bilney spent his last night before being burned at the stake in 1531 and where famous rebel Robert Kett was imprisoned prior to being executed for leading a failed uprising in 1549.

Those stories alone are enough to give it a spooky feel, but even if you don't believe in ghosts, the undercroft beneath Norwich's Guildhall is not the sort of place you would volunteer to spend the night.

The vaulted cellar is one of the earliest of its kind in Britain, pre-dating the Guildhall, which was started in 1408, by at least a century.

It was where tolls for the market were once kept after collection, and where Norwich's valuable civic plate and regalia were stored during the second world war. A false story was circulated, claiming the items had been sent to Wales for safe-keeping, when in reality they had been bricked up in an old fireplace, out of the Nazis' clutches.

The undercroft is one of more than 60 in the city, including a particularly impressive example beneath The Curat House in Haymarket, now occupied by clothing retailer Fat Face.

Norwich is particularly well blessed with interesting underground sites, some in places you might not expect. How many people visiting Norwich Magistrates' Court, for example, would know that just a few feet below them stands the well-preserved remains of a Norman house?

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The house was discovered during excavations on the site in 1981 before the courts were built. The find took archaeologists by surprise because there was no documentary evidence of the house.

Built in about 1170, probably for the Cathedral priory, it was in ruins by the 13th century. It was one of several stone houses in the city at a time when such materials were rarely used for anything but religious buildings.

The court building itself was carefully built over the remains of the Norman house, which now stands in its basement and can be viewed by arrangement.

While there is a good deal of information about these underground sites, others in the city remain shrouded in mystery, which is why Norwich Heart (Heritage and Economic Regeneration Trust) is appealing for stories and memories about subterranean Norwich and

hopes to investigate as many as possible.

Norwich has the UK's largest collection of undercrofts, but there are also other ancient cellars, passages and subterranean structures, which together represent a unique but untapped historical resource.

Heart has commissioned a researcher to undertake a feasibility study to identify the city's underground assets, looking at their value and uniqueness, likely public interest, accessibility, condition and potential.

After the Evening News publicised its appeal, Heart was contacted by more than 30 people with stories and legends about tunnels and passages under Norwich.

Michael Loveday, chief executive, said: 'We've been really impressed that so many people have made contact. We would like to follow up some of the stories.

'Some people have talked about things they have seen while working as contractors on sites. We'd like to talk to current owners to see whether there are any remnants of what they talked about.

'No one's had a really good look at any of these things people have raised with us. What appeals to people, I think, is the mystery: no one knows if these stories are true or not. They get people's imagination going.'

Some of the stories tell of tunnels and passageways between many of the city's most important buildings. 'During the Heritage Open Days every year it's always the underground visits that are the most popular,' said Mr Loveday.

'People like the idea of connectivity and the idea that you can move about the city underground; that you can go underneath something and pop up somewhere else. If we could prove that and reinstate one of the tunnels that would be enormously popular.'

Norwich Heart has been inundated with stories and unconfirmed rumours about what lies beneath the city's streets. Here are a few of them:

Someone who used to work for the Norwich Glass Company in the early 1950s was told by his boss that when they were extending a building at the bottom of Elm Hill they had to dig deep to support the extension, but there was a collapse leading to the discovery of part of a tunnel leading to St Andrew's Hall.

Tunnels link the Samson and Hercules building on Tombland and a building on the corner of London Street and Bank Plain to the cathedral.

Tunnels connect a building at the corner of Redwell Street and Princes Street, formerly the HQ of the Royal Norfolk Veterans' Association, with the cathedral or Blackfriars' Hall.

St John's Roman Catholic Cathedral, formerly the site of a prison, is linked by a tunnel to the Guildhall.

Many stories tell of tunnels running to and from the castle to an area near the Royal Arcade.

Someone whose mother used to live on Ber Street used to hear noises from underground and was told it was nuns scuttling from a church to a convent.

Two people who used to work at International Stores, 28 London Street (now White Stuff) in the 1950s said there were tunnels leading from the cellar of that building to, possibly, St Andrew's Hall, the Guildhall and the castle. They said it was possible to walk about halfway under Castle Meadow and one of them posted an empty Corona bottle containing the names of all the staff working in the store through the hole in one of the bricked-up walls as a sort of time capsule.

Someone who used to work for a building firm W F Pointer worked on a building in St Andrew's Street in the early 70s. He and a colleague went through a cellar underneath into a tunnel where they found a skeleton.

According to hearsay, there is a tunnel running from Kett's Hill to the market.

Researchers were given several leads about tunnel systems in the Earlham Road area, often linked to the chalk works.

Anyone with any stories about underground Norwich is asked to contact Barbara Koesler at Heart by Friday by telephoning 01603 305575, emailing barbarakoesler@heritagecity.org or writing to Norwich Heart, The Guildhall, PO Box 3130, Norwich NR2 1XR.

Have you made an interesting historical discovery? Contact reporter Jon Welch on 01603 772476 or email jon.welch@archant.co.uk