A tale of three towers



Why a trio of tower blocks at Heartsease are named after streets in the old 'village on the hill' in Norwich.

Mariners Tavern off Ber Street

Mariners Tavern off Ber Street - Credit: Archant

Ashbourne, Burleigh and Compass, the 11-storey tower blocks on the Heartsease estate were originally to have been built in the 'village on the hill' - their names selected from street names there.

But the ambitious and bold project was stopped in its tracks...by a letter in the Evening News and a man with dowsing twigs.

The story behind why the towers were moved across the city has emerged followed my articles about the land between King Street and Ber Street which was cleared and re-developed half a century ago.

Earlier there had also been talk of establishing the university there, in the heart of the city, before Earlham Park was the chosen site for it.

It was eventually decided the existing terraced housing was to be replaced by new homes and the idea was to built three tower blocks, together with five blocks of maisonettes.

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They would have one of the best views in Norwich, across to the cathedral and over the river valley.

Work began at the end of 1962 at the beginning of the coldest winter since 1740. Water mains froze, the ground was rock hard but the work continued.

As the piles were driven into the ground, holes revealing tunnels started to appear in the ground.

The team investigated and discovered the tunnels in the chalk were man-made. Spade marks could be seen.

The team involved in the project were starting to get concerned and at the same time a letter appeared in the Evening News from a resident of Horns lane asking why these 'madmen' were building tower blocks here, when it was common knowledge that holes had appeared all over the area for years.

More investigations took place and Norwich Library was found to have a folder of cuttings from the Evening News and Eastern Daily Press, of 'chalk workings' and collapses linked to them across the area over the years.

The team were concerned. More work was carried out to discover if there really were tunnels underground but they couldn't find any positive proof of any.

Yet a picture was beginning to emerge of chalk workings. Ancient maps showed several lime kilns. The chalk excavated could be turned into lime for building and flint was used for flintlock guns.

The tunnellers saw no reason to keep a record of where they had tunnelled and just filled in the shafts.

The housing team had a problem.

The best scientific survey had been unable to pinpoint where more tunnels, if there were any, were.

Then came a controversial suggestion from builder Bob Carter which knocked them for six.

Contact Bill Youngs, a Harleston builder, he suggested. A dowser and a man who could discover what lay behind the earth.

The team were doubtful but they got in touch with Bill who said he may be able to help.

As for his fee he suggested the city council gave £20 to a hospital he supported - if he found any tunnels.

The housing team met Bill on the site, a distinguished looking gentleman who thought he'd have a pint in the pub on the corner of Horn's Lane before getting down to work.

Bill then set off across the site of the proposed tower blocks and immediately detected something, probably a tunnel under the site of the first block

He then found an underground watercourse - where a steam roller had fallen into an unexpected hole years before. He continued his dowsing, finding other tunnels and another underground watercourse.

The team knew they had been wrong to doubt Bill. More investigations proved he was spot on. Now a decision was needed.

Even with the slightest misgivings, should the team go ahead and build the tower blocks containing 132 flats?

The answer was no.

The decision was made to build them at Heartsease and perfectly sound two-storey flats were built on the original site for the blocks with foundations which were safe and stable.

A 16-storey tower block, Normandie Tower, was built further down the site where there is no possibility of tunnels being dug, and after a thorough survey, maisionettes were also built on the other side of Rouen Road.

On other sites around the city where chalk workings were rumoured or known about, great care was taken to ensure that the new dwellings were not prejudiced by them and Bill Youngs was told about them.

Bill didn't know why he had the power of dowsing but the housing team were very grateful to him for the advice he gave 50 years ago and to Bob Carter for suggesting him.

Thanks to them, and the letters page of the Evening News, the people living in the 'village on the hill' in Norwich of the 21st century know their homes are safe - and the people of Heartsease have some great views.