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Norwich walks: A walk with Thomas Browne

PUBLISHED: 10:00 03 May 2020

According to Hugh Aldersey-Williams, to the left of St Ethelbert's Gate the carved doorway of the white-painted house would have made Browne smile. Picture: Dawn Leeder/iWitness24

According to Hugh Aldersey-Williams, to the left of St Ethelbert's Gate the carved doorway of the white-painted house would have made Browne smile. Picture: Dawn Leeder/iWitness24

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The next instalment in our series where writers commissioned by the National Centre for Writing share their favourite walks in Norwich. Please only retrace their steps if it meets the government’s coronavirus regulations.

There is a plaque on Pret A Manger, Gentleman's Walk marking Thomas Browne's home. Picture: ANTONY KELLYThere is a plaque on Pret A Manger, Gentleman's Walk marking Thomas Browne's home. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

This week’s walk comes from Hugh Aldersey-Williams, a writer and curator based near Aylsham who won the general non-fiction prize at the East Anglian Book Awards in 2015.

Thomas Browne would have called it a tollutation – an amble at a good clip, a walk with a purpose, and one he must have made frequently, between his house (marked by a plaque on Pret a Manger) opposite Hay Hill, where his statue now surveys the scene, to the meadow down by the river past the cathedral where he retreated to be alone in nature. Tollutation was one of the many words that he invented. Others proved more enduring: medical, electricity, migrant, ulterior, antediluvian and hundreds more. Incontrovertible. Hallucination . . .

The parish church of St George, Tombland which was  a place of extreme Protestant worship when Browne settled in the city. Norwich. Photo: Steve AdamsThe parish church of St George, Tombland which was a place of extreme Protestant worship when Browne settled in the city. Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams

Browne was a physician in seventeenth-century Norwich, but he is remembered now for his magnificent, flowing prose in melancholic essays about organic growth and death, in his confessional autobiography, Religio Medici (‘The Faith of a Doctor’), and in his longest and most popular workdebunking ‘fake news’, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors. Outside the Body Shop is perhaps a good place to consider his motives for this last work.

He was keen for people not to believe foolish things or to fall for false remedies.

The Green in the Cathedral Close in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Green in the Cathedral Close in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Is gold curative? Do unicorns exist? Are people of other races to be feared? Browne provided answers.

A large carved swan overhead marks the site of the former Swan Tavern on Swan Alley.

Norwich became England's first UNESCO City of Literature in 2012. Picture: National Centre for WritingNorwich became England's first UNESCO City of Literature in 2012. Picture: National Centre for Writing

The fabled swansong was another popular myth Browne thought about.

‘From great Antiquity,’ he wrote, ‘the Musical note of Swans hath been commended, and that they sing most sweetly before their death.’

He wondered if their long necks might permit them to emit unusual tones, but in the end he deferred to modern naturalists who observed no such thing. Besides, he had his personal experience to count on; the ‘immusical note’ of every swan he had ever heard ultimately decide him against.

Quickly pass St George Tombland, a place of extreme Protestant worship when Browne settled in the city, and certainly not to his taste.

They were divided times. In his own faith, as in all aspects of his life, he sought an equable middle ground.

He wrote: ‘I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason.’

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Cross Tombland to enter Cathedral Close through the Ethelbert Gateway.

On the left, the carved doorway of the white-painted house would have made Browne smile.

A pair of pelicans are seen pecking blood from their breasts to feed their young – an emblematic vision, familiar on heraldic crests, which he considered as originating in an ancient Egyptian myth before it was adopted as a symbol of Christian redemption, the ‘pelican in her piety’.

If you are walking in the spring, pause to observe the catkins on the trees in front of the house.

The infinite lozenge array seen scored across their surface set Browne’s mind racing. He saw the pattern echoed in many plant forms and in many human designs (you will find it in brickwork elsewhere in the Close, if you look).

To Browne, the shape he called the quincunx was indicative of the significance of the number five in organic nature.

Mysteriously, modern science concurs with Browne on this.

The recreation of a Benedictine garden of medicinal herbs a few yards along is also laid out in a quincunx.

Beyond is the cathedral itself, a building Browne had seen ransacked during the Commonwealth years, for which he compiled an inventory of its tombs.

Walk on towards the ferry house – new in Browne’s day.

On the flint wall on your right is another plaque, marking the site of Thomas Browne’s Meadow.

Here perhaps he grew his own medicinal herbs, or maybe the tulips that had caused such a furore in nearby Holland, or any number of quincunxial plants. We shall never know.

Their roots lie now beneath the tarmac of a car park, and below those roots who knows what bones and treasures of time?

This piece was originally commissioned by the National Centre for Writing to celebrate Norwich as England’s first UNESCO City of Literature. For more information www.nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/walking-norwich


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