In my view: We need to promote less obvious ‘crown jewel’ in Norwich

Norwich Castle gardens. Picture: Anthony Kelly

Norwich Castle gardens. Picture: Anthony Kelly - Credit: Archant

If, like me, you are a Fresh Air Fiend, and prefer to enjoy lunch and coffee breaks in the warm air and sunshine that Norwich has enjoyed over the last couple of weeks, you will have identified your favourite places in the city centre where alfresco dining is possible.

We are fortunate in having such prominent large green spaces as Chapelfield Gardens, the Close and other parts of the Wensum River Walkway, but less obvious is one of jewels in Norwich city centre's crown – the Castle Green and Gardens.

The Norwich Society were pleased to participate in a recent workshop at Norwich Castle, convened to encourage greater use of that area and to improve its connection to the great Romanesque keep, built as a palace for Norman kings.

At lunchtime on the day of the workshop – a pleasant, sunny weekday in late June – the Castle Green and Gardens were sparsely populated.

It seemed a great waste of a fantastic resource; well-maintained grassed areas fringed by shrubs and shaded by trees, set above the hubbub of the busy city centre.

At its highest level the Castle Green affords a marvellous view across the north and east of Norwich in particular, and from all parts there is the familiar backdrop of the ancient and historic castle.

Those of us with a keen sense of history, and vivid imagination, can screw our eyes up and evoke the procession of medieval traffic to the castle.

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It would enter the castle fee at the church of St John de Berstrete, at the head of what is now Timberhill, make its way along the line of Golden Ball Street over the south bailey then onto the barbican (what is now the Castle Green) on its approach to one of the oldest structures in Britain, the castle bridge.

Built around 1095-1110 and repaired in 1170, much of its original fabric survives beneath 19th century cladding.

In fairness, when I looked in again earlier this week, many more people were taking advantage of the Mediterranean weather, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that not enough of us are making sufficient use of this particularly pleasant part of our city centre.

The neglect of the gardens – kept tidy but largely undeveloped – and the infrequent use of the Whiffler theatre are a symptom of the lack of footfall, rather than the cause of it. Similarly, there is no permanent catering facility, although the Food Court in Castle Mall is easily accessible, and there is no shortage of food outlets in the surrounding shops.

Greater use of this area, not just on hot summers days, but in the dry, fresh days of the other three seasons, may inspire enterprising food retailers to establish a presence there, help persuade Castle Mall to further improve the access from their top level into the Castle Green and reinstate the water features on their roof.

It would encourage local musicians, drama groups and entertainers to make use of the stage of the Whiffler theatre down in the Gardens (previously the motte ditch), and it may even nudge the City Council towards reinstating the Victorian gardens and Spanish steps which were much enjoyed by our ancestors – a long-cherished ambition of The Norwich Society.

It's not a case of 'use it or lose it.'

The castle has been an immovable part of Norwich for the past nine centuries, and will be for the next nine and beyond, but the fabric of its surroundings are more vulnerable to the depredations of neglect, and only greater use by its citizens will preserve this part of Norwich over the coming decades and centuries.

Vast sums of public money are about to be spent on Norwich Castle.

The Gateway to Medieval England project will transform the interior of the keep, replicating the original floor levels and rooms to enable locals and visitors to explore the building as a Norman royal palace.

The intention is to propel it up the 'league table' of most visited attractions in East Anglia – it is currently eighth – and the new British Museum Gallery of the Medieval Period, the first of its kind in the UK, will highlight the importance of Norwich within Britain and on the international stage.

Many will benefit from this huge project; tourists, academics and our fellow citizens who will have a new and unique cultural venue, but we can already enjoy the existing benefits of the magnificent ancient monument by making greater use of its precincts.

It will be no hardship.

The Castle Gardens and Castle Green provide a beautiful, peaceful place for Norwich people to rest and recuperate in the midst of a busy day, and enjoy the beauty of the historic and rather splendid pile which dominates the skyline of this Fine City.

For more on the workshop and the vision, click here.