Underground ruins at risk after courthouse trees saved from chop

Norwich Magistrates Court

Trees outside Norwich Magistrates Court which have been saved from the axe. - Credit: Archant

Hundreds of people visit the building each day.... many of them wishing they did not have to. But few will be aware of the extensive Norman ruins that lie beneath Norwich Magistrates Court.

But now the flint remains of an 800-year-old Norman house, which can be found in a large undercroft below the courthouse and its courtyard, are at risk of damage.

Heritage Open Day visitors visiting the ruins under Magistrates Court.

Heritage Open Day visitors visiting the ruins under Magistrates Court. - Credit: Jamie Honeywood

Four trees planted in the courtyard are causing cracking in the ceiling above the ruins, allowing  water to seep into the area.

HM Courts Service had sought permission to remove them, but this has been refused.

Instead, officials at Norwich City Council have imposed preservation orders to protect the trees. 

Damage to the ceiling and water seeping into ruins under Norwich Magistrates Court. 

Damage to the ceiling and water seeping into ruins under Norwich Magistrates Court. - Credit: HM Courts Service

A footpath has also had to be blocked off over safety fears that raised paving slabs represent a tripping hazard.

The Norman house, the ruins of which were discovered in 1981 prior to the construction of the modern courthouse, are one of the oldest existing examples of their type in the country.

The flint building is thought to have been constructed in 1170 and was built on land belonging to the Norwich Cathedral Priory.

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Access to the ruins is via a spiral staircase, itself concealed by a trap door.

Archaeologist Brian Ayers

Archaeologist Brian Ayers who was part of the 1981 dig that rediscovered the ruins. - Credit: Archant

Brian Ayers, an honorary lecturer in archaeology at the University of East Anglia, who was part of the 1981 dig, said the issue has arisen because the courts were built back from the medieval building line. 

“The consequence is that the northern part of the ruins is covered by the modern building itself while the southern part is below the forecourt,” he said.

“This leads to temperature variation within the area of the ruins, a problem that was recognised very soon after completion of the courts and has been dealt with very effectively for the last nearly 40 years by the installation of air handling. 

Norwich Magistrates Court. 

The courts service wanted to fell the four trees outside Norwich Magistrates Court. - Credit: Denise Bradley

“It is interesting that a fresh problem has now arisen from trees which obviously post-date the construction of the forecourt.”

A spokesperson for Norwich City Council said: “When the application was made to remove the trees, the council received no supporting evidence of damage to the ruins and no mention of an engineering solution.

The undercroft at the Magistrates Court, Norwich.

Ruins of the flint Norman house were discovered in 1981 prior to the construction of the modern courthouse. - Credit: Jamie Honeywood

“There is also a 28 day period for any objections to be made to tree preservation orders. The council received no objections during that time in this case.

“These trees are important for the city. They are healthy, well established and make a considerable contribution to the city centre conservation area.”

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