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What is your favourite Norwich building? City of Stories campaign looks at architecture as photo challenge is set

PUBLISHED: 11:19 25 August 2014 | UPDATED: 13:41 26 August 2014

Norfolk and Norwich lives up to its

Norfolk and Norwich lives up to its "big skies" reputation as the sun sets over Norwich. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Archant Norfolk

The curious buildings of Norwich take centre stage this week, as a campaign urges people to hear their stories.

Assembly house

In its time it has been a camouflage school and hosted waxwork exhibitions.

Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner said no other town or city in England has anything like the Assembly House.

But again, what most people see as an elegant, Regency House of Assemblies, is something very different.

What architect Thomas Ivory did in 1754 was to take the surviving remnants of the medieval College of St Mary in the Fields, founded in 1250, and to dress it up as a Regency fop.

The entrance courtyard looks like a cloister because it was.

But, sadly, the original church standing on Theatre Street was swept away during the Reformation.

The music room has large scale, church-like window openings because it was originally the great hall of the college.

Beneath the dining room and east wing are a range of historic undercrofts, some forming part of the original college.

Again, the stories associated with the structure provide a catalogue of amazing activity.

After the college was dissolved the site hosted the home of the Hobarts of Blickling, grand events including the celebration of Trafalgar, concerts by Liszt and exhibitions by Madame Tussaud, a girls’ school and, during the Second World War, a War Office camouflage school run by the famous theatre set designer Oliver Messel.

From Samson and Hercules house, built on an old plague burial site where more than 5,000 victims were buried, to the buildings of Elm Hill hit by a disastrous fire in 1507, there is much to tell about the Fine City’s architecture.

And as the City of Stories campaign moves into its second week – entitled Spires and Ziggurats – we want to know your favourite buildings, and see your photos of Norwich architecture taken from a unique perspective.

The 12-week campaign is organised by Visit Norwich, funded by a string of sponsors, including Norwich BID, and is backed by the Evening News.

It aims to attract more visitors to the city and to encourage locals to enjoy what’s on their doorstep.


Sitting rather sedately on the north side of the Market Place, and often mistaken for a church, the Guildhall was the largest and most elaborate medieval city hall outside London when built (1407-13), reflecting Norwich’s status as England’s second city.

The church-like appearance cloaks the trappings of civic government and justice over the past 600 years including the stunning council chamber, with beautiful, 15th century stained glass and the earliest linenfold panelling in the county, a completely fitted out courtroom, still operating up to 1985 and the remains of the 1747 sessions court in the café.

Most astonishing, however, is the survival of one of the earliest brick undercrofts in England, pre dating the main structure by more than 100 years.

Equally impressive are the peoples’ stories lurking in the stones, with most visiting monarchs having visited the building (George V’s chair resides in the council chamber) while less fortunate visitors occupied the cells. These included Thomas Bilney, the first English, Protestant martyr, and eight-year-old bottle thief William Tuck, almost hanged for his crime, but ultimately transported to the penal colonies.

To kick-start the conversation about Norwich’s buildings, we asked Mike Loveday, (pictured), chief executive of Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), to share stories about some of Norwich’s most iconic buildings.

He picked Surrey House, the Guildhall, the Assembly House and The Forum.

“Perhaps the strap-line for Norwich architecture should be ‘what you see isn’t what you get’ since quite often the outward view and impression disguises something very different inside, beneath or way back in the site’s history,” he said. “The same applies to the overall impression of the city. You see, fairly obviously, the Anglican Cathedral and castle but generally miss unique and quite astonishing heritage sites that disguise themselves in the urban landscape.”

To help people discover Norwich’s architecture, City of Stories is hosting tours of Norwich Cathedral.

The Forum

Opened by the Queen in 2002, The Forum was an impressive structure to launch Norwich into the new millennium.

It was built after an electrical fault caused the former award-winning library to burn down in about 20 minutes in 1994.

The glass-fronted structure provides great public indoor and outdoor spaces, a home for BBC East, a library and a good viewpoint to people watch while you’re having a coffee. What fewer people know is that it houses a quite unique war memorial.

The 2nd Air Division Memorial Library remembers the nearly 7,000 Americans who gave their lives during the Second World War flying missions from 20 bases around Norwich.

Other interesting stories include the fact that on the site of Millennium Plain was the 15th century White Swan Inn. Home of the Tudor Norwich Company of Comedians and venue for nationally famous actors until the Theatre opened in 1758, the Swan was a medieval gem – demolished in the 1960s to provide a surface car park for the old library.

Ruined remnants of the Swan’s medieval undercroft survive beneath the Plain waiting, maybe, to be reinstated one day.

Also, The Forum site was originally the site of one of only two planned Norman boroughs in England.

The pre-Forum archaeological dig revealed exciting remnants of the development, including a number of stone houses that would have appeared much like the Music House in King Street.

Following an expert guide, you can discover the stories that have shaped this famous cathedral, from the bloody riots of 1272 to the arrival of the peregrine falcons that live at the top of its spire. The tours are free, and there is a maximum limit of 20 people per tour so places must be booked.

Tours will take place tomorrow at 1pm, and Wednesday at 11am, 1pm and 3pm. To book your place, see

Heritage Open Days will also be held from September 11 to 14, with more than 200 events across Norfolk co-ordinated by HEART.

For further details and to book places, see

Surrey House

The headquarters of Aviva (formerly Norwich Union) in Surrey Street looks all formal and straight-laced from the exterior.

It can even seem quite forbidding – not somewhere you’d just pop into on the off chance.

However, once inside, you experience what was once introduced to an international conference on culture in the city as “an orgasm of marble”.

The main hall exhibits a huge variety of marble from Greece, Italy, Belgium and Istria, while the staircase alone uses six different types. Upstairs, the boardroom is an incredible feast of decoration drawing from mythological sources and utilising the skills of a variety of artists and local crafts people.

Upstairs also captures various interesting story themes, including the fact that the site was originally occupied by the Palace of the Earls Of Surrey, demolished for George Skipper’s Marble Hall.

But a number of original features were reused in the later building, including an Adam fireplace, a carved door frame and some stained glass.

Outside the main meeting rooms is a chiming skeleton clock made for the Great Exhibition of 1851, but unsold.

A wealthy doctor eventually bought it and offered it to a London bank who refused it, unaware of its value, so he left it to Norwich Union on his death in 1878.

Back downstairs, Mr Skipper included a unique air conditioning system – a marvel of ingenuity for the time.

Photo challenge

We want to see your photos of Norwich architecture taken from a unique perspective. The best submissions will be printed next week/ Email yours to

The Assembly House in Norwich. Photo: Bill SmithThe Assembly House in Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith

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