Norwich Castle: Why we can be so proud of our famous square box on the hill
PUBLISHED: 16:28 10 April 2018
It was a dark and rather scary place where large men in uniform stared at you and occasionally wagged a finger in your direction when you got too near an object on display.
This was Norwich Castle Museum during the 1950s.
“Don’t touch,” they would warn us boys as we made our way around the ancient building not realising, or caring to be honest, about the extraordinary history of this ancient building.
And what did we want to see, apart from the dungeons, of course?
The Polar bear, other animals, the stuffed birds and the medieval armour.
It was a fascinating place but I don’t remember it as very welcoming in those days.
I preferred the outside. On a Saturday was the highlight of the week when the country came to the city in the shadow of the castle with the livestock market and the larger-than-life characters that came with it.
Men in boots with walking sticks with big voices and even bigger smiles... and what stories they had to tell.
It seemed that the market and the castle were strange bedfellows and then at Christmas and Easter the fairs arrived, attracting both city and country folk, bringing weird and wonderful sideshows. Boxing booths and the like. Rough, tough places.
The excitement and the people; it was often where boys met girls - and fell in love on the big wheel.
How times have changed and of course they had to.
The animals have gone and the market, which became a car park along with those shops opposite the Bell and the old bus depot, have long gone.
There was a time when the castle seemed to look down on us with a frown on its face.
Today that frown has turned into a smile and it is opening its arms to welcome people of all ages, from all walks of life and from all over the world.
Today I am proud and pleased to visit the castle and its keep.
I can spend hours wandering around, always finding something new to look at, and it is a real joy to see young people enjoying all that it has to offer.
The paintings, the story of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and so much more. The castle gardens and keep are looking better than ever and well-equipped for its role as the glittering jewel in the 21st century city crown.
It is believed that Norwich Castle was founded in 1067/8. Originally made of wood it was William the Conqueror’s only castle in East Anglia.
Stone replaced the wood and it was probably built between 1096 and 1120 on the largest motte (artificial mound) of any English castle. It is reckoned that more than 67,260 “man days” were needed to build the motte alone.
The Normans were class builders but not perfect and the Castle was quite a project. The masons also worked on the city’s other great Norman building – the cathedral.
For a long time it was the only royal castle in Norfolk or Suffolk. Henry I stayed there.
The Norman castle dominated the city but by the middle of the 14th century fell from favour and was turned into the grim county prison and thousands of men, women and children would gather outside to watch and “celebrate” as criminals would be hanged.
The rebel leader Robert Kett was paraded through the streets in 1549 and then brought to the foot of the castle where, weighed with irons, he was hanged in a gibbet on the battlements and left as a warning to others.
From pickpockets to murderers, many men and women lost their lives on the Castle Hill gallows.
In 1887 prisoners were transferred to the new jail at Mousehold and banker John Gurney and architect Edward Boardman led the campaign to turn it into a museum and that happened in 1894 when the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary, did the honours.
There have been so many changes and improvements over the years and today we can all be proud of a national icon of a castle and one of the five great Norman Keeps of England.
It is also run by a team who care so much for their surroundings and the unique collection of national and international treasurers they look after. Yes, the famous “square box” has now got a smile on its face but don’t take my word for it... go and take a look for yourself. It is a building we in Norwich and across Norfolk and Suffolk can be so proud of.
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