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Treasure hunting in Norfolk's museums

PUBLISHED: 10:50 04 July 2011

Norwich Castle Museum

Norwich Castle Museum

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Norfolk boasts some of the finest museums in the country, housing internationally-renowned collections. They also offer an opportunity to have our past brought vividly back to life and to reflect on Norfolk's rich and varied history. STACIA BRIGGS goes on a treasure hunt to discover more.

NORWICH CASTLE MUSEUM

Visitors rarely ask for directions to Norwich Castle, its prominent position makes it Norfolk’s easiest-to-find museum – and possibly best-loved.

Built by the Normans as a Royal Palace 900 years ago, the castle is home to some of the most outstanding collec-tions of fine art, archaeology and natural history in the country.

Packed with treasures to inspire and intrigue visitors of all ages, history is brought vividly to life with a huge array of interactive displays which allow you to, amongst other things, take a ride on a recreation of an Iceni warrior’s chariot.

You can explore a remarkable reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon grave site, see wonderful Viking treasures which have been unearthed locally and enjoy a range of hands-on-displays suitable for the whole family.

There’s the chance to experience the atmosphere of an Egyptian tomb with its ancient mummies, trace 600 years of style and design in The Arts of Living Gallery and then look at weird and wonderful objects brought back from countries such as Africa and India in Treasure, Trade and the Exotic.

One of the jewels in the castle’s crown is the magnificent keep, entered through the Bigod Arch, the original door to the Royal Palace, where you can see the elaborate carvings in the stonework and explore the garderobes (five “four-berth” toilets) and walk around part of the original fighting gallery and down a 900-year-old staircase.

Cleverly brought to life through touch-screens and computer animation, there’s even a giant model of the keep where you can spy on King Henry I and his courtiers at a ‘crown-wearing feast’ in 1121 when he spent Christmas in Norwich.

Feast your eyes on impressive displays of Norwich Silver and the Norwich Civic Regalia and meet Snap, the fa-mous snapdragon who was once part of Norwich’s historic pageantry, where he would be walked through the street as part of colourful celebrations.

In the keep basement, there are models which show what the castle looked like when it was being built and you can try a hands-on exhibit so that you can understand the challenges facing the Norman masons and architects.

One of the quirkiest exhibitions at the castle is the Twining Teapot Gallery, which is home to more than 3,000 teapots dating from the 1730s through to the 1980s.

There are teapots with two spouts, a first world war tank teapot, a cabbage teapot, a castle teapot and teapots that are the size of a finger to giant pots longer than a forearm.

In the Anglo-Saxon exhibition, there are some real treasures to find. Look for Spong Man, a 6th century ceramic cremation pot lid which was found at Spong Hill, North Elmham and is the earliest three-dimensional depiction of an Anglo-Saxon, making it the most significant of the castle’s 2,500 cremation urns.

Children can dress in Anglo-Saxon clothes and write their names in Runes, while older visitors can read more about the period, play a specially-designed game called Trade and Raid and listen to some Anglo-Saxon poetry spoken in Old English.

Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, is remembered in an atmospheric exhibition but most spectacular of all is the magnificent Snettisham treasure, the largest collection of Iron Age gold and silver neck rings found anywhere in Europe.

Then there’s the evocative Egyptian Gallery, complete with the mummy of Ankh Hor (which has fascinated generations of children who are drawn to the more grisly exhibits in a museum) which was presented to the castle in 1928 by King George V, and the natural history galleries where some exhibits date back to 1825.

Look out for the now-extinct great auk and the polar bear and, on a smaller scale, the beautiful Fountaine-Neimy collection of rare butterflies.

Paintings by artists of the Norwich School are shown in a permanent collection and there are other notable works by artists such as Sir Alfred Munnings, Thomas Gainsborough and the Dutch School. Currently, there is a fantastic solo exhibition of the work of French installation artist Hubert Duprat.

n Don’t Miss: the tiny, double-sided gold seal depicting Queen Bathild on one side and an erotic scene on the reverse which, it is believed, belonged to Bathild herself, the 7th century Frankish Queen.

n Norwich Castle Museum is open from 10am to 5pm (Sun 1pm to 5pm), £6.50, (£5.60 cons), £4.80 children, un-der-4s free, 01603 493625.

STRANGER’S HALL

It’s one of Norwich’s oldest and most fascinating buildings, a maze of interlinked rooms enriched with textiles and quirky objects which bring the days of the Tudors and Stuarts vividly to life.

During the 16th century, the house was owned by Norwich grocer and mayor Thomas Sotherton. The first “strangers” were Dutch, Walloon and Flemish refugee weavers who were invited by the city to help revive the ailing tex-tiles industry.

Sotherton was keen to encourage these skilled workers to settle in Norwich and documents show that some may have lodged at Strangers’ Hall.

The structure of the house has changed little since the 17th century, other than an 18th century alteration, the panelling of the room now known as the Georgian Dining Room, which was installed by William Wicks in 1748.

Rooms to explore include the bedchamber of Sir Joseph Paine, a wealthy Norwich hosier, and his wife Lady Emma, whose initials can be seen on the fireplace. The bed is hung with dornix, a linen warp Worsted weft fabric which was produced in Norwich at the time, and visitors learn how a bed-wagon was used to air linens, while sheets would be warmed using hot ash in copper warming pans.

The Great Chamber overlooks the 17th century-style knot garden, which was designed to be viewed from above.

One of my family’s favourite rooms in Stranger’s Hall is the nursery, which is situated in a part of the house where children wouldn’t be heard by the family or important guests.

Children spent a great deal of their time in the nursery – they were washed and dressed there by their nursemaid and then breakfast was sent up from the kitchen before school lessons started. Look out for the tall-backed deportment chair which was designed by Sir Astley Cooper specifically to straighten children’s backs, particularly at the dinner table.

There’s also a Noah’s Ark to look at, pedlar dolls (designed to be ornaments rather than toys) and a framed sampler made by Hannah Hannant in 1814.

The Walnut Room is a stunning testament to the wealth of Mayor Francis Cock, who refurbished the room in the 17th century as a showcase for his opulent possessions.

Mirrors, which were difficult and costly to make, were displayed in elaborate, gilded frames, and there is a tapestry panel in this room which was hand-woven in London using coloured wools and silks.

The cabinet opposite the fireplace has 14 tiny drawers behind its wooden doors which used to hold a host of precious items such as jewellery, fans, prayer books, caps and purses.

Look out for the marquetry patterns on the small table with spiral legs which has a surface inlaid with a geometrical design of oyster shapes and the two long-case clocks with their elaborate decoration – one with a beautiful pattern of flowers, foliage and birds all made from different-coloured veneers.

n Don’t Miss: The beautiful knot garden, lovingly developed by the Friends of the Norwich Museums. Look for the beds of old-fashioned roses and plants growing for medicinal, culinary and textile-related uses.

n Stranger’s Hall is at Charing Cross, Norwich, Wed-Sat 10.30am-4pm, £3.70 (£3.10 cons), £2 children, under-4s free, 01603 667229.

CROMER MUSEUM

This little gem based in the heart of the jewel in north Norfolk’s crown is packed with exhibits which bring Cromer’s history to life.

Set in a row of Victorian fishermens’ cottages, the museum gives visitors a glimpse of what it was like to live in Cromer at the end of the 19th century.

There are evocative recreations of a Victorian wash house, kitchen and bedroom and fascinating geology gallery where you can see an amazing collection of fossils and displays on the West Runton elephant, found just a few miles away, which is Britain’s oldest and most complete elephant fossil.

There’s an incredible cast of the skull of a Mosasair, a huge marine animal which once patrolled the north Norfolk coast more than 80 million years ago.

Discover Cromer’s history as a Victorian seaside resort with its fine hotels and scandal of mixed bathing and learn about the daring rescues of Henry Blogg and the Cromer lifeboatmen.

Delve into the Old Cromer Gallery with its display of historic photographs and illustrations of the town.

One of the latest additions to the museum is the Olive Edis Gallery. Edis was a local photographer with an international reputation.

Taken between 1905 and 1955, the collection includes stunning sepia images of Cromer and Sheringham fishermen and a rare series of autochromes, the first true colour photographs.

Edis, born in 1876, took up photography in 1900 when she was given her first camera by her sister. She opened a studio on Church Street in Sheringham in 1905 and by 1910 her photographs were appearing in national newspapers.

In 1919 she was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum as the only official woman photographer to record the war work of the women’s services.

Edis was renowned in society for her portraiture and the collection contains photographs of people including King George VI, David Lloyd George, Thomas Hardy and, of course, Henry Blogg.

n Don’t Miss: The bathing machine wheel, which was originally a first world war gun carriage wheel reused on a Cromer bathing machine. Bathing machines were taken to the water’s edge and the bather could emerge into the sea in privacy.

n Cromer Museum, East Cottages, Tucker Street, Cromer, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1-4pm, £3.40 (£2.80 cons), £1.90 children, under-4s free, 01263 513543.

ELIZABETHAN HOUSE MUSEUM

The handsome Elizabethan House is likely to be one of the Great Yarmouth quayside houses that Daniel Defoe described as looking “like little palaces”.

Built in around 1596, the house has been home to merchants and prominent locals and has evolved over the centu-ries to become the building we see today.

Sold many times over until it passed into the hands of the Aldred family, who bequeathed it to the National Trust in 1949 – just before the Borough Council succeeded with a plan to purchase it with a view to demolishing the house to widen the roadway.

Today it contains fascinating collections from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service which show life ‘up-stairs and downstairs’ in a house during Elizabethan times right through to the Victorian period.

Learn why the Conspiracy Room is so-called, find out how a Victorian maid would have completed the weekly washing and get hands-on with the Elizabethan past in the bedroom, complete with replica costumes for you to try on.

Visit on a special event day and you may see the range in the kitchen being fired up and have a chance to look at traditional food or talk to one of the costumed characters wandering around the house.

A real treat is the Haddiscoe Hoard, successfully acquired in 2005 after funds were secured from the Headley Trust and the V&A Purchase Grant Fund.

There are more than 300 silver coins ranging from the period of Edward VI (1550) to Charles I (1646) which represents the largest hoard of the Civil War period found in Norfolk.

It’s likely that the hoard was deposited in 1646 in the middle of the Civil War, buried to keep it safely hidden. Now displayed in the museum’s Conspiracy Room, where it is said that in early December 1648, officers of the army are believed to have decided on the fate of King Charles I.

Children will love the replica toys that can be played with and the chance to dress in Tudor costume, and it’s well worth taking a bit of time to explore the small but beautiful walled garden.

t Don’t Miss: The Conspiracy room, which recalls a fascinating period when Yarmouth sided with Cromwell and the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. Cromwell visited the house on several occasions and led a success-ful attack on royalist Lowestoft, aided by Yarmouth volunteers.

t Elizabethan House Museum, South Quay, Great Yarmouth, Mon-Fri 10am-4pm, £3.70 (£3.10 cons), £2 children, under-4s free, 01493 745526.

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