Friday 1 October 2010

Time travelling in Magdalen Street

I’m exploring Magdalen Street’s history with our brilliant Blue Badge guide Rod Spokes. He’s explaining why it has been such an important part of the city for well over a thousand years.

Lots of people are reminded of Notting Hill when they visit the street, but you’ll find the same eclectic mix of shops and small businesses in the poorer districts of any major city. There’s a lot more to Magdalen Street than that.

With Rod to guide me, I begin to see Magdalen Street for what it is: the most important thoroughfare in Norwich-over-the-water. (This is Morant's street map of 1873.) Until the 1960s this was a completely self-contained medieval quarter, full of workshops and factories. For centuries much of the industry that made Norwich fabulously wealthy was concentrated in this area and you can still see clues today. Beneath the veneer of the modern shops, the street’s character is much closer to districts like Santa Croce, the leatherworking area of Florence, than any industrial British city. That’s because this city was the biggest industrial centre in England in medieval times – much earlier than the industrial revolution, which passed it by.

We begin our journey at Fye Bridge, where we set our clocks for Roman times. Rod shows me the strategic importance of the area: this is the main north-south Roman road, connecting to King Street and onwards to the Roman town Venta Icenorum (Caister St Edmunds). Stepping forward a century or so, the Saxons constructed fortifications here, where they forded the Wensum. Then the Vikings – Fishergate fish wharf; Cowgate, where cows grazed in the watermeadows at the end of that street.

We walk slowly along Magdalen Street, into medieval times now. The street plan is still there, where later the Strangers and other migrants and refugees settled, with densely packed courts and alleys such as Twinemakers – a long alley for stretching out ropes. And moving on in time, there are the houses of wealthy Tudor merchants, with massive wooden doors concealing private courts.

Now we are in Georgian times. Perhaps the loveliest building in the street is Gurney Court, which you can see through a wrought iron gate not far from St Saviours. Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer, was born here and it’s where her father set up Gurneys Bank - later it merged with Barclays. And perhaps the saddest sight is number 44, almost opposite. Once it must have been the finest house in the street; now it’s slowly rotting away.

Fast forward to the start of the twentieth century, when there were fifty food and drink shops in the street – now there are only nine; and twenty pubs – today just three. A saddler, a blacksmith, a basket-maker, a cabinet-maker and countless other trades kept Magdalen Street self-sufficient.

We’re travelling faster through time now. We’re looking at traces of the spectacular makeover of the street in 1959, which will be shown on Chapelfield’s Big Screen tomorrow – admired and copied nationally, it won the first Civic Trust award for regeneration. This photo shows Barclays Bank at Stump Cross. Botolph Street forks to the left, Magdalen Street to the right.

We come to an abrupt halt in front of the worst disaster to afflict Magdalen Street: the flyover and Anglia Square, which at one stroke cut off the northern stretch of the street and destroyed the cohesion of Norwich-over-the-water. (If you look closely you can still see the ghost of Stump Cross in Roy Ruggles’ office facing the flyover.)

You might think that Magdalen Street was finished after that, all washed up, no future. But something extraordinary is happening. The street is buzzing with renewed energy; new shops and businesses are springing up; artisans are making things in new workshops. And people still walk through Anglia Square as if the ancient streets had not been lost beneath its foundations. If the new scheme goes ahead, the square will be transformed into a public space that’s right for the local community and Norwich-over-the-water will come together again.

The most important part of this transition is the people – the local community, some of whose families have lived here for centuries, some of whom are migrants, passing through and some of whom are putting down roots in a new country – just as the Strangers did in Tudor times. And what we’re doing with our celebration is to be part of that community.

It’s been a long journey through time, but it’s not the end. Tomorrow’s celebration marks the beginning of something new. We’re celebrating Magdalen Street’s future – we hope you’ll join us.

Photographs by the late George Plunkett, by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett: Silver Jubilee 1935, showing Looses and other shops; Stump Cross 1959


  1. A lovely journey through time Jane. Let's hope the transformation continues and the regeneration of Anglia Square delivers for the future of the area :)

  2. enjoyed reading about Magdalen Street, thanks for the information. I am an immigrant from Hertfordshire, I have lived in the area for almost 13 years and recently have started taking photos of interesting and unusual things I find on my walks I am now inspired to do some research into some of the places I have come across

  3. I'm wondering which house is number 44? I wonder perhaps if it might be mine (mine doesn't actually have a number), or then again it might be the obviously once very grand house that is now just a frontage to the hideous office block Sackville Place? If number 44 is my house then check out the Gothic House website and you'll see it's not rotting away!