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Norwich: What’s in a place?

Since meeting my husband in 2004, I have lived in:

Brighton, Cambridge, rural Suffolk, Godmanchester, Bangalore (India), Twickenham, St Margarets, Nairobi (Kenya), a different home in Nairobi, backpacked around India for 6 months with the family, rural Norfolk, Norwich, a motorhome, rural Norfolk again and now, back to Norwich.

Just writing all that makes me feel completely exhausted. There were reasons why we lived in all of these places and we moved for my husband’s work and for family, as well as adventure and financial circumstances. All the places I’ve lived in have shaped and inspired me; informed my writing and helped me to make connections with different people, many with backgrounds wildly different from my own.

But now that I’ve stopped moving, I’m deeply relieved. And while we may still move house in a couple of years so my children don’t have to share a room and we can have more outdoor space (the dream!), we won’t go far, that much is certain.

So how did this rather convoluted trajectory towards Norfolk take place, and why Norwich? For those of you who don’t know this area, Norwich is the main city in the county of Norfolk, a city of stories once made rich on the wool trade and that at one time was England’s second city after London. Head northeast from London and you know that bump that sticks out before you fall off land into the sea? That’s us.

My mother and step-father moved out of London to Norfolk several years ago, seeking a more peaceful way of life and we always visited them there when we were over from Nairobi. We loved the easy-going manner of the locals, the unhurried pace of life and the villages lost in time, surrounded by marshes, broads (man made waterways), the accent (sometimes still unfathomable), glorious coastline and wide skies dominating its low-lying landscape.

And the medieval city of Norwich, where we’re currently laying down some roots, is a treasure trove of history, architecture, learning, culture and creativity. The truth is that I didn’t know a huge amount about Norwich before moving here and, aside from the fact it is home to the UK’s first creative writing masters at the University of East Anglia with celebrated alumni such as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, I was largely unaware of the city’s literary connections.

But here is a small list that Norwich, a place where my family and I are coming to love and finally putting down some roots, can celebrate with its links to literature:

☆ Norwich has self-styled itself as ‘The City of Stories.’ Geographically speaking, it’s a place you choose to go to, not a place you end up in by chance. But, as the City of Stories folk put it, it’s proud to be ‘A place of welcome. Of refuge and shelter. Of strangers becoming friends. We assemble avengers. We make mavericks. This is not a place in the middle of nowhere – this place is our everywhere, it’s everyone’s.

☆ Norwich has a rich history of public libraries. In 1608 the city opened the first English civil provincial library. Fast forward four hundred years and today’s Millenium Library lends out more books each year than any other library in the UK. I recently found a yoga class in the library. Books + yoga? Even better. Yes please.

☆ The first known book to be written in the English language by a woman was from Norwich. Julian of Norwich was an anchorite (hermit) in the 14th Century. She spent many years ministering to the needs of people through her cell window in the city and bringing together her ideas which would eventually evolve into her seminal work, Revelations of Divine Love.

Mural of Julian of Norwich painted on a wall

☆ Norwich is England’s first UNESCO City of Literature.

☆ Local writer Anna Sewell published Black Beauty in 1877 to great international acclaim. The city has also spawned a number of other celebrated writers, for example Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), Emma Healey (Elizabeth is Missing) and WG Sebald (Rings of Saturn).

☆ Norwich is home to the National Centre for Writing, housed in Dragon Hall, a merchant’s hall that dates to the 15th Century. A creative hub for workshops, events and community outreach, the centre is also deeply involved in literary translation.

Dragon Hall
Norwich Castle and Marketplace

☆ Norwich can boast numerous independent bookshops, including shops devoted to antiquarian and children’s literature.

☆ in 2006, Norwich became the UK’s only city to join the International Cities of Refuge Network, to help protect freedom of speech for writers in the 21st Century.

☆ England’s first recognised provincial newspaper, The Norwich Post, was published in the city between 1701 and 1713.

☆ Here’s my final fact (and it has nothing to do with anything literary, but I just love it): Pablo Fanque, born and bred in Norwich, was the country’s first black circus owner in Victorian Britain. So there you have it – there’s definitely a story there!

I’m sure that Norwich has more literary connections, but these are the ones I know about.

How about you? What’s in a place and where do you live? How does your landscape around you (rural or urban) inform and inspire your movements and the way you live and work?

Rebecca Stonehill

If you enjoyed this blog post, complement it with a love letter I wrote to public libraries; an exploration into where ideas come from & discovering a powerful tool to help you choose your next holiday read.

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