Norwich and Great Yarmouth, Norfolk – Part 1

14 01 2007

13-14 January 2007

Part1 | Part2

Norwich, the City of Churches

In South India, there is an ancient and famous town named Kanchipuram. My grandmother used to say of this town, “Thadiki vizhundha koil“, which when translated means that if one were to trip and fall, at every fall one finds a temple. One could say the same of Norwich, which has so many churches that it is difficult to keep count. There is a church at almost every street corner. No matter where one is in the city centre, one is always within sight of a church. Even outside the city centre, one is always in view of the many towers that define the city of Norwich. Indeed, when I was at the castle on Saturday morning, standing from a single spot, with just a turn of my head, I counted no less than ten church towers.

I have since found out that the city has more than thirty churches. Such a large number reflects the importance of this institution in days gone by. In fact, in medieval times there could have been even more churches. There are two cathedrals in Norwich. One is the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Gothic Revival style. The other is the Anglican Cathedral of a more ancient construction in a mix of Norman and Gothic styles. Of the numerous churches, many are no longer used in their original intent. I noted a fair being held at St Andrew’s Hall, originally a church. I have found that concerts and fairs are often held at this venue.

Flushwork on Church of St Peter Mancroft

Flushwork on Church of St Peter Mancroft

Among the most outstanding of the city’s churches is St Peter Mancroft. It is in Perpendicular Gothic. It is graceful in the representation of this style. The arches are finely crafted. There is a great sense of balance and order. There is no profusion of decoration. Nothing about it detracts it from its simplicity. Yet it is a simplicity that is not mean. It is a church large enough to be impressive. It has sufficient details in its carvings and stonework to reflect the artistic effort as befits such a consecrated space. In its mix of stone and flint, there is much to interest. All these, I gathered only from the outside as the churches in Norwich are not open for visitors on Sundays.

More of such use of flint in conjunction with limestone can be seen in St Andrew’s Church. Patterns created by these, line the outside walls of the church in striking motifs. The motifs are more arabesque than any form of English architecture. The clean lines and curves are formed by the limestones. The spaces that they create are taken up by flint. The flint is not coarsely laid between the limestones. Rather, they are closely joined to avoid any gaps. Their open surfaces are cleanly cut to make the walls as smooth as possible. Nothing projects out with awkward points. In other words, when flint is split, the coarseness that is on the outside yields to smooth surfaces that hide on the inside. This is called as “knapped flint”. The technique as a whole is particular to East Anglia. It is known as “flushwork”.

More of this flushwork can be observed in the facade of the Guildhall. Flushwork is interesting simply because of the contrast created by the black knapped flints set against the white limestones. This contrast can be appreciated at the Guildhall. There is a strong chequered pattern that fills the top section of one end at which a canopied clock stands. Just under this clock, the chequered pattern of small squares gives way to a even more finely designed pattern whereby each small square is cut diagonally. One section is filled with flint; the other with limestone. Buttresses contain much flushwork, not only at the Guildhall but also in St Andrew’s and St Stephen’s, just to name a couple.

At St Andrew’s Church, there are some stone coat of arms – double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire; three elongated lions with lashing tails which are for England; three crowns of St Edmund used for East Anglia; three-towered castle and lion for the City of Norwich; England’s lions with France’s lilies for the Royal arms of England from 1340 to 1405. Behind this church is a fine wall of knapped flint. So finely are the flint laid, that I did not note any gaps in the wall and no visible mortar. One may say that in Norwich they have made the best of these flints. Flints do not make great building material nor do they create handsome buildings. Yet in Norwich, they have got the most out of them with great artistic taste.

a lively centre of town

The covered market at Norwich: a lively centre of town

Norwich is a city of admirable proportion and balance. It is not as large as Nottingham. It is not as small as the many market towns of the country. It was a major city in the past thanks to the weaving trade. Although it has not flourished in recent times or grown as fast as many other cities, it is developed. It strikes a fine balance between modern day comforts and ancient heritage. It is big enough to be a lively city but within its centre, it hides small lanes and period buildings. These are not there simply to house a museum or a gallery. They are very much an active part of modern Norwich. Take for example the terracotta facade of what is now Jarrold department store on London Street. I have spoken of markets and market towns during my visit to Leicester. Norwich too has a market that is a permanent fixture next to the Guildhall. The market on a Saturday afternoon is a lively place. The colourful awnings by themselves add to the liveliness. While this link with the past is maintained, new developments get their share of attention. The Chapelfield shopping mall is a lively place too. The glass building of the Forum is stunning. I did not have the time to find out what’s in it. All developments are carefully considered to preserve this balance. I heard from a woman in Great Yarmouth that a proposal for building a wheel similar to the London-Eye was turned down by Norwich.

One can wander by these little lanes, weave between the many churches or negotiate the gentle slope of stone-cobbled Elm Hill. One can walk after dusk by the empty lanes or in the thick of the crowds on a Sunday afternoon. At every step there is something to admire. There is much here for the curious and the inquisitive. The city is clean and well-kept. The crowds are well-behaved and never a nuisance. There is nothing drab or shabby in any part of the city’s centre. The worst that I experienced of Norwich were the football fans on the train to Great Yarmouth, where I stayed for Saturday night. Norwich had lost Saturday’s game to Plymouth.

Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

As in Nottingham, there is not much in the building to call it a castle. At least, the building at Norwich looks more like a castle than the one at Nottingham. Both are situated on hills from where a good prospect of the city below opens up in all directions. The collection in Norwich is vast and varied. Half a day is too short but anything longer becomes overwhelming. So I spent a few hours on Saturday and came back for the rest on Sunday evening. Here they have a unique scheme whereby you pay £1 for the last hour just before closing.

From these collections, I make particular mention of items with strong local flavour. The first of these is “The Ted Ellis Norfolk Room”. This has many dioramas that represent Norfolk’s country landscape, from the coastal sands to the inland watered reeds of the Broads. The stuffed specimens of birds are the main items on display but their appreciation is vastly enhanced by presenting them within their natural landscapes. The landscape is beautifully painted. It merges seamlessly with an equally well-painted sky. In the foreground, all details are presented realistically. Every piece of vegetation is meticulously arranged. Beauty as this comes naturally to Nature; but man has to take great pains even to copy it. Every bird on display is tagged but these tags and their strings are hidden from view. Only from a close and curious study can they be spotted. There are also recorded sounds of bird calls. Next time, if I ever get a chance to hear a booming sound from amongst the reeds, I shall know that a bittern isn’t far from where I stand. There have been many great men, each with a passion pursued to perfection. Ted Ellis, a naturalist, was responsible for much of what we see in this room which has been named in his honour. His great love for nature and his enthusiasm must have fuelled his meticulous study of nature. These dioramas are the result of his passion.

The next collection that captivated me was the collection of 23,270 butterflies by Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine. This is now named the Fountaine-Neimy Collection. The museum does not have the space to display all of them and no visitor will have the patience to study them all. However, there is an ongoing project whereby every Wednesday a new collection of about 1000 butterflies will be displayed and each exhibit will be on display for only one week. Margaret’s collection is also interesting in its strategy and sensitivity to nature as evident in the following quote:

Rather than collect wild butterflies,
Margaret would catch a female and get it to
lay eggs, so that she could rear the
caterpillars. When they emerged as adults,
she would keep a few specimens and let the
rest go.
Although over 23,000 butterflies were killed
for this collection, possibly more than
500,000 were bred and released back into
the wild.

Such details are of little interest to any visitor who is not in the first place awed by the beauty of this collection. If each little creature is beautiful and colourful in its own way, such adjectives take on a higher dimension when many butterflies are displayed together. As miseries that congregate rise to a higher form, so it is with beauty.

The Cotman Gallery and the Crome Gallery contain many paintings of the Norwich School of Painters who painted mainly landscapes with a sense of realism. Their formation came about in the early 19th century. For subjects, they drew inspiration from the landscapes of Norfolk, its coastal scenes, the Broads, the windmills and the open skies. For execution, they were inspired by the Dutch painters. I had time to study only a handful of paintings from this collection. In “Yarmouth Sands”, 1829, Joseph Stannard captures the beach at Great Yarmouth on which a fisherman handles his catch while his family looks on. The sky is open and endless. The sands are just as broad, beautiful and empty. Nelson’s Column stands at one far corner of the picture giving the picture a greater sense of real location. Another picture I admired was “Norwich River: Afternoon” by John Crome. The slanting light warms up the dull red building that stands on the banks of a quiet river that reflects much of this pleasant afternoon scene. The open skies are offset by the buildings crowd together. There is a great deal of peace and serenity in this picture. The problem with many of these paintings is that they are not displayed to best effect. They are protected by reflective glass. It takes great effort to see each painting through numerous reflections. Each painting is a lively thing. In its reflections, each does its best to spoil the competition.

For many years this building was used as a prison. Prisoners have left their mark on the walls. We may call them scribbles and graffiti, but perhaps in a future age they may be regarded as ancient art carved in stone. Here are displayed some items that were regularly used in prisons and public hangings. My attention was for a notice and article that appeared under the following title:

Who was Executed at Norwich, on April 23, 1836, for
being accessory to the Murder of his Wife, by Poison.

The article then goes on to describe with great verbosity the life and history of Peter Taylor. The article starts with moralising and the inescapable ends of those given to evil ways. It then describes Taylor’s social status, his education and upbringing, his temptation into evil, the long turn of events and the eventual act of murder to which he was sentenced to be publicly hanged. Such public hangings were finally abolished in 1868 but while they existed, they provided people with much entertainment. The greater intent was to give people a grim warning of an awful end; but it is in human nature never to realise this unless one’s own end is in sight. There are many such articles of public hangings, each of them in just one page, but crammed with little details. Some are divided neatly into chapters. Some have poetry at the end with a moral undertone. Some are decorated with a pretty border of flowers, shells or some eye-catching motif. Most have a picture at the top, a hooded figure hanging by a taut rope, or something similar to indicate the visitation of Death. These were the bold headlines of the day, like the tabloids of today. All of them end with phrases that contain “eternity” – “launched into Eternity!” or “his awful exit from time into Eternity”.

Norwich Cathedral

I visited the Cathedral twice. On Saturday afternoon I took a guided tour. This was informative but did not give me the chance to admire the little details in leisure. Then again, I would not have been introduced to these details without the guided tour. After the tour, I walked every part of the Cathedral and studied as time permitted. I came back on Sunday afternoon but did not go into the main building. Instead, I walked the cloisters for an experience that can only be described as eye-opening.

There are many great and awe-inspiring things in the Cathedral, inside and outside, in the grand scale of construction and the little spectacular details. From the outside, the light cream-coloured stone gives a great deal of beauty to the building. It comes as a surprise to see this ancient building so clean. Norwich had been a polluted town in the past, much of it coming from the tanneries that supplied to the shoe-making industry. Yet, by a combination of good maintenance and community goodwill, the Cathedral looks as good as new. As of today, drainage in the cloisters is being improved. This is costing them £250,000. Modern extensions to the Cathedral are being planned. A fundraising campaign with an ambitious target of £10 million was started in 1999. Today this campaign is its final stages with 96% of the funds already secured from companies, societies, individuals and the larger community. In this example, the people have proved their ability to organise themselves for a worthwhile cause, dedicate time and resources, and take it to the desired conclusion. Nothing of this sort is likely to be possible in India for many more decades to come.

The spire is octagonal at its base and rises to terminate at a point. All along the spire are finials. Some small arched windows can be found on the spire. The spire is tall and elegant but the pinnacled tower on which it stands surpasses it. The tower is essentially Norman. The absence of pointed arches is seen in the presence of rounded ones. More interestingly, and in a manner unique to this Cathedral, the tower is decorated with rings and squares, interconnected by clean lines of the same stone. Traditionally, every niche has an image of a saint, an angel, a bishop or a king. If inspiration from nature is seen on the walls and pillars, acknowledgement is given to the Creator. Such is the case with “the green man”, leaves, animals or birds that are often to be found in Cathedrals. But on this tower, these patterns take on an abstract aspect within such religious settings where they do not seem to belong. Could there be symbolic meanings in them that I have failed to see? Could God be praised with universal symbols instead of images in the likeness of man and nature? Perhaps what we see on this tower are primitive influences on Christianity at a time when it was still new to East Anglia.

Walking into the nave, we find that the Norman style, with its bold semi-circular arches, form the main scheme. Unfortunately, this does not go well with the vaulting of a later date. The vaulting itself is beautiful and typical of Decorated Gothic style. The problem is that it does not complement the Norman curves and patterns seen elsewhere in the nave. So the task is upon the visitor to see these elements in isolation and admire them as deserved.

The vaulting has many characteristics that are well-known to me. The main rib runs along the length of the nave. This is intersected by transversal ribs at bosses. These transversal ribs start from the apex of windows in the clerestory. From the springers at the top of the piers in the nave, fifteen secondary ribs diverge and climb to the ceiling. Their climb is ambitious and bold. They do succeed in reaching the ceiling and do it in style. At first this is no different from the tierceron vaulting seen elsewhere but upon closer inspection I found that there is more to it. This became apparent as I analysed the central sections and the patterns created by many secondary and tertiary ribs. This can be described as follows. If we were to number the fifteen ribs in order, we have ribs 1-7 to the left, 9-15 to the right and rib 8 which is the central one. We would expect rib 8 to join the main rib directly. This does not happen. Instead, ribs 7 and 9 join the main rib in one single span. They join at a boss at which small tertiary ribs join from their neighbours. For rib 7, these tertiary ribs are from ribs 6 and 8; for rib 9, they are from ribs 8 and 10. Thus, ribs 6, 8 and 10 do not join the main rib directly. They are reinforced at a boss before they continue their journey to the main rib. At these secondary bosses on ribs 6 and 10, tertiary ribs join the ribs 5 and 11 respectively. These tertiary ribs run parallel to the main rib. The ensuing bosses on ribs 5 and 11 give way to further tertiary ribs that join the transversal ribs described earlier. Ribs 1, 2, 3, 4 and their mirror ribs are quite simple in that they join the transversal ribs directly. In fact, ribs 1 and 15 are simply along the wall. They form the main Gothic arch above an older Norman arch that defines the clerestory windows.

Simply put, each of the ribs that rise to the central rib, is connected to its neighbour either at a central boss or by a tertiary rib at a secondary boss. The net effect is this: along the central rib of the vaulting these interconnections form a distinct closed pattern composed of triangles, rhombuses and star-like shapes. This stretching for the entire length of the nave is a stunning sight. This form of vaulting is called lierne vaulting.

What does one do with so many bosses along the nave? This is where the great artwork and renown of Norwich Cathedral lies. Each boss is covered with delicate carvings of characters, stories and events from the Bible. They are all very colourful and absorbing. You cannot be delighted by them unless you have some familiarity with Biblical stories and events. You stare at it for minutes with some vague admiration until someone points out and says “that’s Noah’s Ark”, “that’s the Last Supper”, “that’s the Pharoah’s chariot engulfed by the sea”, “that’s Jesus washing the feet of his disciples”. Then you respond with your “ohs” and “ahs” as if you have uncovered a great hidden secret. Mobile mirrors are placed to aid the visitor to appreciate these bosses without breaking his neck. An electronic catalogue is also available on a computer for those who wish to study each boss in relative comfort. Such profusion of images in vivid colours, shapes and curves, and elaborate details are characteristic of Decorated Gothic style. I recalled the similarities with the nave of Exeter Cathedral.

The Decorated Gothic style is just as visible in the cloisters but this is not alone. While some window traceries are in this style, others are in a relatively simpler Perpendicular style. This is attributed to the Black Death in mid-fourteenth century which ravaged much of the local population as it did to the rest of the country. However, even those of the Perpendicular style are not exactly devoid of detail or of lesser artistic merit. Perhaps they would have been easier to execute because there are more straight lines than curves, more simple arches than complex snaking ones. These traceries are so varied that I counted as many as eight different patterns within the cloisters. Studying these in detail enabled me to understand the fundamental differences and the transition from one style to another.

All bays are divided into three arches by two slender pillars. Each arch is outlined with elaborate pointed curves. This architectural adornment is called cusping. Above these arches is the main arch that frames the bay. The space in between is glazed. This glazing is accompanied by elaborate tracery and this is where the many variations lie. In Perpendicular styles, arches leave the pillars and climb up to join the main arch. As they intersect they divide the space into regular shapes framed by graceful curves. The smaller spaces are further divided by mullions and transomes. An even simpler design occurs in which arches do not intersect. In such a design, the mullions and transomes are longer. Two main mullions form a continuation of the pillars.

Window tracery in the Cloisters

Window tracery in the Cloisters

When we look at the Decorated Gothic styles, the variations are many. The arches continue up to the main arch but they do so with many twists and turns. The overall flow of the curves is dynamic and free. In all cases, two main spaces are formed above the three arches. These are filled with quatrefoils. Some quatrefoils are joined at the centre so that we admire each petal of the flower. Some quatrefoils are open at the centre so that we admire the flower more than its individual petals. In some cases, trefoils rather than quatrefoils are seen. Some trefoils are free. Others are circumscribed by a bulging triangle. Triangle it is, but the sides are curves cut from intersecting circles that we have to imagine. In one case, a trefoil of different design is not in the two main spaces but in the little space on top of them. Then there is one more variation in which the tracery is extremely simple. The overall design is Decorated but mullions rise vertically from the pillars to join the main arch. Except for two small arches in the open space, there is nothing else. Perhaps, this was started in the Decorated period but reached completion in the Perpendicular period.

When I had studied such details at length, I began to study the decorated bosses in the cloisters which are no less interesting than those of the nave. When I had completed this, I began to ignore every artistic detail and wonder. I excused myself from attending a special Sunday service at the Cathedral. I imagined myself in another age long gone. I immersed myself in the silence of the cloisters. I noted the niches where monks used to keep their books of study. I noted the recess where oil lamps were kept. I noted the stone seats lining the corridors. I noted the empty troughs where monks washed before meals. When I had noted these irrelevant details, I walked the cloisters without plan, destination, time or thought.

The bell-ringers did their service for well over twenty minutes before the service. What I had previously studied on the topic of campanology stood me in good stead. I could not make out the method they used but I could sense the movement of bells. It didn’t matter which bell came first or which came last: the harmony of the sequence was never broken. So perfect was the timing that the note of every bell seamlessly continued the music ringing in the still cloister-air. So brief was the pause between two changes that one felt it was both necessary and infinite. It gave time for reflection. It seemed to suggest perfection but immediately created anticipation in the coming change. Perfection was never possible. Perfection has no last note in its music. Perfection is always in the making and singing of music. Thus, one note led to the next and one change led to the next until it was time for the service. When the entire congregation sang, the sweetness of their combined voices floated into the cloisters to make moments of sublime transient beauty.

Then the light began to fade as the sun began to set. Every detail that I had seen and admired was lost. If in light I had seen the world, in darkness I was left with myself. In darkness, I traced and retraced my steps in the cloisters. In darkness, as the medieval monks, I imagined entering by the Dark Entry, pick up an oil lamp and walk the faintly light path ahead of me. As I walked, I sensed my own dark shadow being dragged behind me as the trains of a medieval robe.

When I had walked in this manner for over an hour, in an act of meditation that’s a lot easier than sitting down in padmasana, I began to sense the ancient spirit of the Cathedral. All the little details, artistic wonders, stories and history of the Cathedral began to lose their appeal. The isolation was enchanting. The silence was perfect. The darkness was revealing. It was as if light is defined by darkness or one finds light through darkness. Light would not exist without darkness just as God and Devil are different facets of a single entity, just as every man is his own God and his own Devil.

Part1 | Part2




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