Norwich-over-the-water is a strange place. Magdalen Street or Fybriggate as it was originally called and its immediate environs sometimes seem divorced from the city and historically were separated from the rest of the Central norwich by a relatively thin stretch of water; the river Wensum. Yet Magdalen Street contains some of the best stories, the most interesting history, vibrant characters and intriguing secrets. I’d say it’s the best bit, one of the most interesting areas by some distance as yet not killed by flouncy boutiques or coffee chains, it’s diverse, ever changing and different.
It is almost the crucible of the city itself, it certainly has a long polished, burnished and recently tarnished history dating back to Anglo-Saxon times with lots of information available within the easily accessible bits of public records. It almost certainly goes back further as a settlement but that requires digging holes in history most of which with a few exceptions are covered in layers of brick, concrete and Tarmac and still being lived on. Originally it formed part of a small group of villages that were Proto-Norwich; Original bank and ditch defences have been found beneath what was Middle Street which is now under the Car Park behind Anglia Square. The boundary stretches right up to St Georges. Fye Bridge is an ancient crossing, there’s a Saxon burial ground outside the Walls on Eade Road. The whole area is very probably the bit that was the original ‘North-Wick’ or ‘Norwich’ as we know it. The Saxon vill extended over the river to the Market place in that beautifully misnamed Anglo-Danish placename ‘Tombland’ which translates in moder English to ’empty land’. You can still see the square of the original market place bisected diagonally by the road before it continues on to become King street which ambles on in the direction of the village of Carhuh.
In more recent times it’s felt a bit of a lack of love from some quarters, the area was mercifully largely untouched during the blitz, and as a result has a fair few Spandrels and 15th and 16th Century building remnants including yards and courts, particularly along the upper stretch towards the junction with Colegate; another old Danish construction, a memory name (gate comes from ‘Gata’ which effectively means street in Old Norse/proto-German).
It has always been a major route in and out of the North part of the city. It was, and still is in many ways one of the more important shopping streets in the city and the most interesting to look at due to the mix of glimpses back it contains, tiled doorways, merchants houses, old shops, brilliant glimmering chunks of past glowing at you through the grime.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s it had a facelift; sadly while someone was putting on the lippy and doing it’s hair someone else was getting ready to steal the streets nice comfy knickers and slip it into a somewhat strange badly fitting ill-fashioned, uncomfortable thong, one that cuts a bit, digs in and doesn’t really fit terribly well. There’s a lot of argument about Anglia Square; the mashing of the old Georgian bank at Stump Cross and the brutalist utopia of concrete and bricks that is really the first Mall was dropped on top of Botolph Street, plus the corporation choosing the preferred route across the street for that sliver of drab utilitarian concrete that joins up the ring road as a flyover rather than around along Magpie Road as was also suggested.
I remember the street well in the 1970s, we would come to Norwich in my our old rusty Traveller to do some shopping or go swimming and get frostbite and chlorine poisoning. Usually we parked up at St Augustine’s swimming pool on my dad’s fluorescent HMSO parking permit. Magdalen street was our first port of call. ‘The little city’ My mum called it, she loved it, I hated it because Langleys was in the real city where I could get a slinky or a model kit for pocket money or stare at the Action man stuff I couldn’t afford. Sometimes we’d not make it any further than the top of Fye Bridge before heading back to the car as it had all the stuff my mum wanted. Being aspiring middle-class woman Looses unattainably expensive crockery seemed to feature and eventually resulted in much the same India Tree set being bought that you can still buy bits of in there now it’s an antique shop.
In the 1980s I moved here, initially to what is now the Golden Triangle; then very much bedsitland than now, before it became an ever broadening area forced wider by the twinkle of lucre in the eye of every estate agent’s boundary pushing dreams. I quickly ended up living Northside and preferred it, initially Just outside the wall and then just off St Paul’s Square in a house full of Militant and trots with the odd anarcho-syndicalist popping in for a cuppa every now and again. This was an era when Magdalen Street had a nighttime head like a hydra, most of the clubs where clustered around Tombland, Ritzy, Central Park, Hys, with outliers like Pennies, and Rick’s Place and the punk/goth sweat-greased dungeon that was The Jacquard along it’s length, it had a nightime vibrancy and undertow of violence that saw me sipping beer through a straw over a split lip a couple of times in the Plasterers or the Red Lion, usually due to my stupid vaguely unconventional hair and smiling sarcasm in the face of Holstein Pils drunk clubbers with flicks and Salmon pink shirts spilling salad out of split pittas calling me a ‘bender’. I think they had fringe envy. I digress, these are other stories, but they’re part of my personal fabric of the twisting, pogoing, history of a street.
What I currently find fascinating about Magdalen Street isn’t the ghosts of nightclubs, it’s the number of Churches it has. Which on the street itself if you count carelessly amounts to two, St Saviour next to the Flyover with its truncated tower hunkered down its head between its shoulder blades a breath of grass and trees either side, a junk shop to the left and an Indian restaurant to the right. And then there’s St Clement, which isn’t. It’s actually on Fye Bridge Street and Colegate so it doesn’t count. That means there’s one church on a long street, a street which is about as medieval as you can get, one medieval church, that’s a bit rubbish isn’t it… Well yes it is and that’s the rub, Magdalen Street has lots of churches and they’ve all gone, except they haven’t, because they’ve all left clues behind. So where are they all? And this is where this series starts.
Below you will see a map created with the assistance of Dr Nicholas Groves; a human Norwich medieval churches fact machine. The map covers the length of Magdalen Street from the old Gate to just past Golden Dog Lane opposite Gurney Court. In the next few weeks with the assistance Dr Groves, we’re going for a little explore; some temporal meanderings as we try and reveal a bit about the churches that are under our streets.
The whole series of articles are available here:
Part 2 – St Botolph the Traveller
Part 3 – St Margaret: Beating the demons
Part 4 – St Mary Unbrent
Part 5 – St Paul
Part 6 – All Saints Fybriggate
Main Photo © Nick Stone 2014 original George Plunkett. Map © Dr Nicholas Groves/Nick Stone 2014