On the face of it there should not be a lot of difference between York and Norwich, where I was and where I am now. Both are towns with a long history, attractive to tourists and with a Cathedral and University. But there are some striking differences. Norwich is only slightly bigger but seems much more so because it is so much busier, though the local people are generally quite laid back and friendly despite that. Both cities have radical traditions, evident today in the strong showing of Green politicians locally. Of the two Norwich has a more independent cultural scene than York, which tends to be dominated by the tourist industry. That may be because York is on the East Coast Main Line from London, more heavily marketed and more accessible to foreign tourists. In terms of transport connectivity, Norwich is badly disadvantaged with a poor rail service (it takes almost as long to cover the shorter distance to London from Norwich as it does on the high speed rail network from York) and being well off the beaten track of England’s motorway networks. Consequently the people of Norwich may have to look more to their own devices for a cultural life. The region has always had an attraction to artists and musicians which continues to this day.
Coming to Norwich from the outside has its problems for someone like me interested in family history. My own family history has absolutely no connection with Norwich, Norfolk or even the wider East Anglian region. That became very evident when I visited the Norfolk Family History Society. They have a well endowed building to house their collections, a short walk from where I live, so it was natural to gravitate in their direction. There is a busy and active membership, very friendly and welcoming, with highly capable people running the Trust that funds the premises and a volunteer force to man the ‘office’ and carry out various projects both in the Society and in conjunction with Norfolk County Records Office. Despite that, I felt completely at sea on my first visit. With all this treasure house of resources where should I start? Clearly, if I am to achieve anything here, I have to connect with the wider history of the City and its surroundings and, in particular, given my leaning towards the working classes and the poorer sort, as well as the dissenting tendencies among these, I have much to learn and much to explore.
An early fascination has begun to develop in relation to the sector of the city within which I live. Real estate people call it the Golden Triangle (a feature which increases or shrinks in size according to the demands of marketing) and it is characterised by a melting pot of older, more settled local people, young professional families, students and academics. It has a very pleasant feel to it with plenty of interesting independent shops dotted around, artisan bakers and the like, and some great old style pubs. The housing stock is a not too grid like pattern of streets of terrace houses of varying sizes, from Victorian middle class villas to smaller working class houses, intersected by busy radial roads. The main ‘breathing space’ of greenery is the huge city Cemetery, which is always an interesting stroll on an autumn day for someone interested in both urban wild life and local and family history. Yet for me to try is a slightly longer walk that would bring me to the river Wensum and a very different aspect, and a small public park in the other direction. The city centre is a quarter of an hour away, with all its facilities. So the area is worth exploring to see how it originally developed during the 19th century and how it acquired the character it has today – perhaps not all that different if one checks Census data for occupations of householders then and today. My own house was unoccupied in 1911, but in 1901 was occupied by an elderly lady pensioner and her music teacher niece.
As always it pays to look up, so that you notice the small plaques on the sides of houses that show how individual buildings once had their own names and small blocks of houses were created piecemeal before the full street pattern emerged with its modern naming and numbering: Oxford House, Belgrave Villas. Maybe to begin with I will be paying more attention to the last couple of centuries of history, rather than my first love, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I am reminded of one of the many wise things Robert McFarlane has to say about paths in his recent book, The OId Ways. He notes that we start from the place we are at right now but we soon find ourselves treading pathways that others have created and finding our own responses. In time we find our own branches off the more obvious routes, though we are ever and always in the debt of the person who first set off in that direction. It is as true of the physical roads we follow as the cultural, social and political.