Days Out in Norwich: The Castle

It has been a point of embarrassment for some time now that as someone who claims to have a particular interest in the Middle Ages, I had yet to visit Norwich Castle.

Thankfully, this wrong has finally been righted.

I had hoped to go to Cromer last weekend but sadly a storm rolled in from the North Sea, as they are want to do around our exposed bit of coastline, and we had to call the day off. However, Norwich Castle turned out to be a far larger complex than expected, and rather than just filling an hour or two, my family and I spent almost our entire day there.

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Initially as you approach the castle it seems very squat and unimpressive compared to the later medieval castles you may have seen. Built initially around 1067, the castle has overlooked Norwich’s market area, known as Tombland, for almost a millennia. However, once you have entered via the bridge which crosses what remains of the moat, you will be astounded to see just how extensive the complex is.

Besides the castle keep, which contains the exhibits about medieval life in Norwich, there are a warren of other galleries ranging in focus from the history of the Iceni tribe in East Anglia to Ancient Egypt. There is also a natural history museum area in which the taxidermy collections of eccentric Victorians are kept – they even have a stuffed polar bear.

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Getting into the castle may seem a bit expensive at first but there is so much to do that it is a whole day’s worth of entertainment, and for younger family members there are often activities and special events to keep them amused; my visit happened to coincide with a workshop run by UEA Drama students in which they dressed up and re-enacted Viking life in Norwich.

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Overall, I would thoroughly recommend checking out this piece of Norwich history during your time here – but maybe wait until your parents visit and can buy the tickets…

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Norwich: A City of Refuge

At the moment it’s impossible to go anywhere and not hear about the refugee crisis. When we flick on the TV it’s the nine o’clock news, it’s the cover of every newspaper, and it’s the main topic of conversation on most social media.

And yet it still feels very distant and far away. Perhaps this is a symptom of the UK’s isolation as an island, I suppose that if you live in Greece or Hungary then it’s all too real.

At the moment the main way people in the UK can help those fleeing the atrocities occurring in Syria is to donate to charities such as Save the Children and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), lots of towns are organising donation drop offs, and it’s worth dropping your MP an email to check whether they are going to back plans for the UK to offer asylum to more refugees.

The most recent figures mentioned by the UK government suggest we’ll take ‘at least 10,000’, this is a vast improvement on previous promises, but in the face of millions of refugees (currently half of the Syrian population have been displaced from their homes) it feels like a drop in the ocean.

I can’t offer any great wisdom on the situation, I don’t even begin to claim I have any answers, but I do hope that Norwich will play a part in the housing of some of the refugees who come to the UK.

In 2007, Norwich became the UK’s first City of Refuge; this network was set up by high profile writers in the 90’s to create safe havens for those who were in danger because of their writings. Norwich was considered a suitable candidate for this position not only because of its international status as a city with a rich literary tradition, but because it is a city which has historically welcomed those who have been persecuted.

In 1565, Norwich invited Protestants from the Spanish (catholic) Netherlands who were being murdered because of their faith. They were known as ‘the Strangers’ and are why we still have places in Norwich such as Strangers’ Hall. They also brought their pet canaries with them which soon became hugely popular and eventually gave their name to the Norwich football club, which are still nicknamed ‘The Canaries’.

Norwich FC Badge

Norwich FC Badge

The Strangers are a huge part of Norwich’s history, and as they made up a third of the population of the city, in those whose families are from the area, they are still a part of the city’s present. The Strangers’ other contributions to the city include the printing press, Anthony de Solempne and Albert Christian were refugees from Antwerp and the first printers in Norwich – which for a city famed for its literary history is obviously an important first.

Strangers' Hall (Image from coolplaces.co.uk)

Strangers’ Hall
(Image from coolplaces.co.uk)

The city also welcomed French Huguenots in the 17th century, and Jewish children saved from Nazi occupied Europe by the Kinder Transport at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Without wishing to over egg the pudding, I hope I have made it clear that I see Norwich as a prime example of why we need to open our doors and do our bit to assist during this humanitarian crisis. Norwich is an amazing city that has been populated and improved by migrants and refugees for centuries, and I hope it is a grand tradition that we continue to live up to.

We are living proof of what Icelandic author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir meant when, calling on the Icelandic government to home more refugees, she said, ‘They are our future spouses, best friends, the next soul mate, a drummer for our children’s band, the next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finishes the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, a fireman and television host.’

‘People of whom we’ll never be able to say in the future: ‘Your life is worth less than my life.’

Filling the summer holidays – Chalke Valley History Festival

I was forewarned that university holidays were long, but I’m only just beginning to realise quite how long they are.

I’ve been home for two weeks now and already Netflix has lost its appeal. I’ve promised myself that I will get through the ever growing pile of books by my bed but my current read, ‘Iceland’s Bell’ by Halldor Laxness, just doesn’t appeal when the sun is blazing away outside.

The task, then, is to find ‘constructive things to do’ as my mother would say. This week I have managed to assuage the guilt of not finding a proper job this summer by volunteering at the Chalke Valley History Festival.

CVHF is an annual festival which takes place, surprise surprise, in the Chalke Valley area of Wiltshire. It’s the largest festival in the UK dedicated to just history and is therefore a nerd like myself’s dream day out.

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Despite having lived nearby for a long time this was my first visit to the event, and I’ll cut to the chase by saying I loved every minute of it. As a volunteer I had free entry to the site and was able to wander around early in the mornings watching the re-enactment camps slowly come to life. The Tudor royals lounged in the sun whilst hassled looking faux servants scuttled around preparing for the lunch time feast, and roman soldiers chatted to Dark Age peasants whilst a Georgian woman walked around in her nightgown.

I was also lucky to see around half a dozen amazing talks by acclaimed historians, ranging in topics from the untold stories of the non-white, non-european participants of the first world war, to debates about the importance of Magna Carta… maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Events like these are a great way of adding something to your CV, especially as we now live in a world where every job wants prior experience. There were volunteers who had just finished their GCSE’s and there were volunteers who had just become grandparents – basically, anyone with a love of history was welcome.

My only gripe with the festival was just how stereotypically Wiltshire it was (by which I mean how very Salisbury). Most of it took place during week days, which of course isn’t the organisers fault, but with events starting at half five in the evening in a location in the middle of nowhere, only a certain demographic is able to attend.

What I’m trying to get at is, that it was very white middle to upper class. A sea of multi-coloured corduroy trousers filled the valley and someone was heard using the term, ‘spiffing’.

Now the local demographic isn’t something the organisers can do much about, but what does need to be changed is the lack of diversity amongst the speakers. I saw only one talk by a historian who wasn’t white, and a panel discussing the importance of Magna Carta in the development of liberty and human rights was entirely composed of white men.

Obviously this isn’t meant to be construed as an attack on white men, although undoubtedly some will interpret it that way, but we do need to actively be making space for and promoting voices beyond the traditional white Anglo-Saxon narratives that we usually hear in history.

On a lighter note, here’s some Romans with the Tardis.

No idea why there was a Tardis there...

No idea why there was a Tardis there…