I do not have a good relationship with Norwich Castle. I am sorry. I thought I would get used to its odd, sandcastle mould shape on the green hill but I have not. I find it too sinister. Edinburgh Castle evokes memories of my happy childhood books by Sir Walter Scott. Durham Castle brings back recollections of my happy university days. Castel Sant’Angelo, in Rome, makes arias from Tosca swish though my head. The Tower of London – with all its bloody past – is, for me, the home of gorgeous, intelligent, sadly maimed ravens. The first thing I saw in Norwich Castle, during my very first visit, about eight years ago, were the disturbing death masks of men who had been hanged there for murder. I felt queasy. Macabre souvenirs of violence punishing violence. Of wrong in judgement of wrong. That is all I can think of when I look up and see the square, stout Norman cube of stone on the grass mound.
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Norwich is a treasure trove of small, independent bookshops. At the top of a winding, cobbled street, opposite a teddy bear shop, stands the Doormouse Bookshop. It is a jewel of a place, where the owner can tell you all you need to know about Norwich, past and present. The wonderful collection of unusual, second-hand books covering a wide variety of subjects includes an impressive collection of children’s books. The kind of books that make you wish you were still a child – or a parent. You can smell the love of books as soon as you walk in. Along St Giles Street, there is another inspiring second-hand bookshop, J.R. & R.K. Ellis. Enter at your peril, for you will not want to leave again without an armful of books. These are the two I have loved from the start. There are others.
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When I first went to live there, I read somewhere that The Golden Triangle was Norwich’s answer to London’s Notting Hill. Well, whoever first said that may or may not have been to Notting Hill… However, it is reputed for its good pubs and bistrots. Because of its proximity to the University of East Anglia, it has a large student population, giving the area a youthful feel. There is also a grocer, in one of the streets off the Unthank Road, where you can buy as much or as little as you want of vegetables, pulses, fruit and spices. A jewel of a place, where I once bought fragrant, shiny, fresh bay leaves. The owner just snapped a small branch from the tree for me.
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One of my favourite places for coffee, is Cinema City. This being Norwich, it is inside a 15th Century merchant’s hall. In the café, the ceiling is high, arched, with dark brown timber beams holding it up, in stripy teams criss-crossing beneath the vault.
I like going there for their delicious white hot chocolate. Edith Piaf murmurs broken-hearted love songs through the loudspeakers. Sunday lunchtimes, though, there is live music. A young man plays wistful tunes on his guitar, sitting in the bay window seat, below the coat of arms painted on the glass panes, sunlight bouncing off his blonde hair and goatee. I picture him in a ruff and a velvet cap, instead of his jeans and white T-shirt, and imagine him as a Tudor lute player. He strums Desafinado. A Brazilian song, in Norwich, in a 15th Century building. Anachronistic, but it works. A guess when beauty of music meets beauty of architecture, the alchemy produces gold.
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There comes a time when decisions have to be made, and when you realise that perseverance and “sticking things out” would be equivalent to meaningless stubborness. When a door won’t open, there is no point in ramming your head against it. It’s your head – and not the door – that’s likely to break. When all is said and done, you need a job to live somewhere. A job which I was not able to find. And so time’s up for the Norwich experiment. Perhaps we will meet again. And so I bow to Norwich, give it thanks for its many gifts, and put my belongings back on the London train.
I shall always be grateful to Norwich for holding up a mirror to me. I would not have seen the unrepentantly urban mouse in it, otherwise.