Credit: Tim CookFor the best part of a thousand years, Norwich Market has formed the heart of one of the oldest and best-preserved cities in England. Centuries have come and gone, wars, rebellions, plagues, and riots have swirled around the countless generations of traders, gathering six days a week to sell their wares in what is not only the one of the oldest markets in Britain (and certainly the most frequent), but also the largest covered market in the whole of Europe. What is it about Norwich Market that makes it so special, and so enduring?
The first mention of a market at its current location in Norwich is in the Domesday Book of 1086, although it is known a market of some sort existed in Norwich, then a major inland port, far back into Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps as early as 950AD. Historians believe the Normans, after their successful conquest of 1066, had the market moved from the Tombland area of Norwich to its present site, nearer the castle they were constructing to help rule over the area. The Normans’ work on Norwich helped the city gradually grow to the status of second city in England, after London. This changed after eastern England's population fell by half as a result of the Black Death, waves of which blighted the country in the latter decades of the fourteenth century. Beforehand, in 1341, King Edward III had awarded the market an Royal Charter, giving it over to the people, rather than the aristocracy.
Norwich Market remained a focal point of the city and surrounding area, as a general Credit: Tim Cookgathering place, center of commerce and a place of celebration, mostly for the many Saints days marked in those pre-Reformation times. Then as now, it hosted butchers, bakers, farmers selling dairy products, while fabric and spice merchants also flourished. During the fifteenth century, the historic Guildhall arose nearby, a striking building made of flint and ready for use by 1413 as the judicial center of the city. Later used by the city council, the Guildhall still stands, the oldest civic building in England outside of London. Just over 40 years later, the traders also had found themselves sandwiched between law and religion, in the form of the great church of St Peter Mancroft, completed in 1455 after 25 years of construction (and where this writer’s parents married, in 1959).
Once the council had left Guildhall, it moved into the rather more modern environs of the City Hall, opened by King George VI in 1938. The City Hall stands upon the western side of the market, and along the eastern side, between the market and the castle, lays Gentleman’s Walk, a fashionable place to parade oneself during Georgian times, when Norwich became a noted center for shopping of a more luxurious sort than provided by the market, with its ramshackle, rough-and-ready approach.
Indeed, one of Norwich Market’s difficulties down the years has come in balancing tradition and the boisterous character of the market with the need to modernize and make sure of its survival into the future. During various stages of its history, the area around the Market has become congested (admittedly, we’re talking the times of the horse-and-carriage rather than automobiles), and the Market itself has often has needed upgrading at various intervals.
With the Market in particularly shabby condition during the late 1990s, the city council took the controversial decision to modernize, with the Market so loved and enjoyed re-opening for business in 2005. The distinctive striped awnings were retained, although the stalls were now ‘pods,’ nearly 200 standing upon the noted honeycomb stonework; planners leveled off the interior floors of the pods to correct the disconcerting slope (from west to east), so much a part of the Norwich Market experience, yet prone to leaving market traders of old with one leg shorter than the other!
Credit: Tim CookSo, what can you find at Norwich Market if you visited in 2015? You’ll soon discover shopping here a more sensory experience than in any ordinary store or mall. The market is a compact area, enclosed with transparent roofing between the pods, which are tightly enclosed and latticed with regular but narrow passageways in a grid format. This may give a slight subterranean feel to the casual shopper, but heightens the other senses, making you especially aware of the noises and smells of the market, the banter and cries of the traders and the tempting aromas of the food stalls; if the market is known for only one thing among locals, it is as a place to get good, hot takeaway food. Many an Englishman who lives in a market town or city will tell you the best place to go for the traditional fish and chips is the local market, and Norwich is no exception, with many locals preferring to eat on a bench along the city’s war memorial, situated between the City Hall and the Market, with its fine view of the striped stalls and the center of town. Beware however the pigeons and gulls, whose voracious appetite for chips matches even the hungriest Brit!
As well as the usual British delicacies of pies, mushy peas, bacon rolls and jacket potatoes, you can now enjoy more recent innovations to the Market menu, such as the hog roast, specialty sausages or Chinese food to go. There are also continental snacks on offer at the coffee stalls, along with traders selling tinned and pre-packed food from Italy, the Far East and Eastern Europe.
As for the staple supplies, there are still stalls selling products an Anglo-Saxon would recognize should they re-appear and take a walk around: bread, cheese, eggs, exotic herbs and spices, and so on. Fresh seafood, direct from the North Sea, is also available to eat on site or take back home with you, and this corner of the site, although uncovered, has an aroma all its own! Although the interior of the market doesn’t really allow for sight-seeing as such, the stalls along the exterior edges are a pleasant sight, as this is where the fruit and vegetables stalls are found, along with the famous flower stall at the corner of the market near to Guildhall.
Norwich Market isn’t just about food of course. You can also buy clothing, bags and fashion Credit: Tim Cookaccessories (modern and vintage), computer games and DVDs, hardware and garden equipment, pet supplies (including pig’s ears for chewing and bones so large they might have come from a dinosaur), baskets, gym supplies and supplements, cheap toys and games, even e-cigarettes and Kindle stands, along with my own favorites, the second-hand books stalls. And after you’re done shopping, you can have a haircut or your ears pierced, as your watch gets repaired and your shoes are re-heeled. Although catering for kids and teens as well as adults, many of the local senior citizens prefer the age-old market to the more modern mall stores which Norwich boasts.
Most tourists who visit Norwich take in the Cathedral or the Castle (both themselves over 900 years old); almost every tourist visits the Market, even if just to take a few turns around the passageways, to imbibe the unique atmosphere. In so doing, they follow in the footsteps of a million other people over hundreds of years, where in the bustle and industry of the everyday, a small piece of time has stood still, a whirling eddy in the great flow of city life.
Norwich Market is open Mondays to Saturdays, with some stalls open on Sundays in the run-up to Christmas. Stalls are generally open from 9.00am to 6.00pm, although times vary according to the products sold (fresh food stalls tend to open and close earlier).