The city of Norwich has within its boundaries a substantial remnant of the great expanse of heathland that, when the settlements were beginning to coalesce into the city we recognise today, stretched from the north-eastern bank of the River Wensum towards the villages of Salhouse and Rackheath.
Over the centuries, this vast acreage was reduced by the needs of agriculture and the effects of the Enclosure Acts. Today there is little evidence of the wider heath outside the city boundary except perhaps in the occasional name of farm or woodland. In the early nineteenth century there was a somewhat grudging acknowledgement that part of the heath might serve a recreational purpose but it was not until the 1860s that negotiations began between the Dean and Chapter of Norwich, as owners of the land, and the Corporation of Norwich leading to the conveyance of the present 184 acres of heath to the city, on the condition the Corporation "took all lawful measures to prevent the continuance of trespasses, nuisances and unlawful acts and to hold the heath for the advantage of lawful recreation". In 1881, the Corporation submitted a scheme for the management of the Heath, which although opposed by the inhabitants of Pockthorpe who had enjoyed ancient rights there, became embodied in an Act of Parliament creating a body of Conservators to preserve and maintain the heath. The Heath was officially ‘opened‘ in 1886.
Originally maintained by grazing, the heath has changed dramatically in recent years and today one of the major tasks confronting the Conservators, the body responsible for its management, is the preservation of open areas of the heath where heather may flourish. This of necessity involves some clearance of other growth, occasionally bringing forth protest from members of the public but "The Heath" cannot be preserved and maintained by allowing a forest to develop. The heath has a unique character, in the nineteenth century it was indiscriminately excavated for gravel, flint, lime and marl. These workings have, with the passage of time, become overgrown, giving the heath a remarkable contour. All of this makes for a place of wild beauty and grandeur and it is not to wondered at that the inhabitants of a closely-packed city, in an age before the car, should make their way by tram and on foot to what must have seemed almost another world.
The historical associations of the heath are absorbing. Here it was George Borrow had his meeting with his gipsy friend, Ambrose Smith, aka Jasper Petulengro, and talked about life and death in a way that inspires today, with Jasper saying as recorded in the pages of Borrow‘s Lavengro, "There‘s night and day brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there‘s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet brother, who would wish to die?" Here also Robert Kett, with thousands of his followers, camped on the high ground overlooking Bishop Bridge in 1549, in a mighty protest however unavailing against the enclosure of the common lands. History has certainly been made on the heath.
Near to the junction of Gurney Road and Mousehold Lane is the site of St. Williams Chapel, a Chapel and priory originally dedicated to St. Catherine de Monte, founded at about the time of the Conquest. This Chapel was to be re-consecrated to the honour of William of Norwich, a child said to have been killed by the Jews in 1137 and whose body was enshrined in the Cathedral in 1150. The Priory, much frequented by pilgrims up to the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries, was served by monks from the Cathedral Priory. The site is still discernible and is marked by stones erected at the corners of the precinct. Not far from the site of the Chapel are interesting reminders of happenings much nearer to our own times. The Norwich Tramway system, which operated until 1935, ran a summer service to Mousehold Heath terminating at The Fountain, by today‘s Zaks Restaurant. In the First World War, ammunition made at factories on Salhouse Road was transported on a light railway on a track through the heath and linking with the tramway before making its way to the Railway Station. Remnants of the rails could be seen until quite recent times in the Station area close to Thorpe Road.
Mousehold provided an obvious place for the training of various volunteer military formations, formed to counter the threat of Napoleonic France. Its wide acres must have seen many a brave figure, horsed and uniformed, ready to fight off an invader. The regular army was also to put the heath to use. In Barrack Street stood the Cavalry Barracks, established in 1792 and later to be renamed Nelson Barracks. These barracks, which were to survive until after the Second World War, had all the cavalry regiments of the British Army, Lancers, Dragoons and Hussars, there at some time between 1793 and 1919. The exceptions were the regiments of the Household Cavalry. Indeed one regiment, the 7th Dragoon Guards, here on several occasions, regarded the city as its spiritual home and memorials in the Cathedral are good evidence of this. In the 1880s came the Cardwell reforms of the British Army which brought about the linking of line infantry regiments to counties. Thus it was the 9th Foot became the Norfolk Regiment - and later the Royal Norfolk Regiment - with a new home, the Depot named Britannia Barracks, being built on Mousehold between 1884 and 1886. This impressive building, still there but put to another use, looks proudly over the heath to the city beyond. The cavalry rode across the heath to their drill ground, now the Heartease Estate, and it was here in 1909 that King Edward VII reviewed troops with many thousands of the populace of Norwich using Mousehold, in particular the slope between Britannia Barracks and Gurney Road, as a great open terrace to see the King pass. It was at the time of this Royal Visit that the office of Mayor of Norwich was raised by Letters Patent from the Crown to that of Lord Mayor.
The cavalry drill ground was to give way to another exciting chapter of the Mousehold Heath story: it became an aerodrome for the Royal Flying Corps. Among those learning to fly at Mousehold was a man who was to become perhaps Britain‘s most celebrated first world war fighter ace, Captain Albert Ball, VC, DSO. In the 1920s, the military gave way to the civil and the aerodrome became the home of the Norfolk and Norwich Aero Club, the brainchild of A.A. Rice a Sheriff of Norwich. The local firms, Boulton & Paul and Mann Egerton, had become substantial players in the burgeoning aircraft industry and both firms had hangars and storage sheds on the airfield. Some of the most innovative aircraft built between the wars, such as the Sidestrand and Overstrand, first took wing at Mousehold. With much fanfare, the airfield became the city‘s civic airport opened by the Prince of Wales, piloting himself in his own plane. Crilly Airlines started to operate passenger services to Leicester, Bristol and Nottingham. This was short-lived and Boulton & Paul shifted its aircraft manufacturing arm to Wolverhampton by the late 1930s. What lasted was the Aero Club with many a young man learning to fly at Mousehold proving his worth in the RAF during the Second World War.
Today Mousehold Heath is there to be used and enjoyed by the citizens of Norwich. It can give balm to the soul. In the Long Valley, for instance, the noise of the world recedes and a great solitude takes its place. The pavilion, one of the original ‘lodges‘ permitted by the Act of 1884, is occupied by Zaks restaurant and provides refreshment for the visitor and walker. The bandstand, originally brought from the Castle Gardens and then unaccountably demolished, has been rebuilt by the Mousehold Defenders, a voluntary group who do much to support the heath. The Ranger‘s House is being developed a s a study centre. Near Zaks are to be found interpretation boards assisting with the flora and fauna of the heath and its history. At the crest of St. James‘ Hill, overlooking the city he loved, is a memorial to the Norwich writer, R.H. Mottram. On it is carved a panoramic representation of the city lying beneath and it is a wholly appropriate tribute.
The heath is a rewarding place, both for those who have known it all their lives and equally for those who discover its joys for the first time. It is not the least of the great Norwich possessions. May it give pleasure for generations to come.