In the past Norwich was famous for being a city of gardens, and some people believe that its fascination with horticulture was due to the influence of Dutch immigrants. Whatever the truth, it was inevitable that from the late 1600s onwards, as the craze for pleasure gardens gripped London, so Norwich would follow suit. Over the years there were many pleasure gardens in London, the most famous being Vauxhall, Ranelagh and Marylebone. Anyone who could afford the modest entrance fee would be entertained by music, dancing, acrobats, fireworks, food and drink. There would often be exotic animals on display, exhibitions of a scientific nature or balloon ascents. The gardens were very ornate, with walkways weaving through the trees, decorative lighting, elaborate archways and grandiose pavilions. The Ranelagh Gardens were especially renowned for a huge round pavilion where the rich and famous of London society could be seen promenading.
From the late seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth Norwich was home to a succession of such gardens and was considered to be the equal of any city in England outside of London. My Lord‘s Garden was probably the first to appear. It was built in the 1660s by the Duke of Norfolk‘s brother, hence its name, and was situated between King Street and the River Wensum, just south of present day Mountergate. Moore‘s Spring Garden appeared in the early eighteenth century on the site of today‘s Nelson Hotel. Over the years the ownership of the various gardens often changed hands, and usually a change of proprietor also meant a change of name. The Spring Garden later became known as Bunn‘s Gardens and eventually Vauxhall Gardens in imitation of its famous London counterpart.
Another well known venue was The Wilderness, opened around 1750 on what used to be called the Butter Hills. This site can be found today inside the city wall by the junction of Bracondale and Carrow Hill, behind Stuart Road and Alan Road. The Wilderness was originally quite popular and became famous for its breakfast entertainments. When it was sold in the early nineteenth century a boys‘ school took its place, and a new garden, The Richmond Hill Garden, appeared immediately next to it, backing on to Bracondale between the city wall and Southgate Lane.
At one time there was a Wilderness Walk along the top of the Ber Street Hills leading to the pleasure gardens. A similar walk exists today adapted to fit around modern building developments: it can be entered via a gate at the top of Thorn Lane. Following this path today as it winds through a modern housing complex, and catching a glimpse of a resident tending his garden or a teenager on his skateboard, it is hard to imagine the crowds, excitement and activity a hundred and fifty years ago when these hills were the equivalent of today‘s Prince of Wales Road on a Saturday night.
Perhaps the most famous of all Norwich‘s gardens was Quantrell‘s Gardens, which later became Ranelagh Gardens (once again the city was borrowing a famous name from London). This garden was actually outside the city walls, being situated in the angle between Queen‘s Road and St. Stephen‘s Road. It opened in the 1760s and had a glittering career for many years before patterns of entertainment and peoples‘ expectations changed. When Queen Victoria came to the throne it was re-named The Victoria Gardens, complete with its own Royal Albert Theatre. However, its days were numbered, and when it closed in 1850 some of the buildings were demolished and others were incorporated into the new Victoria Railway Station. Today Victoria House stands on the site.
Activities and entertainments on offer at these Norwich gardens were similar to those found in London, with special attractions arranged to coincide with Race Weeks and Assizes Week, when the city was always crowded with county folk. Some of the gardens had auditoriums that could seat 1000 people. The musical repertoire ranged from the popular styles of the day through to classical, and sometimes the bands would be 50 or 60 strong. In those days even a symphony orchestra would usually be referred to as a "band", the term orchestra denoting what we now-a-days call the platform or stage.
The decade from 1780 was the golden age of the "aerostatic globe" as balloons were called, and the people of Norwich were as enthusiastic as any. There were many demonstration flights, both unmanned and manned, from the various gardens as well as from Mousehold Heath and elsewhere. The most famous was Major Money‘s flight from the Ranelagh Gardens which ended in his unscheduled immersion in the North Sea and is often recounted in history books. A commemorative plaque can be seen by the side of Whitlingham Broad.
Over the years other smaller gardens came and went. Blythe‘s Norwich Guide and Directory 1842 mentions a number of inns that had pleasure gardens attached, including The Greyhound (Ber St) The Angel (Back Road, New Catton) Carrow Abbey Inn and The Cellar House at Pockthorpe. The King of Prussia on Ipswich Road was a popular venue for several years as was the Green Hill Gardens, which according to old maps appears to have been where Wensum Park is now situated.
Some of the men and women who managed these gardens or took part in the entertainments became celebrities in their day, the equivalent of our TV personalities and pop stars. One of the most famous was a Norwich musician, James Hook. Born in 1746 near St. John Maddermarket, he was taught by the Cathedral organist and was seen as something of a child prodigy. After an early career in his home town Hook moved to London, becoming well known as an organist and composer at the Marylebone Gardens before becoming the musical director of the Vauxhall Gardens, a post he held for almost fifty years. He wrote hundreds of popular songs and could be described as the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of his day. Many of his compositions, both vocal and symphonic, appeared on concert programmes in Norwich. The only one of his songs to be remembered today is The Lass of Richmond Hill. This raises a very interesting question:- did the sweet Lass speak with a broad Norfolk accent? It is generally assumed that the title of this song is referring to London‘s Richmond Hill, but those of us who know of Hook‘s Norwich background and who have noticed Richmond Hill on the Norwich A-Z Street Atlas must surely begin to wonder if she was in fact a Norwich girl.