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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Norwich re-sculpted

Norwich re-sculpted


The original topography

Everyone living in the city knows it is far from flat, as the view here shows.  Ask any cyclist, it does go up and down a bit.  But the original natural landscape was probably even hillier in places, before the effect of man's activities tended to smear things out a bit.

The city centre lies each side of the River Wensum, the original settlements having begun in an area where the meandering river makes a detour via a couple of large bends, first to the left, then to the right. 

The first turn leads the river tightly along the base of a slope below the dizzy heights of what is now Mousehold and Thorpe Hamlet on the left hand side (north and east).  After the second turn, it runs southwards along a slope on the other side leading up towards the present Ber Street.  It then curves again more gradually towards the east and heads off in a widening valley past Thorpe St Andrew and out into the countryside beyond.

Low bits filled in

On the inside of the river bends were originally quite wide, low-lying areas of marshy ground, but you wouldn't necessarily notice that now because much of it has been reclaimed and raised.  It includes, for example, the area between the river and Colegate, the land south of Barrack Street, the lower half of Prince of Wales Road, and much of the land between King Street and the river.  Even as recently as the nineteenth century, much of the land in the Riverside and Carrow area was in use as grazing marshes.  Over the years, soil has been added to raise the surface, and roads and buildings have been built, the latter often having to be supported by special deep foundations extending down into the firmer strata well below the water level.

The lowest parts of Norwich (such as Barn Road and Prince of Wales Road) still aren't much above sea level.  Try digging down below this level anywhere in the city and you'll find the ground to be totally saturated.

The River Wensum, flowing from north-western Norfolk, was certainly the lifeblood of the city, but it wasn't the only local watercourse.  The River Yare, from central Norfolk, passes not far away around the south side of the city, uniting with the Wensum in the Trowse area on their way towards Great Yarmouth.  And within and around the city centre itself, there used to be several smaller tributary streams that ran down the slopes into the Wensum, as well as creeks crossing the marshy area. 

These streams included at least two 'cockeys' in their own steep little valleys.  The Great Cockey began in the All Saints Green area and trickled across Red Lion Street, along Back-of-the-Inns and across London Street to the rear of Jerrold's store, and into the river beneath what is now St Andrew's Car Park (the outflow can still be seen opposite the Playhouse).  It is thought the ancient churches of St Michael-at-Plea and St Gregory formed 'landmarks' on each side of the Cockey valley when viewed from the river, but that valley has now been almost entirely filled in the area of the telephone exchanges on St Andrew's Street.  There would also have been something of a ravine between the Castle and the Market Place in medieval times, before this became filled with rubbish and soil.

The Little Cockey began somewhere in the Chapelfield area, crossing Bethel Street and St Giles near the church, and running into the river in the Westwick Street area where the Wensum braided into several channels in the area now occupied by modern homes of Dyer's Yard.

On the north side of the Wensum, there was another watercourse known as the Dalymond which flowed from the Magpie Road and Magdalen Street area, across Fishergate and into the river opposite Quayside.  This came from the valley running from Old Catton along the west side of Magdalen Road, a feature that can still be observed from the top of Anglia Square car park, even though the lower parts have been partly infilled and built over.

High bits dug away

The original landscape included some steep slopes, especially on the valley sides and in many cases these were where the chalk subsoil had been eroded by river or ice action.  In other places it is sand that formed the natural gradients, but this cannot stand as steeply as chalk, except where the ground remained heavily wooded.

Steep slopes were an opportunity for digging sideways to extract useful materials (such as chalk for lime burning, and for flints) without having to haul them out vertically.  There were extensive chalk pits in the higher areas around the edges of the historic city, such as in the Gas Hill, Magdalen Road, Earlham Road and Ber Street areas, and these substantially changed the original shape of the landscape.  Over the centuries, the worked areas tended to move further away from the city walls, and included other materials such as brickearth and gravel.

Other reasons for digging away higher land were to make it easier to negotiate cross-city routes, and for defensive reasons, for example in the area around the Castle soon after it was built.  Later on, when the defensive earthworks were no longer needed, there was further levelling of higher bits and filling of ditches.

Smoothing the contours out

We have seen that to make for an easier life, generations of Norwich citizens have tended to dig away the slopes and fill in the lower areas.  And just going about their business, they have also tended to generate waste soil and rubbish.  As you might expect, this would tend to end up being used to fill in unwanted stream-beds, hollows or low-lying marshland, or just accumulate at the surface causing a gradual rise in ground level over the centuries.  You may have noticed most of the city centre medieval churches have their original floor levels a step or two down from road level, thanks to this gradual raising of the surrounding surface (not least from repeated churchyard burials!).

Across most of the city centre is a blanket of dark-coloured soil typically extending 1-3 metres below your feet, containing all the drains and buried cables we rely on, old foundations and rubble from countless demolished buildings, waste pits from ancient industrial processes, river dredgings, miscellaneous pottery, bones and dung.  Archaeologists just love it.   It's this churned-up, heaped-up soil layer that has 'smeared out' a lot of Norwich's original ups and downs, changed the angle of the slopes and generally built up the original ground level by shear accumulation of stuff. 

For example, all the way along the river frontage through the city, you're standing on 3 metres or more of added soil placed to fill behind the vertical river walls, when originally the ground surface would have shelved up only gradually away from a low-lying muddy river bank.  It's this artificial 'channelling' of the river that was a lot to do with the 1912 flooding of the city, and led to a decision in the 1920s deliberately to widen the river in the Duke Street and Quayside areas by cutting the banks back again, in an attempt to make more space to let the water through.  So you can see that our present worrying about building on flood plains isn't really new.

© Matthew Williams

November 2010


PICTURE 1: Photograph from St Lawrence Church tower © Matthew Williams

PICTURE 2: Diagrammatic cross section through Norwich city centre © Matthew Williams

PICTURE 3: Cockey outfall 2007 © Matthew Williams

PICTURE 4:  Castle mounds 1785 (Old Norwich, Cotman & Hawcroft)

PICTURE 5:  St Miles Bridge  © Matthew Williams