What is the link between medieval graffiti, Edwardian air conditioning and Cold War fighter aircraft? All have featured in Norfolk’s Heritage Open Days, a vast, largely free, contribution to the Europe wide programme, which has been running since 1991, with activities in every region of the UK, and 50 other countries.
For a fortnight in September every year, hundreds of buildings normally closed to the public are opened, for casual visits or guided tours, run by an army of volunteers. Alongside this are talks on a wide range of topics of local history. Most of the 300 plus events in Norfolk are free, some are walk-in and some are quickly booked up when the programme is published in late August. The diversity is astonishing, and for residents, visitors, and newcomers, they provide a wonderful introduction to the history of the city and county.
Nobody is sure why medieval people carved graffiti on the pillars of churches, but the practice was widespread across Norfolk. They seem not to be like modern graffiti. Many were clearly not done quickly, and they would have been very visible to anyone. They often feature ships, especially in coastal churches like Brancaster. Some are a simple few crossed lines, others are elaborate, with detailed rigging. Guesswork suggests they were prayers for safe voyages, in communities based around international trade and fishing. Norwich cathedral has a host of graffiti, revealed on a guided tour with the aid of the right kind of torch.
Cold War stories
Coltishall airfield, a few miles north of Norwich, offers a contrasting experience. This was one of the dozens of Second World War airfields across the region, but unlike many, it stayed in use right through the Cold War. Now the main buildings are an industrial park, and the field itself is a huge solar farm. Tours led by former RAF personnel take visitors up the control tower, round the ammunition bunkers, and the hangars now being used to store sugar. They describe the way the base ran, and the experience at the height of Cuban missile crisis, of sitting in the “frightening Lightning” fighters, armed and fuelled, waiting for the call to go out over the North Sea to intercept incoming Soviet bombers, knowing that, in a nuclear war, there might be nowhere to come home to.
A palace of finance
The Norwich Union Insurance Company was one of the great companies of the city. In its heyday, in 1906, it marked this by opening Surrey House, a grand headquarters building in the city centre. During the Open Days this is open to the public. It is a vast marvel of marble and wood panelling, built round a central courtyard, with a passive air conditioning system based on underground ducts, to keep the building warm in winter and cool in summer.
A gothic illusion
Norwich has two cathedrals. The Roman Catholic one is a dramatic gothic structure on a hill on the edge of the centre. The tour guides like to point out to visitors that their floor is higher than the spire of the other cathedral down the hill (which the Anglicans stole from the Catholics at the Reformation). However, despite its medieval appearance, it was actually built between 1882 and 1910 as a huge parish church, and only consecrated as a cathedral in 1976. The gothic stonework is an illusion, merely facing covering the real brick structure. Tours take visitors up through the galleries high above the nave, along the walkway between the roof and the nave ceiling, and out onto the tower, with spectacular views across much of the County. They also descend to the basement, where a recently installed wood pellet boiler provides green heating for the famously chilly building.
From beguinage to coffee shop
The Briton’s Arms has been providing refreshment in Elm Hill for seven centuries. It is now a coffee shop, but the layout of the upstairs rooms suggest that it may have been one of Britain’s few “Beguinages”. These were houses for single women, who undertook to live a religious life without taking formal Holy Orders. Each had her own room, and the building had direct access to the neighbouring church of St Peter Hungate. Beguinages were more common, and still exist, in the Low Countries, and this may reflect the strong connections between Norfolk and what is now the Netherlands and Belgium (in the 1570s, a quarter of the population of Norwich were “strangers”, refugees escaping from the wars in their home countries).
This year some twenty guided walking tours introduce visitors to aspects of the history of Norwich, with a particular focus on the visit of Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1578. Tours include the “French Quarter”, aspects of the city’s industrial past, the Cathedral Close, and the stories of famous families like the Pastons and Colmans (of mustard fame).
A host of religious buildings are opened. The city has a huge number of medieval churches, but some are only open on special occasions or during the Open Days. Other religious buildings opening include the synagogue, the mosque and the Friends Meeting House.
The city’s three theatres (including the Puppet Theatre) offer backstage tours. Many of the city’s shops and hotels, built on ancient foundations, open their cellars and storerooms.
The rest of Norfolk
Outside Norwich, there are events across the county, including a steam drifter and naval hospital in Great Yarmouth talks on the history of airships in Pulham St Mary, and on conservation at Blickling Hall. Three surviving Norfolk Wherries are all on display in Broadland. In The North West, there are tours of fruit farms, Hunstanton Lighthouse, and Old Hunstanton Hall. In Thetford there is a tour of a former atomic weapons bunker.
Open Days across the region
The Open Days must constitute the biggest programme of free public events in the country, and it would not be difficult to spend the whole of every day in the fortnight at some event.
With 904 events this year, East Anglia has the most events after the South East, and Norfolk has the most after Lancashire, but Heritage Open Days take place in all parts of East Anglia. Details can be found at: