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City as Material: Norwich

April 7th, 2011 by hazemtagiuri

Tim Wright joined Giles and I for our second City As Material outside of London on Tuesday, as we took a trip to Norwich, where Tim spent his early years.

The train from London seemed distinctly commuter-free compared to our journey to Bristol, with only a handful of people in our carriage. We bagged table seats, and sat down to some much needed coffee, battling against the dreary weather outside. Mucky, sepia-tinted windows gave the landscape outside a grainy, nostalgic vibe, the perfect accompaniment to tales of Tim’s childhood in Norwich.

Arriving there, after setting up the GPS tracker and sound recorder Tim had brought, we walked down the main stretch of tacky nightclubs and kebab joints, possibly not the best introduction to the city. However, we soon spied Norwich castle, a curious structure, almost too uniform and perfect considering it dates from the 11th century. Tim said it looked like a fairy-tale castle, a manifestation of the first thing you’d see when you heard the word “castle”. Next to it, a space-age cylindrical lift ferried visitors to and from the lower levels – a bizarre combination.

We descended to the city centre, passing the market, towards Elm Hill, a historic cobbled lane with houses and shops dating from the Tudor period. This amazing street is home to the Strangers Club, set up to entertain those from outside Norwich, and where Tim’s father regularly took him to lunch. I couldn’t resist a peek through a lofty window, and was greeted with the sight of a woman carrying flagons from the kitchen, hastily ducking before she noticed. Further up, the window of an antique and curiosity shop in a side court displayed Crowley-esque goat horns and all manner of surreal exhibits.

After passing through the beautiful cathedral and it’s ornate cloisters (and a hilarious sign outside which read “We apologise for the untidy appearance of these ruins”), we popped into the Writer’s Centre, recruiting Chris Gribble briefly as our tour guide. He mentioned that Norwich was barely affected by the industrial revolution, apparent in the structures pre-dating it which are so common. We cut through the shopping centre, past the cinema where Tim first saw Star Wars, and arrived by a huge derelict building adorned with a giant graffiti mural; originally zoned for development, but now a victim of the property crash. A dystopian counterpart to the medieval niches of the city.

Before departing, Chris recommended The Window, the “world’s smallest coffee shop” (appropriately next to the “UK’s best pizza and kebab” shop – a dubious claim). After lunch in the refreshingly different Cinema City dining rooms (housed in a building where parts date back the the 14th century, yet the courtyard is sheltered by a modern glass roof), we stopped by. It resembles a tiny kitchen, with only a small bench and a chair or two to perch on, but has a great atmosphere. We chatted with the owner and several locals, and left with the after-glow of a dynamic and friendly venture trailing behind. Tim’s previous statement that nothing much had changed since he left, and that the pulse of the city was definitely on the slow side, had a small, yet charming, contender.

All day we had noticed plaques underneath various street signs, some with slightly vague origins; the phrases “may have been named because” and “could be” were used an awful lot. Paired with peculiar names, such as “Rampant Horse Street” and “Tombland”, these gave us the idea of perhaps creating some Storycubes with street-sign images, and fictional explanations on the other side, which could be fun. We were also interested in using GPS data and sound recordings from the day for an eBook output, particularly Tim’s childhood memories, and the peaks and lulls in conversations when passing through certain areas, so that we could contrast the physical experiences with raw data, examining the correlations and disparities. We’ll be starting work on those soon, so keep an eye out on Diffusion.

View our photos from the day on the City As Material Flickr page.

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