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An Air of Antiquity in Norwich

East Anglia town is near London's bustling energy, but centuries away in time and pace

May 19, 2002|GREG RUBINSON | Greg Rubinson is a lecturer in the writing program at UCLA.

NORWICH, England — I was riding the London Underground when I saw an advertisement for East Anglia, the hub-shaped area of England northeast of London.

"Can you imagine a place where just breathing in makes you feel better?" it read. "A place where you're offered all the space, peace and quiet you could need?"

I hated to be manipulated by an advertisement, but after a few days in London's August heat last year, I had had it with the crowds, buses spewing diesel exhaust, rickety and filthy Tube trains and the armies of tourists. So I set out for a few days' respite in Norwich (pronounced Nor-itch, with the "w" silent, or sometimes Nor-ridge to rhyme with "porridge"), the capital of East Anglia, about two hours northeast of London by train.

On the advice of a friend, I had visited the city a few years ago and looked forward to going back. It is the kind of place where you can still find olde England.

Many other medieval provincial English towns have been transformed by urban development and sprawl, but Norwich has retained much of its ancient charm. The city center is a maze of narrow cobblestone lanes, and in places remnants of the original city wall, which dates back 700 years, have been carefully preserved.

By the early 11th century, Norwich was an important Anglo-Saxon market center; by the 1670s, on the strength of its textile manufacturing, it had grown into the largest provincial town in England, second in size and importance only to London. Today Norwich is a smallish city with a population of 124,000, and it's never more than a two-mile walk from any point along its perimeter to its center.

The advertisement I had seen on the Tube must have lured many others here as well, because it took Ann, the kind woman at the Norwich tourist office, nearly half an hour to find me lodgings for four nights. But she came through with a room in Pine Lodge, a pleasant B&B on the western side of town, near the University of East Anglia and a half-hour's walk from the city center.

A bus dropped me off across the road from the B&B, and Maxine, my landlady for the next few days, showed me to a cramped but elegant room dominated by a canopy bed. For $38 a night, including a proper English fry-up in the morning, it was a bargain.

The shops and sights were closing by the time I walked back to the city center, so I happily decided to take advantage of Norwich's greatest asset--its pubs. Norwich locals claim the city has 365 of them--one for every day of the year--and it's probably not far from the truth.

I found my way into Tombland, a well-maintained cobblestone street that held a Saxon marketplace about 1,000 years ago, and settled into a table on the patio in front of Boswells, a brasserie-style pub adjacent to Norwich's breathtaking Norman cathedral. Boswells is popular with the upscale after-work crowd who congregate here to savor pints. Although traffic along the street was loud, I relaxed with a pint of Woodforde's Wherry, a smooth, medium-bodied Norfolk County brew.

I hadn't eaten anything since a sandwich in London's Liverpool Street Station, so the Woodforde's put a spring in my step as I trotted up Magdalen Street in search of a tongue-boiling curry for dinner. Magdalen Street is home to several good Indian restaurants, the most luxurious of which is Ali Tandoori. I went instead to Norwich Tandoori, next to Anglia Square. It's a more modest place, but I knew from my last visit that it served the best Indian food in the city. I had onion bhaji (fritters) followed by chicken tikka Madras and left breathing fire.

I ambled back down Magdalen Street, crossed the creek-like Wensum River on the tiny Fye Bridge and stopped at Ribs of Beef, a plain-looking pub popular with students from the University of East Anglia because of its excellent selection of ales. The Ribs of Beef serves Rib Cracker ale, which they brew on the premises, and it is fine indeed--dark, fruity and powerful.

Then I searched out a Norwich landmark--the Adam and Eve, one of the oldest pubs in England. The first record of the Adam and Eve is from 1249, when workmen building the nearby cathedral came here in the evenings and were paid for their labor in bread and ale. Its ceilings are low, built during a time when people were smaller, and there are several little rooms in which you can enjoy a pint while its loquacious landlady, Rita, tells you stories about the pub's history.

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