A Walk with Thomas Browne

by Hugh Aldesey-Williams

This is part of the Walking Norwich series.

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Thomas Browne would have called it a tollutation – an amble at a good clip, a walk with a purpose, and one he must have made frequently, between his house (marked by a plaque on Pret a Manger) opposite Hay Hill, where his statue now surveys the scene, to the meadow down by the river past the cathedral where he retreated to be alone in nature. Tollutation was one of the many words that he invented. Others proved more enduring: medical, electricity, migrant, ulterior, antediluvian and hundreds more. Incontrovertible. Hallucination . . .

Browne was a physician in seventeenth-century Norwich, but he is remembered now for his magnificent, flowing prose in melancholic essays about organic growth and death, in his confessional autobiography, Religio Medici (‘The Faith of a Doctor’), and in his longest and most popular work debunking ‘fake news’, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors. Outside the Body Shop is perhaps a good place to consider his motives for this last work. He was keen for people not to believe foolish things or to fall for false remedies. Is gold curative? Do unicorns exist? Are people of other races to be feared? Browne provided answers.

A Walk with Thomas Browne map
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A large carved swan overhead marks the site of the former Swan Tavern on Swan Lane. The fabled swansong was another popular myth Browne thought about. ‘From great Antiquity,’ he wrote, ‘the Musical note of Swans hath been commended, and that they sing most sweetly before their death.’ He wondered if their long necks might permit them to emit unusual tones, but in the end he deferred to modern naturalists who observed no such thing. Besides, he had his personal experience to count on; the ‘immusical note’ of every swan he had ever heard ultimately decide him against.

Quickly pass St George Tombland, a place of extreme Protestant worship when Browne settled in the city, and certainly not to his taste. They were divided times. In his own faith, as in all aspects of his life, he sought an equable middle ground. He wrote: ‘I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason.’

Cross Tombland to enter Cathedral Close through the Ethelbert Gateway. On the left, the carved doorway of the white-painted house would have made Browne smile. A pair of pelicans are seen pecking blood from their breasts to feed their young – an emblematic vision, familiar on heraldic crests, which he considered as originating in an ancient Egyptian myth before it was adopted as a symbol of Christian redemption, the ‘pelican in her piety’.

If you are walking in the spring, pause to observe the catkins on the trees in front of the house. The infinite lozenge array seen scored across their surface set Browne’s mind racing. He saw the pattern echoed in many plant forms and in many human designs (you will find it in brickwork elsewhere in the Close, if you look). To Browne, the shape he called the quincunx was indicative of the significance of the number five in organic nature. Mysteriously, modern science concurs with Browne on this. The recreation of a Benedictine garden of medicinal herbs a few yards along is also laid out in a quincunx. Beyond is the cathedral itself, a building Browne had seen ransacked during the Commonwealth years, for which he compiled an inventory of its tombs.

Walk on towards the ferry house – new in Browne’s day. On the flint wall on your right is another plaque, marking the site of Thomas Browne’s Meadow. Here perhaps he grew his own medicinal herbs, or maybe the tulips that had caused such a furore in nearby Holland, or any number of quincunxial plants. We shall never know. Their roots lie now beneath the tarmac of a car park, and below those roots who knows what bones and treasures of time?

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Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer and curator. He lives with his family near Aylsham. The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta) won the General Non-Fiction Prize at the East Anglian Book Awards in 2015. He is currently working on a book about the astronomer and inventor Christiaan Huygens and the science of the Dutch Golden Age.

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