Magdalen Gates to Fye Bridge

Keiron Pim

This is part of the Walking Norwich series.

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From my attic window off St Clements Hill the city spreads south before me, the cranes and cathedrals, medieval churches and City Hall protruding beyond russet terrace roofs, from which hundreds of chimneypots gleam in the lemony sunlight of a winter morning. Somewhere between the houses an obscured Magdalen Road leads to Magdalen Street, the northern stretch of an old axis bisecting Norwich: in crossing Fye Bridge it becomes Wensum Street, which leads to Tombland, and beyond the Anglo-Saxon marketplace the route flows from Upper King Street into King Street. I leave home and walk down the hill into the picture, to examine a section that provokes snobbery among some from the city’s more affluent areas, but I have grown to love.

Magdalen Gates to Fye Bridge map
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Magdalen Street doesn’t introduce itself politely to the visitor arriving from the north, I’ll admit. Passing through the crude archway in the medieval flint wall prompts the tingle of crossing an ancient threshold; but then you approach one of the city’s worst architectural crime scenes. Perhaps the early 1960s were the street’s apex: after a thoughtful refurbishment led by the designer Sir Misha Black, and before the brutal imposition of the flyover and Anglia Square. The condemned square feels provisional now, waiting between its past and mooted redevelopment. If the government doesn’t overrule the city council, a blunt high-rise tower will ascend over northern Norwich like a middle finger to all the opposing residents and heritage bodies with their antiquated ideas about ‘retaining local character’. For now, you walk on absorbed by the distractions the street offers at eye level: the constant surface changes playing over the fixed heritage, the odd frictions when genteel history chafes with the present, the Georgian and Victorian buildings housing mobile phone repairers, vape vendors, nail salons. Soon on my right I see Throckmorton Yard, 1980s housing built over the long-demolished church of St Margaret Ubi Sepeliunter Suspensi, where the medieval hanged were buried face-down. Now comes the first of the street’s bric-a-brac, pawn, secondhand vinyl and charity shops, which comprise Norwich’s greatest repository of esoterica: it is bliss to trawl them for treasures amid the detritus. By the flyover one occupies a building with dormer windows in which 17th century ‘Strangers’ sat weaving; then comes the sweet St Saviour’s church, with its ornate Georgian gravestones. A drunk man once collared me by the churchyard and urged me to look up at the trees, from which a pink snowfall of blossom drifted before the flyover: “Isn’t it beautiful?” he said, and it was, and he staggered away. Now a young mother navigates a pushchair down the too-narrow pavement, smiling anxious thanks to patient pedestrians. A glimpse down a gated alley to the white-stuccoed, sash-windowed Gurney House, once home to Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) and Harriet Martineau (1802-76), but now divided into smaller residences. A junkie couple argue their way down the road within their opiate bubble, oblivious to the glances of passers-by. Faded photographs of anonymous patients in the windows of the Chinese medicine centre; the street amounts to an eclectic world market, and elsewhere are Asian and Eastern European grocers, street food from Jerusalem, north African and Kurdish cafés. By an Afro hair salon two middle-aged African men lean in a carved Jacobean doorway, smoking roll-ups and speaking French, echoing the centuries when this was a Norman city. Their tobacco’s dry tang blends with brewing coffee, warm spices from Indian restaurants, a beery fug from the King’s Head, and I spin into a dream. The surreal is never far away here. Jehovah’s Witnesses laugh at their stall beneath the flyover. Puddles reflect clouds through an oily sheen like an abstract rainbow. Glass-eyed stuffed birds and disembodied dolls’ heads glower in the pawnbrokers. My translucent reflection turns to me as it ghosts along the broad window of the Oxfam shop, and the great willow sways over the Wensum to its own slow tempo. Every time you reach Fye Bridge, you’ve absorbed a new melange of perceptions: now, can you show me a more stimulating street in Norwich?

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Keiron Pim grew up in Aylsham and lives in Norwich. He is writing a biography of the novelist Joseph Roth. His last book, Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld (Jonathan Cape) was named ‘the best debut’ biography of 2016 in The Guardian and a Book of the Year by The
Times. He is also an editor, mentor, proof-reader, nonfiction tutor and journalist.

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