Norwich by the Book(shop)
by Peggy Hughes
This is part of the Walking Norwich series.
Norwich’s charming winding streets offer universes of possibility, so you can choose your own adventure and start your walk wherever you like. I commence mine opposite the Cathedral at Tombland, where my first port of call (after a customary visit to Julian of Norwich outside the Cathedral, author of the first book written by a woman in the English language, in 1395), is Tombland Books. Housed in a fine, 15th century building, you’ll find the walls and floors, in local parlance, a tad on the huh*. This is the largest bookshop of its type in East Anglia, with a constantly changing stock of secondhand and antiquarian books on most subjects displayed on two floors: if they can’t find what you’re looking for, it’s probably not worth having.
Exit, turn left and left again, and you’ve travelled back in time to Elm Hill. Churlish to quibble its accolade as one of the UK’s bonniest streets, all cobbles and street lamps, and featured in the film version of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, today it’s home to a stretch of curious boutiques, including your next date: Dormouse Books. This tiny treasure trove is stuffed from the flagstones to the ceiling with pre-loved books of all stripes, and a particularly fine line in classic children’s literature. You might lose yourself among these shelves but you’ll rediscover your childhood here.
Drag yourself away. Consider a vital scone pitstop at the entirely charming Briton Arms. Head along Princes Street, past Cinema City via Norwich’s famous (and famously circuitous) medieval Lanes to the gleaming beacon that is the Book Hive (b. 2009). Allow self a small appreciative sigh. Stylish, passionate Book Hive, home to publishing imprint Propolis, with its lovingly curated selection of books and its fairytale stairs to the fiction floor (above which Margaret Atwood is said to have finished her novel The Heart Goes Last). Burrow in for a browse and stay for one of the many events and launches that happen here, particularly Page Against the Machine, a weekly ode to reading in which attendees step away from their phones and immerse in a book for an hour.
Thence: down the hill with you, the City Hall and its iconic lions passant ahead, and just before the market plain, on your right hand side, you’ll light upon Jarrold, jewel in Norwich’s independent retail crown. Jarrold have been selling books on London Street since 1823, and with a hugely experienced staff, an especially impressive local interest selection and Chapters café adjacent to the bookshop, you might find no reason to ever leave this East Anglian institution.
Lunch next, and if you’ve managed to resist Jarrolds’ allure, there’s no place better than Norwich’s covered market. One of the largest and oldest open-air markets in the country, the menu on offer among the many stalls is nonetheless bang up to date: Churros & Chorizo, lasagne, falafel, fresh bread and cheese, a stall dedicated to mushy peas… like Norwich’s book shops, there’s something here for all tastes. And at Row A/top of the market, at stall 18, you’ll find the world’s only handmade leatherware and bookstall mashup.
The Millennium Library, behind the market, isn’t a bookshop, but don’t let that stop you. It’s England’s busiest library, in terms of both footfall and borrowing figures, with a cracking and extremely current collection, lots of pockets for a sit down and a read, and an unparalleled view of the majestic St Peter Mancroft church. Robert Toppes, the wealthy merchant who built Dragon Hall, today home to the National Centre for Writing, used some of his enormous fortune to buy himself a stained glass window: if you pop in you can still see some surviving panels in the east window.
This section of your tour may be over, but your adventure is far from an end: there’s still Oxfam and City Books and JR & RK Ellis (with its chair sat upon by the bottom of Arthur Miller) and Amnesty on Unthank Road and Waterstones. Not to mention all the gorgeous books you’ve bought…
* on the huh: A phrase from the Norfolk dialect used to describe a something that is not level or awry.
Peggy Hughes is the Programme Director at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich (since 2017). She is also Chair of Literature Alliance Scotland, and on the boards of 404Ink and Open Book Reading. She is from Northern Ireland, studied English Literature at the University of St Andrews (2002-2006), and after graduating worked in literature at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust and the University of Dundee. In her spare time Peggy likes being outdoors, talking, walking, reading, and playing harmonica.