Author of Nimita’s Place, Akshita Nanda, explores Norwich’s Tombland online.
From scrolling through the Eastern Daily Press website to watching eerie Youtube videos, Akshita has stepped into virtual Tombland to report on all its peculiarities. Akshita learnt about myths and legends, as well as carrying out research on the etymology and origins of the word ‘Tombland’ itself. With a sense of foreboding as she finds out more, Akshita uncovers forgotten histories of this iconic Norwich location.
The creepiest walk in Norwich?
Tombland gets its name from a Danish word meaning ‘open’ or ’empty space’, I am told. Perhaps but thanks to an online trove of newspaper clippings, my mind has already peopled the former market area with buried skeletons, inadvertent time-travellers and a poor, plague-ridden cannibal ghost.
Thanks to sites such as Weird Norwich and the ‘weird Norfolk’ section of the Eastern Daily Press, I imagine Tombland as the creepiest walk in Norwich. If physically present in the city, I would give it a wide berth even during the day. During this virtual residency, however, I allow YouTube vloggers to be my guide, albeit only during sunshine hours.
I start with a video cheerily titled ‘Haunted Norwich at Night 4K – a full moon walk through the plague pits of Tombland Alley’. Ominous music makes me shiver despite the bright afternoon heat in Singapore.
The video starts with the sorry tale of the ghost of Augustine Steward House. In 1578, a family was accidentally sealed in the house while being too sick with the plague to protest. The parents died first and their child choked to death on their bones. I forego watching the rest.
A vlogger channel titled Harry’s Happenings adds an ironic twist to the tale – the Augustine Steward House is now home to a Real Escape Game, where punters can pay for the pleasure of being locked in a possibly haunted room and solve mysteries to get out.
Despite that eerie interlude, Harry’s vlog captivates me. He films Tombland in the daylight and shows me interesting places such as the antiquarian Tombland Bookstore, and St George Tombland church.
Ethelbert’s Gate is beautiful – I skip the part about it being the site of 13th century mob violence – and I am charmed by the Samson and Hercules house, and its quirky statues upholding the doorway. (Harry has little to say about its history but given its proximity to the Augustine Steward house, I have to check online. Yes, as expected, the Samson and Hercules house is also haunted by three plague ghosts from 1578. Perhaps they keep a paternal eye on the child ghost next door.)
My overactive imagination needs a break. I stare out at the purple bougainvillea blooms that dot my window box. Tree ferns rustle in the afternoon wind and the sky is blue. Yet the eerie charm of Tombland sends a cold thrill down my back.
Tombland reminds me of an elevated alley in Hong Kong I once walked through, where a chill wind blew in the height of summer – but only a handful of people in my group experienced it. Tombland is, after all, named for an open or empty space. With a name like that, the street is ripe for reimagining every second.
Tombland reminds me of an elevated alley in Hong Kong I once walked through, where a chill wind blew in the height of summer
The universe itself might be confused about the nature of Tombland. That’s my theory to explain what happened to the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe over 30 years ago.
Until 2012, Tombland housed underground toilets that the Eastern Daily Press called ‘the creepiest toilets in Norwich’. Sometime in the 1990s, the Reverend Fanthorpe and his wife Patricia were hailed by a worried woman whose husband had gone into the toilet a while ago and was not responding to her calls. Had he fallen down? Had he had a heart attack? A traffic warden had gone in to check and found no one.
The priest went into the toilets as well, and found them empty. He and his wife were trying to console the woman when her dazed husband finally walked up the stairs. He said he had tried to come out earlier but could see neither his wife, nor his car. It was as if he had time-travelled into the future or another dimension.
The toilets were deemed ‘unusable’ by 2018 and the site of the toilets was dug up three years later. It has been turned into a walking path plus extra outdoor seating for restaurants. Harry’s vlog shows a pleasant shopping district and no sign of the six skeletons shockingly unearthed by workmen during the construction. No news of their ghosts either but it is early days yet.
I end my virtual tour of Tombland by focusing on the bright red telephone boxes near the former time-slip toilet. The disused phone boxes used to serve as a pop-up store selling collectible cacti and have recently been turned into a tiny off-licence titled the Beer Hatch. It’s a happy fate for the historic booths and a reminder that when there is open or empty space, a bit of imagination can fill it up with something very unexpected, even welcome.
- Haunted Norwich at Night 4K – a full moon walk through the plague pits of Tombland Alley https://youtu.be/rkNUBr4qcdk
- A walk in…Tombland Norwich https://youtu.be/IBMTnjj0Vdc
Akshita Nanda is a journalist, analyst and author of the novels Beauty Queens of Bishan (Penguin Random House SEA) and Nimita’s Place (Epigram Books). Nimita’s Place was adapted for the stage in 2019 by arts group T:>Works and in 2020 co-won the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction.
Akshita’s fiction explores the migration of people and ideas – beliefs, fashions, memes, technology – and also how the dislocated become local. During her residency, she focussed on how such migration is accelerated through globalisation, and how this changes people’s lives.
In 2022, the National Centre for Writing offered three virtual residencies for writers from Singapore, generously supported by the National Arts Council of Singapore. The writers were Akshita Nanda, Crispin Rodrigues and Daryl Qilin Yam. Over the six months, the Singaporean writers worked on a project with a UK-based writer as mentor. They also met online with writers and translators connected with Norwich, took part in an interview for The Writing Life podcast and participated in Meet the World events. At the end of the residency, we commissioned a piece from each writer reflecting on their residency and their writing. They also contributed writing tips and a blog for Walking Norwich. Read more here →
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