There’s nothing that quite explains England’s love for fish and chips better than witnessing it in person on a snowy afternoon in the medieval town of Norwich. It’s 1pm, but the sun’s low enough to make you feel it’s evening. There are at least 20 people in the queue at a takeaway fish and chips counter in Norwich Market. Evidently, the piping hot, batter-fried haddock is worth the wait. The marketplace too has played a role in the life of the townsfolk since a millennium. Traders and merchants sold their wares here as long ago as the 11th century. The rest, as they say is history, of which Norwich is certainly proud.
A stall nearby sells only mushy peas, and at that moment I know that Norwich takes its peas very seriously. While mushy peas are a side dish in bigger cities, here it is possible to buy them with chips and fish on the side. I see other counters stocking bangers (English sausages) and mash, Cornish pasties, pork burgers with apple sauce and fresh winter vegetables, and I realise that English street food is far from boring; it’s a cuisine in its own right.
Back to the meal: the fresh haddock caught from Britain’s eastern coast, is served as two fillets stacked over the other, fried golden brown. The chips are the fleshy, if not obese, counterparts to the emaciated fries usually served in fast-food restaurants. What’s conspicuously missing though, is the tartar sauce, which we Indians believe to be the authentic combination with fish and chips. In London, when I asked for tartar sauce, the waiter looked at me blank-faced and returned five minutes later with a badly fermented salad dressing. Here, chips are had with salt, pepper and vinegar.
I dole out three pounds for the meal (restaurants charge upward of six pounds), and decide to eat them straight from the pack. But when I remove my gloves, my fingers freeze and I’m forced to wolf down the chips, peas and fish all at once.
A five-minute walk from the market through cobblestoned alleys is Elm Hill, which isn’t really a hill but an untouched street from the Late Middle Ages. The street looks almost the same now as it did after it was rebuilt after 1507, when a great fire destroyed over 700 houses in Norwich. Back then, it was the posh part of town, where dignitaries and prosperous merchants resided. Some houses still sport jetties on the banks of the adjoining Wensum River, whose name comes from the Old English term ‘wandsum’ meaning ‘winding’. Barely wide enough for a single car to pass through, this short street is now well-known for its Victorian fashion stores, coffee houses and craft shops. A word of advice to the ladies: leave your stilettos behind. At the end of Elm Street lies the now decrepit church dedicated to saints Simon and Jude. Though the current structure dates from the 15th century, these grounds have housed a place of worship since 1066.
The magnificent Norwich Cathedral, a short walk from Elm Hill, will inspire different emotions in you depending on the weather. The Cathedral I saw in photos, swathed in sunlight with blue skies as a backdrop, seemed like it were eternally blessed by the seraphim, cherubim and archangels depicted on its inner walls.
The version I witness in person on this icy day evokes Britain’s cold and dark origins – about its people’s relentless determination to erect grand structures in testing environments – about their will that went on to see them colonise four continents.
The cathedral looms over Norwich’s red-bricked houses and is easily spotted from around the city. The 315m spire, later built in stone after lightning destroyed the original wooden one in 1169, is the second tallest in England. The central area of the church has elaborate work on the ceiling – and the reverent Gothic hum of the massive organ will transport you hundreds of years back in time.
The enchantment holds even when you leave the cathedral – as you walk through the streets, everything speaks to you with the wisdom that can only come through the passing of centuries. You’ll see houses unchanged from the 1700s with exposed wooden beams as their foundation – one such construction opposite the cathedral stoops a bit towards one side, much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Ale of a time
The town’s age-old grace is reflected in the manners of its citizens – ask a passerby for directions and they’ll accompany you until you’re able to continue by yourself. You can spend days discovering old sites – in fact, walking seems to be the number one hobby for the general public and the students of the prestigious institute, The University Of East Anglia. Even in winter, it’s not uncommon to see sophomores trudging their way back to college – 5km away from the city centre – after a night out at The Fat Cat or The Adam & Eve pub. Norwich is said to have once had over 50 churches – one for every week of the year and a pub for every day of the year.
The Fat Cat stocks quite a collection of ales, over 30 to be precise. Seeing as it’s impossible to try more than a few in one night (one English pint is 568ml), I settle on the Fat Cat Hell Cat that costs 2.8 pounds. Its smoky taste is undoubtedly English and matches the warm surroundings. An elderly gentleman downs two tequila shots and tells us he’s “going partying”, making us boring old folk, sipping beers and ciders on a Friday evening.
The Adam & Eve’s claim to fame is altogether different. An alehouse was first built here in 1249 from flint, brick and timber for workmen repairing the nearby Cathedral. Back then, labour was paid for with bread and beer. I notice more old-timers than adolescents at this pub, and have a chat with a geriatric English neurosurgeon discussing the magic of the human brain. The sprightly owner Rita McCluskey interrupts us when she finds out that I’m writing an article on Norwich and instantly conjures a stash of cut-outs and leaflets on the pub’s history. “Get more Indians to come here,” she says with a laugh.
Castle in the sky
The next day, en route to Norwich Castle, I walk by the Dragon Hall that functioned in the 1400s as a trading place for merchants. In the distance, I spot the castle, perched atop a mound. Commissioned by the first Norman king of England, William the Conqueror, this fortified stone keep was built sometime between 1095 and 1110AD. It was completely refaced in the 19th century with Bath stone, a certain kind of limestone. While very little of the original material used to build the keep remains, the restoration stays faithful to the original design. Used as a jail from the 13th to 19th centuries, it is now home to the Norfolk Museums & Archaeological Service. There’s a lot to look at, so keep at least half a day aside if you’re interested in Britain’s history – right from the Neolithic Era circa 10,000 BC and Roman Britain to the period of the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans.
It’s 4pm and twilight approaches as I make my way to the University Of East Anglia. I take a detour around the UEA Broad – a shallow lake with a thin layer of ice on its surface. There’s a small fenland where reedmace (also called cattail) grows in abundance. This type of plant thrives in marshland and its cotton-like seeds float about in the air like candyfloss through a turbine. Some kids up ahead brush the stalks against the trees and the cotton fluff floats towards me. My attempts to catch some of it are futile, but at that instant, I somehow get a taste of quintessential English life.
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Norwich, approximately 200km north of London, is accessible via flight, train and bus from the capital. Ticket prices range from 5-20 GBP for a bus, 50 GBP and upward for a train and approximately 150 GBP for a flight.
Norwich’s summer temperatures range from 10-20°C. Winter sees temperatures drop to 2-8°C with plenty of snowfall. It rains throughout the year.
Carry a macintosh or umbrella regardless of the time of year as it can rain anytime.
For the winter months, you’ll need to carry thermal wear, cardigans and fleece jackets to keep yourself warm.
Ales are as English as it gets.
If you’re a fan of beer, you should try as many as you can in Norwich’s pubs.
There are significantly fewer food options available for vegetarians.
From HT Brunch, March 24
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