Norwich’s Writing Quarter – a day at the National Centre for Writing and other explorations

I wonder how many of you regard a day’s professional development as a self-indulgence?  I suspect it may be something unique to writers and other creatives, but I was struck by the use of the words ‘self-indulgence’ no fewer than three times in the first hour of Saturday’s event at the National Centre for Writing.  It seems that a lot of us have difficultly permitting ourselves the investment of time and money into our development as writers.

The National Centre for Writing (formerly the Writers’ Centre Norwich) is based at Dragon Hall on King Street in Norwich, and provides resources, mentoring and events for writers – both online and face to face.  Saturday’s event was entitled The Writer’s Roadmap, and took place in the great hall, upstairs at Dragon Hall.  The wonderful Florence Reynolds is the Programme Officer, and welcomed us to a superbly organised day in a unique venue.

I should warn you (if you haven’t already gathered from elsewhere in this blog) that I am something of a medieval history nerd, so spending a day in Dragon Hall was, frankly, distracting!  According to the Dragon Hall website, there has been a building on this site for more than a thousand years – Florence told me that there is evidence of a Saxon post hut beneath the undercroft.  The present building was built around 1430 by a merchant, Robert Toppes, although one of the outbuildings is believed to be a century older.  Originally a trading hall, it backed on to the River Wensum, which via the River Yare gave access to the North Sea at Great Yarmouth.  It was part of Norwich’s major role in the trading of wool and textiles, especially to and from the Low Countries, during the middle ages, on which the wealth of East Anglia was built.  Now a Grade I listed building, parts of it have at various points been houses, tenements (housing up to 150 people in the 19th century), a pub, a butchers, and the rectory for nearby St Julian’s Church (of which more later).

We were upstairs in the Great Hall, where the one remaining carved dragon (there were 14 originally) has been rescued from under a pile of rubbish in an outbuilding, restored, and put back where it belongs in the beams of the splendid roof.  Another treat was the remnants of Victorian wallpaper, which Florence pointed out.  It’s lovely that NCW are so evidently proud of the building, and great to see that it’s in daily use and living again.

The event was both enjoyable and very useful, an opportunity to meet with other writers (we tend to be a fairly solitary lot) and also to get some high-quality input from writers with a wide range of experience.  Molly Naylor, who described herself has having a portfolio career which includes poetry as well as writing for stage and screen, spoke about working across boundaries of genre, and the importance of finding our unique ‘voice’.  Victoria Adukwei Bulley spoke about opportunities for residencies and commissions, and showed us some of the output from her residency at the V&A.

But the highlight for me was Edward Parnell, who took us through his experiences with getting his first (prizewinning) novel published and then moving, almost by accident, into creative non-fiction.  As a writer of non-fiction, I often feel that writers’ events and courses aren’t really for me as they tend to focus on fiction and/or poetry (very occasionally scriptwriting) but never non-fiction.  It was a treat to be at something which was explicitly for writers like me – and as well as being an engaging speaker, Edward was generous with his time, staying around to chat afterwards (and signing a copy of his non-fiction book, Ghostland, for me!).

At lunchtime I went exploring.  The Church of St Julian is literally across the road from Dragon Hall, and I had intended visiting many times when in Norwich but never quite got around to it because it’s a little way from the city centre.  This is the place where the woman known as Mother Julian or Julian of Norwich lived as an anchoress (a hermit attached to a church) during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  Her cell has not survived, but a chapel has been built on the presumed location, on the south side of St Julian’s Church, and there is a shrine to her there, as well as an information centre just up the hill from the church.  Julian (note – the name we know her by is the name of the church she was attached to; we don’t actually know what she was called) wrote the earliest surviving book in English by a woman, the Revelations of Divine Love.  This work was the result of a mystical experience when she was seriously ill and near death, and was revolutionary in its emphasis on God as ever-loving (not a concept the medieval church embraced).  It survived though convoluted channels of transmission in the UK and Europe, mostly treasured by nuns, and in the 20th century became a classic text of Christian spirituality.  Perhaps the most-quoted line is “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

This part of Norwich is becoming the Writing Quarter, with the National Centre for Writing now based here, and with the history of the first female author in English at St Julian’s.  And from 2020 the Norwich Printing Museum (formerly the John Jarrold Printing Museum) will be relocating to new premises in the restored St Peter Parmentergate Church on King Street.  The collection tells the story of the printed word since the middle of the 15th century when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type for printing and the age of the printed book was born.  For anyone interested in the written word, a short walk around King Street in Norwich will take you from Julian’s quill, to the printed book, to the laptops of today’s writers.

Liverpool – impressions

I’ve recently moved to Liverpool – quite a change from rural Somerset!  I had been visiting regularly for a while, so I realised that my Honda CR-V, while perfect for yomping across Exmoor and tackling fords was possibly not the idea vehicle for parallel parking in the city.  So I test drove a range of ‘normal’ cars, which all felt like driving a go-cart by comparison, eventually settling on a middle-aged VW Golf.  Moving to the city has increased my car insurance by roughly 60%.  Cars up here seem to be much newer, much more likely to have chrome and tinted windows, and there is a conspicuous absence of mud…I am going to have to get used to the idea of spending money at the car wash if I’m not to be horribly conspicuous in my road-grimed car…

Today the sun was shining and I could justify playing hookey and going into the city centre.  Public transport here is the best in England outside of London, but I am driving most of the time at the moment as it’s a great way to familiarise myself with the geography of the city.  Today I parked near the Anglican cathedral, and walked down Duke Street to Liverpool One, passing the great gate or paifan of China Town on the way.  It’s the largest outside of China, as befitting the oldest Chinese community in Europe.  Nelson Street is garlanded with red lanterns in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend.

Next stop was the Tate, on Albert Dock, where I wanted to look at the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition.   The red brick of the older buildings in the dock area glowed warmly in the winter sunshine, and despite being off season there were still tourists from all over the world – in a few minutes I’d identified Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish and German being spoken.  I love the cosmopolitan vibe in this city!

I had some Christmas gift vouchers to spend, so from the Tate I walked the short distance to Liverpool One and indulged in a little retail therapy.  Midweek in January is an excellent time to shop – lots of sales, but relatively few shoppers.  It’s fair to say that am not an enthusiastic shopper, but it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s peaceful.  To celebrate having successfully tracked down all three items on my list, I carried on up the hill to Bold Street in search of lunch.  Bold Street is a hub of ethnic restaurants and quirky shops.  To be honest, I generally feel a bit old and un-hipster when I go there, especially at today’s trendy lunch venue: Leaf.  I’ve been there for tea before, but not for lunch.  I opted for Moroccan chicken sandwich with broccoli soup on the side, and it was not disappointing – full of flavour and fresh ingredients.  A nice touch is the tap water (I was being stingy).  It comes with a tang of fresh mint, dispensed from a giant glass jar with a tap, which is on the bar so you can help yourself to refills.

Twenty minutes’ walk took me back to where I’d left the car, and I drove home in the sunshine, feeling glad to be in such a beautiful and vibrant city.  There is so much more to explore: the range of world-class museums and galleries, the library (to research my father’s family who came here from Wales in the late 19th century), and the constantly changing panorama of the River Mersey.