The visit to Norwich that wasn’t

If we can’t go to our usual Heritage Open Days destination then it will just have to come to us…

For at least the last five years, if not longer, we have spent this weekend just gone in Norwich. It is an important highlight of our year. We have booked campsites, stayed in hotels and made one-day dashes up and down the A11 in order to be in one of our favourite cities for two of our favourite events. Those are the annual Norwich Print Fair at St Margaret’s Church, and the Heritage Open Days festival. In 2019 we booked a stay in the visitor accommodation at the University of East Anglia, where we first met as teenagers, and we wandered misty-eyed at dusk around campus scaring rabbits and marvelling at how we hadn’t done this for nearly 30 years and how it simultaneously didn’t seem that long and yet really was an impossibly long time ago.

We made several reverent pilgrimages in these years to the John Jarrold Print Museum, which to our great regret no longer exists in the form we knew, after the land was sold from under it for development. And who honestly knows whether we will be visiting again? (We certainly do hope that the trustees’ persistence pays off and that the working elements might one day be restored.) We toured the Great Hospital (much to be recommended, especially the Eagle Ward time capsule) and went inside the Colman headquarters to see the remains of Carrow Abbey which lie alongside the (I think now former) home of the international condiment empire. We’ve been for Shardlake-inspired guided tours around Kett’s Heights and retraced the path of the eponymous rebel leader and his peasant army down from Mousehold and across Bishop’s Bridge into Tombland. We went inside the old Cathedral library, into the chilly storerooms at the East Anglian Film Archive, strolled around the Bishop’s Garden and enjoyed free visits to Strangers’ Hall and the Museum of Norwich, where we were taken for a guided tour of the undercroft and saw the Jacquard loom in action, making the building shake. We’ve been to the National Trust’s textile conservation studio and browsed South Asian arts and crafts inside the Old Skating Rink, now home to the South Asia Collection and something that every visitor to Norwich should see. We have been on walking tours north of the river, visited the site of Julian of Norwich’s cell, descended into the bowels of St Andrew’s and Blackfriars Halls, been inside St John Maddermarket and the lovely St Augustine’s (we have failed, year after year, to see inside the third CCT church, St Laurence despite its location right next door to the Print Fair). And I won’t swear that is absolutely everything.

We have returned laden with printmaking supplies and equipment, printing inspiration and a better understanding of techniques, having seen the work of artists that start to feel like friends after you meet them year after year. So you may imagine, dear reader, that while there are many serious inconveniences of COVID-19 that outstrip having to cancel a bit of sightseeing, we were still a little mournful about the facts that 1) every ounce of common sense and prudence dictated that we ought to stay away this year, 2) the print show was cancelled and 3) that Heritage Open Days was likely to be a shadow of its usual self.

Therefore, if we can’t go to Norwich, Norwich will have to come to us.

We are lucky to live in Hitchin, a market town in north Hertfordshire with a great deal of history and heritage, its former wealth founded on wool and with the requisite bloody great big parish church and market place to prove it. It has in the past thrown open many usually-closed doors for the HODS event. So we designed our own itinerary to shadow some of the events that we might have taken part in had we been able to travel. Here they are.

Do some printmaking

We are members of the British Printing Society’s Publishing Group and usually take part in its bimonthly challenge. Here is some work we did in mid-September:

Explore our local version of Kett’s Heights

Windmill Hill isn’t quite so high, or quite so remote, and it doesn’t have Mousehold Heath as a hinterland. But it does have a semi-secret outdoor theatre which our local amateur dramatic society would love to get back into action.

Visit the North Herts museum

The district has a relatively new museum, replacing two older town museums that had definitely got to the point of needing a revamp. The process of setting up this museum was immensely bitter, fraught and problematic, so much so that it took about six years to sort out, created ill feeling throughout the district, and generated a string of news stories. As a result, we didn’t visit, preferring to just steer clear until everything was sorted out and all the negativity had blown over. Like many other things affected by COVID restrictions, we were prompted to revisit our attitude to this. Before March we would routinely drive around the country to visit museums – on one memorable occasion making an eight-hour round trip to Dorset – so why on earth not go to the local one? As a result of infection control measures we had a personal guided tour from a lovely member of staff and learned that it is a gem that is definitely worth a visit.

Go on a churches tour

Very few places in England can compete with Norwich and its reputation for once having a church for every week of the year (and a pub for every day). Positioned as we are on the fringes of East Anglia, we still have access to some marvellous churches, both redundant and in regular use. We decided that, while church touring would be fun, it would add too much to this weekend to be a good idea. But a future church tour is planned. At the moment it will provisionally take in St Faith’s, Kelshall, which is an active parish church; the CCT churches at St Andrew’s Buckland and St John’s Duxford, and also Duxford Chapel. A separate blog post should follow.

And finally… eat pizza and waffles

For people of our age who started out in the city as students the great culinary institutions of Norwich were The Waffle House in St Giles, still standing, and Tombland’s Pizza One, Pancakes Too, sadly late of this parish. The Dominoes Pizza branch at the top of Prince of Wales Road, which catered for many a youthful night out and hurried tourist stop off over the years, is also no more, culled in favour of lesser branches in the suburbs. But this means that any weekend celebrating the Fine City must involve eating pizza and waffles. So we did.

Visiting Lakenham Lido

It’s not unknown for us to organise whole holidays based around outdoor swimming.  We’ll travel all round the country, to visit particular lidos, or to seek out a really good wild swimming spot. And, a year or two ago, we managed to come up with quite a twist on this, locating completely by accident the site of a much-loved local swimming pool that’s been closed for more than 20 years.

Norfolk currently has, as far as I am aware,  no formal outdoor swimming facilities whatsoever (I would be very glad to be proved wrong about this but I can find no evidence to the contrary). This is despite there once being a wealth of outdoor pools, at Yarmouth and Gorleston, in Lakenham and Earlham, and elsewhere in the county. However, Lakenham was closed in 1992, at first temporarily, amid claims that it would need £100,000 worth of repairs. The Evening News also refers to an unsuccessful campaign to keep it open.

We lived in Norwich for a few years from the late 80s, one of us down in Lakenham for part of that time, and swimming in that pool (albeit with extremely hazy memories of where it was and what it was like). Fast-forward to the present when we decided to take a last-minute camping holiday in Norwich and booked ourselves in to the local Camping and Caravanning Club site. I’m deeply interested in the subject of outdoor swimming, and I was determined to discover what had happened to the pool. We knew it had to be very close to this area, probably accessible off Martineau Lane. This campsite is less than 100 yards from a little tributary of the River Yare, I would guess a leftover from the time when there was water-powered industry in this area – Old Lakenham Mill would once have been nearby.

We walked along the riverside path that adjoins the campsite, expecting to come across tile and concrete ruins at any moment, only to be cut off by the railway and forced to turn back towards the site.  Memories of actually visiting were so hazy that they provided no help. Stymied, we turned to the internet and checked out some rather interesting online information on the Old Lakenham Conservation area [PDF ]dating to 2008. We found the proof in the maps and in the text that our tent was pitched almost precisely in the middle of what had once been a magnificent and very popular 80-yard swimming pool.

Caravan and Camping Club Norwich site
Now a camping field. This was probably the view from shallow to deep end

For dedicated outdoor swimmers and lido visitors, that was more than a little unsettling – not unlike being camped directly over some historic grave. If you’d like to take a look for yourself, click on this campsite panorama link and choose the green dot that’s nearest the left-hand side of the diagram. Or compare this, and the images in this blog post, with this Evening News image which gives the clearest comparison to the modern-day layout I have found.

Norwich Campsite
Another view of the modern site – the view across what once was the pool.

According to the Evening News article and the Conservation Area appraisal document, the original pool was built in 1908 and fed from a nearby tributary of the River Yare. It became an important focus for the local community, hosted large-scale swimming galas, and was used by both the local police and by airmen stationed nearby. According to this article charting the history of the Norwich Swans Swimming Club, the lido was isolated from the river and chlorinated in 1951, changing rooms having been added in the 1930s. The pool at its biggest was an epic 80 yards long (your nearest local authority pool is most likely a rather poor 25 metres, and an Olympic-sized pool 50 metres). The planning document claims that all traces of the pool were removed after its closure – but that’s not quite true.

Traces of the old Lakenham Lido?
A telling difference in ground levels. Was this once the edge of the lido site and the start of the water meadow?

To the north of the camping field there’s a drain cover that stands a foot or more clear of the current grassy surface in a concrete plinth. I reckon that marks the ground level of the lido construction, and there are some more traces of concrete and a marked difference of level along the southern boundary, where the camping field meets the water meadow. Something striking about this boundary is that all the trees along it are a lot less than mature – definitely under 20 years old.

Traces of concrete at the old lido site
Not all the remains have gone. There is still some concrete to be found on the site.

Most evocative is the entrance gate and path, in a section of historic wall, shown below courtesy of Google Street View in May 2017. It is very easy to picture this as a swimming pool entrance, and it is the one part of the complex that stirred memories in one of us that had been here before:

I’d like to think that these days we’d have a slightly more sympathetic approach to a historic pool – lidos are now recognised, some of the time at least, as fantastic community assets, but the history of public pools in Norwich is quite chequered. St Augustines – open for not much more than 30 years, a large, deep pool with a proper diving pit. I swam in this and, while admittedly not the most attractive venue I have ever visited, it was the real deal, a pool for proper swimming. That was closed very suddenly in 1996 leaving swimmers with the Aquapark up in Hellesdon – a pool that was fun to visit but not great for actually swimming in, with a deep end I could almost stand up in – I am not particularly tall. This is now a private health club and the latest pool is a smart new facility in Riverside – which, when paired with the Sportspark pool in Earlham Park, adjoining the UEA, probably means the city has the best facilities it’s enjoyed for a quite a while.

But no lido. A lido is an investment in a certain set of values – affordable access to fresh air, exercise and leisure, community and public space, a rejection of exclusivity and privilege. And the site of the former Lakenham Lido is apparently still in local authority hands. The Caravan and Camping Club has a lease with less than 10 years left to run, and building on the site is forbidden. The conservation area was amended in 2003 to include the former swimming pool area.

Yare tributary
Yare tributary: The river that once fed the pool.

So what could the future hold for this fascinating site? I have to admit to immense relief that it’s remained undeveloped. To find some modern leisure pool, industrial units or (even worse) a poor-quality housing development on top of it would have been heartbreaking. It’s probably preposterous to imagine it could ever be redeveloped into a public swimming pool again. But the magic of the place at the moment is that the ghost of the pool is still present, just beyond the edge of vision. You can imagine it so clearly, find the little bits of physical evidence that are left.

We were very naïve, however, to think we had made some great discovery. At one point, when we were peering at a boundary, comparing levels and taking pictures, we attracted the attention of a camper stationed nearby. We explained what we were doing. “You’re the third person to have told me that,” he said. The campsite manager knew all about it too (obviously). Lakenham Lido was a part of the childhood of so many local people that it still looms large. People are making Facebook posts about it. There is an opportunity for the council to do something magnificent here. But I suspect the notion that they would is nothing but the dream of a hot summer day.

Originally written and published in 2014.