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Now Leaving London: Norwich and Sandringham

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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Colorful buildings line the Wensum River in Norwich.

Two hours from Liverpool Street Station

Two ladies with shopping bags were eyeing the cheese and local Norfolk sausage in Norwich’s 900-year-old marketplace when one turned to the other and asked, “Did you go to Zadie Smith?” They were discussing the best-selling author of White Teeth, who’d been in town for one of the twice-yearly literary festivals organized and hosted by the University of East Anglia.

As even a first-time visitor will soon discover, Norwich loves writers. This is a place where people actually stop to chat about books and authors.

You don’t have to be a writer or a bibliophile to love Norwich, but this ancient city in Norfolk has lots of tales to tell and a literary tradition that dates back to the 14th century.

The stories begin to unfold as soon as you hop into one of the City Boats outside Norwich’s train station and glide down the River Wensum to the Norwich Cathedral Quarter. One of the most famous writers you’ve never heard of, Julian of Norwich, wrote her mystical treatise, Revelations of Divine Love, while walled up in a cell in St. Julian’s on Kilderkin Way. In so doing, the 14th-century anchoress became the first known woman to write a book in English.

It’s easy to see why the atmospheric cathedral quarter, with its medieval parish churches and crooked stone buildings and half-timbered Tudor houses, would appeal to a writer. Historical novelist Rachel Hore, who moved here ten years ago, says that when she wanders the old streets, “it’s as though voices from Norwich’s past are whispering to me.”

Visit in July, when the Lord Mayor’s Celebration turns Norwich into a citywide carnival and the Shakespeare Festival transforms the cloisters of Norwich’s immense Romanesque cathedral into a stage for the Bard’s plays.

Step inside Dragon Hall, a medieval trading hall with massive oak ceiling beams—a testament to a time when the city was nearly as rich and important as London, thanks to its lucrative wool trade and status as the capital of the pre-Norman kingdom of East Anglia.

Norwich’s bookish flavor extends even to its dining and café scenes. The Library Restaurant Bar and Grill, next to the 15th-century Guildhall, serves local favorites such as pan-fried cod and wood-grilled chicken in a 19th-century library. Pop in for a piece of cake at the intimate Tea House on Elm Hill, the city’s finest medieval street, and you may see a literary aspirant or two chasing the muse as they quaff a cuppa. One of the most popular literary hangouts is the Book Hive, a wonderfully browsable bookstore where author appearances draw adoring crowds.

You probably won’t hear any literary gossip at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth’s Norfolk estate 53 miles northwest of Norwich. But visiting the giant Victorian manse set amid woodlands, wetlands, and landscaped gardens, open to the public from April to early November, offers unique glimpses of the rural royal lifestyle enjoyed by four generations of England’s monarchs. The outdoors-loving House of Windsor has never been known to harbor any literary pretensions, but Sandringham does have a famous library where the Queen delivered her first televised Christmas message in 1957, carrying on the tradition of her father, George VI, portrayed by Colin Firth in the movie The King’s Speech.

Strolling through Sandringham’s impeccably grand rooms, memorabilia-filled museum, and exquisitely maintained grounds is a very different experience from roaming down the cobbled lanes of lively, lit-loving Norwich. But it’s precisely that contrast that makes a visit to this less touristy part of England so appealing.

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