8 long-lost Norfolk buildings and places we wish we could have visited
- Credit: ©Archant Photographic
They are the buildings and places that are lost in history: the Norwich hotel visited by elephants, opera houses where Laurel and Hardy performed, observation towers, drowned villages, the hall that inspired a mission to find cursed gold.
Here are eight sights we wish we’d seen.
1. The Angel Inn, Norwich
Designed by local architect George Skipper, The Royal Arcade is an Art Nouveau masterpiece and was opened in 1899 and hailed as “a fragment of the Arabian Nights dropped into the heart of the old city”. What you might not know, however, is that in its place used to be The Angel Inn, which was later renamed the Royal Hotel. The original stable and stableyard area is now the Arcade.
A vibrant hub of activity, the Angel Inn hosted various shows - some more bizarre than others – including a visit by a pair of elephants in 1685, peep shows, operatic performances and freak shows. Fast forward to the late 19th century, following riots, uprisings, political dramas and speedy stage coach exits to London and the hotel moved to a new site on Bank Plain with the old site being converted into the stunning Royal Arcade that stands today.
2. The prison where Norwich’s first ‘private’ execution took place
Perhaps not the most idyllic day trip, it would have been fascinating to look at the Norwich County Gaol and House of Correction which once stood where St John the Baptist Cathedral is today. The gaol opened in 1826 and prisoners from the Bridewell in the parish of St Andrew (now the Museum of Norwich on Bridewell Alley) were taken there when the Bridewell became a tobacco and snuff factory. The prison had airing yards, three treadmills and a place of execution.
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Six of the airing yards were sunk three feet below the others so the governor could see them all from the ‘inspecting gallery’ of his house. William Sheward, who confessed to murdering his wife and then depositing her body parts across Norwich, was given the city’s first ‘private’ execution behind the prison walls on April 20 1869 – but a crowd of 2,000 still arrived to see the black flag raised to signal that Sheward was dead. The gaol was closed in May 1878 and prisoners were moved back to Norwich Castle – the cathedral was built shortly afterwards.
3. The hall where Queen Elizabeth I slept and where a secret laboratory produced diamonds
Costessey Hall is one of Norfolk’s great Gothic losses. Today just one ivy-clad ruin remains, watching balefully over the 18th fairway on Costessey Park Golf Course. William the Conqueror awarded land in Costessey to the Earl of Richmond, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. By 1555, Queen Mary Tudor had gifted the manor to Sir Henry Jerningham (then Jernegan) for his support in helping her to the throne two years previously.
Despite removing Sir Henry from his executor duties after Mary’s death in 1558 on grounds of his Catholicism, successor Queen Elizabeth remained on good terms with the Jerningham family, calling in at the Tudor mansion when she visited Norwich in 1578: on August 20 of that year, she spent the night in Old Costessey. Little did Queen Elizabeth know that above the bed where she slept there was a secret: a hidden chapel where Catholics could worship away from prying eyes.
A later Jerningham owner, Fitzobert, used to try to produce commercial diamonds from coal in his personal laboratory at the hall, an experiment which came to an abrupt end when an unscheduled explosion occurred and along with it, minor injuries. The War Office commandeered the building for the training of infantry, cavalry and artillery troops to serve in World War One and by the end of the war, the building was trashed and largely demolished.
4. The Grand Opera House…of Norwich
This spectacular building opened on August 3, 1903 and was renamed within a year. The Hippodrome Theatre was designed in an Italian Renaissasnce style and was the first place where actor Cary Grant performed (at the age of 12, and then called Archie Leach) and where Laurel and Hardy would enchant Norwich in 1954. In 1931, a new Western Electric sound system was installed and the venue also became a cinema – it controversially aired a film called Morgenrot in 1934, a German submarine film set during World War One which was released three days after Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor.
In April 1942’s Baedeker raids, Hitler’s planes bombed the Hippodrome and three people were killed, the manager, his wife and a sea lion trainer. Alternating between cinema and theatre, the building finally closed in April 1960 and, after being empty for four years, was replaced with St Giles’ multi-storey car park.
5. The tallest windmills in Europe
From its gallery almost 95ft above the ground, you could see for at least 20 miles on clear days. The towermill in Press Lane, Upper Hellesdon was built in 1875 by Ephraim Witard who lived in a house nearby (which can still be seen on the corner of Aylsham and Stone Roads) with wife Maria. It was the third mill built on this hilltop site and it boasted nine stories, adjoining grain houses, a steam engine house and other associated buildings. Witard’s Mill, as it was known, stood in the area that Byfield Court stands now, and was the tallest mill in Norfolk after the demolition of High Mill in Great Yarmouth, which was the tallest mill in Europe before its demise. Witard’s Mill burnt down in 1913, its bricks were repurposed in houses built on Angel Road.
6. Shipden: the village under the sea
It is the vanishing village that just can't stay silent, a forgotten parish from the Norfolk coast that was swallowed by the sea, the county's own Atlantis just a stone's throw from the famous Cromer Pier. The Domesday Book tells us that Shipden boasted 117 residents, three acres of meadow, 36 swine and four-and-a-half plough teams, a harbour, several manor houses and two churches – one that served Shipden-juxta-Felbrigg and Crowmere, the other the village itself.
Villagers fought hard to save St Peter's from the ravages of the sea in the 14th century, watching helplessly as the graveyard was claimed by the tide and then taking action by building a jetty in a bid to save the building. Their efforts were in vain. Guidebooks from the 18th century claim that the church was still visible at low tide and this remaining rocky relic from a lost village was named Church Rock, with romantic souls claiming the three bells from the building could still be heard at the pier's edge, carried by high winds. A ship, the Victoria, was caught on the top of Church Rock in
7. The hall that inspired a young boy to find cursed gold
Didlington is a tiny village in Breckland which was once the home of one of the country’s most spectacular mansions, a literal treasure house that inspired an archaeologist to find cursed gold. The hall where Egyptologist Howard Carter worked as a boy and developed the fascination that would lead him to Tutankhamun’s tomb was demolished in 1950, Didlington is widely regarded as one of the most serious architectural losses in Norfolk. Originally owned by the Wilson family from the mid-1600s, by the 1850s it was owned by William George Tyssen Amherst.
His son - also William - inherited the hall and became a noted collector of rare books, tapestries, antiques, art and Egyptian artefacts. He became Carter’s patron and provided him with the contacts that led him to Egypt, the Valley of the Kings and a curse that would fascinate the world. The grounds of the 80-bedroom hall were vast and contained a vinery, peach and pineapple houses, boathouses, lakes, a racecourse, a dairy farm, walled gardens, a deer park, a swimming pool and two museums. Sacrificed for the war effort, it fell to the wrecking ball in 1952.
8. Great Yarmouth’s Revolving Observation Tower
Just to the north of the Britannia Pier on the Prom – today close to the car park near the outdoor bowling greens – was Yarmouth’s Revolving Observation Tower. Brought to the resort in 1897, when Victorians were flocking to the seaside town, it was operated by a Mr Warwick as The Revolving Tower. From a round central observation platform, visitors who had paid their 3d admission price would be lifted into the air for a bird’s eye view of the town. Designed by engineer Thomas Warwick, the tower boasted a steam engine which powered an iron viewing platform that rose to a dizzying 150 feet from the ground and gave customers an incredible view. The tower was dismantled in 1939 when metal was needed for the Second World War effort.