diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Norfolk isn't known for its hills, indeed global warming is predicted to take quite a chunk out of its eastern flank. The county's highest point is Beacon Hill near Sheringham at a mere 105m (or 344 ft), a figure even Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex can beat. But even Norwich has its hills, so while I was in the city on Monday I climbed some.

I'm not counting Castle Hill because that's artificial, knocked up by the Normans at the end of the 11th century. And I'm not counting Elm Hill, once voted one of Britain's top ten prettiest streets, because that's more a sloping cobbled relic than a proper full-on ascent. Instead I mean proper breathless uphill climbs, of the kind that my part of East London has absolutely none whatsoever.

There's Gas Hill.

Gas Hill lies a few streets north of the railway station, and is renowned in Norwich as the place where you practise hill starts. The road breaks off from the River Wensum opposite Bishop's Bridge and climbs steeply up the chalk escarpment, becoming narrower as it ascends. The pub at the bottom is called the Lollard's Pit after the execution site on which it was built - why not enjoy a pint of Fosters on the site where Queen Mary had dozens of religious protestors burnt at the stake?

The reason for Gas Hill's name used to be obvious further up on the right hand side. This was a giant disused gasholder, the last surviving feature of the city's gas works and a locally listed building. The council hoped developers would be able to incorporate it into a future housing development, but this proved unviable so this familiar feature on the Norwich skyline is to be replaced by a dozen or so flats. May 2019 marks the end of the dismantling project, and all I could hear behind the gates were the last vestiges of demolition.

There's Ketts Hill.

Technically Ketts Hill is exactly the same hill as Gas Hill, just a different (busier) road slightly further north. I've been driven down it dozens of times but never walked, so never slipped through the gate to visit the wooded ridge of Kett's Heights. The Kett in question is Robert Kett, a yeoman farmer from Wymondham who rallied fifteen thousand anti-enclosure protestors in the summer of 1549. They camped up here when taking over the city, holding out for a few weeks before the rebellion was quashed and Robert was hung from the walls of the castle. This is peak Norwich history, this is.

Kett's Heights was a 1980s attempt to open up a strip of historic hillside to the public, and has been dramatically improved since 2015 when a group of local volunteers took over. They cleared undergrowth on the terraces, tidied up the remnants of an old chapel and cleared trees to open up the view (although one remains in an awkward location part-obscuring the cathedral spire). Plainly visible are the castle, the thin clocktower of Norwich's City Hall and both cathedrals. I'd like to apologise to the retired couple on the bench beside the Armada beacon for interrupting their afternoon tryst.

There's St James' Hill.

This is a proper summit, though a small one, essentially a gorse-covered hump poking out from exactly the same ridge we were discussing earlier. You can access it by finding the small track behind the pub at the Ketts Hill roundabout, then scrambling up a sandy path that weaves through vegetation. Or you can drive - a big car park's been provided beyond the summit in front of an very imposing Victorian building. This was originally Britannia Barracks, home to the Royal Norfolk Regiment between 1885 and 1959, and is now occupied by Norwich Prison. I wondered why prisoners were outside drinking tea and eating cake, but it turns out the front terrace now operates as a social enterprise cafe for current and ex-offenders.

Inmates have the best view in the city, or would do if only they could see out. The unconfined can step out across the heath to a single bench at the optimum peak position and stare down. I stared lots. The spire of Norwich Cathedral dominates - at 96m the second tallest spire in England (which thankfully isn't quite enough to attract unwanted Russian tourists). If the council get their way it'll be joined by a single 20-storey residential block on the site of 70s shopping centre Anglia Square, tainting the skyline, but the government have called in this decision and the communities minister may not be so financially minded.

And there's Mousehold Heath.

Technically, again, this is just a continuation of much the same ridge overlooking the River Wensum. But Mousehold Heath is very much its own entity, an undulating 184 acre nature reserve to the northeast of the city. Originally it was treeless and stretched all the way to the edge of the Broads and was used as common land for grazing, but the rest became farmland or housing and this preserved chunk was taken over by broad-leafed woodland. At weekends it's a bit of a recreational magnet. On Monday afternoons the ice cream van waits in vain.

I'd been to the American diner at the heart of the heath before for a birthday meal but never ventured further up the hill into the trees (it was dark at the time, it wouldn't have been wise). And it was glorious, a proper woodland labyrinth with broad tracks plunging down into shadowy valleys and narrow paths weaving across sandy slopes littered with pine cones. I found the pond and the bandstand on my solo stroll but missed the old tram track. And rubbing up along more than one side I found rows of very ordinary houses with this wonderful resource on their doorstep, higher above Norfolk than you might imagine.

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