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It’s easy to imagine yourself back in the Regency era in Norwich – you only need to take a stroll down Gentleman’s Walk to see the influence of Georgian architecture (and perhaps to imagine yourself promenading in front of all the ton!). Since the release of Bridgerton, regency is all the rage, but fans of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, or lovers of a period drama, will well know the temptation of the time! At the start of the eighteenth century, Norwich was second only to London in size: a thriving metropolis all of its own, and the perfect place to break a journey to the seaside. The distance from London meant that Norwich had its own distinct cultural scene, with six bookshops, many musical societies, and a school of painting!
Whether you’re picturing duels, balls, fashions, or coquettish flirting before the inevitable proposal (or perhaps not…), Georgian Britain is easy to discover in Norwich. Here’s 7 amazing experiences to get you started!
1. Afternoon Tea at The Assembly House
Head to the Assembly House for Afternoon Tea, in your best dress or suit! Whilst the pastries and sweets may not be authentic, your surroundings capture the best of the era’s architecture, with subtly elegant interiors. Built as a ‘house of entertainment for the city and the county’ The Assembly House was the place for the gentry to be. This house of assemblies held musical events, dances, theatre productions, and even the occasional card game. Whilst some parts of the building hark back to the 13th century, the main halls were designed by Georgian architect Thomas Ivory, with high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and wide fireplaces, perfect for local ladies and gentlemen to meet, flirt, and dance. Young ladies would learn the steps to the latest dances during the day, ready to show off their new talents in the evening, and charm wealthy gentlemen. Visit today, and it’s easy to imagine the beautiful ballroom crowded with waltzing couples, or taking the air next to the fountain.
2. Uncover Norwich through the ages at The Norwich Museum
Take a trip to The Museum of Norwich to experience life in the Norwich’s thriving Regency era – with examples of fashion, carriages, and much more, you’ll find it easy to imagine yourself in corsets as the belle of the ball. Norwich silk was a much desired and expensive accessory for all the ton! From the 18th century, a Norwich shawl was considered a must have, and these beautiful silks are still recognisable as Norwich creations today. With a national reputation for style, quality, patterns, as well as the richness of the dyes, a Norwich shawl marked a lady with taste, and disposable income. Shoemaking was also a substantial industry for hundreds of years, with artisans making elaborate fashion footwear, as well as the more practical workday boots. Well known children’s shoes brand Start-Rite was established right here in Norwich in 1792.
You can find out more about Norwich’s history at the Museum of Norwich
3. Go on a Gin tour!
Okay, so it’s not strictly Georgian, but gin-drinking boomed in the era, becoming the favoured tipple of the poor, and just about everybody else: which created much consternation in the time. Mother’s Ruin or Juniper Water, as it was known during the era, was available to buy in the many gin houses across the country. Now you can enjoy Norwich’s locally produced gins, including Gyre & Gimble, Norfolk Gin, Bullards, and St Giles across the city: responsibly, of course! Gyre & Gimble even boast a gin-making masterclass – the perfect post-lockdown treat.
4. Discover the Norwich School of Painters at Norwich Castle Museum
Pop to Norwich Castle Museum to see the works of the Norwich School of Painters. The Colman Gallery features an extensive collection of the Georgian artists, conjuring up the vistas of the time. The Norwich Society of Artists was established in 1803, and are now known as the Norwich School of Painters, who are grouped by their extraordinary use of light. Less well known than Constable and Turner, due to remaining in a private collection, but comparable, these works can be admired in Norwich Castle Museum, and were shown in the Tate in the early 2000s.
5. All the fun of the theatre
Theatre and music was a huge part of Georgian entertainment and Regency diversions. By 1724, Norwich had its first Music Society holding subscription concerts, where all the tunes of the time would be performed; Handel, Liszt and more. Many of London’s best known Italian opera singers would travel to Norwich in the summer months to perform, bringing the local gentry the best and most contemporary shows. Shakespeare remained a favourite, performed in the newly established Norwich Theatre Royal, as well as regular farces. Seating more than 1000, Norwich Theatre Royal welcomed many to the delights of the stage, but there were lots of smaller playhouses and inns holding shows for the masses. Whilst The Theatre Royal isn’t actually of Georgian design, its grandiose main stage gives a sneak-peak into what an evening at the theatre might’ve looked like several centuries back!
6. Enjoy an afternoon stroll in the city
Stroll from Chapelfield Gardens, taking in the air, down into the city centre, as if you were on the hunt for a husband, or wife! Whilst the streets may be busier, and filled with fewer horses, you can still see the shape of the Georgian landscape in the architecture. At the lower end of the Marketplace, Gentleman’s Walk was once the place for all the beaus of the era to parade; clad in skintight breeches, champagne-polished boots, and extravagantly tied cravats. Just a stones throw from the Assembly House, where waltzes and musical afternoons would be a regular occurrence, it was the place to be to show off all the latest styles, before dipping into a coffee house or inn for some much needed refreshment. After you’ve spent your afternoon reimagining Georgian Norwich, why not stop at Jarrold’s for a cosy cup of tea and a scone – the only way to end a sophisticated day out!
7. Visit the Octagon Chapel
Perfectly octagonal, the Octagon Chapel is a stunning building in the centre of Norwich, just off Colegate. Designed by Thomas Ivory, the style is an example of Neo-Palladial architecture, and was so well-received that the design was imitated by Methodist meeting houses across Europe. The Octagon Chapel was built as a place of worship, for those who resisted the 1662 act of uniformity: it became home to the non-conformists, and the first Unitarian Chapel in Norwich. It’s easy to imagine the space as a bustling home for discussion, worship, and all the best minds of the era.
As the second largest city, culture was a crucial component to Norwich, from literature, theatre, music, and art. Norwich was home to the first public library outside of London – testament to the city’s long-held commitment to literature! The library records were remarkably well preserved, offering a vital look into the reading habits of the era: we can assume Byron, Defoe, and Ann Radcliffe were in demand. Norwich also had the first provincial newspaper – not quite Lady Whistledown, as far as we know!
Discover more of Norwich’s vibrant arts & culture scene here