Norwich. A City of Literature.

23 June 2021

Norwich. A City of Literature.

June 23rd is National Writing Day, and what better way to celebrate this than by taking a look at all the wonderful things going on in Norwich, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature (and the City of Stories!).

Here, The National Centre for Writing’s Alice Kent, talks us through Norwich’s rich writing history, and the literary events happening now.

All Shall Be Well Prints

‘All Shall Be Well’ print from National Centre for Writing

Norwich’s literary story begins around 700 years ago, so I hope you are sitting comfortably and have a cuppa to hand…

In the 14th century Julian of Norwich became the first woman in the world to have a book published in the English language. Her Revelations of Divine Love still inspires believers and non-believers to this day with its meaningful motif that ‘All Shall Be Well, and all manner of things shall be well’. Julian was an anchorite and visitors from all over the country would come to talk to her through her ‘cell’ window, looking for words of comfort and wisdom. The church where she lived is just off King St, opposite Dragon Hall, which since 2018 has been home to the National Centre for Writing.

Dragon Hall

On winning ‘Book of the Year’ at the East Anglian Book Awards 2015, novelist Sarah Perry spoke of East Anglian women as ‘radical, literate, rebellious and courageous’, referencing prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, sociologist Harriet Martineau and abolitionist Amelia Opie.  This is a city where independence of spirit and the power of words has changed lives for centuries.

The country’s first civic provincial library was established in Norwich in 1608, and it was the first city to implement the Public Library Act of 1850. This fact was celebrated by the Norfolk-based poet Luke Wright in his poem ‘Here’, commissioned to mark the opening of the National Centre for Writing, where he writes;

Here where they threw wide the library doors
and said these shelves, these books, these words are yours…


The Forum, home to the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library

For several years in a row the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library has issued the highest number of books of any library in the UK. Norwich is also the first city in the country where you could study for an MA in Creative Writing. The first student on the world-famous UEA course was Ian McEwan, followed by Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright. This year UEA is celebrating 50 years of this incredible course with a series of high profile and interactive public events. It was also in Norwich that one of Europe’s greatest writers, WG (Max) Sebald, established the British Centre for Literary Translation, and to date Norwich is still England’s only City of Refuge.

Today, visitors to the city can enjoy a variety of independent bookshops. Take a walk and video tour of some of them here with NCW’s Programme Director Peggy Hughes. Since we made this video even more bookshops have opened, including the excellent Bookbugs and Dragon Tales, which just last week was listed by the Guardian as one of the ten best independent bookshops in the UK. Also — don’t miss the many excellent charity and second-hand bookshops including The Amnesty Bookshop on Unthank Rd and the Oxfam Bookshop on Bedford St.

Bookbugs & Dragon Tales

Bookbugs & Dragon Tales

At the National Centre for Writing, we run a year-round programme of workshops and events for young people and adults alike. Like many arts venues we have had to move primarily to a digital format over the last 18 months. We have worked with some incredible writers and welcomed audiences from all over the world. Take a look at these online events, including our annual Crime Writing Festival Noirwich run in partnership with UEA. All events are still available to watch for free online!

However, we can’t wait to get back to in-person events and welcoming audiences to Dragon Hall.

We’ve been busy during lockdown forging new partnerships, and we’re looking forward to working with more communities who don’t always have easy access to writing resources and support. Just prior to lockdown we partnered with The Matthew Project to work with people in recovery from addiction, using creative writing as a tool to help them express their experiences of recovery. You can read their inspirational work in an anthology we published with the support of Norfolk Community Foundation and Broadland Meridian.

National Centre for Writing

We are always looking for ways to support people to enjoy stories and it is often in the early years that a love of books and storytelling starts. We have a free pack of ideas for parents looking for storytelling tips to use with their pre-school children. You can download the Neverending Stories pack here.

Most of all, National Centre for Writing is about supporting people of all ages to enjoy writing in all its forms. We have lots of free resources and short courses for anyone wanting to develop their writing experience and skills. What better day than on National Writing Day to make some space for your creativity! Check out the free courses for young people here and adults here.

And finally one more literary Norwich first to mention – Norwich City F.C’s song ‘On The Ball, City’ is thought to be the world’s oldest football song and is still sung today. So, in a year when Norwich are promoted to the Premiership (again), keep the words of the chant in mind, and see if this is the year to get your book written, as the song says –

Never mind the danger,

Steady on, now’s your chance.