Subscribe to the City of Stories newsletter
By subscribing you will be added to our Newsletter mailing list.
Norwich. A city of mavericks and makers, creators and trail blazers. A big-hearted city beneath even bigger skies, and open air, open minds. In Norwich, everyone has a story to tell. And we’ll be sure to tell it. Every month, we’ll be sitting down with local writers, designers, makers, artists and influencers to discuss life in Norwich. This week we’re joined by local tour guide, Shea Fiddes.
For Shea, growing up in Great Yarmouth meant summer jobs making toffee apples, bingo calling, pulling pints and testing peas on the infamous ‘tenderometer’ at Birds Eye. Years of adventure in this coastal town were followed by teacher training in Coventry and Nottingham, before settling into a career in education and theatre, helping to deliver workshops for young people with big name companies like the National Theatre, The Royal Ballet, and the London Symphony Orchestra. After retiring from a colourful career in theatre and education, Shea – like most people – found his way back to Norwich, where he currently lives with his wife Chrissy. Since retirement, Shea has gone on to become a qualified tour guide, delivering historical tours of Norwich to hundreds of people every year. We sat down to discuss life as a tour guide in the city of Norwich.
What made you decided to become a tour guide in Norwich?
My teacher wife Chrissy was keen on archaeology and her Viking roots, whereas for me the invisible elastic was pulling me back to Norfolk and Norwich. We found a house close by the old county cricket ground so that we could walk practically everywhere. Retired people always seem to be doing something so I joined a few classes, and apart from role playing for the local constabulary, nothing stuck. Until I wandered into Dragon Hall. The volunteers and staff were an impressive bunch and I must have absorbed enough for them to permit me to do guided tours. I was intrigued with how they could delve into the vaults to retrieve stories about people and events long ago. I became a believer. The world of heritage beckoned. I began a year long evening class on the history of Norwich and emerged with a certificate and a mission. I became a volunteer at Strangers’ Hall, a guide at the Guildhall, and then in 2014 a city guide. I then joined a band of guides operating from the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) in the Forum. They offer a choice of walking tours throughout the summer months. These are supplemented by specialist tours. My latest addition is a Christmas themed tour of the city centre which runs when the TIC is closed, including Christmas day.
What do you love most about Norwich and why?
As a tourist guide you get to see the city through other people’s eyes and you realise that it’s a class act! Visitors love how the view changes around every corner and how the market place suddenly reveals itself. They delight in the cobbled streets, the flint, the churches that are never quite out of sight and the independent shops. The set piece splendour of the Cathedrals and Castle never fails, as does the grandeur of the arcade. Add to this the visual treat of all those oddly shaped buildings above the shop fronts. Not forgetting the cleanliness of the streets and the friendliness of the people. They like all the heritage stuff but above all they appreciate Norwich because it is different. Visitors fret that their towns are deteriorating or are becoming clone towns. They find our city a surprise and wonder why we don’t let more people know about it!
Favourite place(s) to eat in Norwich?
For a light lunch in town it’s hard to beat the tapas at the Coach and Horses on Bethel Street. The food offer on the market is going from strength to strength too, but I can’t stray far from the Mushy peas stall! I reckon non-vegetarians would be pleasantly surprised by Namaste Village on Queen Street, close to Sainsburys. The dosas alone are worth a visit, but it has grown in popularity so it’s probably advisable to book. If you like the food you can buy a cookbook too. I find friends visiting Norwich are impressed with the newer restaurants. There’s the brilliant view from the Rooftop restaurant, the walls in The Ivy, and the bar at The Last.
Favourite place(s) for a coffee/beverage?
There’s a lot to be said for those traditional pubs which lie just outside the city centre. Their great strength is that they cater for different audiences at different times. They also resist the slide to intrusive music, gaming machines and upholstery. My favourite is the Kings Arms on Hall Road which somehow achieves a calmness even when rammed on match days. They are helpful about their beer and encourage nearby takeaways, including a fish and chip shop by providing plates and cutlery. The Rose, which does serve food, is a few steps away on the ring road. As the Riverside throws up more blocks of flats it brings cafes. King Street now has four, if you include the King’s Centre, with The Butterfly Café taking prime position opposite Dragon Hall and the Julian bridge. If I’m with friends, it’s glorious afternoon tea at the Assembly House (if they’re paying!).
What did you miss most during lockdown?
The ritual of Saturdays when it’s matchday. The gleaming of colour on the way to Carrow Road. The explosion of noise. And the regular talking of nonsense on the post-match walk to the pub! The theatres add so much to the cultural life of the area but there’s something special about our live music venues. The closure of Open was a loss so I hope that it’s brought back to life. Norwich Arts Centre is eclectic and inclusive too. I expect to see plenty of old-time fans of Tom Robinson when he appears their soon! A lot of money has been lavished on the Castle which is great. It’s easy to overlook those little gems like Strangers’ Hall and the Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell. I’m longing for the Guildhall to re-open as it really is the jewel in the crown of our heritage. Oh, and on a nice summer’s day there is absolutely nothing to match a lazy few hours watching Norfolk play cricket at Horsford.
What was your experience of lockdown like?
As horizons have shrunk I’ve found an unhurried stroll has brought an appreciation of the familiar. Following the river as it winds through the centre is a joy and it’s a terrific asset for a busy city. I was taught the ukulele by Gemma from Norwich’s own Sink Ya Teeth. Sadly my skills display none of their talent, which you can watch on YouTube. But practice during lockdown has me getting closer to sounding something like music! Being a slow reader I find novels a bit daunting until the plot kicks in and the story telling sweeps you along. Ones I’ve enjoyed are by Robert Harris and Sebastian Barry and I found one set in Great Yarmouth, Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth. It is easier to listen to Audible at any time of the day. The stories and biographies are read by some fantastic voices. It certainly makes ironing bearable!
And finally, what does ‘Norwich’ mean to you, or can you tell us your favourite memory of the city?
An early memory is in the South stand at Carrow Road but it wasn’t to see Norwich City. My father was connected to Yarmouth Town and they were playing in a local cup final. I’m still there, only now I sit in comfort in much improved surroundings. The city too has moved with the times. It’s managed to modernise without mangling the past. It’s hard to argue with the Sunday Times judges who asserted that ‘Norwich is one of our favourite small cities. It’s beautiful and historic but also young, lively, environmentally friendly’. It goes on to say that it is difficult to replicate it online. Well, you cannot replicate hundreds of years of history and that alone warrants the claim on those road signs. It really is a Fine City.