Norwich, England: Literature in the City of Stories

A small patch of graffiti mars the doorway of an imposing wall with tall windows up top
Thomas More's Utopia painted on a building originally planned for demolition. Photo: Kayla E. Ciardi

HEADING EAST ON Riverside Walk, you will see an old building tucked away with an unexpected literary surprise. If you look across the river that runs through the city toward Westwick Street, you will be confronted with all forty thousand words of Thomas More’s Utopia neatly arranged against the bricks of the old Eastern Electricity building. In 2006 local artist Rory Macbeth took advantage of the building’s imminent demolition planned for the following year and painted the building’s exterior as an art exhibition. More than ten years later, the building remains. Norwich itself is a literary utopia of sorts—at least it felt that way to me while I was living there for a year. It is situated on the eastern hump of England. In his novel Never Let Me Go, 2017 Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro describes the county of Norfolk as England’s “lost corner” as it is “not on the way to anywhere.” As a result, the city can be quite peaceful, but in no way is it lacking in vibrancy. 

In 2012 Norwich—locally known as both A Fine City and the City of Stories—was proclaimed a UNESCO City of Literature, with good reason. Visiting Norwich and walking along its many cobbled paths is akin to walking into a breathing history book. As one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in England, its rich histories and stories are palpable, accessible everywhere you look. Famous streets such as Elm Hill, one of the most unaltered sixteenth-century streets in all of England, boast cantilevered houses from the Tudor period. Today, the old buildings of Elm Hill house coffee shops, offices, and quaint antique shops. Over thirty medieval churches still stand throughout the city, with many converted into alternative spaces such as flea markets, art galleries, or community centers. In the city center you will find the largest open-air market in England, set up in the eleventh century and filled with over two hundred stalls selling everything from vacuums to vegan BBQ sandwiches. 

Its literary history is impressive, too. One figure is of particular note: Julian of Norwich, the author of the oldest surviving English book written by a woman. Dragon Hall, once a medieval merchants’ trading hall dating back to the fifteenth century, now serves as the base for the National Centre for Writing, which uses the space for literary events, workshops, and writing courses. Although tucked away in the eastern corner of England, the city has made a far-reaching impact through its commitment to fostering literature and creativity. 

The University of East Anglia, for example, only fifteen minutes by bus from downtown, created the first creative writing MFA in England. Famously, writer Ian McEwan was the first student enrolled in the program. The list of impressive alumni goes on—with the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright—while past faculty include the late W. G. Sebald. More importantly, UEA cultivates an environment ripe for literary opportunities, especially for its students and Norfolk locals. Every year, the university holds a literary festival with guest speakers, workshops for grad students, and book signings at the on-campus bookstore. The year I attended, George Saunders and Ali Smith—some of my favorite contemporary writers—were featured guests.

It is difficult to spend any length of time in Norwich without feeling melancholic after departure. Even on its gloomiest days, the city feels quietly electric. The characters of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go describe Norfolk as the place where everything precious they had “ever lost since [their] childhood” would wash up, and that they shouldn’t worry; they “could always go and find it again in Norfolk.” Standing beside the river and taking in forty thousand looming words in white, the description seems apt indeed.

Kayla E. Ciardi grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, and recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of Oklahoma, earning a bachelor’s degree in English. She currently interns for World Literature Today, and she has been accepted to the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford in fall 2019. With interests in writing, editing, and visual design as well as a lifelong love of literature, Kayla plans to pursue a career in publishing.