If you’re from Mile Cross or anywhere in the northern part of the City, chances are you’ll be more than familiar with the shoppers’ delight that is Anglia Square. It’s been a bit of a magnet for generations of North Norwich folk and often used as an alternative to heading all the way into the City to get your supplies. If – like me – you are one of those people to have visited Anglia Square more times than you’d care to remember, chances are when you’ve been walking a well-worn route southwards, and you’ve been treading your way there in some very old footsteps. Those Roads (and the paths that preceded them) have been well trodden for centuries and the land on which Anglia Square currently resides is the original and oldest part of the human settlement we now call Norwich.
Anglia Square was built on top of Botolph Street and its junctions with St George’s Street, Calvert Street and Magdalen Street and Magdalen Street loosely follows the ancient road that was then the main North-South road through the area, connecting these early settlers to the area with the large town of Venta Icenorum to the South. This ancient road made its way across the River Wensum by either a bridge or a ford at what is now Fye Bridge and was bisected by another ancient road running from East to West at a crossroads, sitting roughly where Tombland Alley now is. These ancient roads are believed to have been Roman in origin, or probably even older than that, but not too away from these roads a Roman Coin was found in the ground (under what is now Sovereign House), showing that Romans were definitely active in this area.
The Norwich we now know was born from a collection of small Saxon Villages nestled on the Northern banks of the River Wensum. Some of the remains of these settlements have been found in the ground somewhat recently in the grand scheme of things, with evidence of a number of Late Saxon (Anglo-Scandinavian) defensive ditches in the area; one of which running along what is now the scarce remains of Botolph Street and then continuing along under Anglia Square’s current metalled, surface car park sat next to it. These ditches, along with numerous pottery finds and post holes that have been dated back to this particular era. Together, these finds have helped historians to build up a fairly detailed picture of how the pre-pubescent Norwich was growing as an important early settlement (or collection of settlements) along the Northern banks of the strategically-significant River Wensum. It wasn’t until the 9th Century and the Danish invasion of East Anglia, along with the increased number of extra inhabitants that came with along with them (up the Wensum), that the whole village/town began spilling southwards across this increasingly-important River Port and into the area we now know as Tombland. It was then here that a Market was established by the ancient Roman Cross-Roads (mentioned earlier) and with them came a new cultural centre for the ever-expanding town. After a brief spell of fighting between Saxons and the Vikings a peace of sorts settled upon the area and the two communities set about integrating with one another and getting on with their daily activities, such as farming and trading, etc. Unfortunately for them this relative peace wasn’t to last for too much longer and In 1004 a new wave of Vikings returned to the area, coming up the river once again to burn the whole lot down, ironically destroying their own ancestors’ homes and livelihoods as they did so. However, little did these invaders of the previous invaders know, that in just 62 years time they were all about to be beaten at the game of ‘Invasion Top Trumps’ by a new group: The sight-seeing Normaunds, in the form of the Norman Conquest. This Norman influence is what pretty much shaped the City into the shape we’re still familiar with to this day, expanding the City further South and helping to give ‘Norwich-Over-The-Water’ its own semi-separate identity.
I could go on here, but this entry is meant to be about Anglia Square, not the entire recent history of this bonkers little European Island. If you are interested in learning a bit more about this particular era in greater detail, I fully recommend reading a few of the pieces on the brilliant Invisible Works website here: Clickety-click.
Without going into too greater detail about the complex history of this particular area (and Norwich itself) a few more hints to the fascinating history of the area on which Anglia Square sits can be picked up on when reading most obvious historical publications, studying old maps and nosing through any of the old photographs taken about this part of the city:
Botolph Street was named after St Botolph’s Church (a Scandinavian dedication), that most likely sat on a triangle of land between what became Botolph Street and Magdalen Street and it was demolished in 1548 when the City’s parishes were being realigned. In 1967 and during the Construction of Anglia Square, the human skeletal remains, including the skull of a male in his thirties were uncovered, which most likely came from the former graveyard of St Botolph’s.
The often-referred-to Stump Cross was/is an area sitting pretty much in the area where the flyover now casts its shadow and – until Anglia Square turned up – where the Barclays Bank once proudly stood between the junction of Botolph Street and Magdalen Street. As you can probably deduce for yourselves, the area was named after a cross that had been placed in the ground here. The cross itself was removed way back in 1644 but it is said to be one of the places in Norwich where the accession of a new Monarch would be publicly announced, and this area was later regarded as the centre of “Norwich Over-the-Water”.
Also connected to this area in later years was a certain Social Reformer and Quaker named Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney), a name you’ll have most likely heard of and she was born within spitting distance of Anglia Square on Magdalen Street on the 21st May 1780.
As Norwich continued to grow, becoming a City and a County all of its own, the area on which Anglia Square currently squats served as an important alternative to the City Centre itself, and even until very recent times it was often still referred to as the ‘Little City’. It is still an important and diverse area to this day with many local shops, restaurants, pubs and antique shops, catering for a vastly diverse selection of our vibrant community, of which the likes you won’t find under the Corporate neon glare on offer in the City Centre itself. There’s something fantastic about parking up at Anglia Square and mooching your way through to and then along Magdalen Street, before quickly doing a U-turn before you get to Tombland, heading back again before you start having ridiculous ideas of heading into the ‘big city’ to pay £17.50 for a tax-avoiding, big-brand, corporation coffee (I don’t venture into them myself, so the pricing might be a little out). You won’t see many 19-plate, Audi Q7-driving ‘Professionals’ loaded with expensive, big-brand shopping bags down here on the other side of the river, and that only adds to the charm of the area.
Magdalen Street was given a much-needed makeover in 1959 which was well-documented in the this brilliant EAFA video here: The Story of Magdalen Street. The revamp went down very well (with most people) and It won the first “Civic Trust award for regeneration”, inspiring similar makeovers in Cities and Towns across the country. However, this fancy haircut and shiny new shoes was not enough to fend off the corporation dream of a new and futuristic Post-War Britain. Big, grey clouds were beginning to bubble up on the horizon, only they weren’t fluffy and full of life-giving water. These clouds were looming in the form of concrete, construction and heavy plant machinery. Botolph Street began to resemble a ghost town as most of the properties were being acquired so that they could be bulldozed to make way for a ‘brighter’ future. Ancient pubs, shops and fairly large manufacturing quarter were to make way for the 1960’s vision of the future. Some of these condemned buildings (if not most of them) would have had preservation orders slapped all over them today and you can understand why when you look back and have a look at some of the buildings lost only to be replaced by Anglia Square and it’s pretty galling.
Kings Arms, Botolph Street of 1646:
Note the 1646 date mounted in metal figures on the Calvert Street-side of this old pub’s wall.
Roberts The Printers, once described as the most interesting factory in Norwich, for it’s uniquely clean architecture:
Note the ground-to-roof windows along with the glazed, pitched roofs to allow in the maximum amount of natural light onto the printing works.
The Regency/Barclays Bank at junction of Magdalen and Botolph Street:
Note how Botolph Street curves its way North on it’s way through the modern Anglia Square and back towards the unrecognisable Botolph Street we know today.
In this 1967 image you can see the “ACQUIRED for REDEVELOPMENT” signs starting to appear on the boarded up buildings. This old building is the former Shuttles Public House. Note Couzens the Butcher to the left and Pitt Street on the right:
Botolph Street, Outside the ancient ‘Kings Arms’ and looking towards Stump Cross, where the flyover now stands:
The Duke of Sussex on the corner of Botolph Street and St George’s Street, taken in 1938 from the entrance to the New Odeon Cinema:
This would have been taken at the Northern wing of the HMSO now still stands and St George’s Street still has a lot of those original cobbles.
St George’s Street looking back towards the then-new Odeon Cinema also in 1938:
Note the cobbles, most of which are still present to this day and the advert for Cadbury’s Chocolate in the nearby window.
As the 1950’s gave way to the 1960’s the area was about to receive a shock to the system in the name of reinvention. Anglia Square was about to turn up on the scene with its fancy grey suit and salesman’s-like claims of a bright new future for the area, destroying a large quarter of ‘Norwich over-the-water’ as it did. With a perverse nod to the Normans’ take on the city, It brushed away a large swathe of this fascinating part of old Norwich. Botolph Street was completely decimated along with Pitt Street and the Northern ends of both St George’s and Calvert Street were hit hard too. The buildings in this area were being unceremoniously destroyed to make way for a futuristic landing pad as a gleaming behemoth, the SS Sovereign House slowly descended from the sky of the mind’s eye and into the oldest part of the City.
The two following pictures were taken less than six months apart from the roof of the 1930’s Odeon Cinema and show how a large area had been cleared to make way for the first stage of the Anglia Square Development, Sovereign House. Note the cobbled St George’s Street on the right hand side along with a completely decimated Calvert Street struggling to make its way towards the city to the left of the new building:
Also of note is the entrance to Calvert Street in the bottom image, just to the right of the lady with pram. The tempory rails for the rolling crane are quite interesting too.
Sovereign House and Anglia Square seen from the carpark on Botolph Street:
Once this behemoth had finally touched down at its final resting place and the dust began to settle around it, it was soon becoming apparent that it had got the landing slightly wrong and was now sitting upon – and disrupting – ancient human migration-routes in and out of the City, as well as blocking out important sight lines for a large section of Norwich North.
Just take a look at the picture of St Augustine’s Street and see how the Cathedral is trying its best to tiptoe above the carcass off the SS Sovereign as it struggles to catch your attention:
Now if we step out of the crazy haze of images conjured up by my over-imaginative brain, the reality was that the grey clouds of construction had finally cast their shadow over the area and in 1966 the construction work for Sovereign House began in earnest. Along with it came the rest of Anglia Square which was to open its doors to the general public 4 years later in 1970 as part of the larger development, but the HMSO (Sovereign House) was completed 1968 and had opened in 1969.
You can see it in taking shape in the below image, note one of the famous spiral staircases taking shape:
Note the lack of an inner ring-road. The flyover has yet to be built and the area is packed with parked cars of the construction workers. You can also make out the Original Odeon on the left.
Another view of Sovereign House and the area about to become Anglia Square taken from somewhere along the Northern reaches of Magdalen Street, presumably from a roof:
Note the original Botolph Street, still running across the middle of the image.
Another view of the development, this time from the ground, not too far from where Iceland now resides:
And a more recent shot of the ‘SS Sovereign’ in anticipation of the ship salvagers moving in to take it back into a low orbit for final deconstruction:
Designed by Alan Cooke and Partners it claimed to be bringing the future to the City and I guess that The HMSO must have at least looked partially exciting back then. It also has to be said that the newer, bigger replacement Odeon building is not without some past-futuristic charm of the 1960’s; however, like any good salesman, the Salesman of Anglia Square had not delivered what he had promised. Like a lot of the building projects in Norwich over the years the full vision of Anglia Square was never fully realised. The new complex was originally designed to have retail units over two stories, the second of which never happened. It doesn’t really become apparent until you wonder why it is that the entrance to the newer Odeon is accessed by an overly-large staircase which that when you reach the top of you are presented with not a great deal, unless you want to admire the ugly but somehow seductive Sovereign House as it keeps an ever watchful eye over the shops below it.
Here it is in all its 2018 glory, the now-closed car-park was crudely mirrored by Gildengate House out of shot to the right:
The replacement Odeon with its futuristic angles:
Note the lack of anything else up on here on the never-finished second level of Anglia Square.
Regardless of whether the City’s populace liked it or not Anglia Square had (somewhat brazenly) arrived on the scene and it was to become an important part of the City’s architecture, culture and psyche by shouldering it’s way into the Norwich skyline.
You can see it below taking up a significant part of the Norwich skyline from St James’ Hill on a stormy day:
As much of a shock to the system as its arrival must have been, Norwich over the water was no stranger to danger and destruction and the old quarter wasn’t to be beaten. The oldest part of the City began to slowly coalesce around the hypothetical open heart surgery wound that was Anglia Square. As the decades passed by it managed to take root in amongst the grey concrete and red brickwork of the once-new development. The big names that had tried their best to infiltrate this old quadrant began to drift away, chasing after the all-important high volumes of revenue and the increased footfall granted by both the City Centre and the out-of-town retail opportunities that began to pop up on every brown field site on or outside the City’s boundaries, and the new development known as Anglia Square slowly began reverting back to the working-class social and trading hub that it had once tried to invade and replace (minus the manufacturing elements of course, but they were dwindling across the city as a whole). Anglia Square began slowly morphing back into what it originally was, only not as easy on the eye and without the fluidity of the good old-fashioned high street. Gone were names like the H.M.S.O. and Sainsbury’s only to be replaced once again by the local Butcher, a Fruit and Veg stall, a Greasy Spoon Café, a used Car Dealership, a paper shop, (and latterly) multiple Charity shops and of course Iceland; a supermarket more befitting to the shopping budgets of the people in the surrounding areas. Even though the landscape had been changed for good, it had dramatically failed to stop North Norwich being the North Norwich it had been for hundreds of years. North Norwich had managed to adapt, without losing its identity in the face of adversity and in the face of this cold, hard reality this is where the current developers, along with the Councillors who agreed to allow this new regeneration to happen (in principle) should have not been so forgetful of the area’s past, sat up and taken notice.
Fast forward to the here and now and the fascinating history of this particular rectangle of old Norwich is on the verge of taking another dramatic turn. UK Property Developer Weston Homes and landowner Columbia Threadneedle are about to take on the massive project of overhauling this area once again, and I only hope that they understand the gravity of which they are aiming to take on. They are currently lauding the project as “One of the biggest urban renewal projects outside of Greater London” and are are proposing to replace the current Anglia Square with 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use Urban scheme comprising of homes, retail units, leisure amenities and public spaces, supposedly featuring buildings designed around two ‘Covent style’ landscape plazas, connected by large pedestrianised public spaces intended to mimic the supposedly open theme of the Anglia Square we all currently know and love/dread (delete as appropriate).
Apparently it will incorporate 1,234 new homes of which only less than 10% will be labelled as ‘affordable’. On top of that it is promised that (only) 75% of these homes will have available parking spaces, along with a new 600-vehicle multi-storey car park for the supposed hordes of excited new visitors to the revamped area. It is also promised that the development will incorporate a large Supermarket as an ‘Anchor Store’ along with a 200-bed hotel, presumably for tired visitors who’ve made the journey from far away to visit the world-renowned, reinvented Anglia Square. Its centre-piece (if you could call it that) was originally planned to be a 25-storey tower: however, this has since been revised down to 20 stories in a cheap attempt to quell the hundreds of objections to the height of the thing, along with its obvious impact on the Norwich Skyline. The development also aims to feature some equally over-sized 14 story towers along its South-Western corner by the St Crispin’s roundabout, so in all the development will tower over most of the tall buildings currently on offer in Norwich.
Picture: Weston Homes and Columbia Threadneedle.
Picture: Weston Homes and Columbia Threadneedle.
If you think back to the visual impact Sovereign House still has on various site-lines in and out of the city (bear in mind you can see it from the Norman Market Place if you look Northwards), imagine the area being transformed to have buildings standing at least twice the height that they do now. It’s going to have a massive visual impact on the City, no matter how the developers and the willing councilors try their best to dress it up as the inevitability of an evolving city. There’s definitely no denying that having a tower – which is almost as tall as the Cathedral – placed onto the City, and into in full view amongst the fairly-well balanced Norwich skyline it will have nothing short of a massive impact when viewed from the City’s most famous lookouts such as St James’ Hill.
Will it be successful? Financially for the developers? Of course. They’ll have 1,234 bland and uninspiring flats to sell at silly-high prices, these alone will probably make them their money back, add to that the money to be made from retail rents, especially when a Supermarket is involved. Will it attract the big name retailers of the likes they’ve tried to depict in the artist’s renderings? I doubt it. Norwich isn’t big enough to sustain a full Castle Mall, let alone The Castle Mall and Chapelfield, and now we’re trying to add this vision of an Anglia Square retail hub to the mix? I don’t see that local Butcher, QD, Iceland or Poundland fitting in with the designer’s ambitions. I also struggle to see the area luring enough people out of the City Centre, especially with the current mind-sets of the ‘Chapelfielders’.
A year or so back I had a conversation with a colleague about retail venues in the city and this person told me that they thought the Castle Mall was “too far away” to consider walking to from St Stephens. What chance does Anglia Square have?
There is no denying that there is a drastic need for more homes in Norwich, especially ‘over the water’ but will these particular ‘Yuppie-pads’ help to ease the burden? I seriously doubt it and I can’t see many families wanting to – or even being able to afford to – live in such a place. Only 120 of these homes are being labelled (comically) as ‘Affordable homes’. The rest will be snapped up by landlords who will no doubt rent them out with ridiculously higher rents than those in the areas surrounding the development. To make this matter potentially even worse is that the developers could avoid providing any affordable housing at all, if they can prove that they haven’t made enough profit, the ‘affordable’ element will be built last, but only if there is any money left to do so, which I think is scandalous.
To say the plans haven’t gone down too well with the people of Norwich is a bit of an understatement, with over 700 objections mostly about the height of the tower and the fear of gentrification, but some big names have waded into the argument. The Norwich Society (famed for saving Elm Hill from destruction), Historic England, Stephen Fry, Wayne Hemingway (Designer, Red or Dead), The Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral are some of the more vocal elements objecting to the redevelopment plans:
The Norwich Society objected to the current plans by saying that what was needed was a: “successful regeneration of Anglia Square in a manner which preserves and enhances the special historic character of the area”.
Martin Schmierer, the City’s current Lord Mayor, speaking in his capacity as a city councillor for Mancroft Ward, said: “This scheme is little short of an abomination.” Likening the 20-storey tower to Mount Everest.
Wayne Hemingway said that he was “heartened by the city’s independent culture and cultural vibrancy” but warned that this new development compared to “the town malaise that is blighting so many places”.
Gail Mayhew, chair of the Cathedral Magdalen & St Augustine’s Neighbourhood Forum said: “The proposed scheme disrespects the community which surrounds it. It disrespects Norwich.”
Most importantly, Historic England have now gotten involved: “Historic England consider that the proposed redevelopment of Anglia Square would have an extensive and severe impact on the character and significance of Norwich as an historic place, on the significance of the city’s greatest historic buildings and on that of many others.” Their objections are so strong that they have asked that the issue to be reviewed by the Secretary of State, and the case is now with the rather aptly-named Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire.
Even Norwich City Council admitted when agreeing to the planning application, that the development would be: “Harmful to Norwich”, but their head of planning service, Graham Nelson argued: “The level of economic and social benefits… are considered in these exceptional circumstances to outweigh the harm that would arise from the development – particularly to the setting of many of the existing historic landmarks in the city” and that it would also have: “a significant regenerative effect on the northern city centre”.
How is it impacting the current retailers? I popped into Peter’s Family Butcher on Saturday (22nd December 2018.) to pick up some festive supplies and thought I’d ask him if he knew anything of his future in the Square. He told me that none of the current retailers had been spoken to by the latest owners of Anglia Square and that they were all feeling rather frustrated at being left in the dark. Imagine trying to live and work under such uncertainty, it can’t be good for your mental well-being. It’s amazing that these retailers have not yet been involved in any of the discussions about the future of this development and you can’t help but feel that they simply don’t fit in with the future plans for Spaghetti takeaways, Coffee Shops and large Supermarket.
So what is my conclusion? For what it’s worth, we all try to convince ourselves that the present is more relevant than the past but we all lament hindsight, and tomorrow is just somebody else’s today. Anglia Square was first conceived by post-war planners before being lost in translation somewhere between then and the sixties, and suffered by our generations. Today’s planners are now trying to convince us that the future of the project will benefit the future generations, whilst even Norwich City Council admit that the development is potentially harmful to the fabric of the City. Are we really going to repeat history and do it all again? Those shiny drawings of the professionals wandering around the new development with their disposable coffee cups and expensive clothes are just an echo of the drawings no doubt put forward by Alan Cooke back in the 1960’s. Are we really going to go full circle again like a dopey Labrador in pursuit of its always just-out-of-reach tail? I don’t know, and even if I did have all the answers, I still have zero authority on the matter.
Is demolition really the Answer? To some, Anglia Square is ugly, unloved and drab, to others it’s seen as a rapidly-disappearing and misunderstood era of architecture that should be celebrated. Will we look back at the photographs with fond memories of how the old place used to be and rue the fact that at least some of the brutal architecture should have been saved? There’s a growing movement of people who actively seek out this type of Brutalist architecture all over the world, is this development about to completely erase this brief moment of optimistic art vs architecture from our City’s history; and if so, is that possibly a little bit short-sighted? Once it’s gone, it’s gone. What of the buildings that are supposed to be replacing it all, are they any less ugly? Is it not just another Intu clone, something that would happily sit unnoticed in places such as Hemel Hempstead or Milton Keynes? Will it just turn out to be an uninspired, early 21st Century turd rolled in 2020’s glitter? I fear it will, and I bet within two or three years of its completion, when the plants have become overgrown and the paths covered in chewing gum-stains and cigarette-butts, it’ll probably be about as appealing as the Coburg Street entrance of Intu Chapelfield, only with buildings more than twice the height robbing the area of any real natural light and no distracting nods to the City’s past (such as the City Wall).
Even if there was the will to keep it, I know inside that Sovereign House is now too far gone to save. The roofs are covered in cracks (one of which now has a tree growing out of it) which let in water. This water has been making its way down through the building and into the basement – where it goes after that I’m not sure – but on a rainy day when I was in there a few years back you could hear running water somewhere underneath the lowest floor. This ingress of water has been allowed to continue, unchecked for almost two decades now and one side-effect being that the floor’s steel reinforced concrete has been compromised by the constant seeping water and the internal steel rods are slowly secreting their way out of the very concrete they are supposed to be reinforcing. On our last visit about six years ago, we spotted many rusty stalactites hanging from the ceilings and bizarre looking calcite deposits on the floors below.
Water and mould, througout old Sovereign House:
One particular floor, which I presume must be at the perfect temperature and humidity for such an odd phenomena, has a carpet of algae instead of a floor, a strangely beautiful site, somewhat ruined by the smell:
As it turns out, the building wasn’t designed very well to begin with and the former staff still recall how it leaked, creaked and was a pain to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. Some of the cladding began to fall off the external walls a year or two after it was built and a design re-think was quickly needed.
Seeing as this building is an integral part of the rest of the Anglia Square structure, I can’t see there being any other feasible option but for its complete demolition.
Am I of the mind-set that wants to keep Anglia Square for the sake of it? No. I think demolition is needed but it’s what they are going to replace it with and the implications of what such a scheme will have on the local area (and the wider city as a whole) and it’s this which is making me feel more than a little bit uneasy about it all.
As it stands (excuse the pun) it’s now down to local government to thrash out with the Secretary of State to see if this new vision of Anglia Square, Botolph Street, Norwich-Over-The-Water, or Norvic will now get the go-ahead with it’s vision of our futures and it doesn’t really need to be said that I for one will be watching with a keen interest, no doubt with my camera in hand.
I’ll leave this blog entry now with a few shots taken by me in and around Anglia Square:
Many thanks to Johnathan Plunkett for granting me permission to use some of his father’s fantastic photographs. What would we have done without George’s passion for photographing a changing Norwich throughout his life? And thanks once again to you for taking the time to read my ramblings,
Excellent, as ever, Stuart.