A Local’s Guide: Dark & Historical Things to Do in Norwich

The Bridewell Undercroft in Norwich

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Although it isn’t a particularly big city, there are still a fair amount of fun and unique things to do in Norwich. Of course, as dark tourists, this list is about the darker side of Norwich. So whether you’re also into dark tourism, or you’re a bit of a history geek (like me!), or you just want to know what the city has to offer, here are all the dark and macabre things to do in Norwich.

Norwich was our home for many years; I lived there for five years, and Jeremy for 13. By the end, we were ready to go – especially me, for whom five years felt like a lifetime – but we still think fondly of Norwich. So when we recently went back for a weekend, we were excited to see our friends and check out our favourite Norwich attractions. 

Related: Dark Tourism: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Why You Should Visit Norwich as a Dark Tourist

When people think of England – and even the UK as a whole – the first place that comes to mind tends to be London. Which is fair.

But there are so many other amazing cities in England with fascinating histories. Norwich is one of those cities. To be fair, Norwich is often forgotten because, well, it’s not the most centrally located. It’s easy to get to from London and a few other cities by bus/train, but mostly it’s out of the way. Although it is perfect for a UK road trip!

While families tend to head to Norfolk in the summers for the beaches or a day out at Bewilderwood, and outdoor enthusiasts love the Broads, for the most part… Norwich City just seems to have a PR problem. People think of it as being a little backward. Someone once described Norwich to me as having the UK equivalent of rednecks.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Norwich is super progressive (it is one of the few counties in the UK that typically votes Green as a majority) and it’s full of culture. Norwich was actually the second UK city to be awarded UNESCO “City of Literature” status. FYI: Other cities with this status that we’ve written about are Krakow and Prague (and not just because of the Golem legend!) – but I doubt anyone considers them not worth a visit.

What does any of this have to do with dark tourism, you ask? Few people know that for hundreds of years, Norwich was England’s second city after London – though for a time it was actually larger than London! Almost all of England’s trade went through Norwich.

And like London, when a city is that old and that important… well, it can’t help but rack up some dark history. From witches to bombed out churches to mistreatment of Jews, Norwich really does have it all.

Related: Dark and Unusual Things to do in London

The Top Dark & Historical Things to Do in Norwich

To kick things off, I’ll start with the most popular places to visit in Norwich. The ones that wind up on most lists. But of course, I’ve only included spots with dark histories. As cool as they are, you won’t find the Lanes, Norwich Market, Strangers Hall or the Forum on here!

Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell is one of my favourite places in Norwich

I’ll be honest, the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell is my favourite Norwich attraction. Which is why it tops this list of the best [dark] things to do in Norwich. It might not be as popular as the cathedral and the castle, but I love it.

The museum, which is three floors, covers the entire history of Norwich, which *spoiler* is fascinating. It’s also the only place you’ll find any information about one of Norwich’s most famous local products: Coleman’s Mustard. Sadly, the Coleman’s Mustard Shop and Museum – a Norwich treasure – closed a few years ago. 

The outside of the Bridewell also boasts the largest flint wall in Europe. Pretty impressive, right?

However, the dark side of the museum comes from part of its name: Bridewell. A bridewell is an old English word for a jail, which is exactly what this building was for nearly 250 years.

The museum shares this dark history and showcases a few tragic stories of those imprisoned within.

The Bridewell Undercroft

PLUS! If you visit on the third Saturday of the month, you can go on a tour of the Bridewell Undercroft. And the Bridewell Undercroft is one of the coolest places to visit in Norwich! It is free with your admission costs, but it is advisable to book ahead of time on 01603 629127.

While Norwich is full of undercrofts, most of them are not open to the public. An undercroft is an underground storage space built into medieval homes. Norwich has at least 70, the largest number of surviving undercrofts in the country.

The undercroft beneath the Bridewell is the largest in Norwich, so it’s well worth the visit. Unlike most undercrofts, this one was used to house overflow prisoners, as well. There are remnants of this dark side of the undercroft’s history, you just have to look for it.

If you’re interested in undercrofts, there is another one beneath Strangers Hall that is normally open when the museum is.

PS: The top photo of this article is from the Bridewell Undercroft.

Norwich Cathedral

Norwich Cathedral Grounds, with Cathedral in background

Ask anyone their recommendations for things to do in Norwich as a tourist, and I guarantee you the Norwich Cathedral will be in the top three. It’s probably the top attraction for most, though I personally prefer the Bridewell (obviously). 

Granted, the history of the Norwich Cathedral isn’t particularly dark, but it felt remiss not to mention it. And, again, Norwich is freaking old, so inevitably most Norwich attractions have some dark past. The cathedral is no exception.

However, there are some historical figures of note buried within the cathedral grounds. I believe there are around 20 people – all associated in some way with Norwich – buried here. But I’m only interested in those with dark pasts.

Historical Figures Buried at Norwich Cathedral

Edith Cavell – Edith Cavell actually has her own section on this post below. So I won’t go into much about her here except to say she was a WWI hero who was executed in Brussels before being brought back to Norwich. 

Henry Despenser – An English nobleman and the Bishop of Norwich. He was known as the ‘Fighting Bishop’ due to his roles in the Peasants’ Revolt and the Battle of North Walsham. Hint: he didn’t care for the peasantry.

William of Norwich – William was a young boy (believed to be about 12) who was murdered in 1144. His death was believed to be a ritual killing by the Jews of Norwich – and is actually the first known accusation of Jewish ritual murder during medieval times. No one was ever convicted as there was no proof of the perpetrator(s). However, not long after his death, Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine Monk in Norwich, wrote The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. This detailed William’s life and death and attributed several miracles to him. Due largely in part to the efforts of Thomas’ account of William’s martyrdom, William was sainted in Norwich.

In addition to housing several important people, another dark aspect of the Norwich Cathedral is the Ethelbert Gate.

Murderous Monks

Ethelbert Gate in Norwich
Ethelbert Gate

In 1272, the prior of the cathedral demanded the townsfolk pay a toll for a local fair held in Tombland (just outside the cathedral grounds). The locals were none too pleased and refused to pay.

A rather heated dispute erupted and the church monks wound up killing several people.

Although they were arrested and charged, the monks successfully argued that they were not bound by the laws of men, only by the laws of God. They posited that they would be punished justly by the church, and if needs be in the afterlife. 

So, they were returned to the cathedral, where they locked the cathedral gates and refused entry to the townspeople.

Hired cleric muscle (apparently a thing) were stationed just outside of the grounds and tasked with attacking any passersby who got too close to the gates. But for some reason, rather than just giving the stink eye to everyone, they went on a vicious rampage. Not only were they assaulting everyone they crossed paths with, but the hired muscle went into the city of Norwich and began to attack at random. 

I’m not sure if anyone died as a result of these attacks, but still, not cool.

Not surprisingly, the people of Norwich retaliated. They burned the cathedral, most of the grounds, and the nearby church of St Ethelbert, before ransacking the priory. In the midst of the attacks, several clergymen and hired muscle were killed.

By this point, King Henry III had had enough, and stepped in. He backed the church, and condemned the townspeople. He sentenced 30 of the “ringleaders” to death, fined the city of Norwich, and forced them to replace the church of St Ethelbert with a new close.

And that is how we came to have Ethelbert Gate.

Fun Fact: Norwich Cathedral is one of the few cathedrals with Green Man roof bosses in the UK. Another example of this can be seen at Crowland Abbey, one of our favourite alternative UK destinations!

Norwich Castle

Entrance to Norwich Castle, one of the most popular things to do in Norwich

Another one of the popular places to visit in Norwich is the castle. And while the main attraction in the top half of the castle is dressing up like royalty (it’s honestly not that exciting), it’s down below where the real history lies.

Over the years, many people have mentioned to us how unimpressive the castle is. And I’m not gonna lie, it’s not great.

However, one thing to know is that Norwich Castle IS bigger than it looks. In fact, most of it is underground. It was designed this way to protect it.

These days, the estate is divided into the castle proper and an art gallery. The gallery is housed in a highly renovated former section of the castle. The gallery has shown some amazing exhibits over the years, so if you like art, I would also recommend adding it to your list of things to do in Norwich.

Dark History of Norwich Castle

So what makes it dark, then?

Well, for starters, the castle was built on the site of razed homes. In 1067, William the Conqueror ordered that 98 Saxon homes be destroyed to make way for defensive ditches. This was the groundwork for his Norwich fortress.

But in 1345, the castle was converted into a prison, which was its main function for the next 500 years.

Conditions within the prison were pretty inhuman. Sadly quite standard at the time.

Most famously, the castle imprisoned Robert Kett, who led the Ketts Rebellion (more on that below). After being convicted of treason in London, Kett was sent back to the Norwich Castle where he was hanged.

Visitors to the Prison exhibit can learn all about the castle’s history as a prison, including seeing former cells and hearing personal stories about inmates.

Sometimes it is possible to do a guided tour of the castle dungeons. They are currently undergoing renovations, but check this site for availability. There are also a few other tours available, as well, including a Battlements Tour.

Cow Tower

Cow Tower is a wonderful heritage site in Norwich

Cow Tower is an English Heritage site full of history. There are a few paths to the Cow Tower, but all go through quiet public paths with beautiful scenery along the River Wensum.

Admittedly, it doesn’t have the darkest past, but I quite like the Cow Tower, so I’m including it. Built in 1398-9, it was originally used as an artillery tower. The locals built the tower in response to a threat from France and indigenous English rebels. It was specifically designed to house gunpowder artillery, which was quite rare for the time.

Although the remains today are small, it is still impressive and one of my favourite places to visit in Norwich. The tower was designed to hold a garrison if required and would have had reasonable living space for any inhabitants.

During the Ketts Rebellion in 1549, the rebels attacked the city and destroyed the tower’s parapets. This inadvertently led to long term damage as reconstruction efforts accidentally made things worse.

What was Ketts Rebellion

The Ketts Rebellion was essentially a rich vs poor conflict. In the mid-16th century, rich English landowners began fencing off areas of common land for themselves. This disproportionately affected the poor who relied on the land for food and work. Oftentimes, people were even evicted from their homes so that rich noblemen could take over the land instead.

There were uprisings across the country, but the most famous and brutal of the uprisings was the Ketts Rebellion in 1549.

Initially Robert Kett, of Wymondham was actually a target of the rebels. The start of the rebellion began on 8 July 1549, when the rebels attacked several farms, including Ketts’. However, rather than resisting, he not only accepted their demands, but offered to lead them.

Ketts and over 16,000 men set up camp in Mousehold Heath, a large wooded area that still sits just north-east of the city centre. On 29 July 1549, they successfully stormed Norwich. The rebels held control over the city for nearly a month, even defeating a battalion of the Royal Army.

But on 27 August 1549, an army led by the Earl of Warwick managed to overcome the rebels during the Battle of Dussindale.

Kett and his brother William were both captured and tried for treason. Kett was hanged in Norwich, while William was hanged in Wymondham

The Guildhall

The Guildhall is a popular place to visit in Norwich

The Guildhall was once the local courthouse and gaol (jail). In case you haven’t noticed, Norwich was big on punishment.

The former courthouse now houses a rather pleasant cafe and is one of the top places to visit in Norwich. You can still see a lot of original fixtures and chambers as they have kept the space as intact as possible.

Visitors can arrange tours in advance to access other parts of the building. Alternatively, an escape room is held in the former jail cells. (More below)

Norwich Ghost Walks

Sadly I never actually got to go on a Norwich ghost walk, but I hear they’re quite good fun. Unfortunately, during my uni years ghost tours weren’t top of my list for expenses. Of course, as soon as I could afford them, the group took a hiatus – one that annoyingly ended not long after we left Norwich.

Still, they are back now, and apparently in full swing. So if you’re looking for creepy things to do in Norwich, definitely check out Norwich Ghost Walks!

However, while we haven’t been on a ghost tour, that doesn’t mean we don’t know all about the ghost stories of Norwich. And that leads me to…

Haunted Places to Visit in Norwich

Sign at the top of Elm Hill, one of the most haunted places to visit in Norwich

In case ghosts are your thing, we already have a post dedicated to the most haunted places to visit in Norwich, so I won’t go into much detail here. If you’re interested in trying to find a ghost, or merely love a good ghost story, we do recommend you give them a read!

Essentially, Norfolk is possibly one of the most haunted regions in the UK. With Norwich at its epicenter, the city seems to be a confluence of paranormal activity. Spirits abound in Norwich.

From cannibals and poltergeists to angry mayors and priests, Norwich’s supernatural scene has it all.

A few of Norwich’s most haunted spots include:

Augustine Steward House: During a plague outbreak in 1578, a young girl and her family were boarded up inside the house (standard practice for plague victims at the time). But the girl didn’t get sick and instead was forced to succumb to cannibalising her own parents to survive. Even more tragically, she wound up dying after choking on a bit of flesh.

Elm Hill: This picturesque part of Norwich is haunted by the ghost of an angry clergyman who condemns anyone he runs into to hell.

The Last Pub Standing: One of the oldest pubs in Norwich and home to eight resident ghosts!

Explore Norfolk’s Witch History

Fye Bridge, near Elm Hill a popular place to visit in Norwich
Fye Bridge

Norfolk, and East Anglia as a whole, has a pretty brutal history of witchcraft. Since we have an entire post about it, I won’t go into too much depth here.

But the highlights are that East Anglia (which includes Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and sometimes Essex) was the main stomping grounds of Matthew Hopkins. Matthew Hopkins was the self-appointed Witchfinder General from 1644-1647.

Hopkins was responsible for sending over 300 people to their deaths following accusations of witchcraft.

So, naturally, one of the top things to do in Norwich is explore it’s witch history. If it helps, it actually involves a bit of drinking.

Witch-Related Places to Visit in Norwich

Again, I cover all these sites in our article about witchcraft in Norfolk, so just a quick overview.

Lollard’s Pit & Bishops Bridge – Lollard’s Pit is one of the most popular pubs in Norwich with a dark history. Lollards (pre-Protestant Christians who called for reforms to the Catholic church) and accused witches were held in cells at Lollard’s pit. They were then forced to walk across Bishop’s Bridge, before a crowd of onlookers, to a burning pyre on the other side. If the history is too much, grab a drink at Lollard’s Pit.

Fye Bridge – Fye Bridge, which I have sometimes heard called The Witches Bridge, was the main ‘ducking’ site in Norwich. Ducking involves tying someone (read: a woman) to a chair and submerging her into the water. If she floats, she’s a witch; if she drowns, she’s not a witch, but she is dead. Win-win, obviously…

St Peter Mancroft – A set of shackles used for public humiliation still remain outside the church.

Destroyed Churches in Norwich: St Benedict’s Church & St Bartholomew in Heigham

Picnicking at St Bartholomew in Heigham is one of the best things to do in Norwich on a nice day out
St Bartholomew in Heigham

Like a lot of the country, Norwich did not go unscathed during WWII. While the Norwich Blitz is not as well known as those in London and Plymouth, Norwich still suffered greatly. Over 2,000 homes were destroyed, while another 27,000 were damaged. 340 people died in Norwich due to bombings, giving the city the highest casualty count in Eastern England.

Between 27 – 29 April 1942, the Baedeker Blitz took place throughout in Exeter, Bath, Canterbury, York and Norwich. This attack was carried out by the German Luftwaffe, predominantly through the use of incendiary bombs.

Norwich suffered an attack on the 27th and the 29th. The second attack leveled several buildings in Norwich city centre, while the first attack took out two of the city’s churches: St Benedicts and St Bartholomew in Heigham.

Although a few remnants remain of this terrible period, most of it is gone now. Except for what remains of the churches. Both the remains of St Benedicts and St Bartholomew in Heigham can still be seen in Norwich.

Well, kind of. Unlike Coventry Cathedral, which is well preserved, both Norwich churches have been boarded up and deemed unsafe to enter. St Benedicts is condemned and may well be torn down in the near future. But St Bartholomew in Heigham still sits in a small, peaceful green space in Northwest Norwich. You cannot go inside, but it is nevertheless still an important reminder from the outside.

There is also a Baedeker Blitz memorial located in Earlham Cemetery.

Related: Things to do in Coventry

Heroes & Memorials in Norwich

INTU Chapelfield Plaque

I discovered this plaque purely by accident. It is attached to the outside the INTU Chapelfield Shopping Centre in Norwich city centre. It is purposefully placed quite high up (and not just for short girls like me), and out of the way of most passersby.

Which is a real shame, because what it is paying tribute to is an important and relatively unknown part of the city’s history.

In 2004, during site excavations, the remains of 17 bodies were discovered inside the remnants of a medieval well.

Based on carbon dating, it is believed the bodies discovered in the well were likely the victims of Jewish persecution. Although Norwich has long been home to a rather large Jewish community, between 1100 to 1300, Jews suffered much persecution throughout the UK.

Horrifically, it is likely the victims were thrown in head first – alive. Based on bone fractures, those at the bottom (mostly adults) cushioned the fall for those at the top (children and babies).

You can read more about this terrible tragedy and the persecution of Jews throughout the UK here.

Edith Cavell Memorials

Visiting the Edith Cavell Memorial is one of the most historical things to do in Norwich

Edith Cavell was a Norfolk native, so she’s a very big deal here. But rightfully so as she is sadly quite an unknown WWI hero.

Edith was a Britsh nurse living in German-occupied Brussels during WWI. She saved the lives of soldiers from both sides, for which some labeled her a traitor. But Edith saw every life as precious and never discriminated based on nationality or uniform. During the war, she helped over 200 Triple Entente soldiers (this refers to Britain, France and Russia, however to my knowledge she never helped any Russian soldiers) and Belgian and French military-aged civilians escape to the Netherlands and then into the UK.

But on 3 August 1915, she was arrested and charged with harboring Allied soldiers. She was convicted of treason and locked up for ten weeks (two of which were spent in solitary confinement). On 12 October 1915, despite an outpouring of international pleas for mercy, she was executed by a German firing squad.

There are several memorials for her throughout the UK, including one in London that we’ve missed (next time!). In Norwich there are a handful of spots that pay tribute to Edith Cavell.

To start, head to the Norwich Cathedral grounds, where she was buried. You can pay your respects to this wonderful woman. From there, go into the cathedral, which has a series of fourteen paintings by artist Brian Whelan depicting her life and death.

In Tombland, just outside of the Norwich Cathedral is a monument dedicated to her. Right across the street is the Edith Cavell pub.

Lastly, UEA has a medical building called the Edith Cavell Building, which is of course named in her memory.

Related: Dr Archibald McIndoe and the Guinea Pig Club

Norwich’s Blue Plaques

Earlier this year, an activist group started to put up unofficial blue plaques around the city dedicated to women – or groups of women – of note in Norwich. Not all of the women and incidents memorialized necessarily have to do with macabre history. However, as we highlighted in our London pubs post, sometimes the dark side of history is just inequality. These plaques are highlighting that.

One of the plaques is located on Fye Bridge (mentioned above) due to being a ducking spot. Another is outside of Cinema City, commemorating a group of suffragettes who interrupted a meeting of Winston Churchill’s within.

You can read more about the plaques here.

Norwich Breweries War Memorial

Norwich Breweries War Memorial

This memorial isn’t for any specific incident. Instead, this memorial has been assembled using memorial plaques from several nearby buildings that are now demolished.

It is called the Norwich Breweries War Memorial because the now demolished buildings belonged to several Norwich breweries. These breweries are: Bullard & Sons Ltd., Morgans Brewery Co. Ltd., Steward & Patterson Ltd., Youngs Crawshay & Youngs Ltd.

The memorials honour former employees who died fighting in the First World War (1914-1918); the Second World War (1939-1945); and the Korean War (1950-1953).

Norwich War Memorial

Norwich War Memorial

Unveiled in 1927, the Norwich War Memorial originally stood just outside of the Guildhall. However, in 1938, the memorial was moved to an area above the Norwich Market in the city centre. This space is known as the Memorial Gardens.

The memorial designer, Sir Edward Lutyens, initially intended to display all 3,544 names of Norwich men who lost their lives during WWI. However, this wound up not being possible. So a ‘Roll of Honour’ was created in addition (which Lutyens paid for out of pocket as he had already exceeded the £500 allotted budget).

The Roll of Honour is housed in the City Hall and is available to view by appointment only.

UEA: Earlham Hall & Elizabeth Fry Building

These two buildings are connected to darker times in history largely in name. Well, kind of. Earlham Hall is the former childhood home of Elizabeth Fry and is believed to be haunted by her sister, Catherine (a totally benign ghost). It also has potential ties to witchcraft. You can read more about both of these things in our haunted Norwich post.

But who was Elizabeth Fry and why does she matter?

Fry was an English philanthropist known for her work in reforming British prisons. She advocated tirelessly for better living conditions, and throughout her life became known as the “angel of prisons.” She was even on the former £5 English note from 2001 until 2016.

Seeing as she grew up there, UEA loves Elizabeth Fry and in addition to Earlham Hall (now the law school), there is also the Elizabeth Fry building. Let me reiterate: UEA has a building named after a woman whose nickname was the Angel of Prisons.

Honestly, there’s not much at either building about her, but I like that they exist. Plus Earlham Hall is a beautiful building. Oh, but there is a plaque in Gurney Court, where Fry was born.

Bonus Round: More Things to Do in Norwich 

Dark Themed Escape Rooms

Exterior of the Augustine Steward House, a Norwich home with a terrifying history
Augustine Steward House,

In the last few years, escape rooms have exploded in popularity pretty much everywhere, and Norwich is no exception. If you’re looking for unique things to do Norwich that are a little creepy, but good fun, you can’t go wrong with an escape room.

There are two main companies that do escape rooms in Norwich (that I know of). 

Cryptic Escape runs all of their rooms out of the Augustine Steward (which I mentioned above in the haunted places to visit section). One of the games is even based on the dark history of the house.

History Mystery also plays off the dark history of the city. Initially, this company only ran games in the Guildhall jail cells, but has expanded to the Bridewell Undercroft and the secret tunnels beneath Norwich (yes, Norwich has secret tunnels!). This is one of the only ways to visit these sites. So while they can be a bit pricey, if you can afford it, it’s worth it to indulge in the history in an incredibly unique way.

Noirwich Literary Festival

As I already mentioned, Norwich is one of the UNESCO Cities of Literature. And it takes this title very seriously. In fact, Norwich has rebranded itself as ‘the city of stories.’

So it should come as no surprise that it has its share of literary festivals; one of which is Noirwich.

The festival is only a few years old, but Noirwich took off almost immediately. It always runs on a weekend in mid-September and has already managed to pull in names like Paula Hawkins, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Val McDermid, John Banville, Nicci French, and Louise Doughty.

Listen to the Weird Norfolk Podcast

Norwich is full of dark history, and so is the rest of Norfolk! There are so many weird, creepy and unsettling stories that come out of this pocket of the UK. And now, there is a podcast dedicated to telling them.

If this interests you, or if you’re just looking for a new podcast about something weird, wonderful and historical, I recommend having a listen. I’ll admit, they aren’t all winners, but there’s a lot of fascinating stories mixed in there.

Have we not mentioned one of your favourite dark things to do or places to visit in Norwich? Did this article help you to laaarn yaaarself Naaarfolk? What historical facts pique your interest in Norwich? Let us know in the comments!


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