Working Lives

Wensum Lodge – a personal view

Location: Norwich


On Saturday 8th January 2024 I set out in a blizzard down King Street to join Friends of Wensum Lodge (FOWL) on a final tour before it closed. Since the 1960’s it has operated as an adult education centre and many of the people who taught and studied there (including me) have formed a strong attachment to the place, and have been fighting to save it – a seemingly lost battle even before it began.On the one side is the city council, a mixture of Labour and Greens; on the other is the conservative County Council who want to sell the place and develop the site, presumably for property development.

The process of dismantling the building has already begun and this includes items such as pottery kilns bought with funds raised by FOWL. Unfortunately, we don’t have lawyers to defend our rights!

Wensum Lodge is a higgledy-piggledy building with rickety stairs going in all directions and cavernous depths with treacherous walkways, and an upper floor with newly equipped studios intended for individual artists. The building has been added to in seemingly random ways over the decades so it was hard to get an overall picture on a brief tour. In two or three studios it looked as though the students had been given short notice that their course was finished. The bin was filled to the brim with broken pottery and I picked out an unglazed pot, pale blue and beautiful, but damaged, as an emblem. There were benches with bibs attached and debris from all manner of creative activities which had been stopped in mid-flow.

In a painting studio I saw a drawing or etching of a music group, with masking tape round the edges, indicating that this was a work in progress. Nobody heard my suggestion that it should be set aside for safe keeping. The three figures were wearing 18th century clothes and I wondered if it was a copy of an older picture possibly set inside the renowned music room (or Jew’s House as it is otherwise known) as it once belonged to two Jews in the 13th century, one of them a money lender. ‘That’s where they kept the money,’ said one of the guides, pointing to the huge black door with its many locks and bolts protecting the stronghold.

It was this, the undercroft, Music House or Jurnet’s as it became known, that was so spectacular. The main arena opened onto three caverns, their flint walls glistening like dragon scales so that, at first, it seemed like three enormous coiled dragons. The end part had been turned into a bar with dusty rows of wine bottles arranged on a rack (presumably for effect) and where spoken poetry groups had their meetings in the 1980’s and 90’s. It is an astonishing piece of historic construction.

One member of the group told me that the leasehold has been offered to the Jewish community to make amends for past atrocities. It is not under threat as it is Grade 1 listed and is the only surviving example in Norwich of Norman 12th century domestic architecture. It is of huge significance to the city, as is the whole site and surrounding buildings, with their mercantile, spiritual, literary, creative and educational associations.

A look at the timeline of adjacent buildings gives an idea.

Mercantile – Dragon Hall 1343. A magnificent medieval merchant’s house, recently restored to become the National Centre for Writing.

Spiritual – St Etheldreda church, late Saxon and said to be the oldest church in the city. It has been restored several times and is now used as artists’ studios. It is one of several churches in King Street, nestled between warehouses, workshops and factory units.  What was once working-class housing has, in recent years, been sensitively restored and gentrified. King Street was a busy red-light district when I went there!

Spiritual, cultural & literary – Church of St Julian. Julian was an anchoress (1343-1463) and the first woman to write a book in English, “Revelations of divine love”.  The manuscript was lost for many years but is now coming to the world’s attention, and the church is already a place of pilgrimage on a small scale, but could become bigger.

Wensum lodge music house. 12th century and the oldest house in Norwich, some say in England. Since the 1960s it has been an adult education centre offering many arts courses but focusing until recently on exam- related subjects.

Riverside – with all the gear, tackle and trim that goes with the territory.

I started as a student at Wensum Lodge in 1990, signing up for A level French and Life Drawing. Later I became a tutor for the writing of children’s stories and also ran a course in basic grammar for those who had missed out at school. I always felt it was a special place where I felt more than welcome. Something of its history had seeped into the present and indeed, into Norwich itself; a very benign city and the most socially equal place I’ve ever lived in (Scunthorpe, London, Brighton, The Cotswolds, Stratford on Avon).

Wensum Lodge is expensive to maintain. Accessibility is a problem especially since the carpark was sold. I can see why it is a headache to the City Council, but to sell it to outside interests ideologically at odds with all that Norwich and Wensum Lodge stands for, is a mistake. The traceable thread of human development which runs through the place should not be curtailed and simply handed over to property developers. The site which they propose to bulldoze is far too precious and significant to obliterate.  Norwich has a record of development blight, notably Anglia Square, but it also has a record of positive development such as The Forum and the remarkable social housing in Goldsmith Street.

The soil beneath these buildings has been undisturbed for centuries and at the very least, should be archeologically protected. Elm Hill is the pride and joy of the city but what a battle it was to save it! Now it is the crucible of the ethos and values which permeate the city. Wensum Lodge too is part of our heritage. For an excellent history of the place see “Wensum Lodge, The Story of a House” by John Dent, Jim Livock and a team of volunteers.

What of the future? Some believe it will be left for 10 years to rot until demolition becomes inevitable. The Sports Hall will survive as it is relatively new. There are frequent calls for a concert hall in Norwich. What could be more fitting for a place known for so long as The Music House?

Julian left us with the adage, ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thynges shall be well’ Let us hope it prevails in this case.

Joyce Dunbar                                                                                          Pottergate, Norwich


Note from Joyce Dunbar:

I am not a scholar or an expert of any kind, so this is just a personal response to the situation. My only qualification is that I love this city and feel grateful to the people who have protected it in the past.

I was “Millennium writer in residence” on Norwich market which resulted in the book “Voices & Visions, A Celebration of Norwich Market” published in 2005. I was more concerned to catch the life and spirit of the place and to prevent its threatened modernisation than to record its history, which has already been done. I organised “Hands Around the Market” on Valentines Day 2002 and many artists contributed to an exhibition in the Forum including John Allen, gallery owner, and Martin Figura, photographer and poet. The Market is now thriving.

I also wrote in The Norfolk Magazine about the Britons Arms which had been gifted to the city following the Council’s proposal to sell it. It took a campaign to save it, led by the long-standing tenants, sisters Sue Skipper & Gilly Mixer, along with local support.

Contributed by Joyce Dunbar 18th March 2024. All rights reserved.