One of Norwich’s oldest and most beautiful buildings has satisfied people’s needs for centuries, writes children’s author Joyce Dunbar
Ever since the 19th century Norwich has been known as ‘a fine city’, but to my mind it is also a magical and a kind city. The longer I live here the more I discover about its inherited values. Spared the industrial upheavals of other places and with a relatively stable population, there is an underlying continuity between the ethos and events of the past and the present. Its ghostly heroes stalk the streets.
There is one place that to me is the very quintessence of these values - the Britons Arms.
This atmosphere is created by sisters Sue Skipper and Gilly Mixer. Serendipitously, it was almost as if the house found them. Aged 17, Gilly worked there as a waitress. Sue was taking a break from her job in psychiatric social work and also did a stint as a waitress. Then the leaseholder asked them to run the place. So there they were, two young women, in 1974, completely in charge.
They loved the building and the building loved them back. The numinous spirit of the place together with its benign history determined the ambience they created. It isn’t a fake ‘olde worlde’ look. It’s the real thing, with a delicate sense of the beautiful reflected in antique plates on the wall, the painting of Norwich Market over the fireplace, flowers on the windowsill, the stove burning in the inglenook in winter, the exquisite garden in summer, which combine to make an almost holistic experience.
From early morning till late afternoon they are busy in their small kitchen, making cakes, soups, quiches, pies, roulade... Whenever I go, I feel cared for in a way that goes beyond catering.
At the ecclesiastical heart of Norwich, the building stands on the corner of the wonderfully preserved Elm Hill. One floor overhangs another and the entire picturesque, four-storey, timber-framed structure is supported from a massive chimney stack.
Records discovered during conservation in 2015 date back to 1347. It has been used by barber surgeons, merchants and traders. In 1760 it was the Kings Arms ale house, becoming, in 1804, the Britons Arms, reflecting republican sentiment rife at the time.
Over 35 years Sue and Gilly were up against the deteriorating condition of the building and eventually its owners, Norwich City Council, put it up for auction.
Sue and Gilly were offered the chance to buy it but believed it should belong to the people of Norwich. Supported by friends and patrons they went into battle and the building was eventually leased to the Norwich Preservation Trust, which could access funds from English Heritage and other organisations. Sue had promised me a look around when the restoration was complete and told me more about the building’s origins.
“Eight women probably lived in this house, with a room each, which was most unusual in those days,” she said. “They were independent of any one religious order, but undoubtedly influenced by them, for their work was in helping the poor.”
I asked Sue how much the religious setting had influenced her. “Not overtly,” she replied. “But the spirit of this building gets into your bones.”
The tradition of kindness is still offered by the sisters, who cook the best food, from the finest ingredients (locally sourced), served in the simplest manner.
In an attic, humble objects discovered during the restoration are laid out like precious relics; a glove, two left shoes, (thought to ward off evil spirits), a child’s thimble, a shoe button. There are needles and a bobbin, indicating leatherwork and weaving.
Pride of place goes to a piece of 12th or 13th century stained glass. Votive offerings were included in the fabric of the building; on one side a row of teeth is embedded in the flint wall, an ancient grin forever fixed.
At the entrance to the garden an elaborately carved archway faces the arched doorway of St Peter Hungate church, suggesting a former connection. The marvel of it is that a benign spirit seeps through the fabric of this 15th century building.
It is a mix of magic and kindness: food as love. In this tranquil corner of the city a vital part of the character of Norwich has been regenerated.
Joyce Dunbar has two new picture books out next month – Grumpy Duck, illustrated by Petr Horacek and Is it Really Nearly Christmas, illustrated by Victoria Turnbull.
‘I feel cared for in a way that goes beyond catering’
The Britons Arms