Wel­com­ing arms

One of Nor­wich’s old­est and most beau­ti­ful build­ings has sat­is­fied peo­ple’s needs for cen­turies, writes chil­dren’s au­thor Joyce Dun­bar

EDP Norfolk - - HERITAGE -

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

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