Norwich became the sixth UNESCO City of Literature in May 2012, but its literary heritage goes back over 600 years: Julian of Norwich penned the first book written by a woman in English in 1395.
The city is renowned for being a regional centre for publishing and is home to five percent of the UK’s independent publishing sector. But literature isn’t just about the printed word on the page: visitors to the city will see for themselves the abundance of galleries, theatres, libraries and museums that make up the cultural and creative fabric of Norwich.
10 Things to Know About Norwich
- 1. Norwich’s Literary Greats
- Norwich is a city of astounding literary talent that can be traced back to the 14th century writings of Julian of Norwich. A 16th century resident of the city, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517 – 1547), wrote the first poem in blank verse. Thomas Browne, author of Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), a text which established scientific principles of empirical observation, also called the city home.
Famous abolitionist, author of Rights of Man (1791) and Founding Father of the USA Thomas Paine (1737–1809) also lived in the city, and is commemorated at the University of East Anglia’s Thomas Paine Study Centre.
Other talented writers who have called Norwich home include Ian McEwan, the first graduate from the University of East Anglia’s MA in Creative Writing. Other high-profile graduates of this course include Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Never Let Me Go, as well as Emma Healey, winter of the Costa Book Award in 2014. Norwich publishers Galley Beggar Press published Eimear McBride’s award-winning novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, and McBride has lived in Norwich since 2011.
- 2. Independent Bookshops
- Norwich is littered with world-leading bookshops. One of these is housed in the Jarrold department store. An East Anglian dynasty with an unrivalled interest in the art of printing and bookbinding, Jarrolds have been involved in the trade since 1815 when they established their own printing press. Jarrold printed the first edition of Anna Sewell’s children’s classic Black Beauty in 1878 and in 1911 the company was granted a Royal Warrant for stationery. The firm is still run by members of the Jarrold family.
Norwich’s bookshop The Book Hive, opened in 2009 and in 2011 was named the Telegraph’s ‘Best Small Independent Bookshop in Britain’. Tombland Bookshop sells an interesting range of rare, used and out of print books and sits proudly within a beautiful 15th century building opposite Norwich Cathedral. Also situated in the centre of Norwich is the City Centre Bookshop, an independent family-run bookshop that sells a variety of genres, both new and second hand.
- 3. Publishers
- Norwich is home to the well-known Galley Beggar Press, who published Eimear McBride’s A Girl is A Half Formed Thing in 2014. The press was founded in 2012 by Henry Layte, Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, and also hosts the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize each year. Other publishing companies doing great things in the city are Paragraph Publishing, East Publishing Ltd, Scofield Publishing, Blackdog Books, Hollinger Print, and Positive Publications Ltd.
- 4. Writers’ Centre Norwich
- In 2012 Writers’ Centre Norwich was awarded £3 million to develop the International Centre for Writing, a hub for excellence in literature from around the world.
Writer’s Centre Norwich led Norwich’s successful bid for UNESCO City of Literature status and continues to promote the importance of literature within the city.
Formed in 2003 as a collaboration between UEA, Arts Council England, Norwich City Council and Norfolk County Council, the Centre is a literature development organisation with a local, national and international remit. With its focus on literature, it provides a wonderful range of facilities to writers looking to advance their professional career. It organises regular workshops, high-profile author events, courses, opportunities for networking and popular competitions. The organisation also works closely with schools so that children are involved in the city’s literary development, as well as connecting readers to through an annual summer reading campaign. As the organisation behind the City of Literature bid, Writers’ Centre Norwich is in charge of how the accreditation is used and the city’s programmes developed under the UNESCO umbrella.
It is situated in the beautiful Dragon’s Hall, built in 1430, which now hosts an exciting programme of literary events and workshops throughout the year.
- 5. Live Literature
- Norwich is also home to a thriving live literature scene, with everything from regular performance poetry events to author readings at venues across the city. Luke Wright, founder of spoken word collective Aisle 16, is an important advocate in and of Norwich’s live literature scene, setting up Nasty Little Press in 2009 to publish the work of performance poets from the UK, including Molly Naylor, Martin Figura, Tim Clare, Hannah Walker and John Osborne. The Press closed in 2015, having published over 30 books from 20 different poets during its six short but active years.
- 6. University of East Anglia (UEA)
- Norwich’s much-loved University was established in 1963 and provides first-class courses in Creative Writing for writers from across the world.
In 2011 UEA’s Creative Writing MA was awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, recognising the innovative nature of the program and the success of its students. It was also the first MA course in Creative Writing to be established in the UK, set up by novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson in 1970. Over the years it has established itself as the foremost Creative Writing course in the UK and a global hub of national and international literature. Graduates include Booker Prize-winners Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Anne Enright.
The British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA, founded by the renowned author W.G. Sebald, is also Britain’s leading centre for the development, promotion and support of literary translation.
- 7. A City of Refuge
- Writers’ Centre Norwich established Norwich as the UK’s first City of Refuge for threatened writers in 2007 and was a founding member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).
ICORN was established in 1993 by the International Parliament of Writers, and in 2010 became an independent organisation, connecting its member cities to protect and promote freedom of speech for writers and the rights to safety to which they are entitled. Today Norwich is one of 53 Cities of Refuge worldwide, a network which includes its sister UNESCO Cities of Literature Reykjavik, Barcelona and Ljubljana.
- 8. Festivals
- Norwich is home to three home-grown literary festivals.
The University of East Anglia hosts the annual Spring Literary Festival, a celebration of literature and ideas which works with a hand-picked group of writers and thinkers to read and discuss their work. Also run by UEA is FLY, the UK’s first literature and creative writing festival for young people, established in 2013 and aimed at readers aged 13 – 17.
Norwich’s annual Worlds Literature Festival is an international showcase of literary talent, hosting an array of events such as live readings, panels, discussions, workshops, amongst others.
Within an hour of Norwich are a multitude of other literature festivals including North Norfolk’s Poetry-next-the-Sea and the Cambridge Literary Festival (formerly Wordfest).
- 9. Libraries
- The first provincial civic library outside of London, known as Norwich Public Library, was founded in in 1608.
At first it was only a reference library; it wasn’t until 1716 that books could be borrowed.
The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library has been the most visited public library in the UK and is located in the Forum in central Norwich, a much-loved cultural hub for the region.
Norwich Cathedral Library is home to more than 20,000 books dating back to 1474, while the John Innes Centre hosts a remarkable collection of natural history and rare books.
- 10. Literary Projects
- Norwich UNESCO City of Literature is continually looking at ways of fuelling the thirst for literature within the city, implementing many exciting and innovative programs and events.
In 2014 the City welcomed Margaret Atwood to Norwich for three months, as the University of East Anglia’s third UNESCO Visiting Professor for Creative Writing. Others have included the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and the novelist Ali Smith.
The City has also been active in running the SPACE project, a reading and writing program led by volunteers in schools and libraries across Norfolk.
In 2014 the City commissioned a film about one of the stories from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake staring Eimear McBride.
The City is also hatching interesting plans to commission new creative work to celebrate their sister UNESCO Cities of Literature, so watch this space…