The area of Norwich, north of Dereham Road. I spent the first few years of my life here. Learnt to walk on these streets. Picked siblings up from first and middle schools here. Played in the park opposite the dark and dingy corner shop. Went to playgroup at the Belvedere Centre, Quest Club at the Baptist Church, played in the cemetery just up the road. I remember, aged three, visiting Dr Leg at the surgery to have various inoculations, and Mum buying me a Feast ice cream as my reward for not crying when the needle was stuck in my arm. I still recall feeling queasy with chocolate overload as we walked home, Feast only half eaten, but forcing myself to finish that special treat through sheer bloodymindedness, so Mum couldn’t say ‘I told you it would be too much for you’ (I was me from a very early age). But for all of the early years I spent in this area, I never knew of the secrets in the streets.
I’m not going to go into the stories, not really. I’m sure to get facts wrong for one thing, and if you really want to know more about Norwich during the Second World War, then you’ll find nothing better than NickStone’s writing. What I can tell you about is how a tip off led to a discovery of something that’s both pitiful and humbling.
This part of Norwich has been the less affluent side for a while. Small, cramped streets, filled with Victorian terraces, the occasional odd gap, or 60s ugly modern housing, like a gold tooth in an otherwise straightforward smile. There are reasons for that. Anglian Water have their headquarters here, on the appropriately named Waterworks Road. And just opposite is this.
St Bartholomew. Taken out by the Luftwaffe in 1943, it had stood for centuries, offering solace, comfort, a place for celebration and contemplation, a place for a community to gather. And then gone. Almost. All the prayers and sermons, all the hopes and admonishments, all the teachings and thought, wiped out, erased, vanished. Almost.
The congregation moved on, Norwich City Council finally pulled down the walls that had survived after ten years. But the tower, considered to be of historical importance, was left. Windows blocked up, the bell tower still stands, alone, a few remaining memorials left as a reminder of those considered important enough to have their existence recorded. Nothing for those like you and I, who walked these streets, grew up, lived, died…
One wonders how the old congregation felt, in those years after the war, when what had been their church was left to moulder, left to decay, a jarring every day reminder of the brutality and pointlessness of war. The arbitrary nature that saw some houses destroyed, some people killed, some places of peace and community obliterated. I can only think of it as something that must have been a painful reminder of terror and loss. Not a place to think of as happy. But there is a little something. A small park, where children play now, ancient and modern side by side. A reminder of all the history that Norwich holds, packed so tightly together. Cheek by jowl, there’s a single tooth left in the mouth that was once where a community came together to give voice to their faith.
War is unkind to churches named after St Bartholomew, it seems. But that’s another story.