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Norwich – City of Ale
Norwich is a city of superlatives.
The county town of Norfolk boasts more medieval churches than any city north of the Alps. Its magnificent cathedral – one of the finest Romanesque structures in Europe – has the largest cloisters in England, and its 12th-century castle is one of the best-preserved Norman buildings in Europe.
The city also has the largest intact medieval street plan in Europe, the biggest six-day-a-week open-air market in the country, and possibly the oldest hotel in the UK (the 13th-century Maids Head).
It doesn’t end there. One other superlative to add is that Norwich boasts the most spectacular resurgence in beer and pub life witnessed by any part in the UK.
Just 40 years ago, Norfolk was a beer desert. Its various breweries had been gradually subsumed into the giant that was Watneys and local cask beers had been washed away by the torrent of keg Red Barrel that was hosed into the county’s pubs.
Today, in an astonishing turn-around, Norfolk is home to around 30 breweries. Fifteen Norwich pubs make it into the Good Beer Guide and the beers they offer read like a Who’s Who of great cask beers.
Quite rightly, this remarkable revival is now celebrated in an annual, city-wide festival known as Norwich City of Ale.
The first event took place in 2011. Over the course of ten days, 31 pubs and 35 breweries collaborated to stage a beer jamboree on a scale not seen before in the UK. Events included ale trails, a brewers’ market, tours on a vintage double-decker bus and in-pub festivals, quizzes and other entertainment.
The celebration was a huge success, drawing in visitors from across the country that boosted not just the city’s pubs and Norfolk’s breweries but also the local hotel, restaurant, shop, taxi and other trades.
This year’s event will take place 23 May–2 June and, if you’ve ever needed an excuse to visit this lovely city, then this is it.
To highlight all the pubs taking part is impractical but there are certain venues to mention that offer a flavour of the quality and character of the places at your disposal.
A good place to start would be at Norwich’s oldest pub, the Adam & Eve (established 1249 and pictured above), tucked round the back of the cathedral.
This is the pub that won most of the visitors’ awards during the first year’s event, thanks to its two cosy bars, good food and the hospitality of landlady Rita McCluskey.
Then, in the centre of town, there are The Plough (pictured below), a small, simple pub run by the local Grain brewery, and the double-named Murderers/Gardeners’ Arms, long recognized as one of the city’s best pubs and always worth a visit, not least to hear the grisly tale about its name.
The King’s Head, down the hill from the centre has one of the finest reputations for good ale in the area, while the nearby Plasterer’s Arms is a minimalist cask beer haven inside a revived street-corner local.
Alongside the river, there’s a fine terrace at the central Ribs of Beef, a long-standing haven for cask beer in the city.
You can dine well at a Norwich pub, too. The Take 5 café-bar, opposite the cathedral, has a strong vegetarian selection that can be washed down with a range of cask beers (while you’re there, check out the historic undercroft, now in use as a cellar bar), and The Vine, close to the market, has its own Thai restaurant.
City of Ale does not focus just on the central area, however, and one of the great successes of the event lies in attracting visitors out beyond the inner ring road to some outstanding pubs in residential areas.
Welcoming venues such as The Trafford Arms, The Duke of Wellington, The Whalebone and The Beehive stand out through the wide variety of cask beers they offer – spectacular choices not normally seen outside city centres.
There are also pubs supplied by their own breweries, such as the friendly Ketts Tavern (Norwich Bear brewery), the sporty, open-plan Coach & Horses (home to Chalk Hill brewery) and the twice-CAMRA national Pub of the Year, The Fat Cat (Pub/Bar of the Month January 2010), which now has a second outlet on the other side of town.
The Fat Cat Brewery Tap, as it is known, is a modern, barn-like structure decorated with old pub signs.
I checked all these pubs out during the course of one enjoyable, but hectic, weekend. I would have loved to have stayed longer, taking my time over pints of great Norfolk beers from Woodforde’s, Wolf, Golden Triangle, Humpty Dumpty and other breweries.
Norwich City of Ale, spread over ten days, allows a more relaxed approach, where you can combine pub and brewery time with studies of the local architecture, the performing arts or even a spot of shopping (more than 40% of retailers are independents).
For accommodation, there are both upmarket and budget hotels right in the centre, as well as half a dozen or so historic-home B&Bs, such as the elegant Gothic House, conveniently tucked behind the aforementioned King’s Head.
The event is well supported by a website and a smart phone app and there are also two books that should be on your list if you want to make the most of your visit.
Norwich Pubs and Breweries Past and Present, by Frances and Michael Holmes, offers everything you need to know about the city’s fascinating pub heritage, while the local CAMRA branch’s Real Ale Walks in Norfolk, offers a more practical approach to pub research.
Having witnessed the great success of this bold, beery initiative, other places will follow with their own equivalent festivities in due course, of that I am in no doubt.
But Norwich, in typically superlative fashion, will always be the first – and quite possibly always the best – City of Ale.