Norwich Heritage | The history and future of Norwich Guildhall

Norwich Heritage | The history and future of Norwich Guildhall

The Georgian Courtroom with old branding still in place

First constructed in 1407-13 as a civic hall to house the courts and prisons of the city, the Grade I Listed building has been adapted and altered many times during its life. Now Hudson Architects will be bringing the building to life as the new home for Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

We have been working on heritage buildings across the city since the inception of the practice, and the adaptation and renewal of sensitive buildings which are no longer fulfilling their potential are a special interest of mine. It isn’t the individual architects and their efforts that intrigue me; it is the generations of people maintaining the fabric and altering the spaces to meet their changing needs; it is the stuff of the building – the materials that have endured and survived or decayed depending on the specific stressors acting upon them.

Heritage Open Days offer everyone else the chance that we get, an opportunity to see private heritage buildings at work – both those that do work, and those that, either through necessity or circumstance, no longer do. Since it started in 1994, Heritage Open Days has since grown into the country's largest community heritage festival, with up to 300 events this year in Norfolk alone.

Most years the Guildhall is a key HOD attraction, standing as it does prominently alongside the market as a solid representation of contiguous civic function. First constructed in 1407-13 as a civic hall to house the courts and prisons of the city, the Grade I Listed building has been adapted and altered many times during its life. For nearly 600 years it retained its use as a court and even now it is still home to Norwich’s Sheriff. It is intriguing to see graffiti in the basement cells suggest their use as recently as 1990’s!

Unloved and in need of attention... help is on the way!

Today the Guildhall is being reimagined as a different kind of public building. After recent incarnations as a café, tourist information office and home to HEART (Heritage, Economic and Regeneration Trust) the building is being brought to life as the new home for Norfolk and Norwich Festival. The Festival aim to make the building welcoming and accessible with events programmed in the building across the year and specific focus on opening up the space for inclusion in the annual Spring programme. We have been working closely with NNF to respectfully adapt and reservice the building – no mean feat due to the significance of the building fabric!

The ancillary spaces on the south have the most capacity for change. These were part of a Victorian extension to the building and have undergone extensive adaptation over the years to form kitchen, stores and offices. Here we have cleared out the redundant services and the unsympathetic plastic wall linings to undertake repair and conservation of the fabric and reveal the potential of these rooms. Now they will form an accessible WC, a meeting room and a tea point to serve their team, who will be based on site full time.

The next stage will hopefully see the building opened back up to the south with an accessible route found into the heart of the building from Gaol Hill. You may have noticed that the old ramp on Guildhall Hill finally gave up the ghost in the last few weeks. Watch this space for news on how the proposals for the new access progress.

The newly revealed northern steps

I feel the privilege, and responsibility, of adding our work to the many generation of hands that have kept this building in public use. And I look froward to next year when the Festival will have the chance to welcome back the public on Heritage Open Day and show them their new, old, home in the civic heart of the city.

Words by Hannah Wooller RIBA AABC

Sign-up for more news here