My favourite art installation in Norwich reads “the gap in traffic, white space between words when you hear birds.” In lockdown the roles are reversed and it’s a bus rudely intruding on a chirping bird. Regrettably, the bird sounds like it’s only now remembering how to sing and so far has only garnered one squawking note.
In the quiet of Castle Meadow, the bus sounds like it has jet engines. It should be powering supercomputers calculating immune responses to a potential coronavirus vaccine. Instead its a provincial bus that only installed card readers last year.
As I walk through the city the clouds loom overhead, so close the chimneys scrape their underbellies.
It’s 4pm on a Saturday, and the last time I visited the market it was bulging with people queueing for cheap breakfast, quality butchers and oversized muffins. It smelt interchangeably of bacon, Thai curry, a bakery and plastic. Now, the faint smell of bleach is the last sign of life.
The red, blue and green shutters of closed stalls have hand drawn A4 signs which all find various ways to convey the same message, “We’ll be back! Thank you for your support! Stay safe!”
Whilst I sit on a bench overlooking the market, the quiet exaggerates every sound. A pigeon on the prowl hums and drags its outstretched tail along the floor after its love interest. A slurred punchline cries “… and I’ve only got one leg!”
Every sound ends in a sigh. It feels like New Year’s Day: no one is out and a hungover city heals its wounds. Except I wasn’t invited to last night’s party.
In front of me, a sign boasts “Britain’s Best Large Outdoor Market 2019.” I wonder how many other superlatives the market has earned in its 900 years of existence. A mere 100 years before people began trading here, Boadicea stood on this land and swore revenge on the Romans.
In a short sweep of my gaze, the St Peter Mancroft church stands proudly over the treeline. Its exterior is filled with ornate, but empty, alcoves. Its saints were violently stripped from their stone homes during the Reformation.
In its shadow, the Sir Garnet pub stands higgledy-piggledy over rigid, triangular market roofs. Its neat sage paint tidying up the fairy tale leaded windows and misshapen storeys.
It would have been new when Robert Kett and his rebels stormed the city in 1549. England’s second city was overrun by subjects angered by the loss of their common grazing land. They needed food and took over the city to access the market. The watched whilst Kett inspired his men to march 100 miles to London to take their grievance directly to the King.
The Castle supervises in the background, standing on its high perch. It was built by the Normans as a show of power and it began its life on the ruins of nearly 100 Saxon homes. The square blocks and humbling turrets presumably thinking that the city streets are still full compared to the time of the Norman conquest.
To the left, the alternating flint and pale ashlar Guild Hall whispers about unimaginable wealth and underground prison cells.
Together, these buildings surround the marketplace. They have witnessed two black deaths. They’ve hosted Queen Elizabeth I. They’ve stood strong against 90 tons of Luftwaffe bombs in the 1942 Baedeker Blitz.
Quietly, at the edge of my vision, the blue glass of The Forum tries to shine in the grey light. Built to bring in the millennium, it has a curved glass and metal roof like sails held taut over the glass-fronted foyer. It’s open courtyard in front conspicuously empty.
Still in its infancy, the Forum is witnessing its first society-alternating phenomenon. So far, it has celebrated the city’s finest achievements and hosted its best artists. Its library has taught children to read and its restaurant has celebrated birthdays.
Now, it’s learning that the city sometimes goes so quiet the trees try not to make a sound in the wind.
But the other buildings are there to teach it how to cope.