Possitopia Norwich: The first walkshop

bridgetmck
10 min readDec 10, 2022

This is a reflective account of the first pilot walkshop, which is a strand of the Possitopia Norwich programme (under the umbrella of Climate Museum UK). These are walking-talking workshops that explore the past and future of Norwich from a planetary perspective. Using the evidence from the past we aimed to consider the interventions that will enable Norwich, our bioregion and our planet to be safe, just and healthy in future. Some ideas likely to arise in these walks include defence, enclosure, commons, sacredness, rebellion, deviance, flow and wildness.

These first three walks are pilots for an ongoing offer. This pilot will:

  • Define three routes, props and scripts for ‘walkshops’ offered to community and educational groups, business teams and tourist groups.
  • Set up annual dates for a growing community of enquiry to wander more freely, to have in-depth conversations or visit particular sites

Getting to know history through our characters

So, for this first experiment, we met outside Norwich Cathedral and began by introducing ourselves with our characters. Each participant had been sent a briefing on their character in advance, with the invitation to shift perspective, walk in this person’s shoes and bring their insights. They were asked to think: How can we draw on the history of the City, and what we observe from walking, to imagine and create a more safe, healthy, just and sustainable future?

There were 13 participants, and their assigned characters were:

  • Emma Turner, in c.1901. ornithologist, photographer and carer, focused on nesting and care.
  • War child, c.1941. Wearing free shoes given by the factory where his parents work, wanting to eat and play but these are threatened by war.
  • Elizabeth Fry (nee Gurney), in c.1830. Quaker, abolitionist, women’s prison reformer, related to founders of what became Barclay’s bank, focused on Liberation.
  • Late medieval woman weaver, in c. 1500. Wealthy, widowed, wearing finely patterned leather shoes, focused on seeking patterns.
  • Jeremiah James Colman, c.1855, mustard magnate, MP and social reformer, focused on paternalism, providing for the workers
  • Dorothy Jewson, c. 1948, feminist left-wing politician, activist for local parks, post-war recovery and equality
  • Thomas Browne, c.1670 physician/scientist/writer and inventor of words, including the word ‘therapeutic’
  • Roman-Iceni young man, seeker of adventure and new ideas
  • Johannes Elison, c.1630, Stranger from Holland, Dutch Reform Church minister, focused on integration. (The only English resident to have been painted by Rembrandt.)
  • Robert Marsham, landowner and phenologist (observing seasonal and climatic changes in nature), who is focused on observation.
  • Workhouse boy, enforced textile worker, with no shoes, focused on deprivation.

You can see the character prompt sheets here, with images of their shoes

A participant joined without prior booking so invoked her Norwich grandmother, who had been aspirational, and not gone to work in a shoe factory like everyone else.

As facilitator, my character was wearing baby shoes, was from a family of recent refugees to Norwich and she will grow to be a professional ‘restorative activist’. She symbolises an appeal to the participants to think about future generations, both of beings that wear shoes and all those that don’t. (For the next walk I’ll more overtly cast myself as a character from 2050.) I introduced the idea of being Possitopian facing the reality of the impacts of the Earth crisis for the future, while considering many possibilities for more justice, safety and wellbeing.

In sharing these characters, we built up a shared sense of the essence of Norwich’s history as formerly wealthy, increasingly non-conformist, radical in thinking, and more diverse than one might consider.

In reality, the participants included artists, sustainability & climate adaptation researchers, a Green Party councillor, green activists and generally interested and interesting people! They were invited to observe, document, ask questions and share knowledge and ideas in ways that suit themselves and their historical character.

These are some of the ideas that were shared as we walked:

Looking at the pair of statues on the front of the cathedral, Julian and Benedict:

The cathedral was a monastic complex, a place of being cloistered (which is safe or excluding?). The mystic, anchoress and author Julian lived in a cell, and Norwich was a place of many anchorites. Julian turned her senses inwards and paid attention to visions (and was the first woman to be published in English, for her Revelations of Divine Love). I showed a hazelnut, which is a small natural thing that related to one of her vision (that God created, loves and protects small things like a hazelnut, which we could alternatively interpret that Gaia, has created, loves and protects life itself). The seed is a symbol of cyclical regeneration, and cells are part of regenerative patterns.

Benedict’s statue has a book with the word ‘ausculta’ — an injunction to listen, suggesting we can pay attention in different ways. Our assigned characters have different sensory emphases.

So, our starting point was somewhat philosophical; about how we live our lives both on the inside and the outside, and we create insides as a means of coping with threats from outside.

Into the Cathedral cloisters

A space that is both inside and outside.

The ornithologist character, Emma Turner, was looking out for the Peregrine Falcons nesting at the base of the spire, and Marianne (who played Emma) explained how before the Cathedral there was a wooden stave church, which was designed to sway with the wind. Lots of houses and churches were cleared to build the stone cathedral, and a canal was dug from Pull’s Ferry on the river Wensum to the site, to transport the stone.

‘The workhouse boy’ inspired us with thoughts of monastic greed, with Beth pointing out the worn down steps because of the weight of the clerics, and how this contrasted with the poor people’s lives. Yet, also we considered how cathedrals were built for the people, by the people, and the building of them provided work. There is an entanglement of people with systems of development that benefit them but also bind and deprive them.

The ‘Medieval weaving woman’ (Helen) told us about the battle between locals and the priory over an attempt to demolish mills and clear land for more buildings. (This was ‘Gladman’s insurrection’ in 1442. Gladman, a merchant, had played the role of king with a paper crown, subverting authority. What can we learn from this ‘topsy turvy’ carnival action to inform our activism?)

We looked at all the patterns and natural symbolism in the bosses (the decorative bits where buttresses meet) and explored ways that the Christian church absorbed or reflected pagan traditions such as the Green Man. How can we absorb the best of our current ways of thinking now and establish new structures?

There was construction work going on, and noise, as we looked across to the spires, and we talked about how long it took to build (from 1096 to 1278), the time we have available to build new structures, and Greta Thunberg’s encouragement of Cathedral Thinking (that we have to move together towards one vision, and accept it will take time and won’t always feel like progress).

The children characters talked about the Cathedral as a place to play e.g. when it had a helter skelter and Dippy the Dinosaur in it. This led to comments on the combination of seriousness and play, and how these need to be held together for innovation.

On the way out we passed a painting that was a green map of Norfolk, showing its rivers and referring to the oak trees used to construct this modern extension. This led us to talk about how:

Norfolk used to be much wetter, and has been reclaimed. What would happen if we let the sea and rivers take their natural course? (Is rising sea levels natural?). The river Tas, where Venta Icenorum was built, was much wider in the days of the Roman-iceni boy. We speculated about the evolution of trade and transport into and around the City, including the Romans building of roads crossing the county through the City.

Why, if Norwich became wealthy from sheep, what kind of land were the sheep grazed on and why is Norfolk not the same kind of land that we associate with sheep-grazing today? (Monbiot in his book ‘Feral’ describes how sheep-grazing has denuded much of the UK’s elevated landscape, that this isn’t natural.) Where was Norwich wool imported from? What kind of breeds were they? Are sheep much more numerous now due to population and meat-eating, rather than breeding them for high-quality wool?

We then walked out of Erpingham Gate, past the memorial to Edith Cavell, past the Maid’s Head Hotel and onto Fye Bridge. People shared their knowledge about this spot:

  • People were spotting elements relating to their character e.g. Emma Turner, birdwatcher, aka artist Marianne, lives right by the Bridge and pointed out where there is a remnant of a Swan matches advert.
  • It was the main quay for Norwich as a port, and an installation on Quayside now names some goods and merchants. Goods were taken up to the market in Tombland and St Martin’s Plain and beyond.
  • There were huts selling fish, built by a merchant called Pettus, where there is now a garden near Merchant’s House.
  • It was used for witch trials by ducking.
  • All the textile merchants along Elm Hill and beyond had their storehouses and washing / dyeing stations along the river, and the river was polluted and coloured from their processes.
  • Later in the 19th century the shoe factories would contribute to similar pollution through ‘leather currying’, before (or even after?) Howlett & White moved to St George’s Plain.

We then walked down Fishergate, where there is a plaque stating that led to a lot of thinking about settlement and money:

  • This spot was the very first settlement of Norwich (Norvic)
  • A coin of King Athelstan was found
  • It was the site of the mint, where money was produced.

How much was exchange always tied to real places like this where goods were exchanged, brought in from other places and leaving for other places?

How did our economy become so much rooted in debt? Can we learn from older and other forms of exchange? What kinds of exchange might we have in future?

Crossing back over the Bridge we walked down Quayside, tottering over the cobbles to avoid the slippery ice and walking on to St James Quay.

Although climate change is bringing record warm weather, we are getting an icy blast from the Arctic. What kind of quirky extremes will future weather bring the City?

The Robert Marsham / phenologist character (Nick) asked about how much the future sea level rise will affect river levels, and what we can learn from past flooding episodes (e.g. when Magdalen Street was two feet underwater) and how the water makes its incursions. He showed us a water level gauge and shared some knowledge about adaptation, and how major changes in climate will need us to readjust our ways of measuring and expand the limits of our gauges.

We stopped to look at St James’ works, which had been Jarrold’s Printing Works. We looked at the interpretation board to find out how many prior uses this building has had. It was originally built by Samuel Bignold to arrest the decline of the Norwich textile industry. Then it was used for printing, but then for chocolate making, and then for employment training of war veterans, and then re-used again by Jarrolds from 1933, and now it houses several companies. It led us to think about the possibilities for repurposing of sites and for the succession of future industries. Things don’t need to stay the same!

We had intended to walk up to Kett’s Heights, to get a great view across the City and to think about the history of enclosures and the idea of the commons. However, it was too icy underfoot and we were cold.

Our final stop was the Cow Tower, one of the earliest purpose-built artillery blockhouses in England. At the very end of Richard II’s rule, the City authorities were threatened both from France and from the ‘peasants’. It was later used as a toll station, and Gary told how there was a heavy chain from it across the river that could drop and damage or sink boats that didn’t pay their tolls or taxes.

Gary’s question for his character was ‘what if food supplies are cut off?’ so we concluded by thinking about the balance between creating a defensive exclusive fortress in times of stress and hunger, and creating an open-bordered community that can expand its resourcing of goods. Our overly globalised system of supply has led to damage to Earth’s operating systems. Can we transition to local provisions while maintaining a porosity of borders and an open outlook?

Some of us then came to my house for a warm up and a cup of tea. If you came on the walk, please get in touch with any feedback. The next two walks, in different parts of the City and with added characters, are coming up on January 15th and February 1st.

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bridgetmck

Director of Flow & Climate Museum UK. Co-founder Culture Declares. Cultural researcher, artist-curator, educator. http://bridgetmckenzie.uk/