Although with slightly more than 200,000 inhabitants it is not an exceptionally large city, Norwich, England, has a rich literary tradition. It became England’s first UNESCO City of Literature in 2012.
In 2010, Norwich was shortlisted to be a UK City of Culture. This reflects the city’s rich cultural heritage. Known for its beautiful Gothic architecture and the home of BBC East and numerous theatres and museums, Norwich is unquestionably a leading cultural powerhouse in Britain.
However, its literary tradition stands out. In 1395, the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich wrote Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written by a woman in English. The city can boast of other literary firsts: in the 16th century, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote the first poem in blank verse in Norwich, and the first English provincial library (1608) and newspaper (1701) were established there. Other important writers from Norwich include Anglo-American political essayist Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense was one of the documents that most influenced the American movement towards independence, was born near Norwich. Translator Sarah Austin introduced great German literature to English readers. Luke Hansard, the first parliamentary debate publisher, was born and lived in Norwich. Among contemporary writers, Ian McEwan studied at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. McEwan himself publicly endorsed Norwich’s bid to be a UNESCO City of Literature.
Norwich is a true hub of libraries in England. The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library is the most visited British public library. It was voted best public library in the UK each year from 2006 to 2013. It includes the Norfolk Heritage Centre, which helps library users trace their family heritage. Meanwhile, the Second Air Division Memorial Library commemorates American airmen who fought in East Anglia during World War II. Other important Norwich libraries are the Cathedral library, whose collection includes 20,000 books dating back to the 15th century, and the John Innes Centre, which has a large collection of natural history and rare books.
The city also features several noteworthy bookstores. The Jerrold department store holds a leading British independent bookstore with a history reaching back to the 17th century. Meanwhile, the Book Hive was named “Best Small Independent Bookshop in Britain” by the Telegraph.
Norwich also boasts of a noteworthy publishing industry. It is particularly known for its successful independent publishers, who include Galley Beggar Press. They published Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which won the £30,000 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Nasty Little Press publishes British poetry.
Each may, writers from around the world come to Norwich to speak at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Other prestigious festivals include the Worlds Literature Festival and the University of East Anglia International Literary Festival. Fans of poetry will appreciate the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and Poetry next to the Sea
It can be claimed without hesitation that Norwich is an important centre for literary education. The University of East Anglia’s MA programme in creative writing is the oldest and most esteemed in Britain. Its graduates include McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Annie Enright, all of whom have won the Booker Prize. The centre awards the East Anglian Book Awards for writers in the region, and the Escalator Literature award for fiction debuts. Meanwhile, Writers’ Centre Norwich provides writers with opportunities for high-quality professional development.
Additionally, Writers’ Centre Norwich offers many free writing and reading programmes for the general public, including for children. Each year, it organises the International Literature Showcase, which brings dozens of world-famous writers who offer lectures and discussions via podcast and streaming. Writers Centre Norwich also encourages readership through its WoMentoring programme, which provides aspiring women writers with mentoring by established professionals. Another noteworthy initiative it organises is the Brave New Reads programme aimed at increasing public literacy. It features six books based on the selections of readers that are made available in bookstores and libraries across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library offers many literacy-building public programmes. Norfolk was also a founding member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) programme, which offers sanctuary to writers persecuted for their convictions.