Norfolk - Pubs and Inns with a literary connection


John Osborne's plays have been described as 'kitchen sink drama'. The epithet is even more appropriate when applied to the work of Jewish working class playwright Arnold Wesker - for it was when working here at the Bell as a kitchen porter that he achieved his first literary success. In 1950, Wesker left his home in East London with a pile of rejection slips: 'in despair of ever becoming a writer'. He came to stay with his sister Della in Norfolk and acquired the job at the Bell - which at that time was a thriving hotel with a large and busy kitchen. Like George Orwell whose 'Down and Out in Paris and London' launched a major literary career, Wesker used his menial labours to develop his undeniable talent.
In his brilliant and honest autobiography 'As Much as I Dare', Wesker admitted: "Kitchen life appealed to me". And in his diary notes he recalls devouring books at a prodigious rate in the shelter of his small attic room at the hotel, while below him shoppers crowded the narrow streets. Experiences gained here remained a constant inspiration: "lives wasted accepting second best; lives vulnerable from inadequate nourishment spiritual, emotional, intellectual; lives stultified from wrong choice based on chimeric dreams, self-delusion".
His play The Kitchen specifically draws upon some of his Norwich experiences. In the opening scene the hotel is quiet and sleepy as his daily routine begins at 6.30 making porridge and frying bacon: "The first orders came slowly the cups and saucers could be washed at an even pace then with greater speed, heightened intensity, hum building to a roar. Breakfast was on! Rhythm! Swing! Sweat! Temperament!" It was here he met and fell in love with chambermaid Dusty Bicker who became the model for Beatie Bryant - the central character in his Norfolk based play 'Roots'. 'Chicken Soup with Barley' and 'I'm Talking About Jerusalem' followed and it was Dusty's parent's farm at nearby Redenhall that provided the setting for the trilogy.
The Bell is believed to date from 1480. In the 18th century it hosted famous cock fighting battles and was the meeting place for The Hell Fire Club. From 1943 to 1945 it was used as headquarters and billets for the American Women's Army Corps. It was closed in the1960's and rescued by J. D. Weatherspoons in 1976 to become one of their famous great value freehouses.

Bell Hotel - Norwich - Norfolk - Arnold Wesker

John Paston     Josephine Tozier     Francis Beeding

The first literary mention of the inn is in the Paston Letters; become very intimate with the wealthy knight Sir John Fastolf, ... a hugh archive of papers, associated with the celebrated Norfolk family, between the years 1422 and 1509. On November 2nd 1472, John paston wrote about the arrival of a visitor: "I pray yow make hym goode cheer sette his horse at the Maydes Heidde, and I shall be content for their expenses". In the 17th century the inn had become a coaching terminus and the city's civic centre. In 1904 the American travel writer Josephine Tozier described her impressions in Among English Inns: "The Maid's Head, one of the most noted inns in England, now dignified (or disgraced) by the name of Hotel, is a judicious mixture of ancient and modern. After a career which associated its name with some of the most interesting and entertaining events in the history of Norwich, it was about to pass into the hands of a brewing company, when it was rescued and put into its present shape by Mr. Walter Rye, a distinguished antiquarian, who has the interests of his native city of Norwich very near to his heart. The fine Tudor office, the bar, and the carved wainscoted smoke-room have been saved from the vandals and beer-drinkers. The ancient gables look down through the glass of the roofed-in courtyard, and Queen Elizabeth's room, with its narrow private stairway, remains in all its pristine glory."
British detective and espionage novelist Hilary Aidan Saint George Saunders (1898 - 1951) went by several noms-de-plumes. He used the name Francis Beeding when writing in tandem with his former boss and best friend John Palmer. In Beeding's 1935 novel 'The Norwich Victims' (filmed in 1939 as 'Dead Men Tell no Tales') Inspector George Martin of Scotland Yard bases himself here at The Maid's Head Hotel. Martin's murder investigations lead him around the chilly autumnal Dickensian backstreets of old Norwich and out to the countryside beyond as the mystery heads towards a startling conclusion.
Do not be put off by the mock-Tudor front on this fascinating 700 year old pub. It is a national treasure and you almost need a guided tour to find your way round the labyrinth of public rooms. The covered courtyard restaurant offers a fine selection of local and international dishes served in a bright comfortable setting. There is also a bar and a lounge where you can enjoy a quiet drink.

Maid's Head - Norwich - Norfolk - John Paston, Josephine Tozier

Copyright T.W. Townsend - the opinions expressed herein are those of the author and any observations were correct at the time of the review.

Home Page