Dragons in sheep’s clothing

Dragons in sheep’s clothing – Dragon Hall, Norwich, England

Michael Leech

* ‘Dragons have always been important to Norwich. They occur as symbols of the powerful Guild of St George, founded in 1385, originally a religious guild, later counting the freemen of the city as members’ explains Sarah Knights, Director of Dragon Hall, an early fifteenth-century East Anglian cloth hall discovered in one of Norwich’s most ancient quarters. Hidden under accretions and alterations, the hall was probably opened for business around 1420.

Dragon Hall had been owned by a local brewery, who embarked on a feasibility scheme for the property in 1979. They called in the city’s archaeologists and architects, and this first exploration of the house on King Street revealed some big surprises. Whilst crawling around up in the roof someone noted crownposts; which meant it certainly was not what it appeared to be – a block of seventeenth-century houses.

Soon it was realised that this was a building of some significance. Nothing less than a medieval trade hall for Norfolk wool. The owner had been one Robert Toppes, member of the guild and four times mayor of Norwich in the fifteenth century. It was rare for a merchant of that time to build what was really a first-floor medieval sales space – a place to show wool and woollen products in one half, the remainder an office.

Restoration has been going on ever since. It was discovered that Toppes had used studs of expensive oak, closely spaced to indicate wealth. Yet out of sight, at higher levels, roof supports were made of sapwood to cut costs. These cheap timbers were riddled with death-watch beetle, but have now been restored and some of the originals preserved. ‘The roof as you see it now is as it was: repairs have been made using proper techniques by highly skilled local craftsmen’.

Other work has been going on with the walls, which were in bad condition, the front wall literally hanging on rotted bresumers and the wattle and daub infill decayed. This infill has been replaced with expanded metal lathe, then rendered in and out.

Projects have commenced as money has come in. in 1995 there is a major one: the main door into the hall is a curious double-arched stone entry which, after extensive restoration this summer, will once again be used as the main entrance.

‘The doorway is possibly the finest secular entrance, built of stone, in Norwich’, says architect Alan Wright. ‘The fact that it is constructed in stone confirms that this is a building of big status. The doorway itself has a lower moulded ogee arch, believed to relate to the fourteenth-century hall house, with a further perpendicular arch over. It is believed that this later arch was added by Robert Toppes in the fifteenth century as a means of raising the status of the doorway without the loss of the original opening. That would have been considered bad luck’.

The high level of arching has stone spandrel braces infilled with a motif similar to the fifteenth-century parapet of Norwich cathedral’s Romanesque tower. These each contain a shield which earlier investigations suggest were painted. It is hoped that with the conservation of the doorway the full extent of any colouring and heraldic symbols on the shield will be revealed, and either left exposed or recorded before a protective shelter of limewash is applied.

It is intended to remove carefully later layers of paint, and record the archaeology of earlier paint layers. Test scrapes suggest the whole stone doorway had been from a very early date decorated in colours, bright to our late twentieth century eye. After this, restoration work, overseen by Hirst Conservation, will concentrate on fenestration.

Were dragon symbols found in the hall itself. Yes indeed’, says Sarah Knights. ‘The carved wooden dragon we use as the logo for the house was discovered when we first made explorations of the Hall, hidden under plaster, perched in one of the spandrels in the roof. The little bits of carving found in the other spandrels could have been dragons, or other heraldic beasts’. Merchants must have found Dragon Hall an impressive sight five-and-a-half centuries ago. And who knows what other carved monsters will reveal themselves as caretakers of the Hall before restoration is complete.

Dragon Hall is open all year round and run by Norfolk and Nortwich Heritage Trust, which insists all repair work be accessible to public view. This summer you can watch restoration of the door. Times: April-October, Monday/Saturday 10am to 4pm, November-end-March, Monday/Friday, 10am to 4pm. Admission 1[pounds].

COPYRIGHT 1995 History Today Ltd.

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