Long before shopping malls became fixtures in every town and City, Victorian shopping arcades offered the last word when it came to indulging in retail therapy. Situated between Gentleman’s Walk and Castle Street in the centre of Norwich, the Royal Arcade still provides an elegant shopping experience with it’s stunning architecture and combination of unique and speciality shops.
Opened in 1899, the 247 foot long covered avenue was designed and built by Dereham-born architect George Skipper. Skipper is also responsible for the design of other buildings around Norwich, including the one that now houses the St. Giles House Hotel. An exquisite example of the Art Nouveau style, the walls of the first floor of the Royal Arcade are lined with decorative tiles featuring themes typical of classical Art Nouveau – motifs inspired by nature and femininity such as floral shapes and peacocks. The tiles were designed by WJ Neatby – who also produced the tiles for Harrods’s Food Hall – and were manufactured by Doulton. In keeping with the style, but added later, are the tiles on the floor and the impressive wrought iron and glass lanterns, which were added during the restoration of the Arcade in the 1980’s.
The site on which the Royal Arcade stands has a colourful history. ‘The Angel’ inn occupied the site from at least the 15th Century. Like many large inns, The Angel was a place of entertainment and often hosted travelling shows and spectacles. In 1685 the people of Norwich saw a pair of elephants for the first time. Other side show events included ‘freaks’ and ‘curiosities’ that were popular at the time. In the 1830’s The Angel was the headquarters of the political group, the Norwich Whigs (the term ‘Whigs’ is often associated with the Liberal Party) and the site saw a vicious brawl occur between the Whigs and the ‘Tories’ (The Conservative Party). Apparently, the commotion was so great that the then Mayor had to read the riot act and call in the military to restore order! Ironically, when the Royal Arcade was built the entrance off White Lion Street was the entrance to the Conservative Club.
The Angel became the Royal Hotel, which occupied the site for half a century before being replaced by a newer version at the top of Prince of Wales Road. In 1846 Joseph Stannard rebuilt the Gentleman’s Walk entrance and this façade remained when the Royal Arcade was constructed some fifty years later. Created on the stables and yard, the Arcade follows the shape of the yard that it replaced. When it was first built the Royal Arcade housed 24 bow-fronted shops, a pub, and a clubroom.
Nowadays, the Royal Arcade is home to a variety of wonderful shops and cafes. One Norwich institution worth a special mention is Langleys Toy Shop.
When out and about shopping in Norwich, or if you’re a visitor to the City, the Royal Arcade is a wonderful place to visit. Explore the delightful shops within and don’t forget to take a moment to look up and around you at the wonderful surroundings you are in.
Norwich City Centre, NR2 1NQ