Undercrofts

An undercroft is a vaulted room beneath the main room of a medieval house.

Norwich has the largest collection of medieval undercrofts in the country. There are at least 70 surviving undercrofts, almost all of them from the fifteenth century, that are known to exist in Norwich and the sites of over 30 others are known but have been demolished.

Most of them are on the south bank of the river Wensum, taking advantage of hillside sites in, most of them are in the 4 most affluent parishes of the city.

They were frequently built into the hill, creating a platform for the house to be built above, yet still allowing access to the cellar at the bottom of the slope.

While nearly all of the medieval secular buildings have been lost (because of the fires of 1507 for example which destroyed 40% of the houses in Norwich and all the houses on Elm Hill except for Britons Arms), the undercrofts built beneath them by the merchant class frequently survive.

They were built of brick and flint and being wholly or partly buried they often escaped fires and demolition intact and were reused as part of the building that were built on top of them. Most have rectangular plans with flint walls. The roofs are groined or barrel-vaulted with the provision of ribs, wall arches, axial piers and side chambers as necessary. Lamp niches are usually located in the walls, made of brick and frequently opposite the entrance.

Many undercrofts can be accessed from inside the building, usually by a stair of brick, but not always. Some could be entered by external doors, normally from the side or rear of the property.

My name is Terry George and I have made it my mission to visit as many of Norwich’s undercrofts as I can. I have not yet tracked down where they all are, but have located the whereabouts of over 70 of them and have so far visited 49.

English Heritage’s Listed Buildings website and the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website have proved useful sources of information and I have also found the following extremely useful – Pevsner’s Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East in his Buildings of England series, Norwich by Brian Ayers and Norwich Knowledge by Michael Loveday.

Click the links below to find out more about the undercrofts visited so far.

BY TERRY GEORGE