NEAR POST – GHOSTS, CANARIES AND CUCKOOS AT THE NEST

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Norwich – a fine city

I lived near Norwich from the age of five until I went away to university at 18 and grew up watching my football at Carrow Road.

My mother worked for Bertram Books, a book wholesaler, on Rosary Road – a road running along a hill overlooking the scenic Tombland quarter of Norwich, one that is said to be haunted by a large number and variety of ghosts.

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Norwich’s Tombland district

In June, 1611 there was a lavish pageant, complete with a firework display, watched by a large holiday crowd. According to later Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield, the fireworks fired into the crowd and 33 people were trampled to death in the subsequent panic.

Tombland is close to Lollards Pit, a cursed place where people were burned to death for their religious beliefs in the 15th and 16th centuries.

I also worked at Bertrams one summer when I was 16 and between school and sixth form but didn’t appreciate the history of the location at the time.

Bertram Books full address was The Nest, Rosary Road, Norwich – a location with a rich and interesting history and one worth detailing, being the former home of Norwich City F.C..

The Nest ground was created from a disused chalk quarry in 1908, and City played there before the Canaries moved to Carrow Road in 1935. It was a remarkable and unique football ground in its heyday, albeit with a cavalier disregard for spectator and player health and safety!

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The Nest, in colour

The ground was set in a “natural” wooded amphitheatre created by landscaping the old chalk workings and commanded a stunning view of the Cathedral and City of Norwich. Besides the setting, its other most notable feature was a large concrete wall at one end of the ground. This concrete retaining wall supported a cliff on top of which fans would watch the matches. The acoustics were so good that allegedly the sound of the crowd would be bounced back by the hill behind them and carried right across the City as far as Earlham (a leafy suburb of Norwich that was home to my first girlfriend).

Spectating facilities at The Nest were gradually improved over the years, with extra terracing added, and crowds of between 12,000 and 14,000 were commonplace in the 1920s. Players still needed to be careful though, especially those from the away team that were unfamiliar with the ground’s idiosyncrasies. A feature in the Eastern Daily Press describes the risks the players and fans took during a match:

“Footballers risked injury by crashing into the massive concrete wall which held up the cliff that dominated the arena and rose sheer, barely a couple of feet from the touchline. And the manner in which up to 20,000 fans regularly crammed into the precarious looking stands built into the old quarry would have had ground safety officers in a real panic had they existed in those days.”

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Norwich City v Sheffield Wednesday at The Nest

Further developments in the 1930s included an extension to the ‘chicken run’ opposite the Main Stand that saw the capacity increase again. On the 16th of February 1935, over 25,000 supporters crammed into the ground to watch the Canaries lose 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

However, the ground had already seen one near tragedy. In 1922, cliff top barriers gave way and around 60 of the 14,000 crowd fell to the ground below. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt on that occasion. In the years that followed, further concerns over the limited facilities at The Nest were expressed by the club’s directors. The ground’s days were really numbered when the FA informed the directors in 1935 that they were not satisfied that the ground was suitable for large crowds to spectate in safety.

One corner of the pitch had already subsided into the old chalk quarry workings. The groundsman filled that particular hole with railway sleepers and covered them with dirt, advising players taking corners on that side of the pitch to be extremely cautious!

Promotion to Division Two in 1935 saw The Canaries move to the Carrow Road ground that is still their home today, the original stadium there having been constructed in just 82 days.

Former Norwich City stalwart Bernard Robinson, who played at The Nest for the first four years of his career, commented on his time there:

“[The Nest] should never have been a football ground and I was glad to get away from the place – it was a wicked ground.

“At one end of the ground it just went straight up and to stop all the earth coming down on to the pitch they had a huge cement wall. It was five or six feet from the touchline so wingers had to be careful.

“Behind the other goal were the dressing rooms and a small stand and apart from that there was just a row of houses and the gardens were 15 to 20 feet below the level of the pitch. There was a big wire netting fence to stop the ball going in there. It was very dangerous.”

The Nest stood derelict for many years before the site was redeveloped after the war, but areas of terracing remained.

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The Nest, Rosary Road, Norwich – note the remaining terracing in the background

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The Bertram family. Part of my summer job at Bertram Books involved cleaning Kip Bertram’s boat and Jaguar E-Type.

With the Canaries gone the cuckoos took up residence.

The Bertram Books warehouse and offices occupied the site from the early 1970s until the company relocated in the 2000s, by which time my mother had retired, and it is now a housing development like many other old football grounds.

A small section of the concrete wall is all that remains of the fabric of the original Nest, but, in February 2011, a sculpture of a ball passing between two tall posts was unveiled to commemorate the site’s original purpose and place in the City of Norwich and its football club’s history.

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The sculpture on the site of The Nest. Picture from the EDP.

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