A Real Taste of History

A Real Taste of History

By Elizabeth Talbot

The much-loved Britons Arms Coffee House and Restaurant, 9, Elm Hill, Norwich, has closed its doors for the final time after 69 years. It was originally opened in 1951 by Molly Kent before being taken over by sisters Gilly Mixer and Sue Skipper in 1975. They have managed it constantly ever since, but the restrictions caused by Covid19 have coincided with the natural approach of retirement and they have both decided the time has come to relinquish the business.

The building in question is an important Grade II* historic landmark within the city of Norwich which has witnessed a colourful succession of occupants and usages. Experts believe it dates to 1347 and is the only building to have survived the Great Fire of Norwich in 1507. Known early on as “Ye Goddes House’ it fulfilled a semi-religious role in relation to the church of St. Peter Hungate which sits directly to the south. During subsequent time it has been a nunnery, in the late 15th century it was occupied by ‘barbour surgeons’, and later it was associated with the wool trade. It is first recorded as an Ale House in 1760, called ‘The Kings Arms.’ It became ‘The Britons Arms’ in 1845 which traded until 1941. It was closed during World War II and used by fire watchers. The characterful building had enjoyed a colourful (and sometimes notorious) past, before being bought by Norwich City Council in 1951 for £10 from brewers Stewart and Patteson. The Council considered selling the building at auction 2011, but after a robust campaign by supporters, including Gilly and Sue, the building is now leased to The Norwich Preservation Trust and has benefited from assistance from English Heritage. In recent years this gem has been a focal feature in films such as “Stardust” and Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle”, set as it is on the atmospheric cobbled Elm Hill.

During its incarnation as an inviting coffee shop the ambience has been warm and welcoming, with furniture and furnishings carefully chosen to reflect the homeliness and beauty of the ancient setting. Now, many of these pieces are themselves to be for sale at auction. The contents of the Britons Arms are to be sold at TW Gaze, Diss Auction Rooms, on Friday 19 February, in the firm’s next Antiques and Interiors auction. Due to current Covid19 restrictions, there can be no public access to sales, so everything is managed remotely and the auction itself will be hosted on the online platform the-saleroom.com. Catalogues appear online and all lots can be viewed at twgaze.co.uk; extra information and condition reports can be requested via email.

Lots from the Britons Arms include 19th and 20th Century oak and country tables and chairs, eye-catching Victorian copper, and decorative pieces. Perhaps you have frequented the Britons Arms and have had a favourite comfy seat there or are fond of an item which helps evoke special memories? Auctioneer & Valuer, Edward Smith, who has been preparing the collection, said “It’s been a great privilege to assist Gilly and Sue as they come to the end of a long, happy chapter. It is an emotional time for many reasons, but equally, the fact that people will have the opportunity to buy a piece form the auction and share some Elm Hill history, is rare and makes it exciting.”

Ed has identified some lots of special merit: “ There are some lovely pieces in the sale, but probably the most significant (for different reasons) are a 19th Century strap iron four-seater bench (£400 – 500), which would grace any garden; a lead sculpture of a nude girl by Norfolk-born artist Edward Barker (1918 – 1983), who studied at the Norwich School of Arts and exhibited in East Anglia and London (£800 – 1,200) and a framed poster after the original work by artist Claude Graham Muncaster (1903 – 1974), which advertises Norwich by featuring the special quaint building on Elm Hill (£125 – 190). This print encapsulates so much.”

Further information can be found at www.twgaze.co.uk. The sale will start at 10am on Friday 19February; due to Covid19 restrictions, there is no public viewing.