One of the most attractive places in Nottingham’s city centre in my estimation, the Exchange Arcade in the Council House in Old Market Square. Despite its situation at the very core of the city, the arcade often appears a little deserted as thousands of Nottinghamians hurry-scurry through the thronging streets outside.
Opened in 1929, the Council House succeeded the Exchange building which housed the city’s own ‘shambles’ – an area where the butchers of the town and country would show their meat for sale. The word shambles was derived from the invading Normans who used it as a term for those tradesmen, ‘flesh hewers’ as the Saxons had called them, and indicates how long that trade was carried out on this site in the city.
In more modern history, the arcade housed a fabulous and much-loved food store, Burtons, which local people still talk of in fond terms. If I close my eyes in today’s arcade I can still easily imagine the wonderful aromas from the store and picture the pre-Christmas visits there as a child with my mum, Grace, to buy those special items for the festive fayre in our family home.
Nottingham was one of the ancient cities that had a wall for defence purposes. It stretched around a good part of the conurbation for well over half a mile with the remainder protected by a large earth bank and ditch and the natural obstructions of a river and marshes to the south.
After the Norman Conquest of England, Nottingham became a town divided into two peoples. The former Saxon settlement which is now known as the Lace Market area came to be known as the English Borough whilst the area stretching from the castle east towards the Lace Market came to be called the French Borough. It is my understanding that the two peoples lived in relative peace side by side with the original Saxons being allowed to continue practicing some of their original indigenous customs. It is also my understanding that the people of the French Borough were considered more educated and enjoyed a superior quality of life to their neighbours. The Nottingham Town Wall was built in response to the wars of the Barons and linked both French and English Boroughs
Map: The Nottingham Heritage Gateway
The town wall construction, comprising blocks of local sandstone bonded with mortar, is thought to have been initiated in around 1260, taking approximately 60 years to build.The majority of the wall was demolished by 1540 and almost totally by the end of the 17th century. Little of it remains uncovered in the 21st century. A small section of the wall is still extant and is visible inside a city centre hotel near Chapel Bar from a viewing platform, it being unearthed during the excavations of 1964 when building the city’s Maid Marian Way thoroughfare. A road that has been seen as unlovely and unloved due to its bland appearance and the fact that it butchered its way through a number of historic and mediaeval streets. Nottingham’s city fathers do not have a good record in the matter of preserving the city’s heritage in these respects.
Local dignitaries inspect the Maid Marian Way excavations of 1964
The last remaining viewable evidence of Nottingham’s Town Wall, situated in a city hotel
The impressive construction is estimated to have stood some 8m/26ft high at its tallest with a walkway along the top and protective battlements.
The old wall briefly showed itself again some years later in 1970 during further excavations in Theatre Square to build a pedestrian subway, ironically now closed and buried itself. The image above shows the ancient defence surfacing once more and re-opening the history book at the beginning of the seventies.
A somewhat sobering moment for me. Watching Songs of Praise on Remembrance Day evening as it shows Highland soldiers in their kilts running into battle on a World War One battlefield. This was followed by footage of the barbaric and frightening conditions experienced by the Merchant Navy personnel on an Atlantic convoy.
Then you remember that this was your grandfather and your father…
Those handsome and proud Musselburgh men:
Henry Frew of the Gordon Highlanders
John Archibald Frew of the Merchant Navy
This evening I salute you both and each and every one of your brave comrades.
‘Market Square, Nottingham’ by Arthur Spencer, 1950.
I really like this fine, atmospheric painting which, as the winter draws inexorably closer, reminds of colder, less hospitable days. The Council House and it’s huge dome containing Little John”s quarter-hourly chimes, standing sentinel over the city landscape as Nottingham’s citizens brave the snow and ice, huddled against the cold in their winter clothing.
A magical image that evokes a wintry Nottingham of a different era.
Southwell is my favourite town in the county of Nottinghamshire by some distance. It has many places of interest and charm in its beautiful aspect and storied and historic environs.
The Minster dwarfs the centre and is barely commensurate with the reasonably modest acreage of Southwell. It is impressive, notable and loved.
The first time I recall visiting this impressive structure was as a child in school when it was a firm favourite for school educational visits. I recall being instructed to take brass rubbings and playing the game of trying to find where all the ‘church mice were. The interior has a number of ‘mice’ carved into and secreted about the building. In those days the West entrance shown to the left of the image above was most often used and is, as I understand, the oldest part of a building which was constructed in stages as so many older churches were.
Another story I find interesting regarding Southwell Minster is of its ‘Eagle Lectern’ which apparently at the time of Cromwellian distaste for Catholic tradition and imagery was disposed of unceremoniously. It was later discovered in a lake at Newstead Abbey, romantic poet Lord Byron’s stately home situated some miles away. The lectern was lovingly restored and stands proudly in the Minster.
I have visited numerous times over the years and grand though the building might be there is always a friendly and helpful welcome. There is no admission pay but you are kindly asked to make a small contribution.
NOTTINGHAM’S OLD MARKET SQUARE has been central to the city’s life and times for approximately a thousand years, formerly as a large outdoor market as the name suggests, home of the historic Goose Fair each October and a meeting place renowned over the city and wider county. The wide area, arguably the largest market square in Europe reputedly, now changed from it’s last design of a handsome processional way with trees, fountains and plentiful seating for the public was much-loved by Nottinghamians but is now comparatively sterile and bland in appearance. The re-design, reputedly ordered to allow more freedom and capacity for the various events that are held in ‘Slab Square’ as many local people have called it over the years and a is somewhat controversial decision some years later still.
The lions, known perhaps most commonly as ‘Leo and Oscar’ are also known by some, more grandly, as ‘Menelaus and Agamemnon’ and also ‘Lennie and Ronnie’, take your pick . They were sculpted by Joseph Else, the Principle of the Nottingham School of Art at the time. His name is now commemorated as the name of a public house nearby in the Square.
This quite severe looking chap below is the ‘Left Lion’ and whilst both lions have been used over the decades as traditional meeting places it is the Left Lion that holds the greater popularity. ‘See you by the Left Lion’ a (or the lions) has especially been a place to meet a romantic date. I’m told it’s ideal to check out a blind date from a distance and it has been my observation that people circling in the nearby vicinity are occasionally apparent. Other than that I couldn’t possibly comment…
Another piece of historic Nottingham folklore was that the lions roar when a virgin walks past. i couldn’t possibly comment on that either.
The ‘Left Lion’
In the 1920s the former Exchange Building overlooking the Square was replaced by the current Council House construction designed by architect, T. Cecil Howitt, with its 200 foot high dome housing the ‘Little John’ clock, weighing in at over ten tons, which chimes throughout the day as a backdrop and part of the soundtrack to Nottingham city life. Outside the building, two large stone lions stand sentinel, guarding the grand old building opened by the Duke of Windsor in 1929.
Nottingham’s Old Market Square has seen much activity and a few joyous occasions in its history. The annual Goose Fair, so named due to poultry being walked to the event from deepest Norfolk and Lincolnshire was and is a huge landmark on the Nottingham calendar, continuing as it does on the Forest Recreation Ground around a mile away and now over 700 years old. ‘Gooseh’ must have been quite some occasion in the old days as not only did it have such ground breaking innovations as the early travelling cinemas but one could buy practically anything there – even a wife! I think the latter custom has discontinued now.
Football and other sports celebrations have always been a nice feature as the Champions are paraded on the Council House balcony. Notable were celebrations for Nottingham Forest’s European Cup winning teams and, before my time, their great 1959 FA Cup success after they had won their Wembley final with nine and a half fit men on the field. Perhaps Slab Square’s greatest celebration occurred on May 8, 1945, when the war in Europe was over and the people of Nottingham let heir hair down in grand style.
Walking through the square these days I am always disappointed at it’s bland, grey appearance – which cost the council an awful lot of money incidentally. There is a water feature but it isn’t handsome as the previous fountains were – even when students chose to create a bubble-a-thon with washing up liquid emptied into the originals! The seating is at a minimum and the vegetation that saw the Square win awards for its attractiveness is no longer. Instead there are ‘events’ which leave the area looking a little forlorn when they move on.
Other random memories of Old Market Square come to mind of Mods and Rockers gathering there in the 1960s in their two factions at either end of the Square, shepherded apart by the local constabulary. One of the latter’s number was ‘Tug Wilson, a formidable and well known character, standing some 6ft 8ins and fully 7ft 2ins in his policeman’s helmet!
The fabulous mosaic of the Nottingham heraldic crest has disappeared and the ‘feel’ of Nottingham’s Old Market Square appears long gone and spoiled. In balance, there are some good points though. A German Christmas Fair appeared some years ago and was a pleasant winter addition. These days the ‘German’ has been taken out of it and, to my eyes, ears and taste buds has unfortunately become not only expensive but mediocre too. A great plus though is the outdoor ice rink which adds significantly to the winter atmosphere.
Conversely, each summer now, the Square welcomes the ‘Nottingham Rivera’, an urban beach constructed for some weeks in the high season with its sandy beach, padding pool, funfair rides and popular beach bar along with special events throughout its duration.
As a visitor to Nottingham, it is difficult to become lost in it’s concise city centre as all roads lead to the Square and its dominant Council House dome. Unlike many cities, it is easy to discern exactly where the centre of ‘town’ is and for that reason and a few others, wherever I roam in the world, the Council House and it’s lions will always symbolise Nottingham to me.
ON A LUNCHTIME BREAK recently, and enjoying the slightly short-lived recent summer weather, I spotted a quiet Nottingham landmark, something of a curiosity in the middle of the city that few local people might ever pass by. I decided to re-investigate a city feature which I hadn’t trodden for many a year.
The Park Estate is a smart, historic and characterful residential area, well-known to city residents. It perhaps surprisingly, held an annual tennis tournament that was often used by top players on the professional circuit as a grass court warm-up event, immediately prior to Wimbledon each year.
The Park Tunnel, Nottingham (south entrance)
The Park Tunnel which leads most inauspiciously from the busy thoroughfare of Derby Road was originally built back in 1855, its purpose to facilitate access via horse-drawn carriage, into the Park Estate. The Estate has a history as a former hunting park for the Duke of Newcastle, the owner of nearby Nottingham Castle, in truth a mansion or palace rather than a castle, replacing the former structure which was burnt to the ground by unruly and unhappy local people. The area became renowned as a popular part of the city for local wealthy luminaries to reside and to this day boasts many fine homes.
A sober sight: the north entrance sits under the white arch, in 2015, stranded in the car park of nearby local businesses
Proceeding further, the entrance remains unapparent
Down the steps and the hidden tunnel comes into view
Typically carved from the local sandstone, the tunnel boasts extensive brickwork above
Looking back: the tunnel surround displays signs of erosion of the soft sandstone
It’s said that the Duke of Newcastle originally ordered for the tunnel to be built with a specification of a gradient of no more than 1 in 14 feet. The grand tunnel however, was constructed to 1 in 12 foot dimensions, thus making it somewhat redundant from the inception of its life due to its unsuitability for horse-drawn carriages. These days, the Park Tunnel is used as pedestrian access to the Park Estate, largely forgotten and hidden from sight at the Derby Road end in the car park of some commercial businesses. Remaining yet another curiosity of the city of Nottingham, which are indeed numerous.
Looking to the future with one eye on the past.
For those interested in history, I’ve taken charge of an overhaul of my local history group’s website. The Arnold Local History Group is an established and growing organisation that offers education courses, events and exhibitions based on the town of Ernehale ‘The place of Eagles’, as it was formerly known.
The Old North Road of ‘immemorial antiquity’. Mansfield Road, Redhill, Nottingham pictured in 1925
Mansfield Road (above) which travels through our borough and close to my home fulfilled the role of joining the North and the South of England together and is arguably one of the oldest roads, if not the most ancient, in the United Kingdom. Almost certainly, a Stone Age animal path wending its way through Sherwood Forest originally it rose to prominence and importance as the main road from London to York. There are records of a 9th Century Danish Viking invasion marching from York to the city of Nottingham four miles to the south along the predecessor of the byway and accounts of William the Conqueror travelling what later became known as ‘The Turnpike Road’.
The site has some unique and high quality content for anyone with an interest in or link to the town and thereabouts or for those with a liking for history in general. The Arnold Local History Group site is available at:
Regular updates can also be found on the ALHG Twitter feed:
ON THIS DAY that we remember and hopefully learn from the declaration of World War One, exactly one hundred years ago today, my thoughts go to my grandfather, Henry (Harry) Frew of Musselburgh, East Lothian, Scotland. Grandad was a Gordon Highlander who served on the Western Front in ‘The war to end war’ – that most honourable and decorated of Highland regiments with their proud motto emblazoned on the Gordon badge, ‘Bydand’, which means ‘Bide and Fecht’ in Scots – literally ‘Stand and Fight’.
In truth, it’s so very little of my father’s father I know and my memories of him are scant as he died when I was a young boy but those memories that have survived are incredibly vivid. A big man, one of the first images that set in my mind of him are when at his home one day he took out his old Gordon army kilt and showed me how he got into it in the old days. Laying down on the floor on what seemed to my young eyes like yards and yards of thick green plaid material, he belted it up and draped it over him just like he would have done in those former days.
It was an impressive sight indeed and one I have never forgotten.
Life was by no means easy for young Harry. His lost his wife Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Archibald who worked as Head Seamstress at the impressive and iconic North British Hotel on Princes Street in Edinburgh when they had a young family of two boys aged just four and six years old. Those young laddies were my dad, John and his older brother, Alexander ‘Sandy’. Eventually, Harry remarried and had no less than eight more additions to the family – all boys excepting one girl. The family spent some time near Bellshill in Lanarkshire with Harry, I understand, going about his old business as a coal miner.
Harry was an expert ballroom dancer and would give dancing tuition. My mother would often tell of the times he would take her to Barrowlands in Glasgow for the dancing.
In later life, to keep him our of mischief, he took a part-time job at the local cemetery near Bellshill. A man of very dry wit, I came across a beautifully hand-written letter to my mum and dad in England in later years. Asked how ‘business’ was at the cemetery he comically replied, ‘it’s alright son but we’d be a lot busier if they weren’t burning so many up the road at the crematorium’!
Living in Lanarkshire he didn’t get the opportunity so often to see his beloved Hibs and adopted nearby Motherwell FC as his ‘second team’. I guess for that reason I still don’t mind seeing the ‘Well experiencing a bit of success.
The word ‘Bydand’ is inextricably linked with his old regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, the regiment for whom he was highly decorated for bravery though you wouldn’t know it because he would never mention it, being a modest man. It holds great meaning for me as I see it as an honest approach to life itself – to stand and fight. We all of us have experienced our difficult and trying times – heaven knows I could write a small handbook on that of late – and the mark of us is what we do during those times and how we react. When the world and its workings appear against you, you must ‘stand and fight’ – face your problems with bravery, courage and honesty. Always stand and fight – never give in – face up and never run. Just like those Gordons.
That’s why my granpaw Harry, the motto ‘Bydand’ and the Gordon Highlanders mean so much to me.
In Loving Memory of Henry (Harry) Frew and his brave comrades. Lest we Forget.
I came across a reference to the old Children’s Hospital at Forest House recently and it brought quite a few childhood memories rushing back. I managed somehow to get myself knocked down (well up in the air actually) by a beefy Ford Consul when I was a kid and ended up a guest in said institution. When I eventually landed it was with two broken legs, one in three places, and concussion plus a few sundry cuts and bruises for good measure. I recall being upside down in the air and seeing my shoe flying up the street. I also remember then doggedly trying to drag myself to my feet using a bus stop to hold on to and looking down to see my leg bend in the wrong place. They carted me off to ‘The Children’s’ in an ambulance where I remained for a week. With physiotherapy (learning to walk again basically) my young association with that hospital lasted a year though.
I was terrified of the place but they looked after me very well (I’ve gone on to run a few marathons as an adult so they did very well indeed I guess!) but I was scared stiff of the building and the unknown in there as I thought they were going to take my legs away for good. I remember the above so well, being taken for physiotherapy there by my mum so many times.
The kindest, kindest man, a jolly West Indian doctor, looked after me and made me smile – even though he was tasked with re-breaking my legs twice in operations as they had knitted crookedly. On another failed occasion they sawed the long plaster casts half through at the shins and banged wooden pegs in the gaps to straighten my legs. Looking back it was like something out of a Hammer horror movie. I wish I could thank that kindly doctor today though.
KITTY HUDSON WAS BORN IN ARNOLD, NOTTINGHAM in 1765, the granddaughter of Mr. White, a sexton of St. Mary’s Church, Nottingham who she was left with from a young age. During the latter part of that century, Kitty’s strange story became infamous and saw her achieve something of a minor celebrity status due to it’s extreme oddity.
Artist’s impression of Kitty Hudson.
Available at: http://www.ournottinghamshire.org.uk/page_id__973_path__0p32p.aspx (R B Parish)
As a young girl of six years, Kitty was detailed to help out in St. Mary’s in keeping the place of worship spick and span and worked with a servant at the church, a young woman who would give Kitty instructions as they worked alongside each other. It is said that the servant girl would implore that Kitty pick up and collect any dropped pins and needles while sweeping the pews and aisles of the church and reward the youngster with a stick of toffee for every mouthful that she produced. The young Arnold girl diligently set about collecting the pins and needles and storing them in her mouth as she went about her work and it becoming a firm habit. The habit became so engrained in fact that it was said that Kitty could barely sleep, eat or drink without the strange practise of storing pins and needles in her mouth, even to the point of constantly disturbing her sleep to replenish the store of pins and needles in her mouth, that she might rest peacefully. Friends recorded at this time that Kitty’s teeth were ground down almost to her gums.
After time, the young girl reported an enduring numbness in her limbs and intense pain along with difficulty in sleeping and was taken to hospital in August, 1783 after numerous failed treatments. With inflammation in her right arm, a pair of needles were discovered under the skin adjacent her wrist and were removed. Other needles were also found in her arm and painfully extracted.
In an incredible story, before Kitty was finally discharged from hospital in the summer of 1785, the sexton’s granddaughter underwent a long series of operations to remove huge numbers of pins, needles and bone from her arms, legs, feet and other parts of her body. Both Kitty’s breasts had to be removed as needles and pins were lodged around her breastbone. Amongst various alarming notes taken during her two-year plus incarceration in hospital it was recorded that Kitty passed a needle through her urine and also vomited a needle. The minutes from her hospital stay were said to be voluminous and of extreme interest to the medical profession.
There was an extraordinary ending to Kitty Hudson’s story as she survived her self induced ordeal and was discharged to go on to marry her childhood sweetheart from the town of Arnold. The young man, by the name of Goddard, had coincidentally been an out-patient at the same hospital, being treated for a head complaint from which he subsequently lost an eye. Her to-be-intended would cheer Kitty’s spirits by telling her he would marry her should her life ever be spared. The young Arnold girl would later claim that it was her sweetheart’s faith and love that delivered her through her many sufferings to become well again.
The young couple married and, incredibly, Kitty bore her partner nineteen children. In this period of history with infant mortality so high, the practice was for children of the parish to be Christened within three days of being born. Duly, eighteen of Kitty’s children were baptised though sadly just one survived infancy. That child, a daughter, died at just nineteen years of age.
During her later years, Kitty carried the post on foot from Arnold to Nottingham – a round walk of some eight miles – twice daily. She was described at this time as being six feet tall, stout and somewhat masculine in appearance. She would wear a small bonnet about her way and drab clothing of worsted stockings, a coarse woollen petticoat, strong shoes and with a leather post bag slung over her shoulder.
In 1814 Kitty’s husband died and she remarried to Henry Ludham of South Wingfield in Derbyshire where she bore no further children. Interestingly, her step son, Charles Ludlam the village shoemaker stated in the Marlborough Express of 1907 that the legacy of Kitty’s swallowing of pins and needles remained with her for the rest of her life. That journal recorded thus: ‘To the end of life pins and needles kept coming at intervals from her body. At first a black spot would appear and then it soon began to fester, the head next came in sight, and it was pulled out, and the wound soon healed.’ Her step son stated Kitty’s body to be as ‘a colander, full of tiny holes.’ .
In spite of this, Kitty was able to live a decent and good life and remained fit and able to carry out her daily duties until passing away at seventy years of age. So ended peacefully the remarkable story of Kitty Hudson, the human pin cushion of Arnold, Nottingham.
The name of Mordecai Sherwin, a local and internationally-known sportsman of his era was known to me from doing a little research and reading on the golden age of cricket in the nineteenth century and the county of Nottinghamshire’s part in it. I recently came across his name once more as being a former mine host of The Grove Hotel at Daybrook, Nottingham, approximately a mile down the road from my own home just a few minutes north in Redhill. The Grove is sadly no longer. Never a public house that I visited and now earmarked for demolition, it did however have an interesting cave system underneath the bars and a significant slice of history surrounding it. On reading that Nottinghamshire-born Mordecai was at one time the landlord of The Grove, I decided to take a little look at his story.
The man himself not only played professional cricket for Nottinghamshire and England but also appeared in goal for Notts County Football Club before retiring to become a cricket umpire and publican. In the mid-1880s, Mordecai was in his pomp and feted as arguably the leading wicket-keeper in the land and more than useful batsman. This was all achieved despite possessing a less than sylph-like 17 stone frame coupled with a reasonably modest height of 5ft 9ins for his bulk!
In the age of distinction between professionals and gentlemen (amateurs generally from the upper classes) in cricket, with few working-class professionals being bestowed the honour of leading their county, Mordecai was apparently the very last professional captain until many years later in the mid-1930s.
The famous Nottinghamshire back-stop was also well-known as something of a joker on the pitch it is said. Wisden, in choosing it’s wicket keeper of the year for 1891 said of him thus:
‘Always in the best of spirits, and never discouraged, however much the game may be going against his side, Sherwin is one of the cheeriest and pluckiest of cricketers.’
The almanac also added:
‘In point of style behind the wicket he is more demonstrative than his Lancashire rival, but, though the applause and laughter of the spectators may occasionally cause him to go a little too far, he has certainly never done anything to really lay him open to censure.’
Mordecai is further described as being of ‘great bulk’ but nevertheless ‘wonderfully quick on his feet’ and capable of acts of extreme brilliance behind the stumps.
Giving further colour to Wisden’s review, Mordecai is also immortalised by E.V. Lucas, humourist, essayist, playwright, biographer and publisher in his ‘Cricket All His Life’ book, as follows:
‘Moredecai Sherwin, the famous wicket-keeper in the great period, and as leader of the side in 1887 and 1888 the last of Nottinghamshire’s professional captains, was a very notable man … When interviewed … by Captain Holden at Trent Bridge as a potential wicket-keeper, he had been asked if he was afraid. “Nowt fears me,” he replied. He followed by keeping wicket for Nottinghamshire for eighteen years with a remarkable record. Mordecai (and I think Sherwin must have been the only cricketer with that name) was a rotund man of mirthful character and a leading member of the Nottingham Glee Club, which used to meet at the Black Boy to sing and be hearty together.’
The theme of Mordecai as entertainer persists with tales of him offering renditions of Oh Dem Golden Slippers and performing various somersaults and jigs to the amusement of others at social events!
As has been stated, the Nottinghamshire man was also a hit between the posts with Notts County Football club in the late 1970s and early 1880s. From an age when it was customary to attempt to bundle the custodian into the net along with the ball, Wikipedia informs us of a memorable incident. Young and sturdily built Joseph Lofthouse (an apt name for this particular event) of Blackburn Rovers decided to have something of a run at Mordecai but unhappily for him rebounded harmlessly off the Notts goalie with Mordecai stating nonchalantly: ‘Young man, you’ll hurt yourself if you do that again’. Not to be deterred, Lofthouse attempted another physical charge on the last line of defence with Sherwin, belying his size, dancing deftly to one side and watching the young Blackburn forward crash painfully into the goalpost.
The Grove Hotel, (right) Daybrook, Nottinghamshire, C. 1900
Finally, an interesting link has also been suggested between Mordecai Sherwin and no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A strong theory exists that Sherwin, along with fellow Nottinghamshire team-mate Frank (T. E.) Shacklock was the inspiration behind the Edinburgh writer’s classic Sherlock Holmes character with the legend ‘caught Sherwin, bowled Shacklock’ appearing with monotonous regularity on Notts’ scorecards in the 1890s. The two surnames being amalgamated to form the name of super-sleuth, Sherlock.
Mordecai Sherwin was most definitely a sportsman characteristic of a different age. An unusual sporting hero by today’s standards and criteria but nonetheless a high achiever and a success in two professional disciplines in a great era of professional sports.
I’ve written previously about the numerous networks of caves that run under the city of Nottingham and some of it’s outlying suburbs such as the one I live in. They are many in number, not generally connected to other systems across the area and generally speaking, hand-hewn from the soft sandstone that the city lies on, for all sorts of reasons.
Some time ago, I came across an interesting academic article regarding the disused sand mines that line the main arterial Mansfield Road which leads directly out of the north side of Nottingham. Interesting to me, partly due to the fact that it’s a part of the city I use frequently, in particular for visits to The Lincolnshire Poacher pub just a few minutes walk up the same road heading towards to the old Rock Cemetery and Forest recreation ground, home of the annual Goose Fair.
I’d long been told that underneath The Lincolnshire Poacher and it’s neighbouring businesses there are deep caves which I assumed were the result of the sand mines originally in-situ. Notable in this is The Golden Fleece, another Mansfield Road hostelry close by which in the past has held charity abseiling events down it’s two-storey caves below the public house.
Last night I had the opportunity to visit The Poacher’s cellars briefly. Again, they are two-storied with the first level being traditional brick by construction. Interesting enough in their own right but it is when descending a further narrow staircase through the rock down to a second lower storey where things become quite remarkable and thought-provoking.
As can be seen in the above images, this part of the cellars is a hand-made cave, whether this is the result of former sand mining or excavated especially for this former dwelling house is not clear to me. Quite clearly, the indentations of tools used to scrape away the soft rock are apparent, forming a uniformly shaped ‘room’ complete with a ‘drop’ for beer barrels, at the end, leading down from the pub back yard.
The cellars are of course a busy working environment under the former Old Grey Nag’s Head, the pub’s previous incarnation and so are laden and scattered with beer barrels, bottled beers and the various paraphernalia required to serve the pub’s many satisfied and loyal customers. The atmosphere, as one might expect, is damp and temperate, the floor sticky and with a general feel of the labour required in keeping a busy city-centre pub replenished. Even in 2013 though there remains a little evocative history and a few questions outstanding deep under The Lincolnshire Poacher and the businesses and homes nearby.
I AM THE SON,
Of a man who worked in the pits of Fife in Scotland,
In eighteen inches of water, on his hands and knees.
As a fourteen year-old boy.
And who came for many a year, to work in the deep coal mines of Nottinghamshire.
To put food on his family’s table.
I will not forget these men, and their families.
The town near where I live Arnold has one or two famous sons and daughters like most places of any size or history. Romantic landscape painter, Richard Parkes Bonington is just such a figure from Arnold in Nottinghamshire.
I’ve recently been witness to an informative talk also by a local Redhill resident which included a description of how he had been refurbishing a statue of the artist for the past twelve months which will go on public display. Richard Parkes Bonington is commonly described as coming from Arnold although I have heard a claim of late that this theory is somewhat spurious due to his time spent abroad. Having always been of the opinion that he was an Arnold man and in respect of the talk, I decided to do a little research about this assertion
The artist and his former Arnold home
Bonington was born in Arnold in 1802, his first home was at 79 High Street in Arnold. The fine old manor house has long been the premises for the Labour (Social) Club in Arnold. His mother opened a school in the town just after he was born whilst his father was the Governor of Nottingham Gaol. Bonington’s father nurtured his son’s talent whilst he was growing up in Arnold, resulting in his work being exhibited in the city of Liverpool at the tender age of just eleven years. After this time, his parents opened a lace factory but as a result of great industrial unrest of the time decided to emigrate to France in 1817 when the young artist was fourteen years old, firstly to Calais, before they moved to Paris the year after.
Venice Grand Canal, Sunset – Richard Parkes Bonington
The young Bonington spent parts of 1823 touring Belgium, much of 1824 in Dunkirk and several months of his short life in London in 1825. He further travelled extensively in Italy and made several extended stays to London before later returning to the Capital where he died and is interred.
To summarise, Bonington was born in Arnold of parents who lived in the town. His first home was in Arnold and he spent fourteen of the twenty-five years of his life being brought up in Arnold. He is also known to have been a skilled artist, with at least one exhibition, at a very young age (though not yet formally trained) whilst in Arnold. In addition to hailing from the town, he has not been in any other part of the world for nearly the length of time that he spent in the Nottinghamshire town.
I’d have to offer the humble opinion that it’s a perfectly reasonable claim that Arnold can call Richard Parkes Bonington one of its own. The artist is additionally, rightly celebrated with a local school and a theatre named after him.
I think we’re all a little guilty of this – passing by things and places in our everyday lives without really looking at them. Maybe it’s the time expansion of modern life I’m not sure but I really do try to exercise a little mindfulness and understand and comprehend the things that surround me.
Speaking to an acquaintance recently, I came to hear about a little place of historic interest right in the city centre of Nottingham, one I had passed by hundreds if not thousands of times without paying any heed to. It’s a burial-place, a tiny, now disused cemetery for those of the Jewish faith. All I could ever profess to previously noticing was a tall sandstone wall with what looked like a patch of unremarkable wasteland behind it.
The original Jewish Cemetery, North Sherwood Street, Nottingham
A little rudimentary research tells me that Jewish people resided in Nottingham near the old castle around the time of the Norman conquest until the year of 1290 at the time they were expelled from the country by King Edward I. Apparently, they were acceded entry to the country again by Oliver Cromwell in 1657 with some settling in Nottingham for a century or so afterwards. Never a particularly prosperous community originally, it began to increase into the nineteenth century with the first synagogue in 1815 and merchants and businessmen from Germany arriving to stay, midway through that century.
Tablet above the door.
By the year of 1822 the town council agreed to lease the small area of just 144 yards to the Jewish community for use as a burial ground on North Sherwood Street, not far from the old town centre. The small plot was used until the 1860s when a larger area was required. My understanding is that a new cemetery was used after this time at Southey Street a few minutes walk away. Since then, a section of the large general cemetery at Wilford Hill to the south of the city has been used from around the middle of the twentieth century. The gate at North Sherwood Street’s little cemetery now remains locked, hiding it’s story.
Wherever we walk, history walks with us.
Sometimes we’ve all been guilty of ignoring a little gem from right under our noses and this was the case with me and The Malt Cross in Nottingham until the past year or two. I always knew of it’s existence just off the Old market Square in the city centre on the pedestrianised St. James Street, adjacent The Bell Inn, but never visited. I wasted some time because the converted music hall dating back to 1877 is a beautiful and interesting place to find oneself for a quiet pint and tasty snack early evening after work or to listen to the good quality live music that the venue sports.
Built on two floors, the upper area is an oval balcony that looks down on the throng below and also the small stage which is curiously situated at a height between the two floors at one end of the building. Presumably this would have been where the original music hall acts of the Victorian era would perform and heavily harks back to that age.
As well as an impressive and historic structure, The Old Malt Cross has pleasant, friendly and efficient staff which means those dreary and frustrating queues for drinks or usually absent, even at the peak of a busy Friday night in Nottingham’s city centre.
A walk in the local Sherwood Forest this week set me pondering the age-old story of the Nottingham outlaw and the legends surrounding his associated characters and places. I’ve touched on the story previously in articles featuring St. James Church at Papplewick and Sherwood Forest itself but I hopefully have a different slant to offer within this piece.
Sherwood Forest was enjoying a day’s respite from the regular reign of late on Monday, the high clouds finally clearing to offer fresh sunlight dappled through the old oaks, the rays searing into the clearings amongst the trees. Many visitors only appear to consider the Major Oak as worth seeing and truly it is a tremendous sight, but within a few minutes one can be in seclusion within the boundaries of the 450-acre former Royal hunting park.
Being a busy visitor centre much visited by tourists necessarily affects the amount of wildlife in the Forest but there are still compensations along the many pleasant paths through trees. Out in the Forest today were dozens of different fungi carpeting the ground and felled trees. A close up study of the ancient oaks is also quite a wonder. As I walked the gunshot fire of squirrels dropping acorns from the tall boughs onto the otherwise silent woodland floors. It was against this backdrop that I considered this story of the world-renowned outlaw of Sherwood Forest.
North Nottinghamshire still remains an area of more than average forestry. Some of it no longer deciduous but still attractive in its own way. This is especially so when requiring a part canopy against the elements on a wet day’s walking. It was on just such a day recently that I found myself walking with a friend in the local Thieves Wood and Harlow Wood. It’s in the latter that the site of a legendary Robin Hood story can be found.
Wet days can sometimes bring their compensations ironically and so it was today for a series of inclement days had seen the formerly dried up waters of Fountaindale gurgling and flowing busily. The ballad of Robin and the Curtail Flyer documents the first meeting of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck at Fountaindale. It’s a story that has been enacted many times for Hollywood and television. One legend has it that Robin had a resting place near the dale whilst the Friar may have either been from Nearby Newstead Abbey or possibly a smaller Abbey at Fountaindale. Robin had the reputation as the best bowman in England and had heard that the Friar was his match and more. When searching for and finding Friar Tuck at Fountaindale, Robin Hood demanded that the Friar carry him across the water. Tuck duly and obediently acceded to Robin’s demand only to drop him in half way across. Stories record that within humiliated, a fierce fight ensued before the two became friends after gaining mutual respect with Tuck joining Robin Hood’s band of men.
Another interesting side story from the area describes Sir Walter Scott writing parts of his famous ‘Ivanhoe’ epic at nearby Fountain Dale House. Scott referred to the area as ‘Copmanhurst’.
An excellent video account of one man’s visit to Will Scarlet’s grave
At nearby Blidworth lies what is reputed to be the grave of another of that band, Will Scarlet. The Church of St Mary of the Purification on the main street houses a curious monument to the rear which was not originally a gravestone but rather the original apex from the tower of the church. There are no markings on the stone but generations of local people have passed down the legend that Will Scarlet was buried against the back of the church. Who really knows? As with all stories related within the legendary story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men one has to use one’s imagination. Certainly though if there is any accuracy in the stories, the area of Nottinghamshire containing Sherwood Forest, Fountaindale and Blidworth would present a worthy epicentre of its activities.
Concluding with the third part of the York wall walk, it was time to move on as the skies became ever darker. Regaining the wall I looked over some modest looking flats which lay beyond a short field of chest high grass. In the distance I see two teenagers out of the school for the day approaching, one on the wall and one determinedly fighting his way through the overgrown grass with just his head appearing, for some reason! I must be getting old for I remember well when I used to do this type of thing. Oh, okay then – it still happens occasionally.
View from the walls of the Minster, currently under refurbishment
The Red Tower appears on the horizon. Uniquely for the wall because it’s made of red brick, the stonemasons of the day were pretty tetchy about this fact, so put out in fact that it led to the murder of one of the bricklayers. Industrial relations in 1490?. Much of it now gone but stands in memory to that clash. Afterwards a break now occurs in the wall for a few minutes alongside a busy road.
Part two of the walk and rounding the corner, the atmosphere takes on a different hue as the people are left behind and the stroll becomes a more lonely trudge, overlooking the odd industrial unit and small streets of houses. The rather grand Micklegate Bar now comes into view standing sentinel over the old street, famed nowadays as a modern-day pub crawl with its many lively bars.
This was the most important gateway to the city where for many years the likes of rebellious or traitorous folk could find their head detached and then attached to a pike for display above the gate. The more things change the more they stay the same – The Micklegate is still responsible for a few slight headaches just as it ever was – particularly after a heavy Saturday night.
Recently I’d the opportunity to spend a few hours in my favourite English city, York, something I’ve not been able to do in a while. Taking a free ride up the A1 to the old walled city with my partner on business there, it gave me ample time to carry out a little project I’ve been meaning to carry out for some time – to walk around the city’s walls in their entirety.
I’ve a slight fascination for walled cities and a great liking for York itself. I’m not sure why the latter is, maybe it’s because of some of its similarities with Edinburgh, the history being very evident wherever one walks. On the practical side it is not a huge conurbation and its sights and attractions are all walkable.
The Hospitium, York Museum Gardens
Where to begin then? Well with a quick pint for (another kind of) fortification of course (more of which another time) and a bacon roll in the York Museum Gardens naturally. Whilst watching small children gambolling on the grass with mums chattering nearby. Ever an adventurous pigeon to steal the crumbs from under my very feet too.
The walk was on.
Summer is here, it is reported, and a good walk is all the more enjoyable for it. Today’s article chronicles in words and pictures a short walk around the previously mentioned Southwell in Nottinghamshire, the ‘Southwell Town Trail’. I can suggest this stroll of just 2.2 miles around the pretty town as an interesting and pleasant way to spend a couple of hours on a nice afternoon.
My recent visit to Southwell took in that quintessential pastime of a cup of tea at the idyllic tea room and garden in the village of Bleasby a few miles south off the road to Lowdham.
I can heartily recommend this place which comprises of an old stable block converted into a tearoom complete with the attractive gardens to an old rectory.
Bleasby Tea Room garden
Our walk began outside the ancient Minster. The first significant sight was the stately beauty of the many climbing wisteria plants draped languidly over the frontages of large imposing homes and small cottages alike.
In truth, on a walking tour such is this one there is little opportunity to gain a head of walking steam. There are too many photographic opportunities and points of interest to look at along the way. For a comparatively small place, Southwell has an incommensurate amount of points of historical interest dotted around the town. The first one on this short journey being the Bramley Tree Cottage. Behind the cottage in a private garden lies the very first Bramley apple tree planted back in the 19th century. The Bramley Seedling, originally popularised by local nurseryman, Mr. Merryweather, is surely the very best of cooking apples, having outstanding and well-renowned culinary properties.
Shortly afterwards the walk takes a pleasant diversion behind the main street’s cottages, through some shrouded woodland and up to Burgage Green with its own historic tale to tell.
The former House of Correction in Southwell only exhibits its well-preserved original gateway these days but still offers an intriguing look back to where the old prison would have stood from 1807. The Burgage itself is a green and pleasant corner just to the north of the town and almost feels like a separate little place in its sleepy and shady situation just over the hill from the main business of Southwell.
Before leaving the Burgage we find the home of arguably Southwell’s most famous (or infamous according to your point of view!) resident. It was here at Burgage Manor that one Lord Byron lived with his mother from 1804 until 1806. When people talk of Byron, Newstead is always mentioned but few relate the fact that the great romantic poet lived in the small Nottinghamshire market town for a significant period of time.
Southwell has many old inns and we pass one of them, The Wheatsheaf on the way down to the next historic point, The Saracen’s Head in the centre of town. The inn which is a focal point of Southwell is where Charles I enjoyed his last few days of freedom before being arrested by Scottish Commissioners in the Civil War. The building was originally called The King’s Head and parts of the present day inn date back to when it was first constructed in the 12th century. The Saracen’s Head was rebuilt in the 16th century and remains a fine hotel, restaurant and bar.
The Sarcen’s Head
After a drink in the quiet backwater of the courtyard where horse and coaches would have once passed, we crossed the deceptively busy little road outside, over to the magnificent Southwell Minster. Words seem inappropriate to describe the huge old place of worship.
Like many churches it evolved over different eras but unlike many dates back to Norman times. Christian worship began approximately 1000 years ago on this site and is recorded from 900 years ago in the present building. A visit, especially to one of the concerts in the Minster, is the only way to really appreciate its grandeur. On a lighter note, a pleasant diversion, especially if children are present, is to play the game of locating the ‘church mice’ that are carved into various furnishings around the interior. Beware this is no easy task!
The Southwell Town Trail.
A little piece of local history today from a story related to me by an elderly neighbour and family friend in Redhill many years ago who is sadly, no longer with us. It concerns a Mr. George Brough, the owner of the Brough motorcycle company of Nottingham, manufacturers of the legendary ‘Brough Superior’ motorcycle. George significantly at one juncture also held the world speed record for the motorcycle of around 130mph. Bikes ran in George’s blood as his father, George senior had developed the Brough name into two-wheeled legend and passed the business on to George junior.
T. E Lawrence ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and Brough Superior
Just around the corner from my home in Redhill, Nottingham is situated a small cul-de-sac enshrouded in trees called Pendine Close which is accessible directly from the main A60, Mansfield Road. The close contains a small handful of good-sized homes which were built, on memory, in the 1960s. An attractive address and situation certainly but seemingly otherwise unremarkable, However, it’s the very large original home at the end of the close, ‘Pendine House’ in what was originally its own land, that is of interest being the former home of George Brough.
I’m reliably told that Pendine House was named after Pendine Sands, the seven-mile long beach on the shores of Carmarthen Bay on the south coast of Wales. This was the area famously chosen by Brough for his motorcycle record attempts.
Interestingly, it was said that George had some extremely well-known friends due to his fame in the motorcycle industry of the day. My old friend and neighbour related to me that none other than Irish playwright and critic, George Bernard Shaw was a friend of Brough’s and a regular visitor to Pendine House. He also told tale, quite casually, that George was a friend of the then boss of 20th Century Fox and thus counted several top Hollywood movie stars as friends and visitors to his attractive home in Redhill. One quoted to me was the huge star and master actor, Orson Welles, who was apparently a good friend.
Visitors: Welles and Shaw
Another famous name, and a well-known association, was T. E. Lawrence, the famed ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, who would visit Redhill and take Brough Superiors for a high-speed spin around the local country lanes. It is recorded that Lawrence died on a Superior. It is fascinating to me to conceive of these world figures as visitors to a home a minute or two from my own front door.
According to Wikipedia (no written evidence available) George Brough attained the world record in 1928 in Arpajon, France. The same source offers the following about Lawrence’s demise:
“A few weeks after leaving the service, aged 46, he was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham (now run by the National Trust and open to the public). The accident occurred because of a dip in the road that obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he swerved to avoid them, lost control and was thrown over the handlebars of his motorcycle. He died six days later.”
The image on the left shows George Brough with his hand on the shoulder of racer and Austrian sales rep, Eddie Mayer, sat on a Brough motorcycle outside his factory on Haydn Road, Sherwood, Nottingham. On the right, in a similar setting, Brough (standing) converses with T. E. Lawrence ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
From available sources, it appears that George Brough led an exciting and colourful life before dying at seventy-nine years old. Fame, fortune and furiously fast motorcycles were his life. He certainly brought a little colour into the local community in Redhill too.
The village of Harby lies nine miles north of Melton Mowbray in the heart of The Vale of Belvoir. With a population approaching a thousand, the village still retains a sleepy atmosphere in its position adjacent the Grantham Canal.
Harby, first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1085 under the name of Herdebi has a long history reaching back to the Viking era when it was known as the ‘village of Hjorti’.
Like many places in this part of the world many different people’s strode through Harby’s past. It is said that a Celtic tribe known as Coritini travelled from Lincoln through the area. Dressed in brightly coloured cloth which would have resembled the tartans of Scottish clans, they spoke in a tongue which sounded like Gaelic.
Gaelic was to be superseded by the sound of Latin when the appearance of soldiers of the Roman Empire came to the area. Research indicates that Harby would have been a series of single story building at this time, though the street layout would have been much the same it is to this day.
Passing through the Saxon era, one of some desolation in the village by many accounts, the Vikings brought new prosperity and a formal village with their new buildings and well prepared fields. The Danish in-comers settled in the area which they called ‘Heorde’, ‘the village of the heardsmen’.
Other notable happenings in the area include the building of the Grantham canal and latterly the railway. Nearby Langar air base saw many servicemen arriving in the area during WWII. The latter saw the top being removed from Harby Tower Mill, the local windmill being removed due to safety issues with low flying aircraft. Harby at this time became the home of many Royal Canadian Air Force servicemen and their families.
Within the self-contained village is the historic church of St. Mary’s which dominates the view at the approach from Langar. The village boasts two pubs, The Nags Head and The White Hart which face each other from either side of Main Street.
The Nags Head, Harby
The Nags Head, partly dating back to the 14th century, has an intriguing history and is indeed one of the oldest public houses in the country. However it was not always a pub but rather served as accommodation fo the local monks. It is recorded that the monks would keep their animals in the downstairs area of what became the popular drinking place.
The White Hart, Harby
Businesses such as the Nags Head at Harby must look forward indeed to the prospect of the nearby Grantham Canal being dredged and navigable once more with its resultant increased business from potential leisure boating traffic. Certainly villages such as Harby might well see renewed trade and interest.
Other businesses in Harby include a garage, two stores, one of which is a post office and two dairies. The local dairy’s produce is used in the production of the areas famous Stilton cheeses in neighbouring villages. There is a certain aroma in the air from the production of those cheeses it was noted at the time of visiting!
Situated close to the route of the Grantham Canal, the village of Bottesford in Leicestershire is one of the larger conurbations in the vicinity of the old waterway with its population of 3000. When I think of Bottesford two things come to mind, (well three to be more accurate). St. Mary’s Church with its magnificent 200ft high spire, visible for many a mile and also for the village’s connection with the legendary comedy couple, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Some years ago, a lady named Olga Healey ran a public house in Bottesford named The Bull Inn. Nothing unusual there you might say? Well this lady was actually the great comedian, Stan Laurel’s sister and The Bull Inn has become something of a shrine to the great comedy couple, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardie.
The Bull Inn’s lounge was closed when I last called, being a quiet Monday night, but on request, the landlady, Linda, kindly opened up for me a locked lounge that had sat in darkness, so that I might view some of the historic photographs and newspaper clippings adorning the walls. As she switched the lights on, the fantastic images of the famous pair came to life surrounding me in the history of the pair. Notably there was an official copy of Stan’s
birth certificate. Interestingly, Stan’s father’s occupation was shown as ‘Comedian’.
There was much mention of their well-reported stay at the pub in 1953 when the pair performed at The Empire Theatre in Nottingham. Not many knew at the time that they would also visit The Bull Inn variously on many other occasions privately. Stan and Ollie at one point even owned a home nearby in the Vale of Belvoir village of Redmile which lies on the Grantham Canal.
It was lovely to see the various photographs and memorabilia of Stan and Ollie raising a pint of ‘Bull’s best’. One can only imagine how quaint and lovely the scene must have felt for them when they travelled from their homes in the United States.
When I visited The Bull Inn, the landlady mentioned that the Stan and Ollie Appreciation Society, ‘The Sons of the Desert’ were to hold their annual meet there on the coming Saturday. The old films will be projected up in the lounge and some have even been known to come along dressed as Stan and Ollie! A fitting tribute to their genius.
“We haven’t eaten for three days – yesterday, today and tomorrow”
One of my two or three favourite pubs in the city, the others being The Trip To Jerusalem which I sadly rarely get to these days and The Lincolnshire Poacher, a perennial visit. The Bell Inn is another of Nottingham’s ancient public houses, indeed argued as the oldest by some depending on the definition of ‘inn’ or ‘public house’. It is thought that its origins were as the guest house of a Carmelite monastery situated nearby on Beast Market Hill. Timber in the building has been dated back to 1420AD whilst it is thought that the building first became a public house around the mid-1500s’.
‘The Bell’ was renowned as being under the ownership of a certain William Clarke. Clarke who married the owner of the Trent Bridge Inn, a small business then which crucially had a large meadow to the rear of the property. Clarke developed that same meadow into what is now known as Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, an international Test cricket arena of great history and repute. Unsurprisingly the Bell Inn is now classified as a building of special architectural and historic interest.
Robin Hood’s Bay
Robin Hood’s Bay (or ‘The Bay’ as the locals call it) really is a little gem of a place. Though it attracts many visitors and gets very busy don’t let this deter you. The first thing to note is that you can’t drive down to the village – well you can but there’s nowhere to park so you’re left performing an awkward about-turn and returning to the car parks at the head of the village. In any case the walk down is one to be savoured, with its nooks and crannies and haphazardly built small cottages sitting on yards and narrow walkways to explore.
The village survives part of it being swept into the North Sea in the past and a sea defence wall was finally built in the 1970’s.The hugely steep hill down into the village takes one directly to the beach where a very welcoming pub named The Bay Hotel sits. From here views can be had over the North Sea whilst taking a pint or bite to eat. Very popular is the small yard outside too. The last time I was there a travelling family of folkies who were performing at the Whitby Folk Festival were giving an impromptu performance in the yard whilst their children danced to the music. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and truly one of those moments you wish could last forever.
‘The Trip’ as it is known locally takes its name from the crusaders who were reputed to have stopped of at the hostelry back in the middle ages. Dating back to 1189 AD, it’s argued that it’s the oldest pub in England or even the world according to some. This is debated by a couple of other pubs in Nottingham though. The argument revolves around when The Trip actually became a pub rather than the age of the building, which is not in doubt.
What is very unusual about the place is that part of the pub is hewn out of caves set at the foot of the Nottingham Castle rock. From the medieval game set in the wall of the initial downstairs bar up to the most recent bar opened from a newly opened cave upstairs, the pub reeks of history and originality. A legend surrounds the model galleon ship that sits above the upper bar in a glass case. The ship used to hang in an aperture in the cave roof for many years, smothered in cobwebs, as it was reputed that anyone touching it would come to grief, (apparently several people died, became seriously ill or suffered other misfortune).
The fact that the pub is a well-visited tourist destination does not detract from its appeal. Although unique, it still retains the feel of a good local pub. If you should find yourself in Nottingham, try not to miss this place, as its situated only five minutes walk away from the city’s central Old Market Square.
Like most places a prospective visit to Nottinghamshire will necessarily draw up a mental menu of important and unusual places to see. For this city and its environs, such targets might include, the Nottingham Castle, The Caves of Nottingham, Newstead Abbey and that ancient watering hole, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. Nowhere locally though perhaps has such world-wide notoriety as Sherwood Forest and in particular the Major Oak – as fable has it, the famous hideaway and meeting place of the legendary Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
I’ve made not one but three visits to the old tree recently, each time with visitors to Nottingham, and enjoyed them just as much as I ever did years ago. One of the benefits of acting as an unofficial tour guide for visitors is that it lends an opportunity to view familiar places and scenery through their eyes and to freshen up your own perceptions of them.
My understanding is that a large amount of money is to be spent in refurbishing or rebuilding the visitor centre at the forest so perhaps now is the time to remember it how it always was for most of my life.
The drive from the city of Nottingham lasts but twenty miles or so and is a simple one straight north for most of the journey. Allow just forty minutes steady drive through the pleasantly wooded countryside of north Nottinghamshire’s Dukeries. A final traffic roundabout on the main A614 suggests the way to Sherwood Forest as the second turn but my preference is for the first turn which takes us through the village of Edwinstowe, famed as the home of St. Mary’s Church where Robin Hood and Maid Marion were said to be betrothed. A keen eye should be kept however for the first photo opportunity of the day which lies at the crossroads as we turn right – Maid Marion’s Secrets. No, not a historical site, but rather a ‘naughty knickers’ shop, borrowing on the famous damsel’s name! The mind boggles at Marion in some of that lingerie…
We then pass the local cricket pitch and a ‘travelling’ funfair that in my estimation appears to have been there solidly for the past thirty years and left into the free weekday entrance of the visitor centre. Let’s be honest about the visitor centre, it remains the height of kitsch. I have no idea when it was constructed but it reminds me heavily of a seventies conception of what tourists would wish to be greeted by. As one enters there is a large fibre glass caricature of Little John, staff fighting with Robin himself in their famed initial encounter on the bridge. Gathered around in a small clearing are a huddle of buildings with cheap-looking facades, an unexceptional café, a craft shop, a small video theatre, souvenir shop and display area along with public facilities which on my visits have always been unsatisfactory. I’d like to be fair here and point to the previous mention of a refurbishment or rebuild that is scheduled for Sherwood Forest visitor centre however. The area with its attendant 500,000 visitors each year truly deserves better and at long last it seems as though this will happen.
The area of the remaining Sherwood Forest now numbers just 450 acres. At around 6-700 acres, (BestwoodCountryPark a few miles north of Nottingham is ironically an arguably better and certainly a larger area of what remains of the forest). Surfaced and signposted woodland paths lead one through the attractive native woodland of mainly oak and birch. The trees are expertly managed to preserve Sherwood as much as possible alike its original aspect. For those that enjoy walking it’s possible with the aid of a map to take a long walk around and within the perimeter of the woodland and get away from the many visitors and busy chatter amongst the trees. For most however the walk will conform to a pattern of a short twenty-minute circular walk to see the Major Oak. The walk to the tree is impressive enough for those that appreciate nature. Many of the oaks in particular are huge trees, some burnt by lightning but still stoutly standing. The oak is a mighty tree.
The tree itself is still slightly awe-inspiring in its pure size. As one turns the corner to see it come into view, the sight is an extremely arresting one. My understanding is that the oak’s circumference measures some ten metres but perhaps initially most notable is the sheer amount of work that has gone towards keeping the tree upright after 1000 years of existence. The metal props, chains, ropes and fibre glass moulding do not detract from its majesty. A narrow gap in the trunk allows passage inside the tree and makes it easy to understand why it was famed as a hiding place for Robin Hood, even if history indicates that the age of the tree would not have made this possible. Surrounding the tree is a fence placed in order to keep tourists away from the area underneath the oak. This was deemed necessary as the good-natured trampling of tourist’s hooves was compacting the soil and inhibiting the Major Oak from taking in water through its roots.
There is a good amount of information to read at the tree and that perhaps is best left for a personal visit. However a theory towards why the tree is of such a huge size is offered in that it may have actually been two trees that grew together. Another theory given is that a lightning bolt hit the tree and split it into two halves which both flourished afterwards.
For me the best time to see Sherwood Forest is alone, early on a crisp winter’s morning, particularly with a dusting of newly fallen snow or a haw frost. This will not be available to the casual visitor however but still it is worth considering a weekday visit to get away from the large crowd and attendant ice cream vans of a sunny Sunday afternoon. One takes one choice on these matters and I guess I take my forests and nature quite seriously!
One more little piece of legend that always entrances me is that of the famous ‘Green Men’. This legend is often seen in carvings on churches but actually pre-dates Christianity. Usually the green man is depicted as face made of leaves and with leaves sprouting from his mouth. This is meant to denote the wisdom of the earth from which they draw, being nourished and passed on to us all. It also depicts renaissance and the seasons – each year having a rebirth every spring. I’ve always had a strong feeling for this legend and a chat with my Canadian fellow visitors to the forest likened it interestingly to the wisdom of the Native American people and their adherence to the natural and supernatural world. A comparison between people of far apart continents and the link in the way they thought about the true wisdom of the world is a most interesting notion to me.
So a pleasant walk back toward the modern-day visitor centre and exit then. Not before a few minutes day-dreaming of younger more carefree times of playing with bows and arrows and trees that just had to be climbed. Sherwood Forest was really meant for that I considered. It’s a place of legends and of childhood dreams, a place where beliefs can be suspended and a journey into the past explored and lived out. For this it does not take a ‘visitor centre’ – just an imagination, a love of nature and a little romance in the soul. Explore the legend of Robin Hood and the secrets of the forest; you may learn a lot about yourself…
It was a return to my roots last week with a few days of a visit to Edinburgh over a long weekend. It seems I often tend to visit Auld Reekie at this time of year, I can only suppose that historically this is because it coincides with the early clashes between Hibs and their opponents at Easter Road. I love Edinburgh in Autumn as I love it in Spring, I love it all the time it has to be said. The early crisping of leaves in Princes Street Gardens reminds me of coming of the harsher winter days so familiar from past times, mid-winter celebrations and good company.
The story of Mary King’s Close first came to my awareness during my school ‘daze’ via some dusty library tome. The tale fascinated me then and still does. My interest was rekindled some years ago by Billy Connolly on his ‘World Tour of Scotland’ series when he plunged down into the close with the aid of a guide and camera crew to re-tell the story of the infamous wynde. His story it seems was inaccurate however, more on that later.
Fairly recently, Mary King’s Close has evolved into a genuine tourist attraction and visit. In the old days, private tours had to be arranged through the council until one or two Edinburgh ghost walks started broaching into a small part of the subterranean street. I had my own historical appetite whetted by the latter and had always wanted to go back now that access was more fully available.
There are countless accounts of the history of Mary King’s Close and rather than offer a detailed historical time-line my preference is to rather give an account of my visit and the personal feelings surrounding that. Suffice to say that the City Chambers situated on the High Street above opposite the austere and imposing St. Giles Cathedral in the heart of the old town now sits above the close. What were formerly tenement buildings of up to seven stories along the close (the world’s first skyscrapers anyone?) were demolished down to three stories in order to make way for the chambers sitting at street level among the granite sets of the Royal Mile. The present day remains are not troubled by daylight where once a little sun filtered into the deep, dank depths of this part of the ancient city. Latterly it seems there was little metaphorical sunshine either.
After a short wait, our excellent young guide in the 17th Century garb of a local merchant ushered us through the entrance to the head of the steps leading underground. After a short, spoken introduction we descended into 1635AD, a time of much poverty and deprivation in the area. Edinburgh’s old town in those days was a filthy, unsanitary environment with open sewers running down the middle of the street and into the old Nor’ Loch, the infested body of water that was drained to give us the splendour of the present day Princes Street Gardens. In those days the loch was used as a handy place to duck ‘witches’, in fact it was used for dumping practically anything that was unpalatable to your world. Unsurprisingly disease and ill-health were not uncommon in those dire conditions, the worst curse of all being the rapid spread of Bubonic Plague or ‘Black Plague’ as it was known due to its unfortunate sufferers’ skin turning that hue upon the greater progress of its awful grip.
Here’s where the stories of Mary King’s close differ. I had always believed that the poor, wretched inhabitants had been barricaded alive in the close by fearful neighbours and local authorities due to the belief that this was the epicentre of the disease. I also believed that the corpses of the dead were left down there for many years as authority workers refused to handle the dead as they were too smitten with fright of the plague. Not so according to our guide. Apparently people stayed there and died there – there was little place superior for them to go elsewhere it seems. This to my ears is a reasonable enough story though of course a tad less romantic (and gory) than the former version.
The tour takes the visit through several homes and places of work. At times the architecture is unstable and various ancient wall stencilling is under threat from the regularity of visitors down there. Perhaps a memorable moment for some was the visit to a small vault with the lights turned out! The guide bade us all to sit on long chests as he announced a ghost story of severed limbs and other 17th Century niceties. Perhaps not for the faint of heart…
The story of little Annie who died in the close is a touching one which should be saved for the actual visit. Beside the vast pile of toys left for her ‘ghost’ lays a collection which nourishes the Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital to the tune of thousands of pounds, happily.
Alighting into the actual close towards the end of the tour was the most evocative scene for me personally. Interesting enough were the various vaults and workshops, one owned by the local saw-doctor but I felt like I wanted to stay there balanced against a wall of the steep old wynde for a while longer. It was easy to drink in the atmosphere and feed from the hard lives of these former people of Edinburgh, part of the people who I descend from indeed. Peering down the narrow, eerie close was an unforgettable and unique experience, opening a page into Edinburgh’s history. I will go there again one day and pay my respects.
If you find yourself in Edinburgh one bright day, go to Mary King’s Close, you will not forget it, nor have experienced anything at all like it.
I recently took a visit down the city caves in Nottingham for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. Mostly in past times these occasions have been when accompanying visitors to our home. Although the visit is a but a short tour, I can honestly say I never tire of this excellent little historical site, tucked away in the city centre of Nottingham, rather incongruously inside an entrance to the Broad Marsh Shopping Centre.
There is one important change to visiting in the past. Previously the tour was self-conducted by the use of an audio device. The friendly and helpful ticket office worker informed us however that the caves had now changed hands and that there would be a real live group guide for the tour. Having been on so many various audio tours in the past, I looked forward to the personal touch supplied by a guide versed in the history of the site and was not to be disappointed.
From a visitor’s point of view, our day in Nottingham had started with some promise via a tram ride on the quick and efficient service from its Hucknall terminus. Arriving at the far Station Street depot adjacent The Midland Railway Station, the impressive sight of the Pitcher and Piano, an attractively refurbished large church in the Lace Market area loomed above us. Perhaps not unique but certainly rare – even in the current era of reconstructing many types of buildings such as banks and post offices into public houses, one cannot fail to be impressed by the interior of the Pitcher and Piano. It’s a strange mixture of feelings when one enters a pub that used to be a place of worship, I’ll say that straight away without hesitation. One can’t help but lament in some small way the sadness of a grand church being lost to premises licensed to sell alcohol to a weekend hoard of revellers but the world changes and so do its needs. Without being too churlish however I’d urge a visit to the Pitcher and Piano to anyone with an hour to kill and a thirst as it’s a most unusual experience. Personally I felt restrained whilst in there curiously, just as if I was still in a church.
The Pitcher and Piano, Nottingham
Back to the sub terrain and in through the outdoor and back into history then. Our personable guide asked the large-ish group if there were any local residents and I noted I was the sole one, a statistic that might indicate the caves’ popularity and visibility spreading to more and more outside visitors. With a crack and a pun or two we were heading down into the ‘real’ Nottingham, ‘land of cavey-dwellers’. This article won’t spoil what may become a visit in the future to the prospective visitor but suffice to say the cheery guide explained to the group of the many and varied uses of the caves by Nottinghamians in the past. These include the story of the tannery, illegal gambling dens and WWII air raid shelters.
Brushing against the iron-red bunter sandstone, it’s easy to imagine with the crumbling, dusty walls how easy it was to carve out some of the caves that were not naturally formed, the city of Nottingham was truly made for the temperate atmosphere of the caves being put to practical use. It’s well-spoken that much of the city is honeycombed with underground caves and whilst there has been access available from a handful of pub cellars and most notably underneath Nottingham Castle, the Broadmarsh Caves offer easily the most accessible and varied option. For a few pounds this tour offers a unique insight into the city’s past and can be entered whilst on a shopping trip to the city. As a resident I’d say it’s a not to be missed hour or two for the traveller to the Lace City.
Bestwood Country park stretches 650 acres and is part of the original Sherwood Forest. It lies around five miles north of Nottingham and is accessible by city transport buses. It is also walkable from the Robin Hood Line train. Towards the Arnold/ Mansfield road side of the park is situated The Bestwood Lodge Hotel which is on the edge of the woodland. A decent meal or a drink in extremely civilised surroundings are available in the historic old building.
Meeting my friend at Bestwood Lodge today for an arranged walk with a park ranger was such a good idea. We met after nine-thirty and joined ranger, John and another walker an hour later, prepared to learn something new about the park we have used and loved so much over the years.
But a few minutes into the walk, we saw the rare black Hebridean Sheep which are kept in one of Bestwood’s ancient flower meadows. This particular meadow was described to us as resembling one from 200 years ago in its native flora and fauna.
Woodland management is a huge task in Bestwood. To preserve the natural vegetation of the woods – that of mainly Birch and oak trees, patches of sycamore are routinely cleared to allow the former to grow. As in most areas of nature, a natural balance is sought and it is felt that the sycamore offers too dense a shade in the woodland for the oak and birch saplings to flourish. This in turns affects the type of wildlife that exists happily in this area of the old Sherwood Forest, and has done for many hundreds of years.
All around the park there are piles of logs where trees have been cleared or pruned. It had always crossed my mind what happened to the wood and I found out today. Much of the material is left on the woodland floor for invertebrates to live in and for fungi to grow amongst. The deeper the pile of wood the better apparently for some creatures. Some of the wood is however sold as firewood. Something I will be availing myself of, partly to contribute to Bestwood and partly as there is something somehow satisfying about burning fuel gathered from my own community putting something back at the same time.
We observed young yew saplings which have been introduced to the woodland. Yew is one of the oldest trees this country has and can grow for up to a thousand years it is said. There is some confusion as to why Yew is often seen within churchyards. Our ranger’s opinion was that the yew offers extremely good waterproof cover due to its shape, and that pagan worship was held underneath the bows of the trees. The Christian churches were then built on these same plots after their introduction, therefore the yew being a common churchyard sight. Another strong theory is that Yews were planted by decree to supply wood for longbows for forest folk. The yew possesses bright red berries which are attractive to birds, it is however extremely poisonous to humans.
Finally our walk ended where we had begun, at the old winding house. This building was part of the original Bestwood Colliery which stopped producing coal in the 1960’s. Some form of maintenance work however carried on into the 1980’s. The winding house which contained the steam engine that powered the ‘cage’ that took the colliers down the shaft to the coal seams below has a team of enthusiasts who help preserve this unique building. In the past week it has been reported that a lottery grant of £1m has been won by the council to develop it. There will be lifts and visits possible to the coal face below, together with a tea room which is sure to be popular.
One wonders about the future of Bestwood and hopes that it remains the unspoilt haven of history and tranquility that it is now. The ranger’s opinion is that perhaps the winding house may end up as something of a ‘honey pot’ for visitors and yet those of us that seek more solitude and peace within the park will still use the majority of the wider area. I hope and believe so.
Bestwood Country Park (or as we say around these parts, ‘up Bestwood’) for me however remains Nottinghamshire’s best kept secret for the moment.
The second part of our sojourn into local history began with lunch at the Horse and Groom public house at Linby, Notts. Linby is a tale to be told all of it’s own, perhaps it’s most famous claim to fame is that the humble pancake is said to have been invented in the village. The story is not greatly sympathetic to the erstwhile menfolk of Linby parish, apparently they fled when confronted with the might of the invading Viking hoards in around 800 BC or so. Not so the stout women of the village who stood squarely against any of that raping and pillaging nonsense and sent the Scandinavian warriors packing. The ladies then invented the pancake as a celebratory dinner to commemorate their triumph. It’s not recorded what the running men ate that night.
Sitting cheek by jowl with lovely Linby is the community of Hucknall, nee Hucknall Torkard some fifty years ago and before. Hucknall is a firmly working class town but with a claim or two to immortality. It is here that the poet, Lord Byron is buried in the church of St. Mary Magdalene overlooking the large market place. More of that later. Hucknall is also renowned for the world-wide brand of Rolls-Royce. Most famously the ‘Flying Bedstead’, the first vertical take-off aeroplane was first tested and flown here. Not cars these days but aero engines. The testing of the huge machines can still be heard for several miles on odd days.
Hucknall has many personal memories for me as it was here that my own mother was born and brought up. She was intensely proud of the town of her birth and throughout her life loved it like no other place. Perhaps this was due to the fact that her most treasured and loving times were spent here being brought up with her family of nine brothers and sisters. As a youngster I failed to understand the appeal of Hucknall. It seemed so much more pleasant, comfortable and wealthy where I was brought up but perhaps later on in life I can now fully understand her feelings towards the town as let it not be said that this is a place without a soul.
Driving down the main Annesley Road and past mum’s familiar old three-story family home we approached the ‘bottle-neck’ as it is known, a sharp bend that leads into Hucknall market place. Thirty or forty years ago Hucknall market on a busy day was an impressive place. Row after row of stalls selling anything one could imagine were laden with goods. Housewives would do most of their food shopping there before the days of supermarkets and take their local produce home to their families. These days Hucknall market appears to have have adhered to the national trend of deterioration. The stalls are thin in both number and useful goods. Perhaps sad to see but the humble market feels and looks like an irrelevance to many nowadays. In truth the bargains are few. An exception to this in my personal view is that of the bookstalls still seen on most markets and perhaps the buying and selling of books will never die. Let’s hope not. On that note, a few pound coins changed hands between the Hucknall bookstall holder and myself in exchange for a couple of Inspector Rebus novels.
As the skies over the old mining town darkened we stepped into the churchyard of St. Mary Magdalene which stands sentinel over the market place and is very much the central point of the town. A walk amongst the graves manifested the burial place of one Ben Caunt. No ordinary person, Ben, he was no less than the bare-knuckle boxing champion of England in his day. He and his great adversary Bendigo from Nottingham pounded each other for round after round in their day and both were true champions. The grave displayed the sad fact that Ben’s two children perished in a fire at the tender ages of only six and eight. The Caunt family it seems lived with much grief.
Very luckily we spotted a worker alighting the locked-tight church and asked him if we might go inside for a look around. St. Mary Magdalene has a special poignancy for me in that it was the church that my mother attended and loved as a child. It is a place of worship that was inextricably interwoven into her family history. Of course the most well-known fact about the place is that is the place where Lord Byron is interred. According to a worker in the church crypt, along with twenty-six other Byron family members within a small space of 6x8x8ft, amazingly. My mother’s family, Houldsworth, had a member, Sylvester, a local headmaster who was one of the very select group of people to see Byron’s body exhumed in 1938. Perhaps the reasoning for that exercise was somewhat flimsy – Byron had often said that his ‘heart was in Greece’, this was taken quite literally by the local people of the day who imagined that the organ had been physically removed. The exhumation proved otherwise however and Byron’s embalmed body was said to be in almost perfect condition, save for his crippled foot which had become dislodged from the rest of the body. The crypt is not necessarily easy to find being denoted by a smallish plaque in the floor only. It was difficult to imagine how access would be gained at all.
A ghostly tale that surrounded the church was of Canon Barber hearing footsteps following him down the aisle on one occasion in an empty church back in the 1930’s. Not a standard ghost story this one as the minister claimed that the noises he heard indicated someone with a bad limp caused by an invalid foot – much like Lord Byron’s actually…
St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall
Before leaving the church we signed the guest book and looked at the various names from all over the world, undoubtedly many would have been Byron devotees coming to Hucknall to pay their respects. I paid my own respects with a few words to my my late mother in there. Perhaps she was looking down on me in her old church. Rest peacefully now Grace Marian.
So back into the mid afternoon Friday rain into present day and to pass the relatively recent addition to the town of the tram terminal from Nottingham aligned with the ‘Robin Hood Line’ railway to the same destination. These two factors may well prove extremely influential in the continued history of Hucknall, much as Rolls-Royce, the two coal mines and legend of Lord Byron were in the past.
Hucknall’s route to the future?
St. James’ Church, Papplewick, Nottinghamshire.
Linby and Papplewick are two of my local villages, both distinctive and attractive due in no small measure to their structure of yellow sandstone quarried from Linby itself. The stone is slightly reminiscent of Cotswold stone in its warm, cosy glow both in winter and summer. There’s more than the average share of history from within the environs of these two neighbouring villages but perhaps that is largely a matter for a separate look at them on another occasion. This story today is of two local churches, very disparate in the tales they have to tell.
Walking with my partner’s mother and aunt who are visiting from either side of the vast plains, forests and mountains of Canada, we set off strolling over the narrow path alongside a newly ploughed field after passing by a small selection of grand homes clearly inhabited by the well-heeled of the locality. Ours was a simple short walk for posterity and fresh air’s sake in the main. It was however to be punctuated by one or two sights I had never seen in my time in Nottinghamshire.
Shortly after we passed over two fields we came to the idyllic setting of a fisherman’s pond damned from the River Leen. Ours was but a jealous peek inside the hedge from a quaint little bridge as the pond stocked with coarse fish loomed through the bows of the overhanging trees and undergrowth. A stern warning of privacy and a secured gate stopped us from entering and walking the banks of the pond. We did however see several trout in the brackish water beneath us on the bridge.
Another field brought us in sight of Papplewick’s principal place of worship, St James’, a tiny church nestled amongst the oaks and birches in its original Sherwood Forest setting. Our slice of good fortune was that for the first time I had ever walked this path the church was actually open due to three ladies preparing decorations for Harvest Festival festivities the coming Sunday. A scout around the churchyard saw the gravestone of Lord Byron’s servant buried in the 1820’s, members of the local Montague family and the local regiment of the Sherwood Foresters were also interred in the longish grass.
Luckily we were invited inside to inspect the little church. One can only smile at the faith and devotion that is evident in these small shrines everywhere around us dating back so many hundreds of years. I find this very touching still. A small stairway beckoned to an upper balcony that ran the length of the church which just had to be explored. We were told that this area was reserved for worshippers from a ‘higher’ social class – perhaps not in keeping necessarily with the message communicated in the church I reasoned to myself. We were told that the monks from Newstead Abbey would rest, take shelter and pray at St James’ whilst walking the many miles to Lenton Priory. It was not difficult to imagine the men of the nearby Augustinian order emerging through the pleasant greenwoods of Nottinghamshire and into this beautiful place all those hundreds of years ago
Clearly the quaint little church of St. James’ at Papplewick would be a beautiful, cosy place to worship on a cold, wintry Nottingham evening. I imagined the warm, soft glow of its lights through stained glass, like embers ushering people to it through a forest floor laden with brown oak leaves. The fact that people had been attracted there, doing just that since the twelfth century laid claim to that thought.
One last observation was of the large, impressive yew tree in the churchyard. Legend tells us that the forest outlaws and yes, even Robin Hood himself were said to have used the tree to fashion their longbows from, the wood being of a perfect nature for the strength and suppleness required of the mighty and storied English weapon. Other stories tell us of a different reason for the presence of yew trees in so many churchyards. One theory is that yews actually predated the churches and were used as pagan meeting places which offered shelter under their thick, shroud of umbrella-like branches, that churches merely sprang up in the same places due to their suitability as places of worship. Nobody really knows but I find either story equally palatable.
I cannot leave the subject of St, James of Papplewick without relating its further involvement with the legend of Robin Hood. It was one of Robin’s supposed main collaborators, minstrel, Alan A’Dale who was reputed to have been actually married here, (though some say he is buried here alternatively). I have no idea of the truth of these legendary tales but one visit to Papplewick leave one in no doubt that many forest happenings could have occurred in the secluded depths of this parish. Further evidence of the royal foresters can be seen inside the church with two tombstones carved with the archer’s longbow and hunting horn.
Whatever one’s ability to suspend belief for a moment, these artifacts are truly magical and open the history book wide to a chapter hundreds of years ago that was so important to this area.
Truly St. James’ Church in the parish of Papplewick, Nottinghamshire is a most remarkable place.