Christmas Approaches in Southwell

THE PICTURESQUE MARKET TOWN of Southwell in Nottinghamshire is a place that I’ve felt drawn to talk about on several occasions on this site in the past. Often those times reflect pleasant days of clement weather in the warmer months with time spent outside strolling, perusing it’s elegant and historic buildings and it’s architectural jewel in the crown, the magnificent Minster.

The town lies on the gently rolling River Greet which provides a relaxing walk through the scenic surrounding countryside whilst the centre of the conurbation owns several sites of significant historical interest such as the National Trust owned Workhouse, built in 1824 and the Saracen’s Head hotel, dating back to 1463 and the scene of King Charles I’s capture by Scottish troops in 1647 when it was known as The King’s Head.



The Saracen’s Head


minster 2

Southwell Minster

sweet shop

Southwell is also notable as owning one of the former homes of romantic poet, Lord Byron in it’s pretty spot on the Burgage and being the site of the original Bramley apple seedling which spawned what many to believe to be the finest of all cooking apples. It is a small town which punches very much above its weight in terms of significance and interest.

Something I like to do each year though is take the short drive to Southwell during December as Christmas approaches. The atmosphere and classic aspect of the town somehow lends itself to a Christmas-like feeling. This is not least due to the local custom of Christmas trees attached to the buildings on King Street and leaning out into the street at an attractive angle.

On this visit, the town was bathed in gorgeous Winter sunshine with skies reminiscent of the high days of Summer. A healthy smattering of shoppers and visitors were going about their business through Southwell’s narrow street and alleys in it’s small, independent shops and outdoor market. I ambled, bought a little food, took tea and spent some moment at the Minster. After so many years of visiting, going back to school days, taking walks with friends, drinks in its attractive pubs and relaxed and pleasant lunches, not least many a historic sojourn and even working in a university building nearby, Southwell is the Nottinghamshire town I would surely miss the most.

Southwell Minster, Southwell, Nottinghamshire.

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 by way of a donation.

Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire

IN THESE AUSTERE TIMES it’s sometimes worth looking backwards to some of the grimmer images from the past and making a comparison of people’s lot from previous eras. In the year of 1824 Reverend J. T. Becher, a local magistrate, designed the revolutionary Southwell Workhouse with an aim to provide an economic model to assist the poor while at the same time reducing the burden on tax payers in the locality. Based on a concept of indoor relief for the poor, the institution was created to be as ‘repulsive’ as possible to paupers. It’s success saw it copied in many other parishes all over the country with it’s main principles of design and operation becoming a template for other similar institutions.

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 001

Perhaps many people’s image of a workhouse comes from the bleak impression offered in Dickens’ Oliver Twist with it’s stark images of gruel on the table and a deprived Twist pleading for ‘more’. The fact remains though that workhouse walls were not built to an insurmountable level, these were not prisons or houses of correction but rather places which the poor volunteered themselves to. Considering how grim life may have potentially been beyond those walls, conditions inside may certainly have been the lesser of two hard options. At least there was food, however basic for needs and shelter.

Segregated bathing facilities and laundry

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 003Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 007

Upon entering Southwell Workhouse, entrant’s clothes were taken from them and a rough uniform issued. Men and women were strictly segregated into different areas of the building, never seeing each other, whilst children were separated from their parents. The latter whilst seeming extremely cruel was reasoned to be good for the children as their parents had not been a good influence on them, it was explained to me by a friendly and knowledgeable guide. In a sense, though harsh, the workhouse could offer relatively greater benefits to children as they received an education – something which would have been unlikely on the outside.

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 004

Adult men and women were put to work, often very menial, in and around the house. Favoured employment tasks given to the ‘idle and profligate’ were the unpicking of rope which was very hard on the hands and breaking up stones for the making of roads. Other jobs included cleaning, laundering, preparing food and tending vegetable and fruit crops and a cow house. It was a regimented day, restricted to few rooms and an exercise yard. Food was basic, boiled meat being a staple. Dark and damp cellars were utilised for food preparation.

Cellars and a window to the world

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 024 Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 027

Staffing levels were very low compared to the inmates who could number over 150. This consisted of a Master and Matron, teachers and a clerk who worked part-time. Master and Matron were a married couple and lived in very comfortable accommodation within the building.

Perhaps some of the more intriguing moments of a visit to Southwell Workhouse surround the male and female exercise yards. These were designed to be overlooked from the Master’s residence windows. Only a small pocket exists where the inmates could be out of sight and here are forms of old games scratched into the red brick walls of the workhouse and still viewable.

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 017

Master and Matron’s residence overlooking the exercise yards

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 018 Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 020

My favourite part of the visit however, was a room depicting more modern times. In the 1960/70s rooms were used for the likes of young single mothers without a home. To enter the workhouse as accommodation helped them to rise up the council house waiting list it was explained to me. Artefacts of that area are on display in a dormitory room where such mothers lived and brought up youngsters, until moving on.

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 035

Southwell Workhouse 21.4.12 036

Southwell Workhouse it seemed to me was basically a functional concept which achieved what it set out to do, though in a  sometimes unnecessarily harsh and cruel way at times, as maybe befitted the area in which it was created. It is also an interesting contrast to the beautiful, historic and feature full Nottinghamshire town it lies on the edge of. During my visits I have never accompanied a visitor who was not thoroughly impressed and intrigued by the old establishment. I would urge you to take a look for yourself.

More information here

The Southwell Town Trail

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.

Burgage Manor

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 Saracen’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.

The Gate to Southwell

The market town of Southwell north-east of Nottingham is a most appealing place. It has many distinguishing features, not least the huge Minster dating back to Norman times that dominates the locality and the town being a home of romantic poet, Lord Byron for a period. In truth, Southwell deserves an article of it’s own and certainly will have one when the time presents itself. Today however I wanted to talk about the resurrection of an ancient custom known as the ‘Gate to Southwell’.

With origins going back to almost 900 years ago, at the time when the Southwell Minster was first being built, the Archbishop of York wrote to every parish in Nottinghamshire requesting monetary contributions for the ‘Mother Church’ as he called it. From that time at each Whitsuntide the Mayor of Nottingham and a representative from each parish would take their contributions to the Minster in a procession. There would be much attendant revelry on the journey which would begin in Nottingham’s Old Market Square and contain lay folk, the clergy and at the head of the company the Mayor in his traditional robes.

Continue reading “The Gate to Southwell”

The Beehive, Maplebeck, Notts.

Nestling quietly in the pretty North Nottinghamshire countryside, the attractively named Maplebeck is a community of approximately eighty people. It’s nearest conurbations are Southwell and it’s mighty Minster which is six miles to the south, and the historic market town of Newark-on-Trent to the east.

At first glance, Maplebeck, though undeniably pretty in it’s rural and unspoilt location, holds little of note more than many a similar village, that is apart from one building, the local pub known as The Beehive.

Some three decades or so back, The Beehive was extended marginally. Prior to that it had laid claim to being the smallest public house in England.

Continue reading “The Beehive, Maplebeck, Notts.”