A Juicy Bit of Snot
If you come from outside the British Isles, you will probably best know Nottingham as the erstwhile home of England’s most famous bandit turned folk hero, Robin Hood. Those of you who live a little closer might think of Nottingham as a large, industrial city rapidly re-inventing itself as the cultural capital of the Midlands. Between these two extremes, the legendary and the contemporary, how hard is it to find the city’s real identity? Can real people’s history struggle out from underneath the legend of the man in green tights?
Another legend, and probably one with a great deal more truth to it, says that Nottingham was founded by a seventh-century Saxon chieftain who bore the excellent name, Snot. The city’s name, in Old English, means something like ‘the settlement of the followers of Snot’. I have been a follower of Snot for nearly a year now, and, to answer the rhetorical questions I posed a minute ago, I’ve found more history than you can shake a longbow at. To prove my point, here is just one of the city’s streets. It might change its name a few times on the way, but it’s still recognisably one street, and, incidentally, it’s also the way I walk home from work every day.
If you were looking for somewhere to start a historical tour of Nottingham, you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere better than Nottingham Castle. In 1068, England’s new king, William the Conqueror, seeking to reinforce his iron grip on the kingdom, built a series of fortresses, first in wood, and then in stone. One of the locations he chose was a sandstone bluff overlooking a strategic crossing point on the River Trent. William installed the city’s new overlord, William Peverel, with half an eye to the river and half an eye to the thriving Saxon settlement down the hill.
Centuries after William’s time, a king whose hold on power was far less certain came to Nottingham. In the summer of 1642, when the dispute between Charles I and his Parliament erupted into civil war, the king fled London and came to Nottingham to raise an army. He raised his standard on Castle Hill; this is the origin of its alternative name, Standard Hill. During the ensuing Civil War, which Charles eventually lost, along with his life, Nottingham was briefly besieged. What remained of the mediaeval castle was largely destroyed during the battle or demolished afterwards. Today, the gatehouse is the only substantial part of the original castle still in existence. Incidentally, if you’re looking for the castle that featured in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, you’ll be disappointed; it was filmed at Carcassonne in southern France. What is commonly referred to as Nottingham Castle was built in 1677 as a residence for the Duke of Newcastle. In 1831, it was ransacked by Luddite rioters, and later in the century became Britain’s first municipal art gallery outside London.
Nottingham’s most famous son, Robin Hood
Outside the castle’s ramparts, in Castle Road, is a statue of Nottingham’s most famous son, most uncharitably aiming his longbow at the visiting pensioners and school parties. Safely out of his line of fire is one of the very few half-timbered buildings remaining in the city, which now houses the Lace Centre. Dating from the mid-fifteenth century, it originally stood on Middle Pavement and was moved here in 1968. Castle Gate, which leads from the castle to the heart of the city, was, during the eighteenth century, a fashionable address for the merchant families whose wealth rested on the lace trade. In common with other towns and cities of eastern England which were settled by the Vikings, many of Nottingham’s oldest streets are called ‘gate’, which comes from an Old Norse word meaning ‘street’. It was often attached to the name of the trade which was based in a given street, hence Wheeler Gate, Fletcher Gate and others.
Castle Gate is cut off from Nottingham’s heart by a busy dual carriageway, Maid Marian Way, which, apart from being yet another cheap cash-in on the Robin Hood legend, represents one of the city’s more dubious urban planning decisions. The unusual brick church of St. Nicholas’ replaced a mediaeval church which stood on this spot until it was chosen as an artillery emplacement by the King’s army besieging the castle, and destroyed. Ironically, Lawrence Collin, the Parliamentarian master gunner is buried in the crypt. The present St. Nic’s dates from the end of the seventeenth century; by the the eighteenth it had become the fashionable parish church for Nottingham’s lace dynasties, and was nicknamed the ‘drawing-room church’.
Just off Maid Marian Way, diagonally opposite the predictably cheesy Tales of Robin Hood, is one of Nottingham’s most famous pubs, Ye Olde Salutation Inn. It proudly boasts of having been founded in 1240, which is olde enough to make it the city’s second oldest pub. At the beginning of the Civil War, the royalist army used it as a recruiting station. Although it’s unlikely that the King was able to recruit many young men from staunchly Parliamentarian Nottingham into the ranks of his army, if you come to the ‘Sal’ today you drink in either the royalist decadence of the King Charles snug, or the puritan austerity of the Cromwell snug, without risk of accidentally taking the King’s shilling.
Follow Castle Gate to the crossroads with Lister Gate. As you climb up Low Pavement, you enter the original Saxon settlement. The street off to the left, Bridlesmith Gate, was once the main road to London, and the name of the crossroads you reach immediately after, Weekday Cross, recalls the weekday market that was held here during the Middle Ages. At the time of writing, rails were being laid here for Nottingham’s new tram, which, if work continues on schedule, should enter service at the end of 2003.
Beyond Weekday Cross, High Pavement leads into the area known as the Lace Market. Its elegant Georgian mansions reflect the wealth that the lace industry brought to Nottingham in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The wealth of the area is still tangible; real estate in this part of town is much sought after and many of the buildings are now solicitors’ or accountants’ offices or have been converted to luxury flats.
‘Go directly to gaol, do not pass go, do not collect £200’: a stonemason’s spelling error at the Shire Hall.
Similarly, the former Unitarian chapel, now deconsecrated, is now a bar, the Pitcher and Piano, and the Shire Hall, the imposing neoclassical building just beyond it, is now a museum dedicated to crime and punishment. This, in fact, is not so far removed from its original function; built in 1770, it was the administrative and judicial hub of the county. The ominous basement-level doorway second from the end bears the inscription ‘County Gaol’; if you look closely, you’ll see that the stonemason has misspelt the word ‘gaol’ and has had to correct his mistake.
The final stop on this whirlwind tour of one of Nottingham’s streets is St. Mary’s church, the parish church of the Lace Market, which must rank as one of the finest mediaeval parish churches in England. This is the third church to have stood on this spot, the first having been recorded in the Domesday Book. The warm, creamy-grey limestone of its fabric and the intricate yet sweeping curves of its arches and columns are the culmination of English gothic, a style that later ages would call perpendicular, and with good reason. Robin Hood came here to attend mass, if you believe the legends, and it was here that he was recognized by a monk he had robbed earlier, betrayed, and arrested. This tale, and that of his subsequent rescue from the Sheriff’s clutches, are the subject of The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk. However, even if the story itself is true, it almost certainly did not take place in this building; St. Mary’s was not completed until 1474, by which time Robin was already a figure of literature and legend.