Nottingham has a reputation as a rebellious city. They supported the Parliamentarian cause in the Civil War and stood up for Chartism, women’s suffrage and battles for worker’s rights were fought on its streets. Its hero is a Saxon who stood up to his Norman overlords. Nottingham people continue to have a rebellious streak.
The literature that comes out of the city is similarly defiant. Byron, certainly no working class hero, wrote poetry that captures a sense of disaffected youth. At Harrow, he ran a student rebellion against the appointment of a new headmaster. DH Lawrence was one of the most controversial authors of any age. He flouted rules of decency and class in writing about the Sexual awakening of a young woman in The Rainbow, or about an affair between the upper class Lady Chatterley and her gardener, the down-to-earth Mellors, that still causes upset to this day. Alan Sillitoe’s most famous work features a hard-working, hard-drinking, rebellious factory worker, who becomes involved in a series of complicated affairs whilst dreaming of a better life.
Even the city’s hero, whose image you will find throughout the city, was a Saxon Yeoman who stood up to his corrupt Norman overlords. The Gest of Robyn Hode was printed in 1493 by Wynkyn de Worde, making it one of the earliest printed texts in English. It is a collection of tales, written in ballad form, about the hero and his merry band, many of which have passed into popular culture and our national narrative. The book actually makes no mention of Sherwood forest or even the town of Nottingham, but the villain of the piece is named as the Sheriff of Nottingham and hero and town have been inextricably linked ever since. His statue stands outside the castle walls, bow drawn, ready to defend the Noble Saxons against the dastardly French. The statue is well-known to locals and visitors alike and, even on the drizzly April day when I visited, old folk were resting by it and children were running around it in the crazed way that children do.
Nottingham is built around a large sandstone outcrop, on which stands the castle built by the Normans in 1068. By the Fifteenth century, Nottingham had become a trading town, specialising in textile production after the Industrial Revolution, eventually becoming known for the quality of the lace it produced. In 1832, in opposition to the Reform Act, the population stormed Castle Hill and set fire to the castle. With the decline of the textile industry in the 20th Century, a number of light industries began to dominate the city’s industry. In 1958 recent newcomers to the country were becoming increasingly unhappy about the way they were treated by the British establishment. This led to to violent protests which intensified in the following weeks, eventually leading to further rioting throughout the country. The police counterinsurgency was co-ordinated by the Nottingham chief constable, the spectacularly named Captain Athelstan Hope Popkess.
On a drizzly April morning, I left Mrs. P in the cat café (a relatively new addition to our town centres, where you can go and have a coffee and a snack whilst, for your entertainment, resident cats will completely ignore you) and set out to explore the city. It is quite small, as regional cities go, and I was able to walk around it in a couple of hours. My first stop was the Arkwright Building, now part of Nottingham Trent University. This was once a college wherein DH Lawrence taught English. It was looking resplendent today with spring flowers in full bloom. It was a graduation day and a nicer setting for a ceremony you could not imagine. From here, I walked, via Kirkland Avenue, where JM Barrie resided while working for the Nottingham Journal, to the.Peacock, quite a famous pub just outside of the city centre. This was once a favourite of DH Lawrence and remains a remarkable oddity, as it is one of the few pubs with a bell-push system, which will alert a waiter to attend your private booth. Sadly, the Peacock has been closed for a little while now, but there are signs that the building is being refurbished. Which is encouraging.
There was a thriving regional newspaper operating here in the early part of the 20th Century, the offices of which I walked past now. A strange, semi-gothic towered building, it bears a plaque to Graham Greene, who was Sub-Editor here in 1926, though it celebrates his achievements in film, rather than literature. Writers, such as Barrie and Greene, can always be lured into a city by the promise of a steady job and a regular income. Incidentally, Greene hated Nottingham. Unflattering caricatures of some of the people he met here can be found throughout his novels.
From here, it was a short walk into the town centre but I took a circuitous route, taking in the Nottinghamshire Legends mural, depicting many of the county’s favourite sons and daughters (Byron, Brian Clough, Batman, Su Pollard…), Swine Green, where a young Byron took his first tentative steps as a poet and Pelham Street, the old offices of the Nottingham Journal, where JM Barrie was employed in the 1880s. Nottingham was recently made UNESCO City of Literature, due to the number of libraries, independent publishers and bookshops. As well as the City Library, there is an archives building, a writer’s centre and Bromley House, an independent library. I called in at the Five Leaves bookshop, famous for its stocks of poetry and political writing. I bought a copy of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe’s stories about working-class Nottingham life.
Here was the city square, with its trams, stalls selling mushy peas and its magnificent Town Hall. Nottingham Council House is a baroque building, topped by a dome, wherein hangs ‘Little John’: an enormous, 10 ton bell which can be heard at a distance of seven miles. The frieze, supported by eight columns, depicts Nottingham industry and crafts and, flanking the steps up to the terrace, are two Art Deco lions, affectionately called Leo and Oscar. The left lion has become well-known to the people of Nottingham as a meeting place and has come to symbolise the spirit of the town: there is a local arts magazine named the ‘Left Lion’ in its honour. For a few minutes, the drizzle turned to downpour and I sheltered here until, realising that the rain had more patience than me, I set off in search of lunch
I was feeling a bit soggy now, after having completed most of my walk in the pouring rain, so made my was to the Olde Trip to Jerusalem, where I met Mrs P for tales of cats and trams and shopping. The Trip, as it’s known locally, styles itself the oldest pub in the country and, although not all of these claims can be true, this one does have a truly ancient feel about it. The oldest part of the building is built directly into the sandstone of Castle Hill, making use of the caves that were once the brewhouse for the castle above. The rooms are stuffed with paintings and curios and interesting artefacts, many with a story of a curse or a haunting. You don’t stay in business for 900 years without picking up a tall tale or two!
Later, we wandered up to the castle, where we looked around the visitor centre but didn’t go in because of the admission price. I mildly regret this decision now – never pass up the opportunity for a decent museum – but there will be further opportunities, I’m sure. I had wanted to go to the museum of Nottingham Life, a Victorian building next door to the Trip, where you can find out about the cultural life of the city and where they, apparently, have DH Lawrence’s school desk. Alas, it was closed, clothed in scaffolding and getting ready to reopen in the summer.
So we drove out to the suburbs. First to the North of the city, where there are several disused factories along with the houses that once served them. In Hyson Green, West Indian poet Lenford Garrison set up a community centre for the afro-caribbean population of the city and nurtured many young and aspiring poets and writers. I’m pleased to say that many of the old buildings are being renovated and it looks like some old industrial buildings will shortly enjoy a new life as student accommodation. Out to the west, you can find the pleasant little suburban council house, where Alan Sillitoe was born and brought up. Nearby, is the small satellite town that is the University of Nottingham. Here you will find arts centres and galleries, including the Lakeside Arts Centre, with its permanent exhibition of DH Lawrence writings.
I found it a very pleasant little city, with many interesting buildings, though it feels as if it is in the process of renovation, and there is some distance still to go. I hope the two universities the city is host to will bring some much needed money to the town centre, along with new generations of idealistic young people to continue Nottingham’s rebellious tradition.