Thursday, 15 May 2008
Sunshine and history
The gatehouse is what tourists expect - or near enough. You can imagine Robin Hood lurking. There's a statue of him nearby but it's not how I imagine Robin - but then my imaginings were built by Errol Flynn and Richard Greene.
Robin wasn't much in my mind as I climbed the steep approach to Nottingham Castle - but he had to be there somewhere. There are leafy, green walks at the base of the Castle Rock, a steep hill and winding pathways, and even the major oak represented in a mosaic of pansies.
I wasn't meant to be in Nottingham. I was meant to be in a meeting - one of those necessary committees with long agendas and jargon-filled papers for discussion. I'd decided to work from home in the morning and allow myself an hour in the office with the preliminary paperwork. Just before mid-day I left for the station.
The trains I needed were cancelled - there was a signalling problem. Station staff promised a bus but it wouldn't get me to work in time for the meeting and it would be hard to get back again. I rang in with apologies.
I was about to go home when I realised that some trains were running and, if I waited a few minutes, I could go to Nottingham instead. I waited a few minutes. After all, I had work in my bag and could get some done while enjoying a cup of tea - or even the picnic lunch I'd planned to eat at my desk.
Once in Nottingham, I wasn't sure what I would do, but the day was warm and sunny and gradually my wanderings drew me towards the castle. I remembered a tea-room and free admission on week-days.
There's much discussion in Nottingham of the disappointment tourists experience on first seeing the castle. The fine mediaeval building of Robin Hood's day was destroyed after the Civil War when Charles I fought parliament, lost and was executed. The Civil War used to be one of the best known parts of British history. I grew up on stories of battling Cavaliers and Roundheads which were told much as 1066 and all That put it: that Roundheads were "Right but Repulsive" and Caveliers "Wrong but Wromantic." It seemed like a contest of hairstyles and costumes, until I came across an account and portait of the young John Milton, a dedicated anti-monarchist who didn't fit the Roundhead image. The English Civil War is largely forgotten now - many young people are surprised to learn that England was once a republic. However it marked Nottingham. The king chose Nottingham Castle to raise his standard in 1642. I'm not sure why he chose Nottingham which became a parliamentary stronghold during the war - the castle was held for parliament and later used as a prison. In the end it was demolished, for fear royalists would attack and hold it. The site must have made it one of the most powerful fortresses in the country.
In the 1670s, after the Restoration of Charles II, the site was leased by the Royalist William Cavendish, first Duke of Nottingham, whose son built a small mansion on top of the rock. The poor lived and drank below, not just in houses but in man-made caves. Nottingham's caves were officially inhabited until the beginning of the twentieth century. Unofficially, people were living there a few years ago. Maybe they still are.
I wonder what the Cavendishes thought when they looked down on the poor, or if they spent much time in Nottingham. In 1831, the Duke of Newcastle opposed the Great Reform Bill, which proposed extending votes to the middle classes and providing parliamentary representation for the new industrial areas. The Bill was intended to undermine aristocratic patronage and the aristocracy objected. When the House of Lords threw out the Bill, which had been passed by parliament, there were riots in Nottingham and the Duke's castle was burnt down. The Duke left the burnt-out wreck as a reminder to the people of Nottingham.
The mansion was rebuilt in the 1870s and taken over by the local council, who used it to create the first municipal art gallery outside London. The castle is still owned by the local council. It's not one of the best municipal galleries but I always find something there to delight me. Every so often a campaign springs up to demolish the current castle and replace it with a Disneyfied tourist attraction but I would hate that. The current building may not be exciting but I'd rather not unpick 400 years of history. "City of legend" is a fine marketing slogan but there's more to Nottingham than that.
Yesterday, however, I was set on tea and a picnic. I drank Earl Grey while working, then moved to a bench on the terrace for my picnic and more work. There was a breeze. I could see the sails of Green's Mill turning. Beyond the houses, churches and office buildings there were high, sunlit fields. For an hour or so, this was my workplace.
Then I walked down the steep path through the trees to the memorial to Captain Albert Ball, V.C., a fighter pilot killed in World War I. It's a strange memorial showing the young airman with a female figure flying beside him - a Victory, perhaps. From some angles their cheeks seem to be touching. I don't suppose Albert Ball had much opportunity to be close to women. He was only 20 when he died.