Every journey can end up as a mystery tour. This can easily happen even if the destination and route have been meticulously planned in advance. This explains the excitement of travel. When I set off I always get that feeling of nervous expectation in the pit of my stomach. What am I going to see? Whom am I going to meet? What am I going to learn?
Recently, my wife, Chris, and I drove from the North East to the South coast of England for a family visit. It’s a long trail so we decided to break the journey in Nottinghamshire. It’s one of those midlands counties that many merely pass straight through on their way to more obvious destinations. Nottinghamshire has few famous attractions that demand a visit. Nottingham itself is a large city but I have only ever visited it to watch Notts Forest football matches in the Brian Clough era. ( They won the European Cup twice in the late 70’s and early 80’s.) Other than that, I have largely associated the county with vast Sherwood Forest and the legends of Robin Hood. The tales of Robin, his girlfriend Maid Marion, and his Merry Men, robbing the rich to help the poor in the reign of “bad” King John, are emblazoned in my memory because they featured in the first television programme I ever saw. It starred Richard Greene. It always started with a fanfare of trumpets, then an arrow whizzed through the air and thudded dramatically into an oak tree. The stories have since been given Hollywood glitz by Kevin Costner and co, but I’ll always remember those early, flickering black and white TV pictures from the late 1950s.
Nottinghamshire also makes me think of the novelist D H Lawrence, who hailed from the small west Nottinghamshire mining town of Eastwood. Since college days he has been one of my favourite authors. I remember finding novels such as “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love” so vivid and intense that reading them made me feel dizzy. I suppose they sent me into a sort of swoon. It’s not often that that happens. Lawrence’s books featured smouldering heroes and heroines struggling to cling on to their individuality, freedom and spontaneity amidst the crushing pressures of industrialisation and urbanisation. Eastwood, when Lawrence was young in the latter years of the 19th century, was dominated by ten coalmines. The overwhelming majority of young men in the town were destined to become black-faced colliers. I can just imagine the young Lawrence vowing to himself that he’d never end up going down the “pit”. I can empathise with his predicament as I grew up just across the county border in north-east Derbyshire, another area dominated by winding wheels and slag heaps. I too was determined not to disappear down a deep hole and chose the chalk face (of teaching) over the coal face.
However, I digress. I suppose my excuse is that like journeys, writing does not always arrive at interesting places by travelling only in straight lines. This road journey to the south , included north Nottinghamshire but only as a stopover. I’ve always believed in treating the journey as part of the holiday experience. We stopped in Newark, an historical river port and market town. I’d already visited a couple of times in recent years, exploring its atmospheric ruined castle by the river and its narrow streets and lanes leading to an impressive, spacious market square. But the biggest thing about Newark for many travellers is that it is on the busy A1 and the busy East Coast mainline between Newcastle upon Tyne and London Kings Cross. Until recently, I’d merely glanced at its lofty church spire as I sped north or south. Now it was to be a place to rest our weary heads before driving on the next morning. Our hotel, just off the motorway, was full of people with similar notions. Lorry drivers and travelling business people dominated the breakfast room along with a couple of families journeying to holidays or special events further north or south. One group at an adjoining table had come up from the south and were travelling on to Carlisle for a wedding.
As we consumed our breakfast, it felt as if we were in a large transit camp with everyone eager to hit the road and return to the frenetic “madness” of Britain’s motorways. We were soon to join them en-route to Hampshire, but our memories and camera cards had already been filled with images of an unexpected gem we had discovered just down the road the previous day — Southwell.
It’s a genteel, handsome little town, hidden in the green, rolling folds of the countryside. It had an attractive collection of Georgian mansions, Britain’s only fully preserved example of a Victorian Workhouse, and a magnificent Minster which was officially re-designated as a Cathedral in the 1880s. Southwell also threw up several interesting mysteries and questions. Why did a tiny, obscure town of less than 7000 people have such a large and impressive place of worship? Why did it have a large wicker-work representation of an apple in its Bishop’s Palace gardens? Why did Southwell’s most historical public house change its name following a fateful King’s visit. What on earth were the mysterious “Prebends”? Finally — how had such a lovely town escaped the devastation of the industrial revolution which had scarred much of the area surrounding it?
I have to come clean and admit that we didn’t visit Southwell purely by chance. My sister and brother in law had already tipped me off. However, it still threw up lots of interesting and unexpected stuff. It’s the Minster that dominates the scene. It is still mostly referred to as a Minster despite its cathedral status. Its twin pepper-pot towers can be seen for miles around. It’s a Norman church built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon predecessor. Underneath it there are also the remains of a sumptuous Roman villa. So it seems that the area has been settled for a very long time. Just near the town runs the route of the Roman Fosse Way which has now been turned into a very fast and very straight A46. In Saxon times, Southwell was a place of pilgrimage as its church contained the bones of Saint Eadburgh, the Abbess of Repton. Whenever I visit a place I try to work out why it grew up in that particular location. Is it on a major river, perhaps at a bridging or fording point? Is it on an important crossroads, servicing the needs of travellers coming from four different directions? Is it a port or the centre of an important industry? Is it the main market centre for its region? In the case of Southwell, the answer to all these questions is “no”. This puzzled me for a while. Where had it sprung from? Then I figured it out. It grew up here because of the church. It was an important religious centre. Thus it is most fitting that the town is still dominated by its Minster (Cathedral). It still attracts pilgrims but today these are mostly of the non-religious, tourist variety. It’s status as a religious centre attracted the wealthy to live there and this in turn protected it from the ravages of the industrial revolution.
It seems strange today, living in a predominantly secular society, that the Church could have the power to create and control a whole community. Yet that is precisely what happened in Southwell and many other places in the past. It must have been so simple in medieval England. Most people, in normal times, travelled no further than a day’s walk from their village in their entire lifetime. One had to obey without question the commands of the Norman Lord of the Manor, even to the extent of fighting and dying for him on some far off battlefield. Finally, one omnipotent church, headed by the Pope, controlled everyone’s spiritual beliefs and practices. There was no alternative to Roman Catholicism. This was before the Reformation which gave people a choice of churches and before the “Age of Reason” which gave us alternative philosophies and theories about life and death. Back in the Middle Ages, if anyone rebelled against the Catholic Church, he or she would be branded as a heretic and ran the risk of being burnt at the stake. It was a spiritual dictatorship. Everyone believed in Heaven and Hell, and in the struggle between God and the Devil. Intimidating priests threatened people with eternal damnation if they didn’t follow the church’s rigid rules. The Catholic Church’s dictatorship extended to levying taxes on the ordinary people. These were seen as down-payments on that place in heaven that was reserved for you if you were good and conformed to the rules.
It was during these times that Southwell was created. Up to the 12th century, Nottinghamshire parishioners paid their church dues to the Archbishop of York. However in 1108AD, these payments were diverted into the building of the Church of St Mary in Southwell. It was constructed on a magnificent scale, much bigger and grander than a run-of-the-mill Parish church. The Notts parishioners were then released from their obligation to visit York Minster annually. Instead they were able to visit Southwell Minster on a more local pilgrimage, in exchange for remission of their sins. Their subsequent church tithes and other taxes went to Southwell instead of York. Similar arrangements were made in Ripon ( North Yorkshire) and Beverley ( in East Yorkshire or Humberside.) Thus, all three places, Southwell, Ripon and Beverley, now have very impressive Minsters/Cathedrals even though they are only small towns. When the Archbishop of York went on a tour of his huge church estates, he needed places to stay, so Bishop’s Palaces were built next to his major churches. Southwell has one of these too except the palace has been partly in ruins since its brutal occupation by Parliamentary troops in the English Civil War, back in the 1640’s. They actually stabled their horses there!
Southwell Cathedral is still very impressive. It has a large central tower and two taller towers at its west front. The large wooden Norman doors are surrounded by fancy dogtooth decoration. Inside, the nave is flanked by massive stone towers linked by rounded archways. This heavy Norman-style architecture gives way to more delicate pointed arches in the choir. These were added in the 13th century in the Early English Gothic style. There is also a spectacular, octagonal Chapter House decorated with stone carvings representing naturalistic foliage. This is one of the earliest examples of this type of carving in England. Our eyes were also drawn to the large stained glass windows. Many of these used to have plain glass to let maximuim light in, until the Victorians added their contributions. Ironically, the window that impressed us most was the most modern. The huge 15th century west window had had its plain glass replaced, in 1996, with a spectacular collection of angels in light-coloured stained and painted glass. It was created by Patrick Reyntiens of York — very apt as Southwell Minster was originally formed as an annexe of York.
We left the Minster as it was being taken over by a large group of motor-bikers, gathering for the funeral of one of their own. Many had “Mansfield Rockers” inscribed on the back of their leather jackets. It showed that the church still has the power to pull the unlikeliest people in if the occasion merits in. We visited the remains of the Bishop’s Palace and found out that it been visited by several medieval kings and also served as one of the last refuges of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He had fallen out of favour with King Henry VIII after failing to arrange his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey had left London and gone into exile further north to escape the wrath of the sovereign. It made us think of our recent viewing of the wonderful Hilary Mantel drama “Wolf Hall.” It was strange to imagine Wolsey spending some of his last days in this tiny town before being summoned back to the capital and dying in the Tower.
The Bishop’s Palace has lovely peaceful gardens with a colourful, Gertrude Jeckll style flower- border. It also has a wild meadow, a labyrinth and a giant wicker- work apple. The latter was because the Bramley cooking apple was discovered in 1809 by Mary Ann Brailsford of Southwell and the original tree is still in a private garden there. I remember my grandma peeling and slicing bramleys when making an apple pie or crumble. They are popular for their tart, acidic taste and for the fact that they cook up into a smooth puree. The local football team is nicknamed “The Bramleys”, as is the local community newspaper.
The town itself is an attractive collection of mostly Georgian buildings with a lovely tree- shaded green at one end of it. The oldest building however is late medieval — The Saracen’s Head — built in 1463. This later became a coaching inn as Southwell, as we have seen, is just off the Great North Road ( now called the A1.) Its biggest claim to fame however was that King Charles 1 spent his last night as a free man there at the end of The English Civil War in May, 1646. At the time the inn was called The King’s Head. The next day he surrendered to the Scottish army stationed in Newark. They subsequently sold him to Parliament whose leader, Oliver Cromwell, put him on trial for treason and had him beheaded in January, 1649. I think this is possibly why the King’s Head was renamed. Once poor Charles had been separated from his head, it would have been a sick joke to continue with the old name. To double the irony, Cromwell later stayed in the very same rooms as King Charles Stuart, because his parliamentary troops had smashed up the Bishop’s Palace, where he had planned to lodge.
Near the Saracen’s Head and opposite the entrance to the Minster we came across the mysterious “prebends.” They were big, grand houses set in their own grounds. Apparently, all the surrounding villages had to pay prebends, which were church taxes to pay for the housing of canons and other church officials. The churchmen also claimed a portion of this tax for their stipend, or income. Each house is named after the village that paid for it. It is just another example of the immense power and wealth that the church used to wield. Today most of the houses are in private hands except I noticed that one was still used as a religious retreat.
Southwell’s final claim to fame, apart from the fact that it used to be a temporary home of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, is it’s huge, forbidding Victorian workhouse. Today it’s run by the National Trust which unfortunately closes many of its properties on Mondays. Guess which day we were there? However we did catch a glimpse of the building on the edge of town as we drove back to Newark. The long drive up to it is known as the “Pauper’s Path.” One can only imagine the feeling of deep foreboding the Victorian poor must have felt as they walked up the drive to take refuge there. For most, it was a desperate refuge of last resort. The building, put up in 1824 is very austere. It looks like a prison, which in many ways it was. The workhouse established a harsh regime which was meant to deter all but the absolutely destitute. It was the blueprint for many other workhouses around the country. As one churchman noted : “An empty workhouse is a successful one.” In some ways the attitude of the Victorian authorities to the poor was similar to that of our present Conservative Government to people on benefits. Both wanted to force unemployed people into low paid work by making the alternative of living off the state, even worse . At Southwell, 160 inmates lived and worked in a strictly segregated environment, separating the old and infirm, the able bodied men and the woman and children. As I said, we didn’t get to see the workhouse, but we will return sometime when we are passing by on the A1. Apparently it’s a really miserable experience!
So I’m pleased we left the motorway and explored just a bit of the countryside that we normally flash by without a thought. A teashop in a little Georgian town is far preferable to the anonymity of a motorway service station. Maybe, we would get more out of modern life if we were more like the tortoise and less like the hare.