Nottingham – there’s nothing wrong with it

I’ve always been interested by pairs of ‘rival’ cities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne… Usually one has more economic clout while the other has the cultural kudos, but – sorry, Derby – when it comes to the pair in the East Midlands, Nottingham is well ahead on both counts (and it has a whizzy new tram system too, and two good universities). And my friend from Derby even admits that if he had a job there, he’d live in Nottingham! I’m not going to say that it’s anywhere amazing, but still, it’s a decent place to visit or to live in.

The main news from my recent visit is that the Castle and museum are about to close for a huge £30m project to transform them by 2020. At the moment you can’t get beyond the gatehouse without paying, which is a huge waste of a lovely park that gives good views over the city, but a modern visitor centre will be built here and there’ll be free access to some of the park. There’ll also be a new entrance from Brewhouse Yard (seventeenth-century cottages that currently house the Museum of Nottingham Life) at the bottom of the hill – a lift will be built in a cave to reach the castle (these are already the only wheelchair-accessible caves in Britain). Of course there’ll be new galleries too, notably a double-height space in the service yard.

With a great big block of what is now known as Nottingham Sandstone overlooking the River Trent, this was the perfect site for one of the most important castles erected by William the Conqueror to control the Midlands and northern England; it’s also riddled with caves (reminiscent of Saumur, where I was a couple of months before). The wooden motte and bailey castle, begun in 1067, was rebuilt in stone from 1170 by Henry II, and improved from 1220 by Henry III (including building the present gatehouse). Sir Roger de Mortimer (the Earl of March), who may have killed Edward II and then effectively ruled England for three years, was arrested here (in bed with Edward’s widow, Isabella of France) by the young Edward III, who entered the castle by a secret tunnel now known as Mortimer’s Hole. In 1485 Richard III raised his standard here before riding out to defeat at the battle of Bosworth, and likewise in 1642 Charles I raised his standard here (in several places, now marked with plaques, as he was attracting very few volunteers), triggering the civil war which led to his execution.

The victorious parliamentary forces demolished the castle in 1651, but after the Restoration the site was bought by the new Duke of Newcastle, who built a modern Palladian palace in 1672-9. In 1831 this was attacked and burnt down by a mob angered by the fourth Duke’s blocking of the Reform Bill. The Duke took the compensation he was offered but left the palace in ruins, probably as a rebuke to the people of Nottingham; it was eventually converted to a museum, opening in 1878. The city’s history of rebellion, starting with the twelfth-century tales of Robin Hood, is a key theme that will be emphasised in the remodelled museum, as will the city’s proud history of crafts production. This started with Nottingham alabaster (actually mined in Derbyshire and Staffordshire), which was well known across Europe from the late 14th century until the Reformation, and was followed by salt-glazed stoneware in the 17th and 18th centuries and lace-making in the 19th century (later came Raleigh cycles, Players cigarettes and Boots pharmaceuticals). The museum has a good Decorative Arts gallery, with family-friendly educational displays, and also houses the nationally important Ballantyne Collection, with 370 pots by 60 post-war British potters, including all the big names such as Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Michael Cardew, Richard Batterham, David Ballantyne and at least four members of the Leach family.

The museum’s sculptures are poorly presented (with one by Lynn Chadwick wasted on the stairs), but it has an excellent art collection, featuring local artists Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) and Laura and Harold Knight, who I’m familiar with because of their Cornish connections. Otherwise they have a lot of twentieth-century English art, by William Nicholson, his son Ben and Ben’s first wife Winifred Nicholson, George Clausen, Carel Weight, LS Lowry, Lawrence Gowing, Augustus John, William Roberts, Christopher Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Ivon Hitchens, David Bomberg, John Piper and John Nash, as well as a couple of small portraits by Mark Gertler and Mervyn Peake; there are also a couple of earlier works by George Morland and Richard Wilson and an Epstein bust. But the earliest and probably most valuable of their holdings is by Spinelo Aretino (painted in 1380-90); they also have a Susannah and the Elders attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi, a Madonna and Child by a follower of Joos van Cleve, a Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, and other paintings by David Teniers the Younger, Delacroix and Boudin.

There’s also a small gallery on the history of the Mercian Regiment, featuring its most famous member, Private Derby, actually a ram (the first was acquired in India in 1858 but they now come from Chatsworth – they’re currently on Private Derby XXXI). Founded in 1741, the 56th Regiment of Foot later became the Sherwood Foresters and then in 2007 a battalion of the Mercian Regiment; a lot of VCs have been won by its members, notably Captain Albert Ball, who became a fighter pilot and crashed in 1917 chasing von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

Just east of the castle is the Broadmarsh shopping centre, on the site of one of Britain’s foulest slums, which developed when Nottingham’s population increased fivefold in the nineteenth century; just north is the Market Square, the UK’s second largest public square, created in 1928 and nicely remodelled in 2006. The area just to the east is known as the Lace Market, with narrow alleys and striking Victorian warehouses, and lively nightlife; at the southern end of Stoney St you’ll find the fifteenth-century St Mary’s church and the new National Justice Museum (also known as the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law), in the Victorian former courthouse; it has excellent child-friendly displays and is also, for some reason, the base for cave tours beneath the Broadmarsh shopping centre. It’s next to Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery that is highly thought of but was just a bit too, well, contemporary for me.

Immediately east of the Lace Market is the National Ice Centre – it’s worth mentioning Nottingham’s importance in English sporting history, especially as Notts County, founded in 1862, is the world’s oldest professional soccer club. Alas, the johnny-come-latelies of Nottingham Forest, founded in 1865, have been more successful, particularly under the management of the legendary Brian Clough, whose statue stands on the Market Square. There’s also the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont, home to Nottingham Rowing Club (founded in 1869) and the British rowing team, and Trent Bridge, one of the country’s loveliest test cricket grounds.

For a city strategically placed between the different beer cultures of northern and southern England, I didn’t at first find Nottingham’s choice of pubs as good as I’d hoped. The famous Olde Trip to Jerusalem, in caves beneath the castle, is a rather touristy Greene King outlet now, and was a bit too busy midweek when other seemingly attractive places were dead – I wanted to support the Olde Salutation (founded in 1240, so not as old as the Olde Trip, which may have been a meeting point for crusaders in 1189), but the choice of beers was poor. There are a couple of barn-like Wetherspoons pubs, and other new pubs, such as the Roundhouse and Fothergills, which were aimed too much at aspirational diners rather than simple drinkers. However I did eventually find the VAT & Fiddle (named in honour of the nearby headquarters of the Inland Revenue), which was exactly what I was looking for – the brewery tap of the fine Castle Rock brewery, it has a good range of affordable beers, basic pub food (jacket potatoes and pies) and noisy boardgames (or noisy people playing boardgames).

Castle Rock has a couple more pubs in the city, including the Kean’s Head (opposite St Mary’s church), the Barley Twist (near the station) and the Lincolnshire Poacher (half a mile north of the centre on the Mansfield Road); and the bar at the excellent Broadway Cinema is a pleasant refuge when it’s all kicking off outside (as is the similar CAST at the Playhouse). Other local breweries are available, such as Navigation and Totally Brewed. All in all, Nottingham is better served than I initially thought.

[PS It’s been pointed out to me that Luddism, the smashing of modern machinery that was destroying jobs, began in Arnold, just outside Nottingham, in 1811 – I didn’t see any mention of this in the Castle museum, but I hope it’ll be included in the rebellion theme after the revamp.]