Nottingham Castle. Please credit VisitEngland

Feature image credit: VisitEngland

Anna Hyman had long wanted to visit Nottingham. The grandfather she never knew, had been orphaned as a little boy, and sent to live with relatives who lived on the edge of the city. His daughter, my mother, spoke fondly of her visits to them, the city and its legendary Goose Fair. So much so that she inspired her daughter to head for Nottingham and follow in the family footsteps.

It quickly became apparent how friendly everybody is in Nottingham. I wasn’t just shown the right exit for taxis from the railway station, I was taken there. The taxi driver chatted away to me, pointing out various attractions as he drove me to my overnight hotel, the splendid Harts Hotel.

The hotel staff treated me like a long-lost friend and bent over backwards to help, assist and make sure I was looked after. Having checked in, and armed with a map, I set out to explore; my first port of call – lunch at the Malt Cross Music Hall.

Malt Cross Music Hall

Malt Cross balcony view 1

It is a shame that my mother would never have visited the wonderful old Malt Cross Music Hall. She would have loved seeing some of the old music hall stars who performed there. It’s been in existence since 1877, but lost its licence in 1911 due to ‘declining moral standards and a damaged reputation’ and didn’t reopen as a live music venue until 1983.

Today the old music hall building has been gloriously restored and is home to a thriving and good café and bar. It’s a great place to sit and chill out during the day with a coffee and newspaper or enjoy a light lunch – apart from the café/bar there is a comfortable first floor sitting out balcony too. Live entertainment and exhibitions are held regularly. But there is more to the Malt Cross than initially meets the eye. 

Beneath it are caves

malt cross cave tour

Caves, as I was to discover, have played a significant part in the history of Nottingham. The city stands on a bed of easily carved sandstone. Beneath todays pavements lie an astonishing underground world, which my mother never mentioned; possibly she never even knew it was there.

The Malt Cross caves have existed at least since the 11th century, when a Carmelite monastery stood on the site. Following recent renovations to the building secret passageways, trap doors and concealed rooms were revealed which now form the basis for a fascinating underground tour. Some of the subterranean rooms have been adapted into an art gallery and a sound recording room.

Tiggua Cobaucc – Place of Caves

Tiggua Cobaucc, ‘Place of Caves’ was what early dwellers called their settlement. Certainly that was what Nottingham was known as in 900AD. At least 500 man-made caves are known about – many of them were used by the poor as homes, others for storage and more recently as air raid shelters.

I learnt more about Nottingham’s underworld, so to speak, when I visited Nottingham Castle. Built high on a cliff, it affords superb views over the city and surrounding countryside.

No crenulations, or turrets on this castle, though no doubt there were on the original medieval building. In the 17th century the castle was rebuilt more in the style of a magnificent ducal palace. This was burnt down by rioters in the 19th century and remained a ruin for some 40 years before being restored and remodelled opening in 1878 as a fine art museum, which it is today.

Nottingham Castle Long Gallery. Please credit VisitEngland 3

Image credit: VisitEngland

Murder and intrigue

Apart from featuring in the legend of Robin Hood and playing a significant role in the English Civil War the castle has gained a reputation for intrigues, murders and sieges.

Once again I was to go beneath ground; I joined a party to explore the castle’ caves and tunnels. It has to be stressed the tunnel route to the bottom of the cliff is not for the faint-hearted. There are many steps and the passageway is steep in places, and not always with a hand rail.

Our guide led us down the tunnel known as Mortimer’s Hole taking in King David’s Dungeon, and the Duke of Newcastle’s Wine Cellar. Mortimer’s Hole is said to be haunted by the ghost of one Sir Roger Mortimer – but I suspect that most of our little group were too busy watching where they were putting their feet to look out for ghosts.

The Queen and her lover were seized

Nottingham Castle Caves. Please credit VisitEngland 110

Image credit: VisitEngland

The date was October 1330. Mortimer, Earl of March, was Queen Isabella‘s lover and had conspired with her in the murder of her husband Edward II. 

The couple were staying in the castle and, to avenge his father’s death, Edward III secretly made his way into it via the tunnels. He and his supporters burst into his mother’s bedroom seizing the Queen and her lover. Isabella was disgraced and exiled from court whilst Sir Roger was arrested and hung, drawn and quartered.

Galleries of Justice Museum. Please credit VisitEngland 103

Tom, our guide, kept up a fast and fascinating commentary; nevertheless it was with some relief that all of a sudden we found ourselves back in daylight.

Better yet, arguably Nottingham’s most famous pub ‘Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem’ was just a few steps away.

I was to pay one more visit to underground Nottingham, and a far more chilling visit it was. This was a visit to the prison beneath the Galleries of Justice.

Image credit: VisitEngland

The Galleries of Justice

My guide on this occasion was one John Fenton – a convicted murderer. What made it partly more chilling was that he had been executed in 1860 for the brutal murder of Charles Spenser.

‘John’ told me his version of the murder (he claims he was innocent) as we started the tour in the wood panelled court room where hearings and trials had taken place.

Incidentally the dock was where the likes of the Suffragettes, Oscar Wilde and the Krays had also stood when being committed for trial.

Wretched cells and executions

Tour at Galleries of Justice Museum. Please credit VisitEngland 161

Image credit: VisitEngland

Beneath the court room are the wretched cells, along with the miserable exercise yard, the Debtors’ Prison, the awful ‘dark cell, the Pits, and the spot where John was executed. The tour gives a grim, yet compelling glimpse into just how appalling conditions were for the inmates. In fact conditions were so bad the Victorians closed the jail down.

‘John’ was a superb guide but after a while, still protesting his innocence, he left me so I could look at one or two of the exhibitions at my own pace. I have to confess that interesting as the Convict Ship exhibition was I did not linger long on my own in those gloomy, spooky galleries and made a speedy exit for the sunshine and life and bustle of the city streets.

Nottingham underground was something I had not expected, and it was fascinating. But it was with relief that I realised that the remainder of my time in this fair city would be spent walking in my mother’s footsteps above ground.

More Information

Experience Nottinghamshire: www.experiencenottinghamshire.com 
East Midlands Trains offer a comfortable and regular service between London St Pancras and Nottingham. Excellent service from a charming and helpful crew. www.eastmidlandstrains.co.uk
Hart’s Hotel and Restaurant – charming boutique hotel with superb restaurant. www.hartsnottingham.co.uk
Malt Cross Music Hall: www.maltcross.com
Galleries of Justice Museum: www.galleriesofjustice.org.uk
Nottingham Castle: www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk 

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