With a population of around 290,000, NOTTINGHAM is one of England’s big cities. A one-time lace manufacturing and pharmaceutical centre (the Boots chain is from here), today it is still famous for its association with Robin Hood, the legendary thirteenth-century outlaw. Hood’s bitter enemy was, of course, the Sheriff of Nottingham, but unfortunately his home and lair – the city’s imposing medieval castle – is long gone, replaced by a handsome Palladian mansion that is still called, somewhat confusingly, Nottingham Castle. Nowadays, Nottingham is at its most diverting in and around both the castle and the handsome Market Square, which is also the centre of a heaving, teeming nightlife every weekend. Within easy striking distance of the city is the former coal-mining village of Eastwood, home of the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum.
Controlling a strategic crossing point over the River Trent, the Saxon town of Nottingham was built on one of a pair of sandstone hills whose 130ft cliffs looked out over the river valley. In 1068, William the Conqueror built a castle on the other hill, and the Saxons and Normans traded on the low ground in between, the Market Square. The castle was a military stronghold and royal palace, the equal of the great castles of Windsor and Dover, and every medieval king of England paid regular visits. In August 1642, Charles I stayed here too, riding out of the castle to raise his standard and start the Civil War – not that the locals were overly sympathetic. Hardly anyone joined up, even though the king had the ceremony repeated on the next three days.
After the Civil War, the Parliamentarians slighted the castle and, in the 1670s, the ruins were cleared by the Duke of Newcastle to make way for a palace, whose continental – and, in English terms, novel – design he chose from a pattern book, probably by Rubens. Beneath the castle lay a handsome, well-kept market town until the second half of the eighteenth century, when the city was transformed by the expansion of the lace and hosiery industries. Within the space of fifty years, Nottingham’s population increased from ten thousand to fifty thousand, the resulting slum becoming a hotbed of radicalism.
The worst of Nottingham’s slums were cleared in the early twentieth century, when the city centre assumed its present structure, with the main commercial area ringed by alternating industrial and residential districts. Thereafter, crass postwar development, adding tower blocks, shopping centres and a ring road, ensconced and embalmed the remnants of the city’s past.