In summer 2021 Nottingham Castle reopened to the public and, with its renovated attractions and new galleries paying homage to the history of the city, the castle is now better than ever. Rough Guides writer Phil Lee reveals what visitors to the newly reopened castle can look forward to. Find inspiration for more adventures across England in Rough Guides Make the Most of Your Time in Britain.
Perched on a great hunk of crumbly sandstone, Nottingham Castle is the city’s most distinctive landmark and, in the summer of 2021, it reopened after an expensive and expansive refurbishment. There’s now something for pretty much every type of visitor, from an adventure playground for kids through to a guided tour of the maze of caves directly beneath the castle, plus a delightful gallery displaying the delicately carved alabaster sculptures for which Nottingham was once famous.
Allow at least three hours for a visit, perhaps the whole day if you intend to investigate the temporary exhibitions: at the grand reopening, the castle made an excellent start with a temporary display featuring the fashion designer and local good egg, Paul Smith, whose first shop opened in Nottingham in 1970.
Keen to emphasise their power and strength, the Normans began building Nottingham Castle on the top of Castle Rock in the late eleventh century. By the 1400s, it was a major fortress (one of the strongest in the land) and a popular stopping point for kings and queens as they travelled north from London. Like scores of fortresses across the country, the original stone castle with its towers and bastions was cleared after the Civil War in the 1670s and it was replaced by a splendid ducal palace, built on the orders of – and to a design chosen by – a local bigwig, the 1st Duke of Newcastle.
As Nottingham industrialised in the early 1800s, the dukes became less enamoured of the city and moved out to the country, escaping the industrial slums and leaving their palace a neglected pile – one that rioters set on fire during the Reform Riots of 1831. Gifted to the city a few decades later, it is this handsome ducal palace that visitors see today.
The history of Nottingham Castle, with its fires and feuds, violence and fury, is intriguing in itself, but it’s often overshadowed by myth and legend. There may or may not have been a real Robin Hood, but I am afraid to say he never stormed the Castle and never rescued Maid Marian from the clutches of that baddie of all baddies, the Sheriff of Nottingham (boo-hiss): perhaps disappointingly, there is indeed a Sheriff, but today it’s a civic post with little power – no suit of armour and heavy sword, but merely a gold chain of office.
Under cloudy skies, on 22nd August 1642, King Charles I rode out of Nottingham Castle determined to make a point. He had almost certainly had a good night’s sleep – the Castle’s royal apartments were some of the most comfortable in the land – and it was here just outside the castle gates, on what is now known as Standard Hill, that Charles and his bodyguard raised the royal battle standard at what turned out to be the start of the English Civil War.
The townsfolk may well have been a little baffled by these shenanigans, but even if they did understand, they certainly weren’t overly impressed: the locals simply failed to rally to the royal cause and, although Charles repeated the performance on the morning of the next two days, he left Nottingham in a grump with precious few new recruits.
Begin the day in Nottingham’s Market Square, a splendid, airy piazza overlooked by the attractive Council House with its clock tower and dome. From here, it’s a pleasant five-minute walk to the castle, where the imposing stonework of the gatehouse and its connecting ramparts are pretty much all that has survived from the original medieval stronghold. Below the gatehouse – on the left – is a modern statue of Robin Hood, bow in hand.
Spend the weekend with castle views in Nottingham at the Dukes Riverside Penthouse
Beyond the gatehouse, leafy and immaculately maintained grounds slope up to the castle, whose sweeping profile sits high atop Castle Rock. Pick up a free map at the visitor centre and look back over the city centre as you stroll over towards the Victorian bandstand – the views are a delight.
If you have children with you, proceed over to Hood’s Hideout, a really rather appealing adventure playground squeezed into a partly wooded dell and complete with mini-bridges and scaling ladders. Up the steps from here, on the Middle Bailey, is a second prime attraction for children, Robin’s Retreat. Effectively a large tent, the staff here offer all sorts of creative play – from story times to sugar paintings and touch-and-explain exhibits like a long bow and vintage muskets.
From the grounds, a long tunnel leads into the basement of the castle, which is now home to the Robin Hood Adventures. This is primarily geared up for teenagers, but a very workmanlike film - of interest to adults as well - explores the various tales associated with Robin Hood. The pick is the curious story of the dastardly Red Roger of Doncaster, who conspires to kill our outlaw hero after his ally, a deceitful prioress, has weakened Robin by excessive bleeding. Round the back of the film screens are a number of video games featuring, for example, how to aim a longbow and handle a quarterstaff.
Upstairs from the Robin Hood Adventures, the Rebellion Gallery, with its vivid sound effects, selects three key moments from Nottingham’s long and rebellious history, beginning with its support for Parliament in the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. Second up is the industrial unrest sparked here in the city by the Luddites, a secret society of textile workers who were opposed to the mechanisation of their industry.
Named after a semi-mythical figure, Ned Ludd, the Luddites destroyed textile machinery wherever they could to protect their jobs. The Luddite movement began in Nottingham in about 1811 and quickly spread across the Midlands and the North. Predictably, the factory owners turned to repression – hanging some, shooting others and transporting yet more to Australia. It took them five years to suppress the unrest – but suppress them they did and by 1850 almost all lace production had been mechanised.
The third episode is the Reform Riots of 1831. In October of that year, the British Parliament rejected attempts to extend the franchise. Rioting broke out in many cities across the country, nowhere more so than here in Nottingham where the rioters’ venom was directed against the owner of the castle, William Cavendish, the 4th Duke of Newcastle, who was a well-known opponent of reform. The rioters set fire to Nottingham Castle and although the duke had moved out decades before, he still received compensation from the government, whilst the rioters were cruelly punished.
Upstairs from the Rebellion Gallery – and adjoining the temporary exhibitions - is the Terrace Café, whose best feature, as you might expect from the name, is the spacious outside terrace. The menu here features a good range of snacks and light lunches plus freshly made sandwiches – for example, smoked salmon, cream cheese and pickled cucumber for £7.95. Main courses include pulled beef brisket and grilled chicken and they also do full afternoon teas.
Stairs lead from the Rebellion Gallery up to the top-floor Art Gallery, a simply delightful space, long and slender, painted in pastel shades and lit from the glass roof up above. No-one would pretend the paintings on display are of international importance, but several well-known artists are represented – Lowry and Rossetti for example - as are some local painters. Watch out for works by Nottingham’s own Arthur Spooner (1873–1962), most memorably his Goose Fair.
Most of the paintings have been here at the castle for decades, but more recent pieces include modern photographs of the locals and a variety of ceramics. Perhaps above all, there’s nothing grand or pretentious about the gallery and – for this writer – it was an ideal place to introduce his step-daughter to fine art.
Just beyond the Art Gallery is the intriguing and beautifully presented Collections Gallery, whose several sections feature Nottingham’s most important specialities. The main display concentrates on lace, an industry that dominated the city’s Victorian economy: by 1860, Nottingham was the world centre of the machine-made lace trade and the city was crowded with lace factories and warehouses, many of which have survived to this day.
Much less well-known is the unusual salt-glazed stoneware whose manufacture peaked hereabouts in the eighteenth century. This stoneware was extremely popular in local taverns and in the homes of the more prosperous, sitting alongside more prestigious items like Chinese porcelain. Novelty pieces were also very fashionable, the most popular being Nottingham bears that celebrated the savage sport of bear baiting.
All that said, it is the delicately carved alabaster sculptures that are the gallery’s real highlight. Before the Reformation brought an abrupt end to the craft, Nottingham was famous across Europe for the quality of its religious carvings, alabaster pieces of great subtlety and charm – and the castle displays a fine assortment. In particular, look out for Jesus stepping out from his tomb at the Resurrection surrounded by four Roman soldiers – two are asleep, one looks amazed and Christ’s delicate foot is placed on the chest of the fourth, who is shown recumbent.
The Lace Market Hotel is a fabulous choice when staying in Nottingham.
The sandstone of the Castle Rock is honeycombed with caves. Opposite the main entrance to the castle is a steep flight of steps that leads down to the first of a string of caves that are explored on an entertaining, thirty-minute guided tour. The highlight is the large, vault-like cave where legend has it that King David II of Scotland (1324–1371) was imprisoned after the English captured him in battle. In fact, although King David was undoubtedly imprisoned at Nottingham Castle, it’s most unlikely he was shoved underground – as an important prisoner, who could be ransomed, he was probably imprisoned in one of the castle’s more luxurious chambers.
As a boy, nothing quite bewitched me as much as Mortimer’s Hole, that long and sinuous tunnel running from beside the castle down to the valley below. My Mum, bless her, must have been bored to death, but she still took me there time and again, knowing full well that to me the tunnel was crowded with brave knights in full armour rushing hither and thither brandishing their swords.
The reality, inevitably enough, was more prosaic – Mortimer’s Hole was essentially for supplies – but it did have its own legend: it may well have been the tunnel by which Edward III secretly led his troops up into the castle to capture his mother, Isabella, and her lover, Mortimer, who were conspiring to usurp him. In the event, Edward spared his mother, but things didn’t work out too well for Mortimer – who was hung, drawn and quartered. At time of writing, Mortimer’s Hole is closed, but it is scheduled to reopen in the autumn of 2021.
At the foot of the Castle Rock, Mortimer’s Hole emerges at the Brewhouse Yard, which is the last part of the castle complex to be redeveloped – and is scheduled for reopening in 2022. The intimate and ancient cottages here will provide atmospheric room settings for stories concentrating on some of the Nottingham families who lived in the Yard between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. They include people involved in textile businesses such as the affluent Georgian dyer and hosiery entrepreneur William Elliot, a framework knitter by the name of Charles Ley and Lucy Webster, who lived here as a girl in the early 1900s and started work in the Lace Market when she was aged 13.
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