6 March 2013

What next for Nottingham Castle?

The castle's gatehouse and bridge (the bit that does look like a castle!), showing the original medieval masonry topped by Victorian renovation. 

"It's not a castle, it's just a small scale 'heritage' centre that is in dire need of update. Parking is a nightmare. Avoid." - Pete B, Tripadvisor, Feb 24th 2013

Nottingham Castle isn't that bad. But for as long as I've visited, it's been a funny old place.

"Where's the castle?" many ask after buying their ticket. They have a point. The 17th century Ducal palace high on the rocky outcrop hardly looks like one. Its full title even suggests a need to justify itself. Google it and 'Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery' comes up. It's true - there's a good art gallery, a rather esoteric museum collection and other displays. It does what it says on the tin - just about.

But it's not the brooding, medieval home of the nasty Sheriff of Nottingham beloved of myth-hunters.

All this, however, might be about to change. Development plans are on the table which would see it transformed into a primarily Robin Hood-themed attraction. 17th century buffs are familiar with the site as the place where Charles I raised his standard in 1642 - but will there be a place for the Nottingham's role in the English Civil War in the new narrative? And what about all the other things the city's famous for?

There's no doubt that the interior of the castle - while interesting in parts - needs a facelift.

The ground floor's largely taken up with two distinct sections: an esoteric range of objet d'art from across the past few centuries, and a room devoted to the history of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. As part of the permanent collection this was here a decade ago when I last visited, but the displays are tired and too eclectic.

The path leading from the gatehouse to the main castle buildings.

The family displays, including a number of interactive items, have broadened the appeal since I last went, and the art collection - particularly in the Long Gallery - has a number of 17th century works as well as modern pieces by Lowry, Spencer and Burra and some by local artists. Although most of this is in one huge space the eclecticism here works, mainly due to the detailed notes provided in the guidance folders and themed trails to follow.

A wing of the castle showing the large terrace.

Other spaces are devoted to temporary exhibitions, but what I wanted to see was more about the history of the castle and its significance in the development of the city. Little of this can be learned in the main building.

The visitors' entrance to the castle.

This is a shame, as the existing mansion building was commissioned by a key English Civil War protagonist.

The commanding location at the top of Castle Rock, the steep hill in the centre of the city fringed with a vertiginous drop, provides an excellent position for a fortified building, and successive generations of castles were built there until the mansion was put up in the 17th century (readers interested in the castle's older incarnations might want to start here.)

Busts outside the castle's entrance.

The castle had been used as a royal residence until the 16th century, when neglect saw it fall into disrepair. 

After leaving London in 1642, Charles I chose Nottingham to raise his standard as the part-ruined fortress was roughly equidistant between the capital and the north. The event that was to signal the outbreak of the English Civil War began ominously, with the flag soon being brought down by wind and rain.

Visitors in the Long Gallery.

After the fledgling Royalist army left the castle was quickly reinforced by a Parliamentarian garrison. In 1643 Colonel John Hutchinson, promoted after securing the county's powder magazine, was given its command. Despite pressure from neighbouring Royalists Richard Byron (his cousin) and the Duke of Newcastle, Hutchinson took a commission from Fairfax and fortified the city.

The pictures continue out of the Long Gallery and down the staircase.

Despite attempts to take the city Hutchinson held out as Governor. During the later part of the conflict he sided - now as an MP - with the Independents. Resolutely opposed to treating with the king he agreed to act as a judge at Charles' trial and signed his death warrant. 

A display board outside the house depicting an engraving of Newcastle's mansion c.1741.

Active in Commonwealth politics, Hutchinson survived until the Restoration. Expressing remorse for his actions he was spared death, though was dismissed from public office. In 1664 he was accused of plotting against Charles II and died in prison in Kent in 1664.

The broken equestrian statue of the 1st Duke of Newcastle (east front) was damaged by rioters in 1831.

Hutchinson has become an important figure for English Civil War historians due to his memoirs, written by his wife Lucy (an important figure in her own right). Partially devised to vindicate his reputation, they survive as detailed account of the religious and political sides of the conflict, and remain a significant primary source. 

The original coaching entrance.

The remains of the medieval castle were demolished after Charles I's execution in 1649. In 1663 the Duke of Newcastle purchased the site after returning from exile on the continent and set about building a mansion in place of the castle - the project finally being completed in 1679 by his son, the Second Duke.

The outskirts of the city seen from the castle terrace.

Rioters angry at the Fourth Duke's opposition to the Reform Act set fire to the mansion in 1831, damaging the original equestrian statue of the English Civil War commander (see photo above). In 1874 the building was significantly remodelled to convert it into the public attraction we have today, though the 17th century eastern facade was restored to the original design, minus the exterior staircase.

Looking south from the terrace.

I'd have learned little about this without chancing on another series of rooms outside of the main building. The single-story annex I had missed on the pathway to the main building entrance is dedicated to the 'Story of Nottingham' and is actually rather good.

Looking south-west from the terrace.

The rooms trace the development of the city through the centuries. The cases and displays representing the 17th century and the English Civil War tell a fairly detailed story, employing maps, primary sources, some effective mock-ups (including Cromwell's death mask) and other original artefacts.

Display cases inside 'The Story of Nottingham'.

The material in these rooms is actually some of the best in the castle, though is easy to miss and should feature far more prominently for visitors. The chronological depiction of the city until the present day should really be one of the first things you come to on the site. This would answer the perplexed visitor's question about the whereabouts of the medieval castle and help avoid underwhelming visitors from the outset.

The English Civil War displays.

In summary, while the Story of Nottingham is very good, the collections inside the main building - while of intrinsic interest - lack a coherent narrative. Some rooms require a drastic update to their displays, and there is a general need to augment artefacts with better information and make better use of technology.

Descending to the caves from the castle grounds.

That's what's inside. For one of the biggest draws you must go outside - then underground.

Our guide took us through a grate next to a footpath and down into the darkened depths of the rock. Here we entered a series of caves, stopping at the biggest, Mortimer's Hole, a 105 metre-long tunnel running from the castle down to the Brewhouse Yard at the bottom (you can read about the 14th century origin of Mortimer's Hole here.)

Mortimer's Hole.

The hand-carved, sandstone tunnels weave in an out of the rock, occasionally emerging onto paths overlooking the near-vertical sides. At one point we stopped at the position of one of the defending Parliamentarian's artillery pieces (below).

English Civil War artillery position where the cave path briefly moves outside.

450+ sandstone caves are reputed to be dug under Nottingham. They've been used for a thousand years as everything from tanneries and prisons to air-raid shelters. The main visitor access to them is, strangely, through the top floor of the 1970s Broadmarsh shopping centre.

A steep drop on one side with the road below.

They're one of the Midland's best visitor attractions and - unless I'm mistaken - unique for any city in Britain. I've always thought they've been undersold (the shopping centre entrance might have something to do with it), and far more could certainly be made of them in a new presentation of the castle's history.

An exit from the caves at the foot of Castle Rock where the guided tour of Mortimer's Hole emerges.

So how might the plans for the redevelopment do a better job of presenting these assets?

The council's review of the castle - Raising the Standard at Nottingham Castle (see what they've done there :) - was completed last autumn (the photos here were actually taken on the last day of the public consultation - which I previously reported here). The hope is that £15 million of Heritage Lottery Funding will be secured to help turn the castle site into '... a world class heritage attraction offering fun and excitement for all the family and a nationally significant centre for learning about protest and rebellion.'

Graffiti on one of the buildings towards the bottom of Standard Hill, where Charles raised his standard in 1642.

After the public consultation closed a 'business led partnership' involving Nottingham City Council and a range of Nottingham stakeholders met in November 2012 to develop concept plans. Full details of these can be read on the Nottingham City Council site here, but broadly the three central themes for improvement are:

  • to tell the story of the castle from medieval times until today (including making better access to the caves)
  • to use the Robin Hood myth and character in the telling of the story, and by doing so draw out the recurrent themes which have affected the city, including 'protest, rebellion and democratic freedoms, citizenship and civil engagement'
  • to enhance and improve the art gallery.

The blue plaque above the reputed spot where Charles I raised his standard.

These plans tie with the feedback from the consultation, where 'more ways to learn about Robin Hood', 'more access to the caves', 'more ways to engage and learn about the Medieval Castle' and 'improved museum exhibits' were the top requests (apparently 94% of respondents mentioned these, though the website doesn't say how many people replied).

No complaints about that, though the initial consultation had made me sceptical. It sounded potentially like a Robin Hood theme park, with other interesting eras in the city's history potentially given token coverage in favour of what would most effectively bring in money from tourists and families.

The Brewhouse Yard cottages at the foot of the Castle Rock are also open to the public, and date from the 17th century.

Nothing wrong in that either, you might say, if an attraction is to be financially viable. But there is a precedent. A privately run venture, The Tales of Robin Hood, was open for many years, though closed in 2009 after the council refused to bail it out with public money.

Its reason for closure appears unclear: a number of sources reported that it was due to the owners of the attraction unable to pay its rent, while others suggested falling visitor numbers.

The ambitious plans on the council website does appear to allay some of my fears. There is a commitment to explore the full history of the site, with Nottingham's significance in the English Civil War presumably being covered under the theme of 'protest, rebellion and democratic freedoms', though the conflict is not mentioned explicitly.

There has previously been a 17th century-themed tour, ironically also call the 'Raising of the Standard Tour', though I'm not sure whether it still runs. Given the ambiguous physical appearance of the castle site, a regular guided walk around the building and grounds is certainly necessary if visitors are to properly understand its strategic importance in the English Civil War and those who fought over it.

It seems the Robin Hood myth will be used as a prism through which to explore the city's wider history. This could work, though could be tricky, for a number of reasons.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - reputedly England's oldest inn - at the foot of the Castle Rock.

Firstly there's a balance to be stuck in the visual presentation of the chosen themes. If Robin Hood and his merrie men draw in families, how do you avoid a general Disneyfication of the site? Some artistic impressions are given at the bottom of the page here, but reveal little at this stage.

There's also the risk of pushing visitors' expectations further in the direction of expecting a castle akin to the one of medieval myth (think Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves or Robin of Sherwood), increasing the underwhelming feeling many currently feel when they set eyes upon it for the first time.

Thirdly there's the problem most city or town museums must face of how to display history proportionality. I don't believe a disproportionate amount of space should be given over to myth rather than history, though to be fair the best part of the existing collection - the Story of Nottingham rooms - is already subtitled 'More than just a city of legends'. Let's hope this carries through ...

A board at the Olde Salutation Inn, claiming the building as an English Civil War recruiting room. The pub vies with the Trip to Jerusalem for the title of the city's oldest.

I wondered also whether a Robin Hood-fronted attraction with new funding might be more appropriate at Sherwood Forest, only to find after a brief search that a privately funded venture is also in the process of being developed, with plans more advanced than those for the castle (phase one is due to open in Spring 2014).

'Discover Robin Hood' will feature, amongst many other things, a theatre, mock-up village and a 'knights' school'. As the details are on their website it seems that Nottinghamshire County Council (not the City Council this time) have given their backing to the project. The page says 'Discover Robin Hood' will be 'totally unique'. The tautological slip aside, it's surprising that two Robin Hood-led attractions are being developed in the same county at the same time.

Again, if they're done well they sound like vast improvements on what's already there - and will create jobs in the process. Though it would be interesting to know how the two councils expect the new attractions to complement each other, a question already raised by an academic at Nottingham Trent University.

If both sites are to achieve their aims it seems likely they will need to attract repeat visits from locals, as well as bringing in tourists.

The rear of the Old Salutation Inn. A tanner's workshop in 1240, it was used as a recruiting house in the English Civil War, and had its name changed to the Solider and Citizen during the Commonwealth. The name was restored after the Restoration.

Council's haven't got much money at the moment. Everyone knows that. Though while many undersell their heritage attractions at the best of times, Nottingham has always seemed, for one reason or another, peculiarly underrated.

Aside from the castle and the caves, historic houses such as Wollaton and Newstead are excellent, publicly owned, places to visit, though the industrial and cultural history of the city in modern times is just as attractive.

Drinkers outside a bar opposite the castle's gatehouse.

Nottingham to me means a great live music scene, two major football clubs, an international cricket ground, two thriving theatres, a rich mix of ethnic cultures, Boots (the Chemist), the Raleigh bikes from my childhood, the Industrial Revolution (particularly as the centre of world lace-making), the Goose Fair, designer Paul Smith, two universities, the Georgian splendour around Oxford and Regent Street, Holme Pierrepont National Watersports Centre, the films of Shane Meadows, and the authors D.H. Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe.

In realising their themes it would be a shame if the castle's developers missed a trick by not celebrating this diversity. If the building is to be the central museum for exploring all of the city's history a coherent narrative needs to be drawn that is fully inclusive.

Whether the whole of this story can be told from the starting point of the Robin Hood myth remains to be seen.

Many historic buildings remain in the castle's vicinity, though many previously used as shops, cafes and offices lie empty.

The suburb around the castle is one of the most attractive parts of the city, including the Brewhouse Yard - a row of 17th century cottages open to the public - a number of historic pubs and other buildings of architectural interest.

However many other shops, offices and other units occupying these sites have closed. Visit on a weekend and outside the few bars that are keeping their head above water you'll find a scattering of drinkers sitting outside the handsome buildings.

It's clear that the castle's environs are also in serious need of something to attract locals back, as well as tourists. Perhaps the redevelopment of the castle will provide it.

Another plaque in the castle's grounds commemorating the outbreak of the English Civil War. This one was presented by the Sealed Knot in 1992 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the raising of the Royalist standard.

From the plans it seems like the city's importance in the English Civil War will be given due prominence after the redevelopment, though this is not explicit, and I'll reserve judgement until more detailed plans are released.

What's clear is that there's a fantastic opportunity for the city to use the site to boost its profile and economy. Nottingham Castle is ideally situated in well-kept grounds a short walk from town. Its collection needs to be cherished, though its presentation, in many cases, is disparate and fading, and a refresh can't come soon enough.

Here's hoping the developers don't just set up more expensive stools to fall between.

Discover Robin Hood - the plans for the attraction at Sherwood Forest.
Nottingham Caves Survey - fantastic site about the 450+ caves beneath the city, with mock-ups and virtual tours.
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, Lucy Hutchinson (1664-70) (ebook) - the much-cited English Civil War primary source.

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