The Midland Stronghold

ITS capital is the Queen of the Midlands, and she sits enthroned in what is truly a midland county, an average piece of this green and pleasant land.

We do not come to it for something wonderful beyond compare as when we go to Cornwall, or for the thrill of an ancient countryside like prehistoric Wiltshire, or for the natural charm of Sussex or the historic wonder of Kent: Nottinghamshire is not like these, and all too little does it see the traveller in search of what it has.

Yet in its 826 square miles Nottinghamshire has some things that are matchless and many things that are noble, and for the rest it may be said that it is a fair county and fairly represents the great backbone of England, north of its neighbour Leicestershire (so much like it), with the vast space and the illimitable glory of Yorkshire north of it, on the east the Fens between it and the sea, and on the west the county unsurpassed for beauty of its kind, Derbyshire. The county of the Queen of the Midlands touches them all, and though she is not famous like Warwickshire a little way off, and has no definite character like Gloucestershire, and does not draw a ceaseless multitude like Devonshire, it is not to be denied that England would be infinitely poorer if all that Nottinghamshire is and has been were blotted out. We look in this book at more than 200 of its villages and all its towns, and those who think this county dull may be prepared for much surprise. Nature has endowed it richly. Man has given it splendour upon splendour. Its Sherwood Forest has given the world immortal chapters of romance. It has everlasting names wrought into its story, and it has seen dramatic days which live for ever in the history of the nation and the evolution of the world.

If we think of Cricket, no county has played it better. If we think of Work, how many counties have four pillars of the Industrial Age to compare with Arkwright, Strutt, Hargreaves, and Lee?—William Lee who invented a machine on which he made a pair of stockings for Queen Elizabeth, Hargreaves the poor weaver who came to Nottingham to set up a spinning mill, Richard Arkwright who followed him and set up a mill driven by horses, and in 20 years saw it driven by steam, and Jedediah Strutt, whose mechanical genius brought him fame as the improver of Lee's frame. If we ask for Romance, where is a more romantic story than Robin Hood? And if we are not sure that Robin Hood lived, where is a more romantic life than Byron's? If we think of the Church, it was from one village here that Archbishop Cranmer came, and from another Thomas Secker, the scholar who became Bishop of Oxford, Dean of St Paul's, and Archbishop of Canterbury. If we think of Science, the first immortal Darwin was born here, the wonderful Erasmus who prophesied that men would ride in cars and fly into the clouds. If we think of Literature, it is here that we find the tomb of Lord Chesterfield who wrote the famous Letters to his Son, here that the poet Kirke White was born, here that Byron lies, here that lived the brave colonel whose biography has long been a classic, Colonel Hutchinson, his stainless fame so nobly set in English literature by his devoted wife. If we think of History, it is a dramatic chapter that Nottinghamshire gives to it, for in the marvellous castle of Newark died the king who raged and set his teeth as he sealed Magna Carta. Here there set out the pathetic procession with the coffin of Queen Eleanor, its resting-place each night marked by an Eleanor Cross until at last the coffin reached Westminster Abbey to lie in a matchless tomb. Here lived that William Brewster who did so much to shape the destinies of the English-speaking race across the sea, for he negotiated for the land in Virginia to which the Pilgrims of the Mayflower sailed, Brewster leading them. Here was the home of Admiral Howe of the Glorious First of June; and in his village church is an altar cloth from one of his captured ships. Here Charles Stuart set up his standard and challenged Parliament to war; in Nottingham he stood defiant on his last day of peace, and from one of these villages he rode away, when the war was over, on his last clay of freedom. Here is the home of one of the men who brought him low, Cromwell's friend Ireton, and a dozen miles away was living the man who was to lead him to the scaffold, Colonel Hacker. There is no county in the land with more dramatic links with the Civil War. If we think of Politics, it was Nottinghamshire which introduced Mr Gladstone to Parliament as the rising hope of the stern unbending Tories. If we think of Great Houses, there is no county in England that in so small a space can match the Dukeries, with its stately homes set in delightful woodlands. This county with so much surprise for those who think it dull has one of the finest of all our cathedrals yet one of the least known, though John Ruskin thought there was nothing in all England to surpass some parts of it. As for Nottingham itself, its castle is set on a rock and it has one of the youngest and proudest of our universities; and at the heart of the city are two streets in which Barrie wrote his way into journalism, General Booth started the Salvation Army, and Jesse Boot founded the marvellous group of shops that have become in fifty years the biggest chemist's business in the world.

It is not without significance that the population of this county increased by a third in the first third of this century, and that in the third decade of the century the proportional increase of the population was greater than that of any other English county except those which border on London and take its overflow.

The half-million acres of this midland county, the home of three-quarters of a million people, are mainly divided by the River Trent, running across them from south-west to north-cast, and it may be said roughly that the south and east are agricultural and the west industrial. The southern part of Notts continues the Leicestershire Wolds, country well known to the hunting world; on the south-west is the River Soar with its fertile pastures, and on the south-east the Wolds fall away into the fine farming region of the Vale of Belvoir. Even in this hilly part of Notts there is farming as good as can be found in England, and the farm lands continue along the course of the Trent to Newark, which for ages has been a market town. Beyond Newark the land northwards sinks gradually into a dead flat, and the Trent becomes a Lincolnshire river running through the Fen country.

On the west side of the river the life of the county is determined by the coalfield. First the sluggish Erewash River divides Notts from Derbyshire, and the boundary then becomes high land, rising to over 600 feet. The coalfield runs through these hills nearly all the way between Nottingham and Worksop, being worked for 25 miles from south to north. It is in this coalfield that the steady increase of population has occurred. In the heart of it, the Mansfield neighbourhood, close upon 100,000 people live; in the neighbourhood round Nottingham there are 120,000 more; and the city itself is 280,000 strong.

It is interesting to note that at the census of 1931 all but two of Nottingham's 26 census areas had grown in population, from which we may assume a general prosperity in this immense area of England.

With so rich a coalfield the county has, of course, a wide variety of trades and industries. Though it was here that the resentment against machinery reached its worst frenzy, and the factory system, with its child labour, was here stained with its most atrocious cruelties, machinery has built up a group of flourishing trades in the city and the county. The county of the inventor of the stocking-frame has long been one of the chief centres of the stocking trade, which has grown into hosiery and general clothing, and, though Nottingham has largely lost its wonderful lace trade through the changes of fashion, it has established a great business in the making of lace machines, so providing the world with the means to compete with itself. It has leather and printing industries second to none. There is hardly a town in the world to which things do not go from Nottingham. The wheels of its cycles run everywhere. Its cigarettes are in every smoker's pocket. Its drugs are known throughout the world.

It is the central position of Notts that has made it an average kind of country and given it its striking place in history. In Roman days it was well served by the Fosse Way running from Exeter to Lincoln. When the Vikings came, by way of the Humber, Nottingham could be reached by river, and its commanding site was seized upon as a national stronghold. It was one of the most formidable of the Northmen's citadels, and became the central point of the Danish defence against Saxon invaders from the south. All through our country's history this doorstep of the north has been a busy place; it was the same motive that led the Viking to set up his standard here and Charles Stuart to unfurl his flag here when inviting his Parliament to war.

In the days when man sought security in castles, two of the strongest were built here. There was a castle on the highest point of Nottingham for more than 1000 years, and at Newark the great castle was long regarded as the Key of the North. Even today it is a stirring experience to visit this castle where King John died, and a man shudders as he stands in its dungeon cell. The history of the castle on the rock at Nottingham is one of the most remarkable examples of the way in which the Civil War cut through the life of England like a knife. Here was a peaceful and prosperous countryside, most of it owned by families widely respected. Colonel Hutchinson defended the castle for Parliament, and it happened that his village of Owthorpe was the neighbouring village to Colston Bassett, where the Royalist Sir Francis Golding lived. Six miles away was Shelford manor house, the home of the famous Stanhope family. The Stanhopes fortified their manor house, and, when the war was lost at Naseby, replied to Colonel Hutchinson's offer of peace by threatening to lay Nottingham Castle as flat as a pancake, whereupon the colonel stormed Shelford and burnt it to the ground, and the sender of the boastful message died of wounds. When the Stuarts came back, nine years later, Sir Francis Golding started proceedings against the colonel, who was flung into prison, where he perished from ill treatment. Such things did war with otherwise friendly neighbours. Those were the days of castle strongholds.

The old castle at Nottingham is no more, but nothing can remove the rock on which it stood. The stronghold was centuries older than the Conqueror, whose men rebuilt it so that it stood repeated sieges. It was the scene of the seizure of Mortimer and Queen Isabella, mother of Edward the Third, and after its long history it passed into the hands of the Duke of Newcastle, who replaced it with a noble house, which was burned down by the mob when the Reform Bill was defeated in 1831. It is now rebuilt, and used by Nottingham as its Art Gallery and Museum, standing superbly on its wonderful rock.

It is more than the heart of Nottingham and the epitome of its history, for it takes the mind back to the time when men lived in dens and caves. The rock beneath the castle, like the sandstone ridge on which central Nottingham is built, is excavated into caves. The dungeons of the castle were hollowed from the rock, and today its sides have shelters in which people used to live, its base has been penetrated for places of storage, and there are labyrinths of tunnelling in which thousands of tons of material might be stored away. Below the castle on its western side was the ducal deer park, now a residential quarter of the city. Looking across the castle from another height is St Mary's Church, the oldest great structure in Nottingham, and midway between the castle and the church is the fine open space in which the Council House rises, the central building of this central city.

Of Nottingham itself it is enough to say that the city is worthy of its name and fame as Queen of the Midlands. She has been transforming herself since the war and has acquired possessions of great splendour. Her University College rises on a green hill with a tower like a beautiful white lady, chief of the city's great group of architectural spectacles—the University itself, the Council House in the heart of the city, the Peace Memorial on the banks of the river, the Medieval Church on the hill, and the Castle over all.

The churches of the county are a wonderful group; we find Roman, Saxon, and Norman work in them. Quite a hundred of them have Saxon or Norman craftsmanship, and about 20 have both. Among those with Saxon masonry are Carlton-in-Lindrick, East Bridgford, Plumtree, and Sutton-on-Trent. Fine fragments of Saxon crosses or carved stones are at Costock, East Bridgford, Kneesall, Rolleston, Shelford, and Shelton. Rampton has a massive pillar and a crude piscina which may be Saxon, and Thoroton has a tiny Saxon window admitting the dawn. Southwell has a Saxon tympanum. A Saxon tomb-cover in Hickling church is one of the finest in the land, and Stapleford has in its churchyard one of the oldest crosses.

The grandest of the many churches we may visit for their Norman work are Blyth, the incomparable Southwell Minster, and Worksop which is a splendid witness to the later Norman days. Littleborough and Sookholme are tiny and modest examples. Halam has what is believed to be a Norman bell. Notable among forty Norman doorways are those at Balderton, Carlton-in-Lindrick, Cuckney, Finningley, Haughton Chapel, Laneham (framing a Norman door), South Leverton, Winkburn, and Woodborough. Fine tympana are at Carlton-in-Lindrick, Everton, Hawksworth, Hoveringham, and Kirklington. South Scarle has one of the best examples of enriched Norman arcading, and Halam and Harworth have fine Norman arches. Annesley, Hole, Markham Clinton, Screveton, and Woodborough have some of the best of about 30 Norman fonts, among which that of Lenton is supreme; it is one of the finest in the country.

Harworth, Hayton, and North Leverton have lovely doorways built when the Norman style was passing. Attenborough, Marnham, Misterton, Rolleston, and South Leverton have some of the beautiful 13th century work to be found at its best in Southwell choir and in Thurgarton's western doorway. Half a dozen churches have splendid chancels bearing witness to the 14th century masons whose work is outstanding in Notts, their genius unsurpassed in the chapter house at Southwell. Some of the striking monuments in stone and alabaster for which the county is famed are to be seen at Averham, Clifton, Holme Pierrepont, Hoveringham, Langar, Laxton, Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Sibthorpe, Strelley, Whatton-in-the-Vale, Willoughby-on-the-Wolds, and Wollaton. Wall monuments with the kneeling figures typical of Elizabethan and Stuart days are at Gotham, Laneham, Newark, and Normanton-on-Soar.

The traveller who would run through Notts for historic and picturesque places will have many calls to make. Apart from such famous sights as the Dukeries, with a beauty it would be difficult to surpass, and such prehistoric places as Creswell Crags (which it shares with Derbyshire), or Southwell with its wonderful surprise, there are scores of villages that must be seen by those who know how captivating the county can be.

Worksop, the northern gateway of the Dukeries, has a stately fragment of the early 12th century priory, a charming gatehouse, and a glorious nave. Newark has one of the finest parish churches in the land and the impressive ruin of a castle on the waterside. The two Retfords have fine churches, one with a splendid array of carving outside and in, another noted for its lovely tower and spire. Hawton has in its chancel carving almost without compare in any parish church. Hucknall has the tomb of Lord Byron, Newstead has his home.

Littleborough has Roman tiles in its church walls and the memory of a dramatic peep of a young Roman lady who vanished from sight when her coffin was opened. Clifton is one of our most characteristic English villages, with a dovecot, the maypole on the green, the famous grove the poet Kirke White loved, and a church with a marvellous array of monuments in brass and stone. At Hickling we can open one of the loveliest 14th century doors in England, with its original ironwork. Thrumpton is an oldworld village with a striking peace memorial and Radcliffe has a lovely memorial garden high above the River Trent. Attenborough has, near its beautiful church, the home of General Ireton, which Charles Stuart may have passed on his last ride as a free man, and East Bridgford has the home of the Hackers, one of whom led the king to the scaffold. Owthorpe is a modest village with the grave of Colonel Hutchinson. Perlethorpe has a lovely modern church in the loveliest of churchyards, a delightful setting by Thoresby Park. Clipstone has the ruins of King John's palace. Averham has a beautiful church in a delightful setting. Shelford is a typical and pleasant village in the landscape seen from Malkin Hills. Wysall has the oldest wooden pulpit in the county, Laxton the only wooden figure, and Kingston-on-Soar has a pillared canopy with sculptures of 200 babes in tuns. Gedling has a renowned spire and Gotham's spire is unique.

Laxton is famous for a unique survival of the old system of open-field cultivation in strips, quite general in England in medieval and Saxon days, but now seen nowhere else in these islands. In all our countryside there is no more interesting old custom still prevailing. Wollaton was the home of the Willoughbys for six centuries, and their wonderful house may be seen by all. In Wollaton church is what is thought to be the figure of Hugh Willoughby who was frozen to death in his ship, and at Willoughby-on-the-Wolds is the figure of Richard Willoughby, the judge who was captured by outlaws and held to ransom. At Oxton we may see in the church the first flag to enter Bagdad in 1917, and at East Stoke, the scene of the literal ending of the Wars of the Roses, is a flag which floated over our Embassy in Washington. At Widmerpool is some of the most charming scenery out of doors, and indoors a beautiful lady sleeping in white marble, exquisitely carved on a tomb. At Kelham is a new chapel like no other in the county and in it sculpture like no other—a marvellous green bronze Crucifixion scene by Charles Sargeant Jagger, whose masterpiece is at Hyde Park Corner, and whose death robbed English sculpture of one of its most brilliant figures. How few see the mark of his genius in this village: how many pass it in the midst of the busiest throng of traffic in the kingdom! At Shelford lies the Earl of Chesterfield who wrote the famous letters, and Eakring has the grave of one of the most pathetic heroes in the history of our countryside, William Mompesson. Scrooby, with its lovely tower, is the home of William Brewster and the cradle of the Pilgrim Fathers. Harby is the place where Queen Eleanor died. At Screveton was born Robert Thoroton, the historian of Notts.

Of Southwell, which still has the room from which Charles Stuart set out to deliver himself up to captivity and death, it is enough to say that it has perhaps as great a surprise as any village holds for an English traveller, for here is the least known of our cathedrals, with a doorway that John Ruskin never forgot and a chapter house with carving that no one ever forgets.

Sherwood Forest, the most remarkable natural area of the county, is the most impressive remnant surviving of the vast forests which once clothed the low-lying parts of England. It is famous over the world, for it is the home of Robin Hood. It is said that in the old days it covered nearly a fifth of the county, a tract of dense forest, heath, and woodland, about 25 miles long and ten miles broad in parts, stretching from Nottingham to Worksop. Belonging originally to the Crown, the right of hunting in it was reserved for the king, and cruel were the Forest Laws guarding this right. Its great oaks were felled for the navy in the Commonwealth, and it is believed that some of the beams in St Paul's are made from them. So it was for centuries till the great landowners began to enclose their parks. In 1683 the Earl of Kingston formed Thoresby Park with 2000 acres of forest land; a little later Clumber took half as much again; and with the Enclosure Acts of the 18th century came the disappearance of much more. Now Old King Coal has marred the beauty of much of what is left.

The chief remnant of the old Forest is the area known as the Dukeries, comprising the three great estates of Welbeck, Clumber, and Thoresby, with their magnificent group of houses, now alas only two, for Clumber has disappeared in our own time; but it is not only the ancient forest we see here, for thousands of trees have been planted since the estates were epclosed. Of the old forest there is nothing grander than the two magnificent stretches of Birklands and Bilhagh, side by side; of the later trees there is nothing finer than the famous Duke's Drive, an avenue of lime trees with a double row on each side, making a crescent three miles long on its way through Clumber Park.

Those who would see the forest at its best should do so from Edwinstowe and Ollerton, on the edge of the Dukeries; they should leave the roads and seek the paths. Some trees long renowned still stand. The Major Oak (one of the most famous trees still left in England) is in Birklands; so too is the old oak known as Robin Hood's Larder. By the road from Edwinstowe to Mansfield are fragments of the Parliament Oak which story associates with King John. The Greendale Oak still stands in Welbeck Park, with an archway cut through it by the second Earl of Oxford. One of the giants now gone was the Duke's Walking Stick, over a hundred feet high.

Man or myth, Robin Hood is for ever linked with Sherwood Forest. Such a forest demanded a romantic outlaw chief, and traditions in fable, legend, ballad, and plays furnish ideal heroes in Robin Hood with his Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, and the rest of the Merry Men of the Greenwood. We have a Robin Hood literature which makes him a veritable King Arthur of the woodland bandits, who was ever chivalrous to women, who did no wrong to field or fold, who opposed oppression and the terrible Forest Laws, and robbed the unworthy rich to give to the deserving poor.

In our own time James Prior Kirk wrote delightfully of the manners and customs of the old forest in his Forest Folk, and Washington Irving as he wandered through the forest lived again in the days of Robin and his merry band, writing of them:

He clothed himself in scarlet then,
His men were all in green;
A finer show in all the world
In no place could be seen.

Good Lord! it was a gallant sight,
To see them in a row;
With every man a good broadsword
And eke a good yew bow.

And whether or not we believe the story of Robin's death at Kirklees, through the treachery of the prioress of the nunnery there, we like to remember his last words to Little John:

Lay me a green sod under my head,
And another at my feet:
And lay my bent bow by my side,

Which was my music sweet;
And make my grave of gravel and green

Which is most right and meet.
Let me have length and breadth enough
With a green sod at my head,
That they may say when I am dead,
Here lies bold Robin Hood.

Historians are not agreed as to the origin of Robin. Some see in him a myth surviving on the shores of memory from the time of our pagan ancestors. Modern research would have it that Robin was some benevolent wood sprite, deriving his name from the hood such little people wore. It is known that his Maid Marian springs from French gallantry, for French literature has a Robin too. Another authority holds that there have been real Robin Hoods, whose actual achievements give a foundation of reality to many of the stories. That is to say, a Robin Hood has succeeded a Robin Hood, inheriting name and fame, traditions and domain, as oak succeeds oak for a thousand years. Blidworth claims many associations and Edwinstowe his marriage to Maid Marian.

The country abounds with suggestions of Robin Hood, far beyond the confines of Sherwood Forest; but the favourite story brings Robin into prominence in the reign of Richard Lion Heart, the period which Scott has turned to such magnificent purpose in Ivanhoe. In Scott Robin is a figure of dignity as well as of valour and well-doing, but Scott, alas, denies him his Maid Marian, and pays tribute to the Yorkshire ambition to have the hero as a native of Loxley.

Whatever the foundation for the story, Robin stood to England for centuries as the embodiment of the resentment of the poor against the Forest Laws, the breaking of which involved loss of eyes and limbs. In his pillaging Robin is vindicating democratic right against tyrannous Authority. Patriotism, too, this woodland hero typifies, his superb feats of archery reflecting the national pride in the English bowman who has conquered France and is the finest soldier in the world.

Late Plantagenet or early Tudor, he held the imagination of poet, playwright, and broadsheet-writer for century after century. Games and festivals were organised all over the country in his honour, and so prevalent and absorbing were these games that Hugh Latimer raged, in a sermon he preached to Edward the Sixth, over an experience he had had in a village to which he had sent notice overnight that he would preach there in the morning, the occasion being a holiday. The church stood in his way, he said, and he took his horse and went thither, but found the church door locked. At last the key was found, and one of the parish came to him and said, "Sir, this is a busy day with us; we cannot hear you. It is Robin Hood's day. The parish are gone to gather for Robin Hood; I pray you hinder them not."

Robin Hood and his Merry Men have peopled the woods and the pages of our literature for some 700 years, and as long as children love a greenwood tale they will not let him die. He is one with this famous county, woven into the spirit of the greenwood near the very heart of England.