Nottingham: Legendary home of Robin Hood, has more to offer than a myth
By ERIN BRADLEY | TRAVEL TALES WRITER Published: May 8, 2003
The legend of Robin Hood, the oldest pub in England, the inspiration for Peter Pan, medieval banquet halls and … an all-American Hooters, complete with orange hot-pants?
A mere two hours’ drive from RAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall, the historically modern town of Nottingham is an amazing place to explore and discover.
Nottingham has a colorful past of legends, castles and caves, but it is also legendary for its shopping and nightlife, with more than 1,300 shops, more than 200 restaurants and a multitude of clubs, pubs and bars. There is no shortage of attractions, above and below ground, day and night.
Our first evening there was probably the highlight of our trip, as we learned about the city’s history and culture by experiencing it first-hand. After changing into appropriate medieval attire, we were welcomed into the large banquet hall at The Sheriff’s Lodge and seated at long tables with wooden benches to sup a fine feast.
Knights, ladies, executioners, monks, bishops, jesters and more sat down to a traditional five-course meal served by our very own wenches on authentic pottery ware, with unlimited lager, bitter and cider and a knife as our only utensil. The home-cooked food was delicious, but the entertainment was even better.
Minstrels played while the wenches fetched each course, but once the tables were set, the Sheriff of Nottingham himself took over as master of ceremonies. Festivities included magic, juggling, fire-breathing, a mock trial and beheading, competitions between diners at medieval games, a sword fight, and, of course, my personal public embarrassment at being singled out to demonstrate the dances of the day. Topping it all off, though, thanks to the lack of minors present, was a consistent bawdy sense of humor and a receptive, even active, audience. When the clock stuck 11 p.m., each partygoer left with a smile.
Nottingham has been home to many famous names, from Robin Hood to D.H. Lawrence, author of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” to J.M. Barrie, the creator and author of “Peter Pan.”
While walking in Clifton Grove one day, the area that is now the Royal Park Estate, Barrie encountered a ragged child who is said to have inspired the character of Peter Pan. The Crimean cannons, lakes and island of the city’s Arboretum Park became part of Barrie’s imaginary “Neverland.”
For many centuries, Nottingham has been the undisputed home of one of the world’s most famous outlaws and heroes, Robin Hood. Despite his fame through the centuries, one question has remained — who was he? Was he myth or man? Aside from a few references found in medieval chronicles, much of the information we have about him is derived from a series of ballads sung in the latter half of the Middle Ages. These were adapted and modified throughout the next 500 years until the representation of Robin Hood was quite different, from ragged ruffian to wronged nobleman.
In the end, the answer to the question of his existence is dependant on the same thing today that it was centuries ago — the people’s desire to believe. That desire is obviously alive and well in Nottingham, with attractions from “The Robin Hood Experience” interactive tour and museum for both children and big kids, to a great bronze statue of the Prince of Thieves wielding his famed bow and arrow as he guards the base of the Nottingham Castle grounds.
Those desiring to trek to the home of this mythical man should be prepared, however, as they might be disappointed to travel an hour outside of the city only to discover that Sherwood Forest is, in fact, just a forest.
But if visitors follow a short path from the visitors’ center there, they may tour the hollowed-out “Major Oak” that is fabled to be the meeting place of Robin and his band of merry outlaws, where they would plan their ambushes, celebrate a good day’s thieving or hide from the Sheriff of Nottingham when he chanced to ride past.
At the center of modern Nottingham stands the grand Council House, where visitors can view a fresco depicting Robin and his men within its cupola and the 10-ton hour bell in the dome, known as “Little John.” It is not only one of the loudest bells in the world, but the secondary bell for “Big Ben” in London.
The era of Robin Hood’s reign also included one of Nottingham’s most enjoyable tourist attractions: the oldest pub in England. Dubbed “Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn,” the date 1189 A.D. is painted on the walls, the year of Richard the Lionheart’s ascension to the throne, and the inn itself is carved directly into the rock that forms the foundation for the castle.
A fortress has stood upon the 133-foot sandstone cliff since Roman times because the rock’s location provided an easily defensible site. But in 1068, William the Conqueror ordered his son, William Peveril, to build a moated castle, and this became the principal royal fortress for the next five centuries.
One of King Richard’s first acts as the new king was to answer the call to crusade against the Saracens, who occupied the Holy Land of Christian religion. The knights and men at arms who answered his call came to the castle, and before their journey to the channel ports, they stopped off for welcome refreshments at the inn.
In the Middle English of the times, a “trip” was not a journey, but a resting place where such a journey may be broken for a time. Consequently, the inn was a resting place on the way to Jerusalem.
By the time of the Civil War in 1642, most of Nottingham Castle was already in ruins due to being built of fragile local sandstone, so little effort was needed to finish destroying the castle altogether. The only ancient part of the castle standing today is the 14th-century gatehouse. The present 17th-century mansion on the site was built for the Duke of Newcastle. It was gutted by fire in the 1830s but now houses the Nottingham City Museum and Art Gallery, including the Museum of Clothing and Lace Museum.
Despite its disappointing uncastlelike appearance, especially for those visitors seeking the romance of Robin Hood, the castle has had both drama and mystery aplenty. This local sandstone is not only the reason for an intricate network of caves underlying the modern city, estimated in number to be anywhere from 200 to 2,000, but also the location of one of Nottingham’s most infamous tales of royal wrongdoing and the highlight of Nottingham’s chilling ghost walk.
Carved deep under the castle is the tunnel known as Mortimer’s Hole. Sir Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March, was not only the illicit lover of Queen Isabella, but also her accomplice in the murder of her husband, King Edward II. Since the prince was only 15 at the time of his father’s death, Queen Isabella seized the throne, with Mortimer virtually ruling the kingdom as regent.
Late one October night in 1330 the queen and her lover were staying at Nottingham Castle. Seeking to avenge his father, the young Prince Edward III entered a network of secret tunnels that led ultimately into the castle itself. With a band of loyal supporters, the prince burst into his mother’s bedroom and seized Mortimer, leading him away, as legend has it, to Isabella’s mournful cries of, “Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer.”
Newly crowned King Edward III pitied Mortimer by taking him to London where he was hanged, drawn and quartered and his remains were skewered on spikes and left as a reminder to other potential traitors.
The tunnel that led from Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn to Nottingham Castle and, ultimately, to Sir Roger’s downfall, is known to this day as “Mortimer’s Hole.” Adventurous visitors to Nottingham can tour this passage every day but Sunday and, if they’re lucky, may be able to hear Queen Isabella’s mournful cries still echoing through time.
Tourists interested in Nottingham’s underground world can also tour the Bridlesmith Gate Caves, an extensive cave system including an ice-house, apothecaries’ caves and butchers’ caves dating from medieval times. Those with a craving for caving as well as an interest in the more sinister side of history should attend the ghost walk held every Saturday night. This tour includes a trip back in time to the caves beneath “Ye Olde Salutation Inn,” a 15th-century pub where Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads recruited troops two centuries after its creation.
The surrounding countryside is perfect for walking or cycling. Visitors can enjoy the quiet woodlands or explore the patchwork quilts of the meadows and villages.
When it is time to unwind, day or night, Nottingham has plenty of places to stroll through medieval markets, socialize over a meal, wander around the “Neverland” of lore or dance the night away.
Those wishing to find out more about Nottingham can visit the Nottingham Website Directory at www.nottm.info, call their head office at (+44) (0) 1158 -774-750 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Another great all-inclusive site is Nottingham Web Resources at www.nottingham.uk.net. Safe and happy traveling!
Capt. Erin Bradley is a Public Affairs Officer at Third Air Force at RAF Mildenhall, UK. E-mail her at erin.bradley@ mildenhall.af.mil.