A Wanderer in Nottingham: In the Footsteps of Matthew Henry Barker

Surviving section of the old Trent Bridge. Trent Bridge Inn to rear left of shot
Surviving section of the old Trent Bridge. Trent Bridge Inn to rear left of shot

In 2017, after many years of wandering around Nottingham and its vicinity – and occasionally writing in a somewhat haphazard manner about my impressions and experiences – I began to wonder if there might not have been an author from a century or two ago who had put pen to paper in a broadly similar fashion, thus enabling me to compare and contrast my own observations.

An online search for suitable titles had proved fruitless until I stumbled upon a book published in 1835 called Walks Round Nottingham, by an author referred to only as ‘A Wanderer’.

Books with similar titles had promised more than they had delivered, being composed largely of route instructions, with the occasional nod to a particularly noteworthy view or artefact. In all instances, evidence of the author himself – his personality, his views, his foibles – was in short supply. But I was intrigued by this particular volume. The pen name ‘A Wanderer’ seemed to hold out some hope of a more personal approach. And so it was to prove.

My first step was to locate a copy of the book itself. In the UK, written works are protected by copyright for 70 years after the author’s death. As Walks Round Nottingham was originally published in 1835, it was obvious that the copyright on this work had expired. A quick online search revealed that an original copy of the book would cost me an arm and a leg, but that a reprint was available courtesy of the British Library. It also transpired that the book could be downloaded from the British Library website free of charge.

All well and good, but who was the mysterious individual hiding behind the nom de plume ‘A Wanderer’? Further investigation led me to the name Matthew Henry Barker, and I was surprised to find a Wikipedia entry giving some brief details of his life.

‘Matthew Henry Barker (1790-1846)’, began the entry, ‘was an English sailor, journalist, newspaper editor and writer of sea tales.’ I read the remainder of the entry with increasing interest. It seemed that not only had I found the type of book that I’d been looking for, but that its author, rather than turning out to be someone with no discernible biography, had a back story – and, what’s more, an intriguing one.

Though he was born in (and eventually returned to) London, Barker lived in Nottingham for a number of years and became the editor of a newspaper called The Nottingham Mercury. The main part of Walks Round Nottingham is presented in the form of six sections describing a series of walks that the author embarks upon, followed by a short conclusion. The book’s genesis was in a series of articles of the same title that were published in the Mercury from 1826 onwards. Content from these articles forms a significant part of the book’s text.

In the course of his walks, Barker doesn’t attempt to make a comprehensive survey of the Nottingham and its surrounding area. The walks are initially embarked upon ‘to pass away an idle hour’, but this in turn inspires ‘a stronger feeling, a more earnest desire to trace back the lineal descent of those who had numbered out their days, and left some tablet or mural scroll behind to mark the spot where frail mortality was laid.’ In the preface, Barker states that he presents the book ‘with the declared object of exciting some degree of attention to antiquarian researches.’

The author’s wanderings are, therefore, led to some degree by his knowledge of local history and its related lore, and, in particular, those aspects of it that he considers might be of most interest to his readers. But there’s more to his writing than this alone. He is often moved to lyricism by the both the surroundings in which he finds himself and, conversely, his meditations upon the fact that all things must pass. From Strelley in the west to Shelford in the east, and as far south as Bunny (north Nottingham is given fairly short thrift) this is in, some ways, as much a personal journey as it is a historical one.

The fact that Barker explores on foot (though few other options would have presented themselves at the time) is important. The walker is privileged with an insight into the character and secrets of his environment in a way that an individual travelling by any other means is not, and it was with that thought in mind that I made plans to follow in the footsteps of the Wanderer – retracing the first walk in the book as closely as possible in order to compare my experiences to his.

At the time of the publication of Walks Round Nottingham in 1835, Matthew Henry Barker was nine years into his tenure as editor of the Nottingham Mercury. During the time that he lived in Nottingham (he left in 1841), he seems to have become a reasonably well known figure and Walks Round Nottingham seems to have achieved a certain amount of currency and renown in the locality.

This is borne out by that fact that, in April 1910, over 60 years after Barker’s death, and some 75 since the publication of Walks Round Nottingham, another local writer, Everard Leaver Guilford, published a guide to Nottinghamshire in which, under the entry for Wilford and in relation to the former site of a cottage in which Henry Kirke White had once lived, he writes, ‘…for such as desire to seek out the site the following directions from Captain Barker’s “Walks round Nottingham” will suffice…’

While planning my walk, I availed myself of the opportunity to purchase an original (albeit rebound) copy of Walks Round Nottingham, having been pleased to note that it contained an armorial bookplate indicating that it had belonged to the library of Charles Fellows, a renowned British archaeologist and explorer who was born in Nottingham in 1799, lending more credence to the view that the book had a certain amount of cachet in times gone by.

From the second part of the eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth, Nottingham had managed to transform itself from what Daniel Defoe in the 1720s famously called ‘one of the most pleasant and beautiful towns in England’ to what was, according to historian Malcolm I Thomis, ‘a notorious centre of slum housing, allegedly second only to Bombay throughout the entire British Empire.’

Between 1751 and 1835, Nottingham’s population had increased from 11,000 to 53,000, fuelled by an influx of people looking for work in the town’s textile industry. The town was largely hemmed in by its medieval boundaries, unable to expand significantly due to the common fields and meadows to the north and south. The varied interests of the Corporation, the burgesses and the freeholders made the potential enclosure of this land (the withdrawal of common rights, thus leading to the potential for expansion of the town) a complex issue. Ancient rights and privileges were robustly defended and many in the general population felt that these green spaces should be protected, in spite of the town’s problems of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

Turmoil was never far beneath the surface. The years between 1811 and 1816 saw machine-breaking and other protests by the Luddites, who were angry at the conditions of their trade. In 1831, the House of Lords’ rejection of the Great Reform Act prompted three days of riots, including an attack on Colwick Hall and the torching of Nottingham Castle (both properties being owned by opponents of reform), the latter being left as a burnt-out shell and remaining unused until it was opened as an art museum in 1878.

In the first walk described in Walks Round Nottingham, the Wanderer leaves behind ‘the busy sons of toil’ in the town to seek ‘the calm solitude of the green fields’, passing over the old Trent Bridge (subsequently replaced by the current incumbent, which was completed in 1871) and heading out along the ‘direct road from it’. Visits to West Bridgford (or West Bridgeford in the spelling of the day), Edwalton, Plumtree and Flawford churchyard ensue before the Wanderer finally calls it a day, having walked (at least as far as the way that the walk is portrayed in the book is concerned) a not-inconsiderable distance.

Inevitably, it takes the Wanderer’s 21st century counterpart considerably longer (until the last section of the walk, in fact) to reach ‘the calm solitude of the fields’. For his part, the Wanderer, having crossed Trent Bridge, is almost immediately, ‘strolling by the side of the hedge – sometimes stopping to listen to the notes of the blackbird, at others trying to discover the warbling lark, as he fluttered in mid-air, diminished to a mere speck.’

At this point in the walk, and indeed for most of its distance before the bridleway leading from Plumtree to Flawford churchyard, I’m more concerned with avoiding cars, lampposts and all of the other obstacles of modern day society than with observing the local wildlife.

I do, though, pause for a few minutes to appreciate a remaining section of the old Trent Bridge, now effectively contained within a traffic island. It seems remarkable that it has survived when so much around it has disappeared.

So far, so rapturous for the Wanderer and, well, suburban for me. But the Wanderer soon happens upon the site of an extremely interesting aspect of local history which has not been entirely overwritten by time.

He observes, in a field occupying the triangle of land below the apex of the Loughborough and Melton roads, ‘a strange uncouth figure…the remains of the sculptured form of a cross-legged knight, but so miserably mutilated, as to render any attempts to discover the design entirely fruitless.’ He further muses that, ‘This statue had, no doubt, been taken from some sepulchre, perhaps originally in Bridgeford church’, and concludes, ‘It gives, however, a name to the place; and “Stoneman Close” will possibly retain the appelation when every vestige of him has been swept away.’

While every vestige of the field in which the knight stood has been swept away (the site is now home to a modern block of flats), and the name of Stoneman Close has also been consigned to history, the knight himself has, remarkably, survived, and can be seen at St Giles’ church in West Bridgford. He is further memorialised in the form of the Nottingham Knight pub/restaurant next to the roundabout of the same name.

The Wanderer next spends some time exploring the village of West Bridgeford, which, he says, ‘presents a picture of rural neatness’. While there, he visits the church of St Giles, the churchyard prompting one of his many meditations on mortality: ‘…death is daily slaying his thousands, and the insatiate jaws of the charnel house are ever yawning for the prey. How applicable then is the petition of the Psalmist, who exclaims – “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”‘ Cheering stuff. Even as he eulogises about his surroundings, the Wanderer always feels the need to remind us at regular intervals that in the midst of life we are in death.

Disappointingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly, when I visit the church myself, it is locked, so I am unable to pay homage to the Stone Man. I make a mental note to return at a later time.

It’s time to turn around and pursue the Wanderer once more, and he now returns to the Melton Road, making his way towards Edwalton, turning around at the summit of the hill to admire the ‘extensive and beautiful view’ towards Nottingham. I do the same. The present day prospect is somewhat obscured, but I can see St Mary’s quite clearly in the distance, and, in spite of the traffic, somehow manage to set aside all of the modern intrusions and to transport myself back in time for a few precious seconds.

The Wanderer’s observations about Edwalton seem more than a little harsh – the village ‘promises more than is afterwards realised’ and the Church of the Holy Rood is ‘an unsightly mass of bricks’. For my part, Edwalton village provides a welcome respite from the relentless traffic of Melton Road. The churchyard is a tranquil place and I’m delighted to discover that the church itself is unlocked and that I have the place to myself to explore (although the cynic inside me insists that there must be at least one security camera installed somewhere about the premises). Some of the artefacts here must be worth a fortune.

Amusingly, the Wanderer manages to discover a gravestone in the churchyard that contains the inscription, ‘She drank good ale, strong punch, and wine, And lived to the age of ninety-nine.’

It’s time to leave Edwalton and to rejoin the main road. The Wanderer approaches the summit of the hill and turns left towards Plumtree, waxing lyrical about ‘the hills in the back ground’ that ‘seem fading away in the clear blue light of heaven.’ As I walk along the main road myself, towards the roundabout where Melton Road meets the A52, I’m sad to see that the encroachment of man upon nature in these parts is by no means at an end, with a new house-building programme threatening the splendid isolation of Sharphill Wood.

Continuing on my way, I cross the busy A52 and, following Melton Road in the direction of Tollerton, come across a structure that would not appear until decades after the Wanderer’s sojourn in Nottingham – a bridge that originally carried the Midland Railway’s Nottingham to Melton line, opened in 1879. It now carries a remnant of that route, the Old Dalby Test Track – a 13¾ mile section of the railway that was retained after the closure of the line, before being converted to its current usage.

The Wanderer would have been well aware of the emergence and growth of the railway system in England. On 27 September 1825, ten years before the publication of Walks Round Nottingham and shortly before its author became editor of the Nottingham Mercury, a steam locomotive (George Stephenson’s Locomotion) had carried passengers on a public railway for the first time. Nottingham, meanwhile, was to enter the railway age in 1839, with the arrival of the Midland Railway’s line connecting it with Derby. Our author was to leave Nottingham for London not long afterwards, his beloved Nottingham countryside still relatively undisturbed, but he lived long enough to see ‘Railway Mania’ reach its height.

I’ll meet this line again later in the walk (it had a station at Plumtree – and, indeed, at Edwalton), but for now, I wonder what the Wanderer would have made of this imposition on the landscape. Perhaps he would have embraced it, or perhaps he would have had a similar reaction to that of John Ruskin when the same railway company carved its way through part of what is now the Peak District National Park:

There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the vale of Tempe; you might have seen the gods there morning and evening,-Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the Light, walking in fair procession on the lawns of it, and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags. You cared neither for gods nor grass, but for cash (which you did not know the way to get). You thought you could get it by what the Times calls ‘Railroad Enterprise.’ You enterprised a railroad through the valley, you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange, you Fools everywhere!

Having passed Tollerton, I now pursue the Wanderer along Main Road and into the village of Plumtree, an attractive place marred, as so many are, by the number of vehicles passing through it.

The Wanderer is not overly impressed by the approach, commenting that there is ‘but little to attract attention’ and that ‘the cottages are rather mean and straggling’. Before turning towards the church, he passes a school and strikes up a conversation with ‘some fine healthy boys who spoke respectfully of their master’, before, in an aside to the reader, musing that ‘surely there can be no principle more benevolent than a desire to instruct those who are to occupy our places when we are numbered with the dead.’ Even the Wanderer’s more positive thoughts are, it seems, tinged with melancholy.

The present school was built in 1840. Striking up conversation with any ‘fine healthy boys’ in the vicinity does not, sadly, present itself as a sensible option in these suspicious times.

Nearby is a K2 telephone box that has been decommissioned and converted into a mini library, maintained by Plumtree Parish Council. ‘Bring a Book, Borrow a Book’ is the slogan. Genre fiction abounds, but, although he would have been somewhat mystified by the external structure (the first US patent for the telephone was not granted until 1876 and the first UK telephone kiosks began to appear in the early twentieth century), I’m sure that the Wanderer would not have been unimpressed by its contents and the principle involved.

After a short walk up Church Hill, I reach the attractive Church of St Mary the Virgin, which, as the Wanderer notes, ‘carries many legible marks of antiquity’, with at least one feature dating back to Saxon times. Remarkably, the story of Trent Bridge makes another appearance here – stones from the old bridge, whose remains I passed earlier, were used during a restoration in the 1870s.

I find a bench in the churchyard and eat my lunch while reading the inscriptions on some of the nearby gravestones (I’m surrounded by the more recent interments) and, in true Wanderer style, reflecting upon the prospect of my own inevitable demise.

The Wanderer admires the views from the vicinity of the church before he retraces his steps to the edge of the village, encounters a lane that ‘crosses the country’ and is ‘induced to enter upon it., now fixing his sights on his final objective – Flawford churchyard.

For the first time today, brief interlude at Edwalton’s Church of the Holy Rood aside, I’m able to put the noise, emissions and physical threat of the traffic behind me. As I walk along the bridleway, a sense of calm descends and I don’t see another human being until I reach the churchyard, which is nearly a mile away.

The Wanderer remarks of his own journey through these sylvan surroundings that, ‘…the meadows were lovely in their verdure… The birds were gaily chanting forth their notes of joy, and the timid hare frequently burst from the underwood.’ Back in the present day, it’s not long before the track passes beneath a railway bridge carrying the line that I encountered earlier, and I take the opportunity of my current solitude to scramble my way up to the top.

A single track lies before me, tapering off into the distance in both directions. The attractive iron railing at the top of the bridge is damaged and shored up by modern metal tubing, but the brickwork seems solid enough. The line is used infrequently these days, but there’s still a frisson of excitement as I admire the view. It’s incredible to think that, in July 1984, in one of the line’s more notable moments, a driverless locomotive pulling three carriages was smashed into a nuclear waste flask at over 90mph in front of 1,500 invited guests to see if the flask would survive the impact (it did).

I make my way back down the bank again and resume my journey, alone with my thoughts and with little awareness of time, until, finally, I walk though a break in some trees and into Flawford churchyard.

There was once a church here – the Church of St Peter, built to serve the surrounding villages and finally demolished in two stages in 1773 and 1779, having not been used since 1718 (though burials in the churchyard continued until 1775). The outline of the church has been marked on the ground and a few scattered gravestones remain (seven at present – six fewer than the Wanderer encounters), the rest having been carted off over time and used locally for other purposes.

The Wanderer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, immediately taken with the site, and writes, ‘It was with mingled sentiments of awe and regret I contemplated this hallowed ground. All was so tranquil – there was such a solemn silence, that I soon lost myself in a reverie on departed years.’

Predictably, the scene is not quite so tranquil in modern times. The adjacent road, though set slightly apart by virtue of a lay-by, is a busy one, offering little chance of a ‘solemn silence’. To add insult to injury, a car pulls up and its driver climbs out and disappears into the bushes to answer the call of nature.

There’s a palpable sense of history here, though. The site contained other structures prior to the church (including a Roman villa), and 1779 saw the unearthing of the Flawford Alabasters – three beautifully carved figures, presumably hidden during the Reformation, that can now be seen at Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery (Nottingham having once been a renowned centre of alabaster carving).

Physical traces of the church itself remain in other locations. The Nottinghamshire volume of Arthur Mee’s King’s England series informs us that, ‘When the church fell into disuse its windows were used in the rebuilding of Ruddington chapel, and when it was finally pulled down in 1773 much of the material was used in making Ruddington’s churchyard wall.’ Other sources mention various further local uses that were found for the masonry.

The Wanderer is not content with just one visit to Flawford churchyard and informs us that, ‘Some short time after my first visit, I was again induced to seek the solitude of that spot’.

On this occasion, however, he discovers that the season is turning, and his spirits begin to falter: ‘The verdure which had so lately clothed the fields, was turning to “the sear and yellow leaf” – the birds no longer filled the air with their joyous songs – the redbreast alone uttered his plaintive note, and seemed to mourn the decay of nature. The timid hare sprung from her concealment – but to die; and the lovely pheasant spread his wings to meet destruction.’

Further gloomy descriptions of the scene follow, before, seemingly prompted by the recollection of ‘an extract from a letter, written by a gentleman some years ago’, (the relevant part of the extract reads, ‘I have been several times in the church myself to see some ancient monuments of Crusaders, mentioned by Thoroton in his history’), the Wanderer embarks upon another of his poignant contemplations of human mortality:

‘…I thought of the heroes who had fought under the banners of the Cross, and whose last remains were then beneath my feet – for in this spot were interred several of those crusaders who had carried arms in the Holy Land. The hands which had wielded the falchion and the lance, were now fettered by the worm; and the tongue which shouted “GOD and Richard!” was long since mouldered into dust.’

I leave the graveyard in a suitably ruminative frame of mind, as, of course, does the Wanderer, to whom we should leave the final words of this first walk.

‘Farewell thou hallowed spot! the Wanderer, as he sojourns on his way, will oftentimes remember thy lonely solitude, which offered a moral to his checkered life. Other spots may be more fair, but there is a charm in thy desolation which mingles with my spirit, and will render thee more dear to memory.’

 

Walks Round Nottingham by Matthew Henry Barker can be viewed and downloaded courtesy of the British Library by clicking here.

The definitive source of information about the author of Walks Round Nottingham is A Nautical Story Writer: The Life and Works of Matthew Henry Barker, by Paul N Marshall, published in 2017 by Sussex Academic Press

2 thoughts on “A Wanderer in Nottingham: In the Footsteps of Matthew Henry Barker

    1. Hi Rachel. Wow! So you are descended from one of MHB’s two brothers? I am only just getting my head around these complicated family history terms, having taken out a subscription to Ancestry recently. MHB’s life story is completely engrossing.

      Like

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