Curtailment


‘I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.’

John Burroughs


I completely identify with the quote above. In fact, bizarrely, given that I have a little more time at the moment by virtue of the fact that I’m not having to commute, I’m finding it even more difficult to fit everything in.

Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that two of the activities referred to in the quote have been curtailed. Daily walks are only supposed to last ‘up to an hour’ and the idea of meeting up with friends to socialise has been more-or-less completely knocked on the head.

Limiting a walk to an hour or less is not easy when I’m used to it being a more open-ended experience, but perhaps a new appreciation of the sights on my doorstep will add a silver lining to the Cumulonimbus.

Open for Business

The lovely new foot and cycle route between University Boulevard and Thane Road, which includes a bridge over the Midland Mainline, is now open. Nottingham and Beyond sent its intrepid reporter, Dick Duckling, along to have a look. Over to you, Dick.

‘Thank you. As you can see from the photograph above, this new addition to our pedestrian and cycle network really is a thing of great beauty and utility. A picture paints a thousand words. Actually, in this instance, it fails to paint the fact that I was being blown off my feet by a gale, but no matter.

‘The bridge is apparently named after Dr Stewart Adams, who was a major part of the Boots team that developed Ibuprofen. Sadly, Dr Adams died in January.

‘To arrive at this location, I turned off University Boulevard down a road between Nottingham Tennis Centre and Nottingham Science Park that appears, as yet, to have no name.

‘Let’s have a walk up that welcoming ramp to see what views are on offer.

‘Splendid. The view to our left (top photo) is towards the Beeston Sidings Nature Reserve, which can be accessed from the science park, while the scene to our right shows the water channel heading in the direction of the Royal Mail facility at Padge Road. What a treat it is for the humble pedestrian or cyclist to be able to gain access to these areas. As we proceed over the railway bridge, I’m sure that more visual treats await us.

‘Simply sublime. Here we see views along the railway towards and away from the city. Unfortunately, you need to be reasonably tall to properly appreciate the scene from the central point, so children and small adults should consider bringing a portable stepladder or similar device. Caution is advised – as the bridge becomes busier, cyclists will inevitably revert to their natural instinct – i.e. that of taking no prisoners.

‘Onward and downward…

‘Yes, a real treat here for fans of recycling and/or epic industrial processes, of which I am one. As it’s Saturday today, however, there’s not much going on, and, to add insult to injury, barriers are being erected at the side of the walkway/cycle path – presumably with the intention of shielding this magnificent sight from passers-by. Spoilsports.

‘Before we proceed any further, let’s take a look back in the direction from which we have come. We can now see, on our left, the University of Nottingham’s magnificent Trent Building, with its iconic clock tower.

‘Reverting to the task in hand, we turn around once more and descend towards Harrimans Lane, where we will cross the road and carry on along the new path that leads (eventually) to the Boots sentry post, erm, I mean security gatehouse, at Thane Road.

‘To our right is the HGV entrance to the Boots campus and in the near distance is Imperial Tobacco’s Horizon factory. What a fantastic alternative commuting route this new path will be for many of the workers there. Oh, hang on a minute…

‘At any rate, as you can see below, there are certainly plenty of options available here for the adventurous pedestrian/cyclist.

‘It’s time to press on towards our final destination, along a stretch of path that leads us around the eastern edge of the Boots HQ, alongside the canal and past the listed D90 building,…

‘…all of which brings us to the Thane Road Gate (below), where some interesting possibilities for onward investigation present themselves.

‘It’s been an invigorating journey.

‘Full marks to Nottingham City Council for this excellent initiative, which opens up some fascinating liminal areas for the student of urban topography. This is Dick Duckling, signing off, until my next intrepid adventure.’

Thank you, Dick.

Up, Up and Away

It’s astonishing how much trouble taking an interest in one’s environment can cause in this age of paranoia.

Earlier this month, I found myself involved in a set-to with a security guard who appeared out of nowhere, blocking my route forward on a public footpath, after I’d been having a look through some hoardings at the crumbling warehouses near Nottingham station. He demanded, in a somewhat belligerent manner, to know what I was up to, and was less than impressed when I informed him that I didn’t see why I should tell him anything and was sorry that I couldn’t help him with his enquiries.

With that experience still fresh in my mind, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise when, whilst in the middle of taking a photo of a 1951 gatepost outside a deserted Firbeck Academy in Wollaton on a recent Saturday afternoon (the gate in question being a forgotten remnant of an earlier, more innocent time, when schools didn’t resemble maximum security prisons), I was rudely interrupted by a fat middle-aged woman sporting an Asda uniform and a Croydon facelift. The conversation proceeded thus:

‘Can I ask why you’re taking photos of the school?’

‘I’m interested in local history. Can I ask why you’re asking me why I’m taking photos?’

‘You’re taking photos of a school. It looks dodgy.’

‘I’m not taking photos of a school. I’m taking photos of a gatepost.’

‘Well, it looks dodgy. I’m allowed to ask you why you’re taking photographs.’

‘I’m taking photographs in a public place. I don’t have to tell you anything.’

At this point, a newly-arrived, thuggish-looking chap, dressed in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms that have possibly never seen better days, having heard all or part of the conversation, started to put his own two penn’orth in:

‘It looks dodgy. You shouldn’t be taking photos of a school.’

‘Look, if you think something dodgy is going on, then that’s an indication of the way your mind works, not mine.’

‘You’re making yourself look guilty by arguing.’

‘I’m trying to make a point. Anyway, if I was up to something dodgy, I’m hardly going to stand here and tell you all about it am I?’

And so on and so forth. Eventually, they both head off on their way to whatever pitiful pursuits their limited mindsets allow for and I am left to contemplate whether I wouldn’t be better off sitting at home in my underpants watching Channel 5 on a daily basis instead of embarking on my beloved urban perambulations. Shortly afterwards, I encounter tracksuit-bottomed man once again. Unaware of my approach, he is peering furtively around the corner of a pedestrian subway. As I pass him, I resist the almost overwhelming temptation to comment upon the irony of the situation.

This daft debate was the second in a swift double whammy of deflating happenings. Twenty minutes previously, I’d disembarked from the number 35 bus, looking forward with great anticipation to my exploration of the Balloon Wood area – in particular, the triangle of land bordered by Coventry Lane, the railway line and Wollaton Vale. Keen to have a look at a striking circular modernist building slated for demolition that had latterly been occupied by Spices restaurant and was, prior to that, a pub called The Gondola (the name referencing the passenger-carrying compartment beneath a balloon, not the Venetian boat), it soon became obvious that I’d arrived a little too late. The building was no more.

A few relics remained – the roadside sign, the perimeter railings (with a banner attached to them advertising a £9.95 ‘Early Bird’ menu), a set of steps that now led nowhere and a safe lying on its side next to a pile of bricks – but life had moved on and another repository of memory had been eradicated.

In its days as The Gondola, the pub once served as the local for what architectural historian Elain Harwood called ‘Nottingham’s most notorious housing estate’, the Balloon Wood Estate, colloquially known as the Balloon Woods flats. The Balloon Wood Estate, consisting of 647 flats in interlinked seven- and six-storey blocks, was completed in 1970, but only survived for fourteen years before being demolished in 1984, a victim of construction and social problems that eventually made conditions there untenable.

Even by the standards of some of Nottingham’s other concrete jungles, the Balloon Woods flats seem to have been pretty grim. A 1974 article in Grass Roots magazine, a Nottingham publication, describes the estate as, ‘A concrete maze…looking uncomfortably like a prison – or a termite town, maybe… Washing flaps in the breeze on the balconies, children lean at precarious angles over the walls on the high walks, and the doors of broken lifts gape open, forcing tenants to climb the concrete stairs to reach their homes.’ In many of the dwellings themselves, meanwhile, ‘Tenants are used to black fungus growing on the walls, peeling wallpaper, and rain penetrating the ceilings of the top flats.’ Residents consist of, ‘…the homeless, those from clearance areas, people just out from the services, one-parent families, and old and single people with nowhere else to live.’

I wander around the area where the flats once stood. It’s inoffensive enough visually, and obviously a huge improvement on what went before, but there’s still an edginess to the proceedings. I’ve walked happily through St Anns, The Meadows, Radford and Forest Fields at all hours, but I feel vulnerable here, for some reason. A woman walks past, losing her rag completely with someone on the other end of the phone that she’s holding – not just shouting, but screaming into it with a level of vitriol that I’ve rarely encountered before on the streets of my home city.

I cross a footbridge and follow the railway line that runs to the south of the area. It’s part of the route that runs from Nottingham to Ilkeston and then onwards towards Chesterfield and Sheffield. A second bridge leads to a path that passes alongside the wood that lent its name to the flats. In some ways, this wood is a remarkable survivor. Looking at it on an overhead satellite view, it seems to be almost begging (from a developer’s perspective) to be razed to the ground and overwritten by a continuation of the housing to the south.

Balloon Wood, Balloon Wood Estate, The Gondola, The Balloon (another lost pub), the Balloon Houses (a pair of properties located at the top end of Balloon Wood until the mid 1920s)… Where did the balloon connection come from?

Theories suggest that either experimental work on a ballooning project took place here, perhaps initiated by a rich local hobbyist, or a balloon from elsewhere flew over (or landed in) the area at a time when such an event would have been even rarer than it is today. Meanwhile, a plaque on the front of the Fellows Morton & Clayton pub in Nottingham commemorates ‘Nottingham’s first successful balloon flight on November 1st 1813 by James Sadler’, so maybe an association with that event isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either.

Casting the net slightly further afield in terms of noteworthy Nottingham balloon associations, one of the locations demolished to make way for Victoria Station was called Balloon Court, while there is also an East Midlands saying that runs something along the lines of, ‘You’re daft, meduck – you follow balloons’.

The archives await.

On the final leg of my walk, I follow part of the former route of the Nottingham Canal, which once ran through these parts on its way towards Langley Mill, before it’s time for me to head for home.

An exploration of this interesting area is recommended. Just don’t take any photographs of the old school gate.

 

 

By the Time I Get to Phoenix Park

Stanton Tip, Cinderhill
Stanton Tip, Cinderhill

Walking motivation has been in short supply of late, thanks to a combination of the lower temperatures, a shortage of daylight hours and general laziness. A proper stroll was therefore much overdue as I set out to explore a route between two business parks in northwest Nottingham – Nottingham Business Park, near Strelley, and Phoenix Park, which is on the former site of Cinderhill (or Babbington) Colliery.

I travel towards my start point on a number 35 bus, whose route takes in many areas and features of historic interest. So much so, in fact, that, in late 2018, Nottingham City Transport announced the launch of History Bus 35, a guide to the history of some of the places that the service travels through. The guide was written by Robert Howard and you can read about the launch (and follow a link to download the guide itself) here.

Nottingham Business Park is a bleak outpost on the borders of D H Lawrence country. Much of the action (such as it is) of Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow takes place a couple of miles away in Cossall, or Cossethay, as it is known in the book, so I suppose it’s unsurprising that some of the ‘street’ names on the business park, including Lawrence Drive and Chatterley Park Way, reference the once-controversial author.

‘Business’ and ‘Park’. Which sorry individual first conflated those two words, I wonder? Just one in a long line of corporate linguistic misappropriations. A 2015 article in the Washington Post claims that the first office park opened in an upper-class suburb of Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1950s, ‘as commuters became uneasy with simmering racial tension in city centres.’ These days, business parks are a ubiquitous edgeland feature, with locations determined by logistical and economic factors.

Nottingham Business Park is home to such concerns as Keepmoat (‘a leading UK home builder’), Highways England, Yü Energy (a supplier of business utilities), Remit Training and Centiq (‘Trusted experts in cloud infrastructure and SAP HANA platforms’ (me neither)).

As I wander along the thoroughfares that link the various uninspiring office buildings to each other and to the outside world, I feel a profound sense of sympathy for everyone for whom this place will be lying in wait on Monday morning. What a pitiful location in which to have to earn a living. I imagine that Lawrence would have been appalled to have his name and that of one of his most famous creations associated with this sensory vacuum. His poem All That We Have is Life should be posted somewhere on Lawrence Way for all to read:

All that we have, while we live, is life;

and if you don’t live during your life, you are a piece of dung.

And work is life, and life is lived in work

unless you’re a wage-slave.

While a wage-slave works, he leaves life aside

and stands there a piece of dung.

 

Men should refuse to be lifelessly at work.

Men should refuse to be heaps of wage-earning dung.

Men should refuse to work at all, as wage-slaves.

Men should demand to work for themselves, of themselves,

and put their life into it.

For if a man has no life in his work, he is mostly a heap of dung.

Wage-slave benches, Nottingham Business Park
Wage-slave benches, Nottingham Business Park

Adjacent to Nottingham Business Park is a new housing estate called Woodhouse Park, which, perhaps inspired by the business park, has used Lawrence-related names for most, if not all, of its Hopperesque streets. These two vapid environments deserve one another.

As I try to escape from Nottingham Business Park, I’m somewhat nonplussed by the fact that there are footpath signs in evidence near to the main road, but, bizarrely, absolutely no evidence of any footpaths near the signs. Several minutes of uncertainty follow before I decide to take the plunge and cross the main road anyway.

I manage to locate a path that leads towards Broxtowe Country Park without too much difficulty and follow it into Chilwell Dam Plantation before nearly being run off the footpath by, in quick succession, a quad bike and two motorbikes – an indication that I’m nearing the Broxtowe Estate, built in the 1930s and assuredly not without its problems in the present day.

Broxtowe Country Park has an air of abandonment on this mild Saturday afternoon. The footpaths and the large expanse of grassland contain only one other person – a dog walker, and it’s only as I near the other side of the park that one or two other figures emerge. Everyone else is at home watching Netflix, or whatever it is that everyone gets up to these days.

Surrounded on all sides by housing and largely bereft of facilities, Broxtowe Country Park feels like a cursory afterthought that has since been left to its own devices. In part the former site of Broxtowe Colliery, it is a curious, characterless non-space that is unlike other, more inspiring country parks in and around Nottingham. It seems regrettable that this barren, largely featureless place survived while the adjacent Broxtowe Estate supplanted both Broxtowe Hall and the site of a Roman fort.

Broxtowe Country Park
Broxtowe Country Park

As I reach the eastern portion of the park, I pass a tarmacced area next to which water emerges from a pipe into a curiously attractive recess before disappearing down a slope. The path onward (which is really more of a road, although no cars are in evidence) also starts to descend, more-or-less following the route of the mineral railway that once ran through here. A small stream runs to one side for most of the way before it vanishes into a culvert as I make my way out of the park and emerge back into civilisation next to a petrol station and a care home complex.

Urban splash - water feature at Broxtowe Country Park
Urban splash – water feature at Broxtowe Country Park

Before turning towards Phoenix Park, there’s one other nearby place that I want to explore – Quarry Holes Nature Reserve, which sits between Tilbury Rise and Nuthall Road, not too far away from Cinderhill Island. The mineral railway ran through here too, and the name of the reserve is a bit of a giveaway. According to an information board at the entrance, ‘The distinctive mounds and slopes of the reserve were created when the site used to be an important quarry – supplying limestone for building projects.’ The board also reveals that stone from here was used to repair the old Trent Bridge.

Quarry Holes Nature Reserve
Quarry Holes Nature Reserve

Historical interest aside, there’s not enough here to detain me for long, so I begin to make my way towards my final objective.

Phoenix Park is a on a slightly more human scale than its spirit-sapping cousin to the west. A Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, together with the park and ride facility next to the tram terminus, all of which integrate well together, give the place a certain amount of hustle and bustle. Families and couples move from their cars into the restaurant to avail themselves of its entirely adequate food and vanilla atmosphere, while arriving trams disgorge their load of carrier bag-wielding Saturday afternoon shoppers returning from the city centre.

Reminders of the site’s coalmining past are much in evidence – one of the roads is named Colliers Way, a spoil tip reveals itself behind the park and ride and a plaque in the centre of a small roundabout gives some information as to the heritage of the site: ‘Opened by Mrs. Mel Read MEP for Nottingham & Leicester North West on 2nd December 1994. This new Business Park – Partly funded by the European Union – is built on the site of the former Babbington Colliery which, when it closed in 1986, was the oldest working mine in Nottinghamshire. Following Nationalisation of the mining industry in 1947, it employed 1,900 men. It reached a peak output of 864,000 tons in 1968.’

Businesses located here include E.ON, British Red Cross, Peppermint Technology (‘…innovative legal cloud software for UK law firms’), SF Group (‘The Recruitment People’) and Multi Packaging Solutions (‘…packaging solutions for the branded and healthcare markets’).

Call centre worker or deep-pit coal miner – which is the heap of dung? Both? The last deep-pit mine in the UK, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, closed in 2015, so I don’t suppose I will ever have the chance to compare the two.

E.ON offices, Phoenix Park
E.ON offices, Phoenix Park

I hadn’t planned to climb the spoil heap, but there’s a path leading up to it and I can’t resist. It’s not long before I’m at the summit, king of the castle, taking in the tremendous views all around me. Proposals exist to turn at least part of this place (known as Stanton Tip) into housing, but I’m hoping that it’s held in suspension for just a little while longer.

View from Stanton Tip towards Bulwell, Rise Park and Top Valley
View from Stanton Tip towards Bulwell, Rise Park and Top Valley

 

 

The walking and cycling guide to the Aspley/Broxtowe/Cinderhill area entitled Garden City, by Chris Matthews, contains some excellent background to the history of the area and is highly recommended. It can be downloaded (along with several other similar guides) from Chris’s website.

A Sight to Behold

Autumn’s in the air. Time for a wander, as we reach the tail end of the decent weather. But where to go? Somewhere on the urban fringe, perhaps (deep topographer Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp is currently working its magic on me). Maybe to the northwest of the city. I dig out my trusty OS Explorer 260 map to have a look at the lay of the land.

An interesting route soon suggests itself – from the Northern Cemetery in Bulwell to an intriguing artefact of whose existence I’ve only recently been made aware: a water tower at Swingate, near Kimberley. Happily, a dismantled railway line presents itself as a link between the two areas. Walking boots on. Camera, maps, water and extra layers at the ready. Let’s go…

The number 68 bus drops me off close to the cemetery gates and I head towards the entrance. The first thing that I do is check the notice board displaying the opening times. Having once been locked in a cemetery near Nottingham city centre after hours, I’m not keen to repeat the experience.

I’m used to walking around historic cemeteries and graveyards, but the Northern Cemetery, opened in 1903, presents  a very different experience. A significant proportion of the graves have obviously been tended to quite recently and there’s a profusion of modern-day memorial paraphernalia – the sort of objects that probably seem like a good idea at the time, but that, after a spell of inclement weather, rapidly become a depressing display of deterioration in keeping with the true reality of the situation. ‘B&M Bargains tat/Skeggy/goose fair souvenirs’, as one online commentator refers to them.

After a look at the exterior of the Grade II listed chapel, I decide to circumnavigate the grounds, eventually coming across a name that sounds familiar. I realise that I’ve stumbled upon the grave of someone I worked with several years ago – an identification I’m able to make definitively because there are several framed photos in the plot. I knew he’d died, but I hadn’t know that he was buried in this cemetery. He was four years older than I am now. I sit down on a bench next to the grave and spend a few minutes thinking. Memories of conversations with him tumble around my mind, mixed in with the knowledge that he’s now beneath the soil in front of me.

The Northern Cemetery chapel
The Northern Cemetery chapel

I’m to encounter the Northern Cemetery once more today, in the dark, on my way home, when it assumes a very different character, transformed by the eerie site of hundreds of grave lights, presumably intended to provide comfort to the dead (though in actuality it’s to the living), but for now it’s time to move on.

I make my way along Hempshill Lane to Low Wood Road, where I join the path that runs alongside the former railway line. The line was part of the Great Northern Railway’s Derbyshire and Staffordshire Extension (also known as the Derby Friargate line, or Back Line). Built largely to profit from colliery traffic in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, it provided the GNR with a link between Nottingham and Burton-on-Trent and also carried passenger services. If we were travelling between, say, Nottingham and Derby, back when the line was open, our last port of call would have been Basford and Bulwell (subsequently Basford North) station and our next would be Kimberley East. The line was completed in 1878 and closed in the 1960s, although part of the section west of Derby was retained as a test track until 1990.

The trackbed on this part of the route is accessible on occasion, but it’s so overgrown that making my way through it would quadruple my journey time and require a machete (not the sort of object I really want to be seen in public with in these troubled times), so I stick to the path. There are few obvious signs that trains once travelled through here, other than the remaining earthworks – which are usually well hidden and take a keen eye to spot – and a bridge that I’ll encounter a little further down the line.

All walks heading in a westerly direction from Nottingham eventually come up against that mighty juggernaut of dislocation and displacement, the M1, and it’s not long before the brash intruder makes its appearance. As the traffic hurtles across a bridge above my head, I follow the path – which is separated by a fence from some sort of drainage channel – as it passes beneath the motorway, and I emerge into a cutting with impressive rock faces to either side.

Looking back through the M1 underpass near Nuthall
Looking back through the M1 underpass near Nuthall

I learn from the late Geoffrey Kingscott’s excellent book Lost Railways of Nottinghamshire that the rock is Magnesian Limestone. It’s part of an outcrop that extends all the way from Nottinghamshire to the coast at County Durham, with Creswell Crags being perhaps the best-known East Midlands example. Magnesian Limestone takes on slightly different forms depending on location and Bulwell Stone, much used locally for building purposes, is another variety of this characterful material.

Passing to the north of Nuthall and over the site of a tunnel whose portals are now buried beneath the surface, I’m now on the outskirts of Kimberley. I make a short side-trip to view the front of the Hovis bakery and distribution site on Main Road – one of eight Hovis bakeries in the UK – before returning to the path and entering Kimberley proper.

Emerging onto the busy Newdigate Street, I take my life in my hands crossing the road at a blind bend and am met by the sight of a sign reading ‘Great Northern Railway Path’ that points to a wooded area at the side of the road. It’s late afternoon. Time is passing and I’m tempted to take a slightly more direct route to my final destination, but curiosity leads me forward onto the path.

A tranquil scene greets me, but the biggest surprise is yet to come. As I continue onward, the view suddenly opens out to reveal a splendid, deep, wooded cutting, with steps down to bottom of it. I have the place to myself and take a few minutes to admire the scene before descending and following the path to its end at the former site of Kimberley (latterly Kimberley East) station, which opened in 1876 and closed to passengers in 1964. The main station buildings remain and have been converted into living accommodation.

Station Road leads me onto Main Street and the welcome sight of a fish and chip shop on the other side of the road. The side of the building features a large image of a John Bull running while holding a Union Jack aloft, alongside the words ‘Traditional Fish & Chips’ and ‘The Best of British’. I’m sold.

Kimberley owes its size and character to industries such as coal mining and brewing, but nowadays it’s essentially a dormitory town, with levels of traffic that it was never built to cope with. Putting myself at risk of shuffling off this mortal coil for the second time today, I make it to the other side of the road and enter the welcoming environment of ‘Ye Olde Chippy’, emerging shortly afterwards with a generous and tasty-looking portion of fish, chips and mushy peas.

I cross the road once more, find a bench that’s within sight of the road but far enough removed to provide a modicum of seclusion and tuck in. As well as cars, the area is also reasonably busy with pedestrians, some of whom stare at me as they pass by. The ‘you’re not from around ‘ere’ attitude is much in evidence. It brings to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s discussion of the concept of the Look (or Gaze) – the way in which, in the presence of other humans, our thoughts and actions are inhibited, compromised or changed as we become aware of ourselves as an object that others may be judging.

The food doesn’t disappoint and I polish it off in short order, depositing the packaging in a bin and starting out on the final leg of the journey, making my way slowly up the hill before following the road over the A610 to the village of Swingate.

The light is starting to fade noticeably as I round a corner onto Babbington Lane, but there’s no mistaking the sight at the top of the incline – the Swingate Water Tower. I realise that I’ve never really given much thought to the purpose of such buildings. Are they obsolete, like gas holders? Later research indicates that this is not the case and that they can be used to provide water when there are problems with the main system or during peaks of demand, being tall and placed on high ground in order to provide the necessary downward pressure. They often operate alongside reservoirs and the Swingate tower sits in front of a covered one.

The British Water Tower Appreciation Society (for there is such a thing) would almost certainly be able to provide more information, but details of the Swingate site are, for some reason, hard to come by on the internet. The only (unverified) information that I can glean is that it was built by the City of Nottingham sometime in the late 1940s/early 1950s and forms one link in a chain of water supply between the Derwent and Nottingham.

The houses peter out shortly before the tower. One or two dog walkers pass by, seemingly suspicious of this camera and backpack-toting male wandering around at such a late hour, but other than that, the tower and the reservoir – the grass-clad banks of the latter lending it the appearance of a neolithic burial mound – are my only companions. It’s peaceful up here, though I’m aware of an unsettling repetitive mechanical sound emanating from the reservoir’s interior.

The tower itself is magnificent. How is it not better known? As I gaze in awe at its imposing, yet finely crafted exterior, a vertical line of windows on each face giving tantalising hints of the secrets within, it seems to me quite wondrous. It’s like a stately home in the shape of a water tower, the communication equipment at its summit hardly affecting its impact at all.

Swingate Water Tower

There’s not much light left now, and, after a brief exploration of a footpath that runs alongside the site, I begin to retrace my earlier steps, realising that my original plan to return to Nottingham by means of a footpath across the fields to Strelley and then on to Bilborough will have to be abandoned. Instead, I take an alternative route out of Swingate, crossing a footbridge over the A610 before following the roads back to Bulwell and catching an NCT bus homeward, body and mind invigorated by the experiences of the day.

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

When F1 Came to Town

The Horizon factory in May 2016
The Horizon factory in May 2016

The Player’s Horizon factory on Lenton Industrial Estate had its official opening on 1 November 1972, accompanied by much fanfare, including the performance of a specially-commissioned orchestral piece called Horizon Overture by Joseph Horovitz and the unveiling of a sculpture designed by Ernst Eisenmayer. Both Horovitz and Eisenmayer were Austrian-born Jews who escaped the clutches of the Nazis shortly before the outbreak of World War II by moving to England. Eisenmayer died in March 2018, his Horizon sculpture having disappointingly been sold on behalf of Imperial Tobacco at public auction earlier this month (fetching £571) rather than being donated to a local museum or gallery.

At the time of the official opening, over 1,100 people worked at Horizon, with a projection that over 2,000 would be employed there a year later.

The Horizon factory won awards for its architecture (one set of judges noting that it made a ‘noble addition to the industrial area of Nottingham’), but listed status has proved to be elusive. The building seems to have as many enemies as friends, the managing director of property agent Innes England having referred to it as ‘probably the ugliest building in Nottingham’. For my part, I think it’s a hugely impressive and – certainly from the point of view of Nottingham’s industrial and social history – important building. Unfortunately, hard-nosed commercial considerations seem to have won the day

Whatever your point of view, the site was decommissioned earlier this year, following the cessation of cigarette production in 2016, and faces an uncertain future which currently looks likely to end in demolition. All of which seems remarkable given that when, in 2012, the Nottingham Post produced a special edition of its Bygones publication to mark Horizon’s 40th anniversary, it noted therein that the factory produced ‘around 50 per cent of the UK market and 120 million cigarettes a day, generating billions in tax revenue for the Exchequer’ (along with, presumably, a not-insubstantial contribution to the woes of the NHS).

But let’s rewind to that less strait-laced era of the early 1970s.

Player’s, as part of the Imperial Tobacco Group, sponsored all manner of sporting and cultural events at this time, but the real big-hitter was that epitome of glamour and excitement, Formula One.

Having originally become involved with motor racing in the late 1960s, Player’s most successful promotional vehicles (excuse the pun) were the iconic John Player Special (or JPS)-liveried cars that plied their trade around the grand prix circuits of the world in the 1970s and 1980s, in the hands of such renowned drivers as Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna.

When the Horizon factory was officially opened in November 1972, mutton-chopped Fittipaldi, from Brazil, was the reigning F1 world champion (the youngest to have achieved the distinction at that time), having beaten Jackie Stewart into second place over the course of 12 races between 23 January and 8 October. Fittipaldi had made his F1 debut in 1970 and was to win the title once more, with McLaren in 1974, before finally hanging up his F1 boots in 1980 to go racing in America.

On 18 and 19 December 1972, Fittipaldi – presumably still basking in the glory of his championship victory, whilst also having one eye on the upcoming 1973 season (due to start on 28 January) – paid a visit to Nottingham as a guest of Player’s, along with his wife, Maria Helena, and the Team Lotus F1 Competitions Manager, Peter Warr (later to become Lotus team manager following the death of Colin Chapman).

An itinerary was prepared, including tours of the Player’s factories, and the Guardian Journal reported in an article in its 18 December edition that, ‘A specially cleared running track round the factory will be laid out for the young Brazilian to show off to employees the car which helped to make him the youngest ever world champion.’ The article further noted that, ‘…it is hoped that 26-year-old Fittipaldi will top 100 m.p.h. for the benefit of the watching employees.’

Although the demonstration drive did take place (as reported by the newspaper in a further article the next day, which revealed that Fittipaldi and his wife spent the night ‘at the home of assistant managing director, Mr Geoffrey Kent, at Gonalston’), a combination of foggy weather and an uneven surface seems to have hampered it somewhat. However, even taking that into account (along with the second article’s report that the demonstration took place in the factory car park), it must have been a thrilling sight for those lucky enough to have been in attendance.

Fittipaldi’s thoughts of the occasion, and of Nottingham generally, appear, regrettably, to have gone unrecorded.

Footnote: Issue no. 101 (10 January, 1973) of the Player’s in-house newspaper, Player’s Post, features, according to the previous issue, ‘full photographic coverage’ of Fittipaldi’s visit to ‘the John Player Nottingham complex.’ I have, however, been unable to track down a copy of this issue. If you have one, or know where I can find one, please get in touch via this blog’s contact page!

The Price of Progress

Nuthall Temple, East Front; image courtesy of Nottinghamshire History (http://www.nottshistory.org.uk)
Nuthall Temple, East Front; image courtesy of Nottinghamshire History (http://www.nottshistory.org.uk)

For anyone who lives in Nottingham, the M1 tends to loom large in the consciousness – often due to traffic delays, but mainly because it’s one of our primary connections to the rest of the country and beyond.

The M1 actually only makes a very tiny incursion into the City of Nottingham itself, just to the southwest of Junction 26, where the city boundary crosses the motorway for the first and only time to embrace a small area of farmland.

Zooming outwards, the motorway is also something of a stranger to much of Nottinghamshire. It enters the county near to Stapleford and Trowell, moving slightly to the east as it passes to the west of the City of Nottingham before returning to its previous north-south alignment upon moving into Derbyshire at Pinxton. This part aside, the M1 between Leicester and Doncaster could almost be renamed the Nottinghamshire Bypass.

The Nottinghamshire stretch of the M1 includes two junctions (26 and 27) and one set of services (Trowell, opened in 1967), and came into being as part of a series of northward extensions to the motorway that were carried out between 1963 and 1968 (the original section, between Watford and Rugby, having been opened in 1959).

As we move ever closer towards the construction of the HS2 railway line (which, in its current form, will track the M1 through Nottinghamshire reasonably closely), it is interesting, particularly in light of the current protests over HS2, to reflect upon the impact that the impending arrival of the M1 must have had.

In his book On Roads, Joe Moran highlights a protest by residents of one of our East Midlands neighbours:

In 1958, when it emerged that the second section of the M1 planned to cut through Charnwood Forest near Leicester, 32,000 people signed a petition against the destruction of the city’s green lung.

Admirers of the idyllic area to the east and north-east of Moorgreen Reservoir that the M1 was eventually to cut a swathe through (an area with strong D H Lawrence associations) perhaps had similar thoughts.

Another loss for Nottinghamshire when the M1 came to town (or, rather, county) was the remains of Nuthall Temple, a splendid country house built between 1754 and 1757 in the Palladian style, which, were it still in existence today, would undoubtedly make a fine visitor attraction.

Unfortunately, after the last owner died in 1926, a buyer could not be found, and large parts of the building were dismantled and demolished, the resulting ruins being left in situ until 1966, when the M1 finished the job off.

Use of the National Library of Scotland’s Side by Side map viewer to compare historic Ordnance Survey maps with contemporary satellite imagery shows that the former site of Nuthall Temple lies beneath the section of north and southbound carriageway to the north of the Junction 26 roundabout, a short distance (looking north) in front of the overhead gantry between the north and southbound slip roads.

Remnants of the estate survive to this day, including the lake and an entrance gate pillar, the latter of which can be seen next to the eastern entrance to the Three Ponds pub car park, off Kimberley Road.

Henry Thorold, writing in the Shell Guide to Nottinghamshire, referred to the destruction of Nuthall Temple as ‘barbarism’, while Nikolaus Pevsner was similarly unimpressed, calling it a ‘disgrace’. It remains a matter of regret that nothing was done to save this wonderful building, or even its ruins.

The M1 no doubt hides many other secrets beneath its surface.

The Lenton Railway Triangle

Warning – post may contain irresponsible behaviour

1899 Ordnance Survey map extract
1899 Ordnance Survey map extract

I’ve been fascinated for many years by the area of land enclosed by a triangle of railway tracks to the south of Castle Marina in Lenton. The formal designations of the junctions at the three points of the railway  triangle are Lenton North Junction, Lenton South Junction and, at the eastern point, Mansfield Junction.

I’d begun to call this area of land the Lenton Triangle, but soon realised that, these days, the expression is more commonly taken to mean the area of Lenton bounded by Faraday Road, Ilkeston Road and Derby Road. However, there’s no escaping the triangular nature of the site – its prime defining feature, in fact – so I propose that it should be referred to as the Lenton Railway Triangle.

A fascinating 1987 article in the Lenton Listener reveals that, at that time, as part of the Castle Marina development, there was a proposal to build houses on the eastern portion of the triangle (having first removed the railway track between Lenton North Junction and Mansfield Junction), and to construct a lake, open area and tennis courts in its western portion, with a small conservation area remaining to the southwest.

The section of line between Mansfield Junction and Lenton South Junction first came into being as part of the Derby to Nottingham railway, opened in 1839 by the Midland Counties Railway, while the section between Mansfield Junction and Lenton North Junction was originally laid as part of the Nottingham to Kirkby-in-Ashfield line opened by the Midland Railway in 1848. The curve connecting Lenton North Junction with Lenton South Junction (Lenton South Curve) was presumably added not long after that, thus completing the triangle and largely isolating the land in-between the tracks (a hand-drawn map in the 1969 publication entitled The Railways of Nottingham (which accompanied an exhibition of the same name at Wollaton Hall) indicates that Lenton South Curve was added sometime between 1850 and 1879, which would mean that the full triangle of tracks has been in place for between 139 and 168 years as of 2018).

I’d assumed at first that the isolation of the land in-between the tracks would have been complete. However, study of historical maps of the area shows that a footpath, linking what is now Lenton Lane with the area to the east of what is now Meadows Way, ran through the southwest corner of the site until sometime during the first half of the twentieth century, access to and from the land inside the triangle apparently being maintained via foot tunnels underneath the Lenton South Curve and the Nottingham to Derby line (though the existence of a tunnel under the former is more clearly indicated on the 1899 OS map than its presumed companion under the latter).

On its route through this part of the site, the footpath crossed a stream/drainage channel (which is still there today and runs roughly south-southeast from a point near Lenton North Junction) by way of a footbridge that is no longer marked on modern maps.

These features alone seemed to merit some sort of exploration, so, on an unseasonably hot April evening, a friend and I set out to see what we could find.

Other than donning a pair of walking boots, neither I nor my companion had given much thought to the practicalities of the expedition. Diving into the part of the site nearest to Mansfield Junction, with a plan to reach the watercourse and to see if there were any remains of the footpath, footbridge or tunnel(s), while doing our level best to avoid detection by passing train drivers, we soon found that the task of reaching the other end of the triangle was going to be somewhat more arduous than we had anticipated, the terrain being, at this point in time, markedly different to the accessible-looking surrounds portrayed by the satellite imagery that I had consulted beforehand.

Dense swathes of tall, brittle, bamboo-like Japanese knotweed canes impeded our progress, aided and abetted by bramble and raspberry stems and rosebay willowherb, the only real relief coming with the assistance of an occasional tree.

Slowly but surely, sweating profusely, thorn-induced damage to skin and clothing accumulating with each metre gained, we closed in on our target, unaware that the noise generated by our activities had been heard by another friend who, knowing that we’d planned to explore the site this evening, had poked his head over a nearby fence on the other side of the tracks to have a look at this hidden Shangri-La that I’d been banging on about for so long.

I’d hoped that we might have time to seek out some interesting artefacts from the time before the railway arrived (I remembered seeing an incongruously-sited gate once, while travelling past on a train) – or even something of a more recent vintage – but our physical discomfort, the gradually fading light and the ever-present need to stay out of sight of the passing trains caused us to press on before, finally, we caught a glimpse of flowing water.

As we emerged out onto the top of the bank that sloped down towards the stream, the arcadian scene before us seemed quite improbable given the nature of the triangle’s surroundings. We watched as the water in the channel down below moved serenely towards its final destination, wherever that might be, before starting to make our way towards the historical location of the footbridge.

As our progress was slowed once again by the surrounding vegetation, we noticed that the light had now diminished to the point where, even if we weren’t exactly in any danger of being trapped here overnight, if we delayed our return journey, it was likely to take us far longer to navigate our way back out.

With some reluctance, we made the decision to turn back. The discovery or otherwise of any remains of the footpath and its associated structures would have to wait for another day.

Reader, we made it home safely. Lewis and Clark we are not, but in this day and age, when so many activities have ended up as diluted, anodyne exercises in officially-sanctioned, health and safety-conscious banality, our little adventure had made us feel truly alive, if only for a short time.

The Lenton Railway Triangle had started to give up its secrets.

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A Voyage of Discovery

Henry Kirke White; image courtesy of Picture the Past; https://picturethepast.org.uk/
Henry Kirke White; image courtesy of Picture the Past; https://picturethepast.org.uk/

What names would you come up with if you were asked to make a list of writers associated with the county of Nottinghamshire?

Many (if not most) people would, I imagine, start with the Big Three – Lord Byron, D H Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe. Quite possibly in that order, too.

Anything beyond that would depend largely upon personal interests and circumstances.

My list, until recently, would have looked something like this:

  • Lord Byron (I’ve read several of the seemingly endless number of biographies, a few of his letters and a shamefully small amount of his poetry)
  • D H Lawrence (as with Byron, I’m probably more interested in the man himself as opposed to his work. Of the latter, perhaps unusually (and somewhat perversely, in light of my Byron admission), I’ve been drawn more towards the poetry)
  • Alan Sillitoe (probably my favourite Nottingham writer and the one who I identify most closely with. I can’t remember whether I encountered the novel or the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning first, but I love them both. I’ve also read The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The Ragman’s Daughter, but am painfully aware that I’ve barely scratched the surface as far as Sillitoe’s writing is concerned)
  • Stanley Middleton (if the ‘Big Three’ ever expanded to become a ‘Big Four’, Middleton would surely be a prime contender for the fourth spot. Producing 40-odd novels, including one that shared the Booker Prize in 1974, our Stanley turned down an OBE and, other than going away for a period of national service, seems never to have absconded from Nottingham, which is more than we can say for those other three boggers)
  • Ray Gosling (Ray was a giant – a massively underrated, in some ways tragic, figure. In 2013, I attended an event at the Lakeside Arts Centre, where Ray had been scheduled to introduce his 1963 film Two Town Mad, a fond look at the Nottingham and Leicester of the early 1960s. Not without his problems in recent years, Ray had ambled into the auditorium, somewhat the worse for wear, several minutes after the organisers had announced that he wouldn’t be able to make it, and proceeded to deliver an utterly compelling introduction to the film, together with an equally absorbing (and even more inebriated) question and answer session afterwards. I wish I had been able to meet him before his death later that year)
  • Philip James Bailey and Henry Kirke White (two poets who I encountered through my interest in local history. Bailey is most famous for his lengthy (lengthy being perhaps something of an understatement) and, to the modern eye, fairly impenetrable poem, Festus, while Kirke White never had the chance to fulfil his early promise, dying at the age of 21. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Byron opined, ‘Unhappy White! while life was in its spring, and thy young muse just waved her joyous wing, The spoiler swept that soaring lyre away, which else had sounded an immortal lay.’
  • J M Barrie and Graham Greene (both lived in Nottingham for a short period of time while working at the Nottingham Journal in the early stages of their careers (though the Journal had moved offices by the time Greene came along). Perhaps one day we will forgive Greene for such comments as ‘an educated person in Nottingham is as precious & rare a find as jam in a wartime doughnut!’)
  • Arthur Mee (born in Stapleford, Mee was famous for publications such as The Children’s Encyclopedia and the King’s England series)
  • Matthew Henry Barker (Barker spent some years as editor of the Nottingham Mercury (later the Nottingham and Newark Mercury) and wrote a book called Walks Round Nottingham, although he was better known nationally for his nautical stories, which were published predominantly under the pen name of The Old Sailor. I found out about him almost by accident while researching old non-fiction books written about Nottingham and its surrounds. His own story is as interesting in some respects as the fiction he wrote)

There were other names that I was aware of, both past and present – Geoffrey Trease (by virtue of a plaque on Castle Gate), David Belbin, Helen Cresswell, Philip Callow, Abigail Gawthern, John Harvey, Jon McGregor, the Howitts, Nicola Monaghan and Robert Millhouse to name a few – but of these individuals and their work I knew very little.

Praise be, then, for a magnificent tome by Rowena Edlin-White called Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers, which was published by Five Leaves in 2017.

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers is a guide to some 126 writers with Nottinghamshire connections. It also includes a selection of essays entitled The Sherwood Forest Group, Old Nottinghamshire Libraries, Charles Dickens in Nottingham, Graham Greene in Nottingham, Comic Creators of Nottingham, Arise! and A Working-Class Hero is Something to Be. A preface, introduction and publisher’s note help to place everything in context.

The focus is primarily on the past and it’s an egalitarian affair, with two pages dedicated to each individual, regardless of stature. Writers who are no longer with us are each introduced by way of a well-researched mini-biography, with mention made of notable works and one or more associated places to visit, while those still knocking around are, with one exception, allowed to express themselves in their own words.

The book is well-illustrated and the essays at the end are as fascinating as the entries that precede them. As a whole, Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.

The pleasure in reading work by the writers explored in this book for anyone like me who has lived most, if not all of their life in Nottingham and/or Nottinghamshire is obvious: a sense of connection, a heightened ability to relate to the material in question – particularly if it references local places – and a sense of pride in our communal heritage.

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers has enabled me to discover more about the writers that I’d already heard of and to encounter many others for the first time.

Pat McGrath’s book The Green Leaves of Nottingham, set in and around Radford, written when he was 14 and published in 1970 with an introduction by Alan Sillitoe, has gone straight on to my ‘To Read’ list, as have works by the likes of Dorothy Whipple (whose books include They Knew Mr Knight, which was also turned into a film) and Cecil Roberts (finally I know why there is a place in Nottingham’s Central Library called the Cecil Roberts Room).

I’ve learnt that the Rev. Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, an edition of whose famous book, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, has been resting on my shelves for years, lived in Edwinstowe towards the end of his life and is buried there, and I’ve discovered more about J R R Tolkien’s connection with Gedling.

If the mood takes me, thanks to information contained in the book, I can have a wander over to, for example, Nottingham’s General Cemetery and visit the last resting places of the likes of Ruth Bryan, Ann Gilbert, Anne Gilbert, Josiah Gilbert, Anthony Hervey, Henry Hogg, Annie Matheson, Robert Millhouse, Charles Bell Taylor and Sarah Agnes Turk.

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers has opened my eyes to the extent of the literary tradition that we have in this unfairly overlooked county of ours.

in the Nottinghamshire volume of his Buildings of England series, Nikolaus Pevsner wrote, ‘As far as natural attractions go, there is indeed Sherwood Forest, but otherwise the countryside has little of outstanding beauty… In its history also Nottinghamshire is not marked by many events of prime national importance’, while Jeremy Clarkson apparently once referred to Nottinghamshire as ‘a non-county, like Staffordshire – just there to fill the gaps.’

By introducing us to such a wide range of authors who celebrate all things Notts (well, mostly – you’re not off the hook just yet, Greene), Rowena Edlin-White has made a huge contribution towards helping Nottinghamshire to assume its rightful place at the table, and I highly recommend that you seek her book out.