Ey up me duck! There’s plenty to see and do in the East Midlands city of Nottingham on your trip to England.
If Robin Hood is the first thing you associate with the city of Nottingham, you’re not alone. Many international tourists tend to bypass the East Midlands city, resigning the tales of Sherwood Forest and the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham to the past. They’re missing out, since the real Nottingham has lots to see and enjoy that has nothing to do with its fictitious hero. An ancient city built on a network of hewn out caves, Nottingham’s history and attractions include Britain’s only underground tannery, its oldest operating pub, the National Justice Museum, and even the National Videogame Arcade.
City of Caves
Nottingham is famous as the UK’s City of Caves, built atop a sandstone ridge with a vast network of underground caverns running beneath its streets. Broadmarsh Shopping Centre may be one of the most reviled buildings in Nottingham (several architectural facelifts have done nothing to win over the locals), but it houses the entrance to one of the city’s most intriguing attractions, the City of Caves, where the public can tour a small section of Nottingham’s historic underworld.
Over 500 sandstone caves have been found to date, hollowed out of the soft sandstone beneath the city of Nottingham. Over 100 of these were discovered only in the last ten years, making the charting of Nottingham’s underground history a fascinating ongoing process. The first caves appear to have been dug by the Saxons as early as the 6th century. One of the city’s earliest names, Tigguo Cobauc, is an ancient term meaning “Place of Caves.” The caves have served as houses, cellars, factories, storage houses, a tannery, gambling dens, air raid shelters, and other structures throughout their history, right up to the present day.
A tour through “The City of Caves” takes in a number of highlights including Britain’s only underground tannery, used in medieval times, an air raid shelter used during the bombings of World War 2, and a typical residence from the former slum of Drury Hill, located roughly where Broadmarsh now stands.
The National Justice Museum, Nottingham Castle, and the Real Sheriff of Nottingham
The City of Caves operates as part of the National Justice Museum, found a short walk away on High Pavement. This slightly grim attraction – once the site of public hangings and used as a courthouse as recently as the 1980s – is lightened up a bit by local historians who run richly informative tours of the site’s courthouse and former prison, all in period character and dress. The tour invites visitors to explore the courthouse, cells, and stories of crime and punishment in Nottingham throughout its history. It’s an experience that history buffs and family vacationers alike shouldn’t miss on their trip to England.
As for the local lore, if Robin Hood had existed (and been caught), he would have in fact been brought here, rather than to Nottingham Castle. There is however a real Sheriff of Nottingham, and the office is currently occupied by a woman. The city’s only monument to its fictional hero stands outside the walls of Nottingham Castle, which isn’t half as medieval or grand as you might think. Though it does date back to the 11th century, the “castle” has been destroyed more than once by fire, and currently takes the form of a mansion housing an art museum. A planned redevelopment will re-imagine the building as a museum detailing the site’s history.
While you’re in the castle neighbourhood however, follow the wall downhill to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, claimed to be the oldest operating pub in England. There are others who dispute this of course (two of them are also in Nottingham), but Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem’s claim is generally the most accepted. Carved into the rock face beneath the castle, this unique pub offers a cozy atmosphere, excellent meals, a decent local brew, tales of resident ghosts, and a supposedly cursed model shipwreck.
A History of Lace, a Future of Art, and the “National Gallery” of Videogames
Though you won’t find much of it around in the present day, while on your trip to England, Nottingham was perhaps best known for its lace making, from the 17th century right up until World War 2. With the city’s lace and textile industries (among others) at their peak during the Industrial Revolution, Nottingham has been at the front line of industrial and labour movements throughout England’s history. The term “Luddite” has its origins in the city, named for a group of workers who protested threats against their jobs from new machinery in the early 19th century. You can learn more about the Luddite rebellion, which ended in the last hangings of “criminals” charged with an offence other than murder, at the National Justice Museum.
A couple of doors down, you’ll find the stark modern architecture of the Nottingham Contemporary. This small but engaging contemporary art museum fascinates with a rotating roster of challenging work. It’s also free to visit. At the other end of the Lace Market, you’ll find one of the more unusual museums in Britain, devoted to a very different medium of art. The National Videogame Arcade is a must-visit for geeks of every stripe, with a collection that has seen it nicknamed, “The National Gallery of video games.” Open Friday to Sunday, try to go early in the morning. You’ll have the games mostly to yourself, plus your ticket allows you to come and go throughout the day, just in case you have more fun than you expect and fancy a second round. A devoted gamer can lose an entire day in here, playing both famous classics and obscure gems on machines dating from the 1970s through to the present day.
Getting Out of Town
Nottingham’s central location makes it an ideal base for day trips throughout England’s Midlands. You also don’t have to go far on your trip to England to find the homes and haunts of some of the country’s most important creative figures.
Obviously, one big attraction about an hour from town is Sherwood Forest. The forest has retreated somewhat since the “Robin Hood” era, but still offers a great opportunity to immerse yourself in nature and perhaps see some of the creatures native to England’s woodlands. You’re also not far from the Peak District, one of the most picturesque regions in the whole country. Literary buffs can visit the DH Lawrence Birthplace Museum, or Newstead Abbey, the former family home of Lord Byron. Several pretty historic towns also sit on Nottingham’s doorstep, particularly Newark, where the castle ruin is free to explore, and Lincoln, famous for its stunning cathedral.
City of Foodies – Nottingham’s Best Pub and Food Stops
We’ve mentioned Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem already, but Nottingham is one of England’s best small cities when it comes to dining and drinking on your trip to England. We’re not going to try and name all Nottingham’s best places to eat here. Worthwhile stops range from the Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains (book well in advance), to the wealth of affordable eats catering to the city’s large student population. These are just a few local favourites.
Few Nottingham institutions are more beloved than the eerie Pit and Pendulum. This iconic pub serves up a wide range of tasty and affordable English favourites, alongside a wide variety of drink offerings. Then, there’s the décor, which borrows from Gothic, Steampunk, Vincent Price, and Hammer Horror movies in equal measure, all without ever feeling like it’s suffocating under a kitschy theme. Offers like two-for-one desserts and two main meals for less than 10 pounds make this a terrific place to enjoy pub fare on the cheap. The bathroom concealed behind a false bookshelf is a nice touch too.
If this flirtation with the dark side leaves you in need of some religion, drop by Pitcher & Piano. Conveniently located between the National Justice Museum and the Nottingham Contemporary, this upscale pub is set in a stunning former church. The building isn’t quite as old as it seems, but the instant wow factor of its interior, complete with spectacular stained glass windows and a tasty menu (including breakfast and brunch) makes it a Nottingham favourite.
Many of the UK’s best gourmet chains have arrived in the city as well, including Pieminister, which spruces up the humble British meat pie with an impressive variety of fillings and trimmings. On the sweeter side of life, order up a sugar coma in a bowl or glass at Creams Café, home to waffles, sundaes, shakes, crepes, and other desserts that defy description and probably your doctor’s advice.