A few more Nottingham pubs


(c) The Doctor’s Orders


The planners have done damage to Nottingham over the years, but the city has managed to hang on to some important items from one area of its architectural heritage – its pubs.  I’ve lived in other English cities, such as Norwich and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where it’s taken me several weeks to locate half-a-dozen old-style pubs that I’ve really, really enjoyed drinking in.  In Nottingham, I’d managed to find half-a-dozen such pubs within about three days.


Nottingham is a centre for micro-beer-breweries (such as Alcazar, Castle Rock, Full Mash and Magpie).  This means that a higher-than-average number of bars there stock traditional real ales and the Nottingham branch of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), the organisation for non-corporate beer-lovers, is correspondingly strong.  CAMRA also concerns itself with the preservation of traditional pubs, resisting efforts to sell them off to property developers or, almost as bad, to ‘modernise’ them and convert them into shiny plastic hellholes blasting with loud music, flashing with fruit-machine lights and crowded with hen and stag parties.  So no doubt the strength of CAMRA in Nottingham has played a role in keeping some, at least, of those old hostelries intact.


I’ve mentioned some pubs already in previous entries about Nottingham – the three contenders for title of oldest pub in town, if not in England, the Trip, the Salutation and the Bell Inn; and those bars along the city’s admirable Mansfield Road, including the Peacock, the Lincolnshire Poacher and the Golden Fleece.  I thought that in this, my final entry about Nottingham, I would mention a couple more.


Tucked away on St James Street in the city centre, the entrance of the Malt Cross (http://www.maltcross.com/) is easy to miss – especially as the area is often infested with stag and hen-party revellers and serious pub and beer-lovers don’t like to dilly-dally there.  However, once you pass through its doors, you’re in for a treat, because the Malt Cross is actually a former music hall, one that was built in 1877.  There’s a spacious bar area on the ground floor, while stairs ascend to a wide first-floor balcony that looks down on the bar from three sides.  Above that, there’s an arched roof of glass and wood – the curved wooden beams don’t contain any nails or bolts and were apparently glued into position in the 19th century – which makes the Malt Cross an atmospheric place to have a drink while the rain is pattering down overhead.  It’s just a pity that some modern (i.e. hideous) items of city-centre architecture intrude on the view from the glass roof.


Meanwhile, in the Carrington area of Mansfield Road is the Doctor’s Orders (http://www.doctorsordersmicropub.co.uk/), which has been in existence for less than a year.  Founded by three real-ale lovers called Prakash Ross, Rob Arthur and Rich Burns, the pub occupies the premises of a former pharmacy and its drinking area consists of a front room that doesn’t even have a bar-counter – there’s merely a window looking into a cooling room where the pub’s casks of real ale are stored.  For service, one of the three proprietors takes your order and brings the requested real ale (or authentic, properly-strong cider) to your table.  As well as lacking a counter, the drinking room is devoid of TV screens, games machines and jukeboxes and to amuse themselves the clientele have to rely on more traditional means of entertainment – human conversation.  Which, once upon a time, was what all pubs were about.


Finally, in the retailing centre of Nottingham (and opposite a branch of the bland pub-chain The Slug and Lettuce), you’ll find Foreman’s (https://www.facebook.com/ForemansBar), a small punk rock-themed bar complete with a Union Jack, featuring a Sex Pistols-style safety-pinned Queen’s face, stuck across its cave-like ceiling.  While I was drinking in Foreman’s, I noticed that Henry Cluney, original guitarist with the legendary Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers, was scheduled to perform there in the near-future, although I wasn’t quite sure where he was expected to play – the pub’s interior is cramped indeed.


As a joke (I trust) the staff of Foreman’s had stuck up behind the bar a 2013 Cliff Richard photo-calendar depicting the saintly, clean-cut Cliff striking various faux-sexy poses on various tropical beaches.  While I was drinking there, a little old lady approached the bar and asked the barman to take the calendar down and pass it across to her for a minute.  She then started stroking the uppermost picture of Cliff while the calendar lay on the countertop.  I’m not kidding.


In praise of Mansfield Road


If I were Ban-Ki Moon, I would order UNESCO to slap World Heritage Site status onto Mansfield Road in Nottingham immediately.  With so many of Britain’s cities and towns these days resembling barren concrete moonscapes, populated only by dreary chain stores, flavourless fast-food outlets and anonymous Sky Sports-dominated pubs, Mansfield Road – at least, the section of it that runs from Nottingham city-centre to the intersection with Forest Road East and Mapperley Road – offers a rare and precious commodity: retailing biodiversity.


Located at the corner with Forest Road East is a shop called Twisted Playground, which sounds slightly like the Android Dungeon run by Comic-Book Guy in The Simpsons; though rather than selling comic-books it sells action figures and alternative clothing.  The Retro-Costume Hire shop next door is, alas, closed, but Twisted Playground has been given permission to display its wares in its empty neighbour’s window-space.  I bought a rather natty Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt in this store.  Now you can’t buy that in f***ing Topshop.



All good shopping streets have at least one decent second-hand bookstore and Mansfield Road is no exception.  Geoff Blore’s Bookshop occupies some premises that may once have belonged to a provincial law firm – at least, that’s the impression given by the stately name Jermy and Westerman that occupies the top of the shop’s frontage.  The walls of its ground floor are lined from ceiling to floor with shelves and those shelves are stuffed to the gills with old books, including many orange-spined Penguin ones.  Moreover, when you venture up this establishment’s stairs – the staircase walls are packed with books too – you discover a couple of first-floor rooms that are literary Aladdin’s caves, loaded with countless more books.  After my first visit there I emerged bearing volumes written by Ambrose Bierce, Ian Fleming, T.H. White, Banana Yoshimoto, Jack Vance and Eric Linklater.  Now you can’t buy those in f***ing W.H. Smith.



There’s also a second-hand record store called Good Vibrations – which isn’t, as far as I know, connected with the famous store of the same name operated in Belfast by the legendary Terri Hooley.  Much of its stock consists of vinyl records, although I did discover a CD called The Great Beast Speaks, a collection of recordings made by the notorious early 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley.  Now you can’t buy that in f***ing Tesco.



Other outlets that spice up the shopping experience on Mansfield Road include a doughty, old style hardware store called Stones; a private art gallery called Paige and Sivier; a musical instrument shop with a row of acoustic guitars in its window called Dave Mann’s Music – Dave Mann, incidentally, sounds like the name of a guitarist in a middle-league 1960s rhythm-and-blues band; a second musical instrument shop called Kai Dase Violins, which has a corner window protected by black metal rails and, standing behind those rails like a rare species of zoo animal, three upright cellos; a speciality clothes-shop with the self-explanatory title Harding’s Dancewear; a retro 1960s / 1970s clothing outlet called Daphne’s Handbag; and a strange wee shop selling slightly-antique items such as lava lamps, mirrorballs, cocktail shakers, curvy plastic 1960s chairs and clacketty old typewriters.  That last shop resembles a tiny exhibition room in a gallery of modern art and it was only open once during the many times that I passed it.



The street is also strong on the culinary front.  It boasts Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Jamaican and Turkish eateries and even the small supermarkets that appear along its length are often ethnic in character – I spotted Mediterranean, Caribbean and Eastern European / Russian ones.


The pubs there are generally very good too.  Even at its central-Nottingham end, just before the surroundings give way to concrete city-centre blandness, Mansfield Road is home to The Peacock, an antiquated, sedate and nicely-upholstered bar where D.H. Lawrence is supposed to have hung out, and Koegh’s, a rare Irish pub that actually has some Irish people in it.  Heading away from the centre, you encounter the Golden Fleece, well-known for the quality of its Sunday lunches and also for the live bands who sometimes perform on a stage at its rear; the cosy old real-ale stronghold The Lincolnshire Poacher; the Hard to Find Cafe, which is neither a café nor is particularly hard to find; the Loft, a trendy but cramped (squeezed into two narrow floors on its building’s first and second storeys) music club; and, at the Forest Road end of the street, The Maze, another live-music place with a two-o’clock bar licence on Friday and Saturday nights.



Among the upcoming attractions advertised at the Maze while I was drinking there were the long-lost (and not particularly missed) punk / ‘Oi’ band The Cockney Rejects, and a Pantera tribute band called Pantera 101%.  The fact that Pantera now have their own tribute band suggests that there can’t be anyone in the world who doesn’t, somewhere, have a tribute band dedicated to them.  The public-bar part of the Maze sports a gallery of framed black-and-white photos of the greatest names in rock-and-roll.  I was delighted to see that, among the likes of Elvis, Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and co, there was a portrait of the hard-rockin’ Lancashire legend that was George Formby, defiantly wielding his ‘axe’ (well, his banjo).



The street is, sadly, scarred by a couple of derelict premises.  There’s a second, now-abandoned record shop whose permanently-closed shutters are emblazoned with the memorable line of graffiti: Reality continues to ruin my life.  Another former shop used to sell ‘wigs, masks, fancy dress and party goods’.  And there’s an empty venue whose sign bears the mysterious wording King Oliver Trading Cards / John Priestly Autographs.



If I was ever put under ‘postal-district arrest’ and was ordered to remain in one small neighbourhood, never to step out over its borders, I think I’d be perfectly happy if the neighbourhood of my confinement was the stretch of Mansfield Road I’ve just described.  Everything necessary to meet my physical, mental and spiritual needs is there.  Why go anywhere else?


My pub’s older than your pub



You might not think it while you survey the brutalist architecture of the multi-storey car-parks, Travelodges and concrete 1960s-esque colleges littering its centre, but Nottingham is a historic city.  Particularly historic are a trio of pubs in central Nottingham: the Bell Inn on Angel Row, whose outside sign dates it to 1437 while the blurb on the neighbouring wall identifies it as ‘Nottingham’s Oldest Pub’; the Salutation on Maid Marion Way, which claims to have done business since 1240; and snuggling by the rock beneath Nottingham Castle just off Castle Road, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which, supposedly founded in 1189, boasts that it’s ‘the oldest inn in England’.  That last hostelry, popularly known as ‘The Trip’, gets its name from a story that Richard I stopped there for some liquid refreshment before embarking on a crusade in the Holy Lands.  And in fact in those days the word ‘trip’ didn’t mean a journey, but a stop-off during a journey.



Inevitably, there have been arguments about which of the three pubs is really the most venerable.  Investigations by historian Dr David Cross in 2012, which looked at the tree rings in the wooden beams within the buildings, suggested that the Trip only dated back to the 17th century while both the Bell Inn and the Salutation originated in the first half of the 15th century.  In other words, the Bell Inn had been the most honest in its claims.  However, Cross was only calculating the pubs’ ages in terms of the buildings standing now.  Supporters of the Trip’s claims to antiquity point out that there were caves in the pub’s vicinity, which may have been used as Nottingham Castle’s ‘brewhouse’ from the 12th century.  Therefore, there could indeed have been a functioning pub, a subterranean one, operating on the site at the time of the crusades.  Then again, the Salutation has caves underneath it that supposedly go back to the 9th century, so in the cave stakes it might actually predate the Trip.



Desperate to drink in Nottingham’s (and possibly England’s) oldest pub, but confused as which pub was actually the oldest, I took no chances – I went and drank in all three of them.  The Trip is beautifully situated at the base of the castle (although the view from it is damaged by the hulking concrete presence of the City College across the road) and makes a pleasant place for an afternoon pint.  However, the small size of the bar-counter-areas means that the place isn’t particularly well equipped to deal with the volume of custom it attracts – which includes tourists who’ve just been on the nearby Robin Hood tours and, at the weekends, hen and stag parties limbering up for the drunken evenings ahead.  The Bell Inn is a slightly less touristy pub.  As you enter it, you realise that the entrance corridor was once an alleyway.  What had been three separate premises on the sides and at the end of the alleyway have been converted into the pub’s three bar-rooms.  I assume it’s the low-ceilinged, wooden-beamed room on the right that claims to date back to 1437.



Meanwhile, the Salutation is, in the 21st century, an unashamedly rock-and-roll pub.  The juke box plays heavy metal music and, when I was there, the snug bars off the main bar area were populated with Goths.  As such, I believe it has the greatest claim to antiquity – after all, in medieval days, with the clink and clash of sword-blades, lances, shields and knights’ armour, life was undeniably metallic; and the era was also unquestionably gothic.


Brian and Byron



I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a temporary job in Nottingham.  Here’s a photo of some civic sculpture near the city square, commemorating legendary football manager Brian Clough, who was in charge of local side Nottingham Forest from 1975 to 1993.  During that time, Clough guided Forest to winning the League Cup four times and the European Cup twice.  My apologies for the unprofessionalism with which I took this photograph, which has ended up with a sign in the background seemingly indicating a public toilet lodged in Clough’s right armpit.


Although he died in 2004, there has since been a revival of interest in Clough thanks to David Peace’s book The Damned United.  This was a fictionalised account of Clough’s turbulent and troubled 44-day tenure at Leeds United, then the mightiest football team in England, in 1974.  It was filmed in 2008 with Michael Sheen in the main role.  I know that Clough’s family were upset by both the book and the film.  I haven’t read Peace’s novel, although if it’s anything like his Red Riding books, some of which I am familiar with, it must make grim reading.  However, I’ve seen the film and I didn’t think it portrayed Clough in a particularly unsympathetic light.  Michael Sheen looks nothing like Clough but he does a good job of capturing the cocktail of lovability and punch-ability that made the man such a fascinating character.


 (c) BBC Films


Meanwhile, located a few miles up the road between Nottingham and Mansfield is Newstead Abbey.  This was the ancestral home of Lord George Gordon Byron, doyen of the romantic poets.  In fact, you could say that Byron wrote the rulebook on how to be a romantic poet, including how a romantic poet should be attired.  (Though as Rowan Atkinson once sneered in Blackadder the Third, “There’s nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt, trying to get laid.”)


Byron actually lived at Newstead Abbey for just six years, from 1808 to 1814.  The building, though, dates back to the twelfth century and it has monastic origins.  Standing now as a lone façade is the famous, historic-monument-listed West Front, which was once part of a church built there in the 13th century.



Not being particularly conversant with the romantic movement, the little I knew about Byron consisted of a few poems (for example, Ozymandias) and a few facts about his life – his general notoriety, of course; his lameness; his keeping of a pet bear during his student days at Trinity College in Cambridge; his suspected incest with his half-sister; and that wild weekend party he had on the shores of Lake Geneva with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818, during which copious opium was smoked and copious hallucinations were experienced, and after which, somehow, Frankenstein was written by Mrs Shelley.  To be honest, I only know that last stuff from watching Ken Russell’s gloriously crazed horror film Gothic, made in 1987 and starring Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands.


(c) Virgin Films


Newstead Abbey now houses the Bryon Collection, a series of exhibits dedicated to the poet – so that when I arrived there one Sunday afternoon in September, I learned rather more about him.  For example, previously, I hadn’t known much about his death.  This occurred during the Greek War of Independence and was the result of a fever he caught in the Missolonghi Marshes the day before he was due to lead an attack on Lepanto.  Byron has since become a national hero in Greece, incidentally.


Less seriously, I liked this little exhibit about the intensely fashion-conscious Byron’s dress style.  It invites visitors to don ‘robes, shirts and tartan wraps’ and then inspect themselves in the mirror to see if they’ve achieved that vital ‘Byron look’, which made young ladies swoon in the 1810s and 1820s.  “The helmet,” visitors are instructed, “should be carried in the crook of your elbow – not worn on the head.”



You can also see Big Bad Byron’s bed, which he had transported to Newstead from his student rooms in Cambridge.  Also making that journey from Cambridge was his famous pet bear.  A guide in the building told me that the bear died after it escaped one day into the grounds.  The estate workers managed to recapture it, but when they tied a rope around its neck and attempted to drag it back to the house, they inadvertently throttled it.  Byron, who’d been away from Newstead at the time, was predictably displeased when he returned and discovered the fate that’d befallen his ursine pet.



And here’s a plaster bust of Byron, made two years after his death in 1826, standing by the majestic window in the building’s Grand Staircase.  Hanging at the top of the staircase, meanwhile, is Veronese’s grim, and somewhat homoerotic, painting Apollo flaying Marsyas.



Alas, I found in the building no mention of Ken Russell’s Gothic, in which Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands, playing Byron and Shelley, had got so memorably and melodramatically addled.


The grounds around Newstead Abbey are extensive and gorgeous.  They contain a lake, a pond, a ‘fernery’, and about ten different gardens, including Japanese, French, Spanish and ‘sub-tropical’ ones.  Indeed, a lot of people who’d turned up there seemed more interested in using the place as a recreational park and picnic area than going into and exploring the house.  For that reason, the walk along the estate’s long driveway wasn’t particularly pleasant as there were constant processions of cars coming and going.  I was also narked that cyclists and walkers had to pay a pound at the estate gates just to use the driveway, although later this was balanced out by the relatively cheap five pounds it cost to get into the house itself.


Thankfully, for part of the way, a woodland path runs through the trees parallel to the drive – it’s not far enough removed from the drive to spare walkers the noise of car-engines, but at least the vehicles are no longer passing them by mere inches.  Halfway along the woodland path, I stumbled across this strange sight – a mouldering tree-stump whose topmost surface had been covered with small, round stones, resembling eggs crowded onto a circular tray.  I don’t know anything about forestry or woodsman-ship, so I have no idea what this was for. Creepily, it looked a bit Blair Witch Project.