Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Nottinghamshire remains relatively unnoticed and unappreciated by travelers speeding through it on the Ml or the train. Though it is revered by cricketers for its hallowed ground at Trentbridge and romantically lodged in our imaginations through Robin Hood, it has never been part of the tourist trail. Factories and pit heads, power stations and pylons have sprouted amidst farms and villages, mild manors and ducal estates. D H Lawrence, Nottinghamshire’s famous son, accused the Victorian promoters of industry of condemning workers to ‘… ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meaningless and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love, ugly furniture, ugly houses… The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread.’ But this stalwart, unselfconscious county is full of hidden beauty, take Southwell for instance: there could be no more perfect small town in all England.

Southwell_Chapter_House1The road from Nottingham leads beside the valley of the mighty Trent through red brick villages and pretty farming country of small hills and pastureland. From miles away, you can see Southwell Minster, the Mother church of Nottinghamshire rising from the small hill town, like a large ship sailing above a sea of roofs. For 900 years the domain of the Archbishops of York who founded the college of secular canons here and who were responsible for all the buildings. It was only in 1884 that Southwell became a separate see.

The Minster stands in wide sweeps of greensward, some scattered with gravestones and covered in primroses in Spring. The Bishop’s manor and ruins of the Archbishops Palace border one side of the green, the handsome redbrick Vicars Court another and Westgate and Church Street full of elegant Georgian and Regency architecture, including several ravishing Prebendal houses, enclose the remainder. There is a peaceful air.

 The Minster is not daunting in that its scale is friendly, but its beauty is overwhelming. From the west it still looks the same as it did when the Normans first built it in the 1100s with its French looking conical hats on top of the towers. (Although rebuilt, they replicate what was there before.) Once through the great oak doors carved with lattice work and into the cool calm of the Romanesque nave, Patrick Reyntiens’ magnificent new stained glass window cannot fail to draw your eye west. It depicts hosts of angels and archangels and lifts the heart. When I visited, the afternoon sun struck shafts of light through all the south windows and lit the golden stone all through the minister as though it were part of it. The place was almost empty and completely silent.

I stayed in the small octagonal chapter house for a long time. Decorating the gables, capitals, spandrels and crockets of the 36 stalls which line the walls. ‘The Leaves of Southall’ are justly celebrated: hawthorn, oak, maple, hop, white bryony, vine, ivy, apple rose and buttercup leaves retain the crisp perfection of the day they were carved in the thirteenth century. They are the leaves of our countryside and their simple freshness, together with the symbolism they evoke are moving beyond compare.

Southwell is an elegant and pleasing town. The half timbered Saracens Head on Westgate, where Charles 1st spent his last night as a free man is quirkily romantic, the market square pocket- sized, King Street just the right scale to shop in, Burnham Grange famous for Byron’s visits when his mum lived there, but its the ancient apple tree in a cottage garden at the Eastern end of town that is the prize exhibit. Mr Bramley planted a pip in a pot in 1805 and 40 years later a local nursery man asked if he could take  cuttings from it. Bramley agreed on condition his name was attached to what became our favourite cooking apple.

Image: Wikimedia Commons /  Steve Cadman

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