Tag Archives: Nottinghamshire

Newark-on-Trent, The English Civil War and The Castle

Newark Civil War Statue

After leaving the church I made my way through the elegant streets of Newark passing by half timbered medieval houses, grand Georgian mansions and rows of traditional shops.  In places it reminded me of The Shambles in York but without the crowds or the tourist tat shops.

My next destination was the National Civil War Museum because since my Dad bought me an Airfix model kit of Oliver Cromwell in about 1960 I have always been fascinated by the English Civil War.  I think this was a defining moment in my life, I immediately became a Roundhead, a Parliamentarian and later a socialist, on the side of the people fighting against wealth, influence, privilege and injustice.

There was also an Airfix model of Charles I but I had Cromwell first.

Crowell Charles Airfix

I also blame a book my Dad gave me about British heroes in which Cromwell was included but Charles Stuart wasn’t.

An illustration from the book…

Oliver Cromwell

In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll to identify the Greatest Briton and Cromwell came tenth, hard to believe that he could come behind Diana, Princess of Wales  and John Lennon but there you are, such is the nature of these polls and the mentality of the people who vote.  Two thousand years of history and Princess Diana and John Lennon make the top ten.  It leaves me speechless.

Due to its strategic significance linking north of the country with the south Newark had an important part to play in the Civil War and the town and its castle supported the Royalist cause and suffered in three destructive sieges which brought destruction, pestilence and disease to the town.  Parliamentary forces and their Scottish allies were desperate to oust the Royalist garrison. The last siege saw over sixteen thousand troops seal off the Nottinghamshire town and dam a river to stop water mills producing bread and gunpowder. An outbreak of typhus and plague added to Newark’s woes as the population swelled to six thousand as people fled to the town from the countryside, creating near starvation conditions.

A third of the inhabitants died and one in six buildings were destroyed.  Despite this calamity, the Royalist troops refused to give in.  The garrison were brave supporters of the King and the Cavaliers but eventually were obliged to surrender upon the inevitable capture of Charles.

It is an interesting museum but I found it a little disappointing, it is rather small and although it has some interesting exhibits the information boards and displays give only facts but not interpretation.  I wanted more than iron breast plates and plumed hats, more than flintlocks and helmets but I guess museums like these are for tourists rather than historians.

Newark Civil War Museum

I have always considered the English Civil War to be the most important conflict of modern Europe because this was a revolution which provided a blueprint for those that followed, principally the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The revolution begins with the moderates calling for reasonable and restrained reform for the exclusive benefit of the aforementioned wealthy and privileged who wanted even more power and wealth.  The problem with moderates of course is that they are on the whole reasonable people but by beginning a process of reform they provide an opportunity  for radicals and agitators to go much further and the English Revolution like those that followed swiftly gained pace.  After the radicals came the extremists, then war, then terror, then regicide.

The English Civil War swept away the supremacy of the Church of England, ended the Divine Right of Kings and embodied the principal of Parliamentary Sovereignty into UK politics.  It was the end of medieval feudalism and paved the way for the agrarian and industrial revolutions of the next century.  At its most radical period it introduced the principals of socialism and even communism through the power of the New Model Army and the social ambitions of the Diggers and the Levellers, both proto-socialist political movements.

It is a shame that King Charles had his head cut off but even after sixty years or so of being given that Airfix model I confess that I remain a loyal Roundhead rather than a Cavalier.

One thing that I did learn at the museum is that musket balls were made from lead and that 1lb of lead would make twelve balls and that this is the origin of the twelve bore shotgun.

Newark Castle 01

I finished my day at the ruins of Newark Castle. Prior to the Civil War it was a grand medieval showpiece fortress but today it is an empty shell. The Parliamentarian forces blew it up and left it derelict to make sure that it could never again be used as a royalist obstacle to parliamentary supremacy.  After the troops were obliged to leave it fell into disrepair and to the mercy of stone thieves who dismantled it as a convenient supply of building material until we are left with what we see today.

It is still rather grand, especially when viewed from the opposite bank of the River Trent but beyond the outer east wall nothing remains except the ghosts of history and pleasant modern gardens.

I had enjoyed my day at Newark-on-Trent and as I drove away I thought to myself that it was about time that I spent more days in the United Kingdom.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Newark-on-Trent, Roman Roads and Polish War Heroes

Newark Church

My friend Dai Woosnam often chastises me for being too eager to jump on a plane and fly to Europe when there are so many places in England that I have so far neglected to visit.  He is astonished for example that I have never been to the city of Bath and to be honest I am astonished myself that I have never visited the city of Bath.

My excuse for not visiting Bath is that it is two hundred miles away but I have no good reason not to have visited the town of Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire which is about thirty miles away and I bypass it regularly as I drive to visit my family in Derbyshire.  I have often stated my intention to go but just never got around to it.

Then suddenly one sunny morning I decided that I would do it because for some time I have wanted to visit the National Civil War Museum and the market town with a manufacturing and transport heritage which also has a ruined castle and a long and interesting history.  All of the things that I like.

Newark Market Place

My visit began with a walk around the main square which today was host to the weekly Saturday market which was busy and vibrant and I scratched my head in disbelief that I had never been to this fine place with an eclectic mix of medieval, Georgian and modern buildings almost as though York meets Cheltenham meets Coventry.

The town has always been geographically important because it sits at the crossroads of the Great North Road (the A1) and the Fosse Way (A46) and provided an important crossing point over the River Trent.  It is almost certain that there was a Roman garrison here but here is no archaeological evidence of that because the whole of the Trent Valley has always been subject to severe flooding and anything the Romans left behind will almost certainly be at the bottom of the North Sea.

A Roman service area on the Fosse Way…

Fosse Way Service Station

To measure the importance of a place I like to see how far the name has travelled and in the USA for example sixteen states have their own Newark – Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Vermont.

I may have mentioned before that I am not an enthusiastic shopper so I moved on.  Close to the Market is the  Church of St Mary Magadalene, one of the largest in the County and notable for the tower and the octagonal spire which at two hundred and thirty six feet is the highest in Nottinghamshire and claimed to be the fifth tallest in the United Kingdom.

Newark Church Exterior

As I explored the various areas of the church looking at the usual things that you do in a religious house I came across an interesting memorial stone laid into the floor of the nave…

Władysław Sikorski

Who was General Władysław Sikorski I wondered and what was he doing here in Newark-on-Trent?

It turns out that he was a very important man indeed.  During the Second World War, Sikorski was Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile in London and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces.

Wladyslaw Sikorski

In July 1943 he made a visit to Polish troops in North Africa but on his return the plane carrying him tragically plunged into the sea immediately after take off from Gibraltar, killing all on board except the pilot. The exact circumstances of Sikorski’s death remain unclear, continue to be disputed and have given rise to a number of different theories surrounding the crash and his death including sabotage and assassination.  Sikorski had been the most important leader of the Polish exiles and his death was a severe setback for the Polish cause.

His body was returned to England and Sikorski was buried in a brick-lined grave at the Polish War Cemetery at Newark-on-Trent.

Why Newark-on Trent? Well, during the Second World War there were a number of RAF stations within a few miles of Newark from many of which operated squadrons of the Polish Air Force. A special plot was set aside in Newark Cemetery for airmen burials and this is now the war graves plot where all of the three hundred and ninety-seven Polish RAF caualties and burials were made.

According to Wiki – A total of 145 Polish fighter pilots served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, making up the largest non-British contribution. By the end of the war, around 19,400 Poles were serving in the Polish Air Force in Great Britain and in the RAF”

It is a shame that certain sections of English society make such a negative fuss about Polish immigrants today.

In accordance with his wishes General Sikorski’s remains were returned to Poland in 1993 to the royal crypts at Wawel Castle in Kraków but there is still a memorial to him at Newark.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Next time in Newark I am at the National Civil War Museum and the Castle.

Lincolnshire to Cornwall, Twelve English Counties

Counties of England

Once a year I generally take a holiday in the UK with my daughter and grandchildren.  In previous years I have been to East Anglia, Yorkshire and Wales but on account of the distance never to Cornwall in the extreme South West.  An Australian motorist would no doubt consider four hundred miles to be a drive to the mini-market to get a loaf of bread but in England this is generally considered to be a long way and an arduous journey that requires rather a lot of meticulous planning.

I live in Lincolnshire which is on the north east coast so a journey to Cornwall requires a drive in a diagonal direction right across the country from north-east to south-west.  As I plotted my journey it occurred to me that I was going to pass through twelve (25%) of the forty-eight Counties of England so I thought that I might take you with me.

To be clear here I am talking about the traditional historic counties of England such as Warwickshire and not modern administrative areas such as for example the West Midlands.

01 Lincolnshire

So, the journey begins in Lincolnshire where I have lived for almost twenty years, at first in the South in the farming town of Spalding but now in the North in the fishing town of Grimsby.  It is the second largest County in England and even though my destination was south we began by going north because this is the quickest way out of the County using its only motorway, the M18, to go east towards Yorkshire.

The White Rose County of Yorkshire is the largest in England and for administrative convenience was once divided into Ridings, North, West and East, but no obvious fourth and I wondered why? Well it turns out that there is a simple explanation because the word Riding is derived from a Danish word ‘thridding’, meaning a third. The invading Danes called representatives from each Thridding to a Thing, or Parliament and established the Ridings System.

To this day, Yorkshire consists of three ridings, along with the City of York, and that’s why there is no fourth, or South, Riding (but to confuse matters there is a modern administrative area of South Yorkshire). I once lived for a short time in Yorkshire in the North Yorkshire town of Richmond.

02 Yorkshire

We drove through a part of the West Riding (South Yorkshire) past the town of Doncaster and the steel city of Sheffield and driving south now slipped into Nottinghamshire in the North Midlands and into Robin Hood country. I have never lived in Nottinghamshire but I did work there once between 1987 and 1990 in the town of Arnold.

03 Nottinghamshire

Shortly after that we were in Derbyshire following the route of the Erewash Valley, an area of great mineral wealth, particularly coal, extending from Yorkshire and into Leicestershire.  I lived and worked in Derbyshire for almost fifteen years before moving to Lincolnshire and we passed close to the town of Ilkeston where my family still do.

04 Derbyshire05 Leicestershire

After Derbyshire the M1 motorway took us into Leicestershire, the County of my birth and boasting the finest football team in England and then into Warwickshire, the County where I lived and grew up from 1960 until 1980 in the town of Rugby famous for its public school and for Rugby Football after William Webb Ellis cheated at soccer and picked up the ball and ran with it.

Warwickshire is probably most famous for William Shakespeare and for a short time (just a year) I lived in Stratford-upon-Avon.

06 Warwickshire

We passed through the West Midlands and close to the city of Birmingham and then into the rural county of Worcestershire, briefly into the farming county of Herefordshire and the town of Ross-on-Wye and on into Gloucestershire where we were breaking the journey with a two night stop at my Sister’s home in Lydney in the Forest of Dean because two hundred miles is just about the limit that most people will drive in just one day so a break half way seemed to make good sense.

07 Hereford & Worcester09 Gloucestershire

I will return later to tell you about the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley but for now I will continue my drive through the English Counties but before I can I have to report that we crossed for a short while out of England and into Wales and drove through the County of Monmouthshire before crossing the Bristol Channel and back into England and the County of Somerset

10 Somerset11 Devon

Now we were in the West Country but still with two hundred miles to our final destination.  The west country counties are all quite large so it took a while to pass through Somerset (seventh largest) and then through Devon (fourth largest) before we finally crossed the River Tamar into Cornwall (twelfth largest).  The Tamar almost completely separates Cornwall from the rest of England and is a geographical dividing line that kept Cornwall as somewhere rather remote and mysterious up until relatively recently.

The most westerly point of Cornwall and England is Land’s End but we weren’t going that far and fifty miles of so before the land ran out we drove to our holiday home in the fishing port of Mevagissey.

12 Cornwall

Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood and the Major Oak

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Although I lived for many years close to Nottingham in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire I never in all that time visited Sherwood Forest or the Major Oak.

I think it was because driving anywhere north of Derby and Nottingham was such a pain in the backside as it involved driving through one small town after another through a succession of bottlenecks. I always preferred to head north-west towards the Peak District attractions.

I thought it might be easier approaching it from the north but this turned out to be a false hope as this also involved driving through one small town after another through a succession of bottlenecks and the sixty mile journey from Grimsby took nearly two hours.

We were visiting Sherwood Forest upon the request of my grandson who has lately developed an interest in Robin Hood but the journey took so long that as we approached he declared himself bored and that he had changed his mind. I told him firmly that this wasn’t an option and when we eventually arrived we paid the £3 parking fee and followed a forest trail into the greenwood.

Sherwood Forest is now a small country park and National Nature Reserve but at the time of the Doomsday Book (1086) it is estimated to have covered a quarter of the county of Nottinghamshire and extended into Derbyshire to the west and Lincolnshire to the east. Over the years it was cut down for fire wood, building materials, land clearance for farming and to build the ships for the British Navy of Horatio Nelson but it was still big enough today to fill an afternoon of moderate activity.

Like most English boys I have always liked the stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, I grew up watching Richard Greene in the TV series ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ and at Saturday Morning Pictures watched Errol Flynn in the 1938 movie also called ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.

errol-flynn-robin-hood-archery

We made our way to the Major Oak which according to folklore was Robin Hood’s hideout where he and his merry men met and plotted against the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Hole in the Tree Gang perhaps? It weighs an estimated twenty-three tonnes, has a girth of more than thirty feet, a canopy of ninety feet and is about eight hundred to a thousand years old.  In a 2002 survey it was voted “Britain’s favourite tree” and in 2014 it was voted ‘England’s Tree of the Year’ in a public poll by the Woodland Trust.

This is the Major Oak:  on account of its great age it now needs an arboreal zimmer-frame and support to keep it standing and according to the information board it gets a health check every day.  If this thing dies it will be another Princess Diana moment in the history of our Nation.

Major Oak

Woodland people believe that spirits live in the Forest and as we walked we passed by several other impressive oak trees and if you look closely you might just see some of them.

Spirits of Sherwood

In 1971 Walt Disney made his own Robin Hood Film just called ‘Robin Hood’, Robin was portrayed as a fox and on the trunk of an ancient oak I found him being carried through the Forest by Darth Vader!. Look hard, it is there, take it from me!

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No one knows if there really was a Robin Hood, no compelling evidence has ever been found or presented. The traditional story line is that he was a sort of proto-socialist, a thirteenth century idealist who redistributed wealth in a popular campaign of ‘robbing the rich to feed the poor’. Even today most people seem to like this idea and hold him up as a hero of the people. Some things change however and today the leader of the Labour Party in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn who proposes similar egalitarian policies is mocked and hated by the rich and privileged.

If there was no such person as Robin Hood my favourite story then has to be that he was an incarnation of the English folklore character The Green Man, a mythical creature who symbolises optimism, regeneration and rebirth. Mabe this explains the legend of Robin Hood? A time when Saxon rule would reaffirm itself over the Norman oppressors, a time when King Richard would return to oversee the welfare of his own people, a time when their practical Pagan faith and beliefs would not be persecuted by an increasingly influential, and affluent Norman Church.

Three Cheers for Robin Hood! Actually this theory is central to another Robin Hood Film of 1991 starring Patrick Bergin unimaginatively called ‘Robin Hood’ and which (in my opinion) was vastly superior to the Kevin Costner film of the same year called ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’. Some people may probably disagree.

Patrick Bergin Robin Hood

Anyway, if you ever get to visit Sherwood Forest and the Major Oak, be sure to keep a look out for the spirits of the Forest. These are my three…

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