The Nottingham necropolis

Rock Cemetery — at the corner of Mansfield Rd and Forest Rd West — is a much-loved Nottingham landmark, and one awash with history and legend.

In pre-Victorian times, the site was a sand mine. Sand was a household commodity in bygone days, used as a floor covering and an abrasive cleaning agent, and so the mine was an essential resource. An entrance to the mine can be located (but not accessed) on the opposite side of Mansfield Rd to the cemetery, hidden in plain sight behind bricks and a gateway. The mine is doubtless the source of several cave-based legends that surround Rock Cemetery. First-hand information recounted to me in 2014 has it that a tunnel stretches beneath the cemetery all the way to the old John Player factory in Radford, whilst the caves still visible in the sunken south-east corner of the cemetery were once known as Robin Hood’s caves as the famous outlaw was said to have taken refuge here in medieval times.

The site of the old town gallows is claimed by both St Andrew’s Church (whose rector tells me it was erected exactly where the modern font stands) and Rock Cemetery (with some claiming the noose and gibbet was situated on the relatively flat ground immediately beyond the modern gateway). Either way, visitors approaching Nottingham from the north would have seen some gruesome sights before they arrived at the town gate.

Several windmills once stood in the area, grinding flour for local bakers. Most were upon the land now occupied by the Forest Recreation Ground, but one was within boundaries of the modern cemetery. It was owned by Samuel Toyne, whose bakery was situated on what was then called Back Lane (now Wollaton Street).

The modern cemetery is a melancholy and eye-catching sight. There are crumbling angels, gothic headstones adorned with ivy, graves overgrown with grass and daisies, and caves that are now gated and inaccessible, but still visible. I created a slideshow of original photographs of the site accompanied by a version of Eternal Source of Light Divine by uber-talented local lass Rosie Abbot  — entitled Rock Cemetery: Garden of Angels — that you can view on YouTube here:

Playing the long game: Storytelling and the city

In 1997 I started writing a story as a form of therapy. I’d had some appalling and heart-breaking news, and found solace in putting my thoughts and feelings down on whatever you call the paper bit on a word processor.

I chose to write a fiction piece as I found I could be more honest and frank hiding behind the disguise of imaginary characters. I didn’t impose a deadline or particular structure on myself, I just wrote, and eventually the story naturally dovetailed to a conclusion of sorts. I didn’t plan chapters or anything, I just let the tale go wherever my imagination took me as I typed. Sometimes, I left whatever desk I’d been working at deeply surprised at the turns the tale had taken. It seemed to have a life of its own.

I lived down south in 1997, far away from Nottingham, and – I imagine as a result – my tale was deeply embedded in my home town. I was wrapping myself in a semi-fictional version of the city I loved, as a comfort. The real city was too painful at the time, as every street and landmark held painful, harrowing memories; not unpleasant in themselves, but reminders of who I had lost. I felt a traitor when I went back down south (where most of the tale was written) but writing the story seemed to allow ‘me’ to still be there by proxy. You’re allowed to have weird thoughts like that when you’re grieving. One kind review mentioned that the city itself appeared in the story as a character alongside the walking, talking ones, and I think that hits my feelings about Nottingham right on the head.

In the 1990s I loved going out in Nottingham, and did it a lot. I was quite good at it, but I guess anyone would be with that much practice. Subsequently, night life featured a lot in the story. When I read it now, I can smell the Marlboro Lights, see all the neon and taste the Becks all over again. Sometimes I wander about town nostalgically, checking places I used to go to and amusing myself with the memories that pop-up at the site of a particular building or street.

There’s a section in my tale (published as Born in Mid-Air) where the gradual disappearance of people in work clothes and their replacement by people dressed-up for a night on the town is compared to the changing of the guards. It’s imperfectly expressed, but I understand the younger me’s meaning. There’s a steady routine to life, a combination of mechanisms that work together to order the world.

It’s interesting as you get older because you start to see the routine on a wider scale as you play the long game. The tide goes in and the tide goes out; green leaves appear on a branch, decorate it for a time, then turn brown and fall; newspapers feature columns remembering the people who have died, and announcing the ones that have just been born.

If ever you find yourself heartbroken and appalled as I was in 1997 and need time out from the routine, take it. The world will still turn, and you’ll be able to fall back into step once you’re ready.

You can download Born in Mid-Air from Amazon for Kindle here.

Find the gap: Nottingham’s secret alleyways

For several centuries when Nottingham was expanding as a town it was riddled with narrow alleyways and cut-throughs that in some cases were unplanned gaps between the increasing number of buildings rather than deliberately conceived thoroughfares. The wide roads that make navigation simple (to the point of being boring) for us in the modern era have come about because of the increasing number of cars, buses, lorries and trams, but in bygone days a lane was considered adequate if it could accommodate two pedestrians side by side. Even ‘main roads’ only had to cope with occasional horse and carts. By the 1800s, the town was awash with ‘narrows’ accommodating houses, shops, and pubs for the increasing number of people flocking to the town to work in the booming textiles industry. How buildings situated in such places could be found by newcomers is a mystery to me, but I imagine it involved following rough directions and then chatting to locals nearer the destination.

King Street and Queen Street are very good examples of the change betwixt antiquity and modernity. Nowadays they are wide roads used by buses and delivery trucks (often simultaneously, and with fractious results!) but in days gone by they were the site of a notorious neighbourhood comprised of a number of crowded and labyrinthine alleyways. Prostitution used to be rife in the market square, and doubtless these discreet egresses played host to many a lewd encounter.

There are still a number of alleys and cut-throughs around the city centre which offer a glimpse of these narrows of yesteryear. Greyhound Street used to stretch between Long Row East all the way through to Parliament Street, but at some point was curtailed into the odd shape we see today.

Hurts Yard (connecting Upper Parliament Street with Angel Row) maintains its original route and many of its original buildings. A surprising number of businesses are housed in this thoroughfare.

Norfolk Place is a frequently overlooked alley from Theatre Square to the Market Square. Backlash clothing’s ripped and tattered sign can still be seen on the white building at the northern end of Norfolk Place. Backlash’s old doorway (in the 80s and 90s) used to take customers up to premises above the shop buildings on the east side of Market Street.

Over on the southern side of the Council House and Exchange Buildings you can find a few secret narrows. Peck Lane is a pleasant alternative to Exchange Walk on busy days. I once met a couple walking the opposite way to me, and they’re the only other people I’ve seen here in decades of using the cut-through. In the 13th century, ‘peck’ was used to refer to a portion of oats used to feed horses, which – if appropriate to our thoroughfare – suggests the lane could have existed in some form for eight centuries.

Further east are St Peter’s Chambers and Poultry Arcade. Both provide glimpses of the rear of city buildings that will prove intriguing to any amateur urban explorer or city photographer.

Some narrows get modernised. West End Arcade and the Flying Horse Walk are old, winding narrows converted and updated to more contemporary shopping locations (with varying degrees of success). Other alleys (such as Cannon Court and Cobden Chambers) are cul-de-sacs, and – in terms of the businesses they play host to – suffer somewhat from being hidden away. If an alley is open at both ends, some people will get wise to it as a cut-through and so notice a business situated there. If it’s closed off, the footfall of the thoroughfare will be much lower.

There are multitudes of these places, and I don’t pretend to know them all. I love chancing upon new ones and suddenly catching an unexpected glimpse of some seedy, weathered Nottingham buildings I never knew existed before.

Goose Fair 3:30

In 2012 I attended Nottingham’s Goose Fair and shot a continuous time lapse take of the people, rides, lights and stalls. Later, using Microsoft Movie Maker, I added music by  British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth. Using the same software, I tidied the whole thing up with some captions and a little advert at the end for a couple of Kindle local history guides I’ve written.

Goose Fair is a long-held tradition in Nottingham. It’s thought to date from around 1285 when it was essentially a huge market, but over the years has become a maelstrom of rollercoasters, junk food, fireworks and neon.

You can watch Goose Fair 3:30 on Youtube here: