Looks like Nottingham Castle’s getting a long-overdue revamp. They’re promising new galleries, a return to the original structure of the ducal mansion, and a focus on local history.
By and large, I think this is good news. Anyone who knows Nottingham knows it’s not well-served from a historical point of view. Despite the city’s rich history, there are almost no museums, and those that exist constantly teeter on the edge of financial viability. Nottingham was where King Charles raised his standard against the forces of Parliament. It was famous for its lace trade. It was notorious as a site of civil unrest throughout the 19th Century. The Luddite movement is generally credited as having begun in Bulwell, a village/suburb (sometimes Bulwell’s claimed as part of the city, sometimes not) a few miles north of Nottingham Castle. Lord Byron lived in the city for a time, and his ancestral home of Newstead Abbey lies a short car ride away. And that’s just scratching the surface. Nottingham’s a city with every bit a storied history as Lincoln or York, but it’s always failed to capitalise on that. So yes, by and large, this is good news. My reservations crystalise around two words.
The new ‘Robin Hood Gallery’ is first on the list of planned redevelopments, and its new structure and audio-visual tour is sure to command much of the redevelopment capital. This new exhibit is reportedly in response to visitor feedback. It’s the hardest part to get right, and it’s doomed to disappoint.
What do you put in a Robin Hood Gallery? The historical facts? Robin Hood as we know him isn’t a historical figure. At best, he’s an amalgam of historical figures, woven together with folklore and enhanced by eight hundred years of Chinese whispers and reimaginings. Case in point, his association with Nottingham comes about largely from his antagonist, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Except… Nottingham didn’t have a Sheriff at that time. There was a High Sheriff – or, more properly, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests – and from the extended version of the title, you can see just how roving a mandate that particular official held. The Major Oak – Nottinghamshire’s other famous Robin Hood attraction – lies some twenty miles north of Nottingham itself, and most other ‘historical’ sites lie even further afield. All well within the Sheriff’s remit, of course, but not exactly local to Nottingham Castle.
So maybe we’ll talk about the stories? The tales of Robin Hood are timeless, wonderful battles of good versus evil, rich versus poor, greed versus selflessness. They’re an important part of England’s cultural heritage, and they should be celebrated. I remain to be convinced it can be done on the scale that’s planned in the castle. There’s so much ground to cover for it to genuinely feel like a Robin Hood experience – that requires a lot of space, and careful design to prevent it turning into a wall of text or something so trivial it’s quickly irrelevant. That isn’t going to drive visitor satisfaction – it’s just going to make them more disappointed when the limited scope is laid bare.
Truth is, visitors aren’t just disappointed at the lack of Robin Hood in Nottingham. They’re disappointed at the lack of a castle. There’s not much of Nottingham Castle left – it was leveled during the Civil War, and replaced by a ducal mansion – the same one that stands today, churlishly shattering the dreams of visitors from all corners of the globe with its lack of turrets, battlements, and, well… castle-ness. Even the mansion isn’t really what it seems. The place was set ablaze during the 19th Century, and left to rot for decades. The facade is (mostly) original, but the above ground innards are strictly modern. Am I arguing that we should tear down the mansion and build a castle in its place as some have done? (Seriously, I’m not making this up). No, of course not. Actually, the whole thing’s slowly falling off the cliff anyway, so it’ll all be the same in a few decades. As a victim of the reform riots, Nottingham ‘Castle’ is an important historical monument in its own right It should be celebrated as such. And, in fairness, the proposed ‘Rebellion’ gallery will probably do just that. It’s a step in the right direction.
There’s a danger this sounds like I’m down on Robin Hood. I’m not. I cheerfully cite Richard Carpenter’s ‘Robin of Sherwood’ as one of my chief influences. I love the stories, and the historical period. My novel, Queen of Eventide is, in part, a celebration of the different things Robin Hood means to different people, and about how myth and reality are seldom the same thing. But I get frustrated the topic’s never covered properly in, and that Nottingham’s genuine history is constantly overwhelmed by the tangential association with a mythic figure. Do one thing well, not several things badly.
I think the real failure here is that they’re trying to squeeze too much into one site. In another city, each of Nottingham’s selling points would have a museum to itself, governed by a joint ticket to encourage tourists to dip into aspects they wouldn’t have otherwise embraced. Nottingham’s weird, though. It doesn’t celebrate its history and its quirks. It covers up distinctive landmarks, or obliterates them. It closes museums, or crams ever more into smaller spaces. It’s a shame, and a wasted opportunity for a city with such rich history.
But there is a saving grace. Maybe, just maybe, this is the start of a much-needed renaissance for Nottingham.
By the time 2020 rolls around, and the redevelopment’s complete, we’ll have our answer.