David Whitley visits three pubs that span over eight centuries to get to grips with ’s history.
The stone wall crumbles upon touch; instant powder. Overhead, the low wooden beams, painted a jet black, creak with all the years they’ve seen. In the corner, and old woman is yabbering away at her long-suffering husband about how nice the city is. She must be getting on for 80, but compared to her surroundings, she’s a spring chicken, a fresh-faced young thing ready to take on the world.
The dusty walls and looming ceilings belong to Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem in Nottingham, purportedly the oldest pub in Britain. Serving its first ale in 1189, nearly a millennium has flown by for this cramped sanctuary. Whilst any stories this antiquated have to be taken with a fist full of salt, the romantics would have it that Richard the Lionheart and his brave knights stopped off here and had one for the road before heading off to fight the Crusades in the Holy Land. That, should anyone need reminding, is a very long time ago. On the wall, there is a tapestry, depicting the city from Roman times to the present day, and Ye Olde Trip has been there for half of that timeline. It’s seen a lot.
In many ways, it is the quintessential British pub. It’s snug, it’s cosy, and has a selection of totally random beers on tap, with names like Cursed Galleon. But it’s not many such taverns that you can say are the starting point of a pub crawl through history.
Ye Olde Trip is just that, nestled into the walls of Nottingham Castle, a building which has taken many forms over the years. It was originally erected by William the Conqueror, two years after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. Throughout the years, this Midlands city has been seen as a prime piece of strategic real estate. A buffer between north and south, a gathering point for weary troops and a convenient launchpad for keeping the surrounding areas in order. It’s gone through many incarnations over the years too, having been burned down, left to ruin and remade for various purposes. These days, it’s simply a nice place to hang out. It’s home to a museum and gallery, while the perfectly manicured gardens glisten in the sunlight for picnickers and dozing office workers alike. The artistry that has gone into the gardening is astonishing. Floral displays are dotted around the grounds, while the grand centrepiece is a knight in shining armour that has been painstakingly sculpted out of a bush.
It’s all rather idyllic and sleepy, which despite the odd contretemps and the strategic importance, was what Nottingham was for the first 500 or so years of Ye Olde Trip’s life.
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The second pub on this crawl across the town and time comes after it had all changed. As Britain turned into a manufacturing powerhouse, Nottingham exploded into an industrial blot on the landscape. Between 1739 and 1831, the population rose from 10,010 to 50,680, and as building on the fields was forbidden, everyone had to be crammed into the centre. Just about every inch of space was taken up with narrow terraced housing, and many of the streets became disgusting slums.
The lowest of the low wouldn’t even get that lucky; they’d end up living in one of the 400 or so caves that lie underneath the city. Nottingham is more cavernous than any city in Britain, and all of them are entirely man-made, with people throughout the years bashing out the soft sandstone for various purposes.
The oak barrels illuminated by the dim lighting are what remains of possibly the dingiest pub of all time. History has not recorded what it was called, but underneath the city, this was the drinking den of the truly poor. In the name of prosperity, these people worked the daylight hours in the textile mills, then returned to their squalid grottos for a life of what could only be total misery.
Further along the cave system – a lot were knocked together during the Second World War to provide air raid shelters – is a medieval tannery. Conditions here were hardly pleasant either. In order to make leather, the animal skins would soak in lime for three months to remove the rotting flesh, then in urine for another three to remove the lime. The smell must have been absolutely retch-inducing, and the pits in which the hides were dunked are still preserved in these narrow, winding, underground holes.
Eyes squint as they emerge from the darkened caves to the bright lights of a shopping centre. Amazingly, these ancient underground caverns are accessed directly from a modern mall, with its chain stores, juice bars and slightly grubby tiled floors.
The grim, industrial revolution-era Nottingham has been transformed into a genuinely thriving, modern city. And, on one of those four days during the British summer that there are clear blue skies and a warming sun, it oozes continental elegance.
Old cobbled streets snake their way through the city centre, surrounded by a retail heaven. The city has developed a bit of a reputation amongst ardent shoppers, and you can see why.
Outside, the pavements are littered with office workers enjoying a long lunch on the terraces of various cafes, whilst beer gardens teem with tourists having a quick break. It’s legitimately attractive and vibrant, and it’s all summed up as you walk along High Pavement around the old Lace Market.
Whilst now the ultra-trendy part of Nottingham, this area used to overlook the biggest, most fetid slum in the city. As an indication of what the residents of Narrow Marsh had to deal with, the county gaol also overlooked the area, and every day, buckets of human waste were simply tipped over the side of the prison walls into the streets to fester.
These days, the scene is different. Beautiful people sit on elegant stools outside the bars, one of which is the final stop on this quick jaunt through the eras. The Pitcher and Piano is undeniably impressive. Yes, it’s part of a pub chain, the range of drinks nothing out of the ordinary, and the food just a little over the OK mark, but wow. If there’s any symbol of how the city has reinvented itself, it is this. It’s a huge old church, completely re-fitted inside, but with the massive candles and a looming stained glass window remaining. The past and present have merged in spectacular style, and the future is looking very bright indeed.
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