Thursday, 27 September 2018

A Short Walk with a Long History

Here’s a Nottingham trail to consider if you’ve an hour to spare.

Begin at Five Leaves bookshop opposite the Tourism Centre. National winner of the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award, Five Leaves is a hive of literary activity and hosts regular events throughout the year, including their own festival. With its radical and literary roots, it’s a suitable place to begin this walk. 

Recommended: While at Five Leaves pick up a copy of Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers (2017) by Rowena Edlin-White. The book is a great reference to accompany you on your journey. Spanning several centuries, it’s the best guide-book to the county’s writers.

It was in this old alleyway called Swann’s Yard that the writer and poet Thomas Miller (b. 1807) once had a shop. The son of an unsuccessful wharf-keeper and ship-owner, Miller left school at the age of nine and became a voracious reader. He moved to Nottingham in 1831 and set up his own basket-making business. A year later he published Songs of the Sea Nymphs. Miller wrote poems (often about nature), children's books, penny dreadfuls and several novels, including Fair Rosamund. Often monetarily challenged he once unsuccessfully appealed to Charles Dickens for financial assistance.

The day is past, the sun is set,

And the white stars are in the sky;

While the long grass with dew is wet,

And through the air the bats now fly.

From the poem Evening by Thomas Miller

It’s worth popping across to The Exchange Arcade (Cheapside) where there’s a fine metal plaque dedicated to the poet Henry Kirke White. Born in 1785 near the Old Market Square, the son of a local butcher was a prodigious knowledge-seeker and by the age of 13 a prolific writer of poetry. Kirke White’s verse greatly impressed the Poet laureate Robert Southey - as well as Lord Byron and Wordsworth - but his story is of what might have been as the young genius died aged 21.

Yes, Genius, thee a thousand cares await,
Mocking thy derided state;

Thee chill Adversity will still attend,

Before whose face flies fast the summer's friend

And leaves thee all forlorn

From the poem Genius by Henry Kirke White. 

Go back along Long Row/Smithy Row towards the Market Square then take the right up King Street.

Veer left and as you walk up Queen Street you’ll notice a white Grade II listed building on your right. This was once The Elite Cinema, one of the first of Nottingham’s ‘super-cinemas’. The first ‘talkie’ in Nottingham was shown here, Lucky Boy starring George Jessel. The last film to appear was the ‘X’ certificate Take an Easy Ride

Across the road is Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. Baroness Orczy’s play The Scarlet Pimpernel was first performed here in 1903 where it received a lukewarm reception. The play’s stars, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, had confidence in the play and took it to London’s West End. This led to the novel’s publication in 1905. The Scarlet Pimpernel influenced the mystery genre, arguably creating the ‘masked hero’ prototype in which a person of wealth operates in the shadows under an alter ego. Zorro, Batman et al all followed the Pimpernel’s lead.

It was here in 1952 that Agatha Christie attended the first performance of her play The Mousetrap which later became the world's longest running theatrical production. The first Detective Sergeant Trotter was played by a young Richard Attenborough. The production opened here because Nottingham was regarded as a lucky city to launch new plays. Christie liked Nottingham and once took a young Brian Blessed on a tour of the city. 

Now head west, down Upper Parliament Street. 

On the right you’ll pass the Express Building, an impressive Watson Fothergill design that housed the offices of the Nottingham Journal

It was in this building that a young Graham Greene (b. 1904) worked as a trainee writer. There’s a plaque marking his time here. Greene’s Nottingham was a town that “makes one want a mental and physical bath every quarter of an hour." 

Graham Greene began at the Nottingham Journal in the November of 1925, working in the evenings. He later said, “It was the furthest north I had ever been, the first strange city in which I had made home, alone, without friends.” 
He wasn’t quite alone (he lived with an unwell dog), or friendless (he was pally with Cecil Roberts), but it’s fair to say that Greene didn’t see Nottingham at its best, with polluted air and freezing temperatures commonplace during his four month stay. It was, however, a hugely important period. It was during this time that Greene converted to Catholicism; and from his digs and landlady, to the sights and sounds he witnessed here, Nottingham can point to many influences on his writing.
“I don’t know why a certain wry love of Nottingham lodged in my imagination,” wrote Greene, who later set a novel in a version of the city.

Recommended: A Gun For Sale (1936) by Graham Greene.

At the age of twenty-seven Cecil Roberts (b. 1892) had been England’s youngest daily newspaper editor, here at the Nottingham Journal on Parliament Street

Continue along and turn right on Clumber Street and head down Nottingham’s busiest pedestrian street. 
About halfway down, on the right, is Maypole Yard. It was here in 1825 that the ‘White Lady of Newstead’ lost her life. Her real name was Sophia Pyatt (or Hyett, or Hyatt depending on who you believe). Sophia was knocked down and killed by a carrier's cart. The poet and admirer of Lord Byron is said to be the famous ‘White Lady’ whose ghost haunts Newstead Abbey. Sophia’s remains were interred in Hucknall Church as close as was possible to Lord Byron's. 

Carry along and you’ll notice Primark, on the corner with Long Row. It was on this site that the Black Boy Hotel once stood. 
Back in 1927 the Nottingham Writers' Club was founded there during a meeting. Among the first members was the published writer Arthur E. Ashley, who wrote under the pen name Francis Vivian, author of the Brother Ignatius and Inspector Knollis series’. Alan Sillitoe (born a year after the club opened) would become a member.

Recommended: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) 

If you went through life refusing all the bait dangled in front of you, that would be no life at all. No changes would be made and you would have nothing to fight against.
(from Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

Move from here to the gorgeous Zara building on the corner of Pelham Street, once home to the first Boots ‘wonderstore’, which may have included the first Boots Booklovers’ Library. It was Florence and Jesse Boot that established the Boots Booklovers’ Library which went on to become the largest library system of its kind in the world. Florence Boot created the departments in an effort to address the poor literacy levels she’d noticed in Nottingham. The majority of the members were women and the libraries became important social hubs. Boots’ famous green labels were found all over the world as they developed an organised distribution system, uniquely offering an inter-store exchange of books. 

Turn left here and head up Pelham Street. About halfway up, on the left, it joins Thurland Street. It was on this street in 1853 – at no. 8 – that the Artisans' Library was established. This later developed into Nottingham’s first Free Public Library which was opened in 1868 by Alderman Barber, the then Mayor of Nottingham. 400 people immediately signed up to join. The people of Nottingham had been demanding a public library but it was only after the Artisans' Library found itself in financial difficulty and offered the town its entire stock of books, about 10,000, that an agreement was reached. 

To the right is Tanners. It was in this grand building that J M Barrie (b. 1860) came to work in 1883, as a lead-writer on the Nottingham Journal. There’s a plaque stating as much. 

Barrie was sacked a year later as they couldn’t afford his wages but Nottingham helped provide the Scottish playwright with some inspiration for his most famous story. Legend has it that Barrie witnessed a street urchin wandering through Nottingham’s Clifton Grove, sparking the idea for his character Peter Pan. It’s more likely that his inspiration for a boy for whom death would be "an awfully big adventure" is traced back to the death of his brother who died in a skating accident. Barrie later said that his mother had taken some comfort from the thought that her golden boy would never grow up. Barrie took regular walks through Nottingham’s Arboretum to and from work and the area does share a few features with Neverland. 

On reaching the top of Pelham Street turn your gaze upwards to the plaque on the corner. It reads, ‘This site was formerly known as Swine Green: Lord Byron wrote his first piece of poetry in 1798, with the verse "In Nottingham County there lives at Swine Green as curst an old lady as ever was seen....."’

The poem continues:

And when she does die, which I hope will be soon,   

She firmly believes she will go the moon.

George Gordon Byron (b. 1788) was ten when he wrote this poem about an old woman from Nottingham. This was around the same time he inherited his title and ancestral home Newstead Abbey.

Before we move on, have a look down into Goosegate, Hockley. A couple of centuries ago, Nottingham lace worker Susannah Wright was charged with unlawfully publishing and selling the scandalous and blasphemous. She defended herself in court, using the opportunity to assert her right to free expression and calling for the people, not the church, to make the laws. She was indicted for profanity, becoming the only woman to be imprisoned on this charge. After her release, she opened a radical bookshop on Goosegate to much protestation. A riotous mob once smashed their way in but Wright held out. On one occasion, she withdrew a pistol from her counter and calmly asked if the threatening yobs should like it fired at them. Wright defeated the Committee for the Suppression of Vice and moved her successful bookshop to larger premises.

Skirt past the Byron plaque and follow Victoria Street for the next destination.

During his time in Nottingham, J M Barrie was a member of the Nottingham Sette of Odde Volumes, a literary society that met fortnightly on Victoria Street to discuss and read literature. Barrie was said to have been moved when later made an honorary member of the group co-founded by John Potter Briscoe, Principal Librarian of the Nottingham Free Public Libraries from 1869 to 1916. 

It was in 1900 that the poet and playwright John Drinkwater (b. 1882) became involved in Nottingham’s amateur theatre scene, making an appearance in a performance at the Mechanics. At that time Drinkwater worked on the staff of the Northern Assurance Co. about half way down on the right-hand side. The young, cash-strapped office worker used to buy rotten fruit from the Market Place to bulk up his lunch.

Opposite here, on the left, is the former office building for the Imperial Fire & Life Insurance Co. It became the Reform Club (above)  in 1913, designed as a place for Nottingham's new wealthy middle classes to meet and to engage in discussion. Sir Jesse Boot was counted amongst the membership. In the 1960s it became the Victoria Club, one of the country’s finest private members' clubs. 
Continue along to the end of Victoria Street.

To the right is Boots corner where the Blackmore’s Head used to be. This is where Lord Byron’s body lay in state. But we are to head left along Bridlesmith Gate. Immediately on your left, at the corner of Bridlesmith Gate and Bottle Lane, was once the bookshop of the Sutton family of publishers. A member of this family, Eliza S Oldham (b. 1822), wrote the novels The Haunted House (1863) and By The Trent (1864) an award-winning novel set in a fictionalised Nottingham. Eliza was the sister of the writer Henry Septimus Sutton (b. 1825), writer of Clifton Grove Garland (1848) and daughter of a publisher/bookseller Richard Sutton

Upon the river the wind rode, and with playful hands turned back the ripples, and carved them curiously, and whipped their edges softy into foam. 
(from Oldham's By the Trent)

The other side of Bottle Lane is Waterstones. This grand Victorian building fills five floors making it Nottingham’s biggest bookshop. On the top floor is a large events’ room - named after the Nottingham writer Alan Sillitoe - which hosts regular author talks. Waterstones Nottingham holds an annual LGBTQ+ writing festival called Bold Strokes. 

Head along Bridlesmith Gate. Anne and William Ayscough, together with John Collyer, became Nottingham’s first printers in 1710. A few years later they would hold rival businesses with the Ayscough’s producing the Nottingham Weekly Courant and Collyer printed the Nottingham Post. It was here, between St Peter’s Gate and Pepper Street, that Nottingham’s first printing press was established. Centuries later, Bridlesmith Gate would become the place to come for typewriters. 

Turn left at the end of Bridlesmith and head up to the top of Low Pavement.
On the left, on the corner of Weekday Cross, is a plaque for Philip James Bailey (b. 1816) which states that on this site stood the house in which Philip James Bailey was born. 
There’s some debate regarding the accuracy of this plaque’s statement but Bailey is worthy of note. He is best-known for his epic poem Festus, initially written at Basford House where his father lived. Festus was constantly being added to by Bailey who read his poem to the writers William and Mary Howitt at their Chemist’s shop on Parliament Street.

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts not breaths;

In feelings, not in figures on a dial.

We should count time by heart throbs: he most lives

Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.

Philip James Bailey from Festus

Turn back down Low Pavement. Just past the entrance to the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre is Jamie’s Italian. The writer Abigail Gawthern (b. 1757) lived and died in this elegant house. Gawthern’s diaries were copied into one important volume which documented how Nottingham's professional classes lived during a politically turbulent time. 

On the side of the building is a sign for the lost Drury Hill. The destruction of Drury Hill was a real blow to the city. Councillor Len Maynard said: “I am very sorry to see Drury Hill go but a small alleyway should not inhibit the progress of a large scheme.” That scheme was the eyesore that was the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. The medieval thoroughfare of Drury Hill could have been preserved and used as a tourist attraction. Instead, it’s lost forever. 

The ancient Drury Hill featured in the 1960 film of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.

At the end of Low Pavement cross over to Castle Gate. Immediately on the left is Weavers, the Trease family business, now run by brother and sister Philip and Mary Trease, the 5th generation.

The youngest son of a wine merchant, Geoffrey Trease was born in 1909 in Chaucer Street, in the Arboretum area. He was educated at Nottingham High School where he was head boy, leading to a scholarship to study Classics at Oxford, only to leave a year later to focus on his writing. At one time, Trease had more books in print than any other British author. His many titles include children’s books, novels, autobiography, criticism and historical studies, such as Portrait of a Cavalier, the life of the duke who built Nottingham Castle, and Nottingham: A Biography, a history of the city. His best-known book is Bows Against the Barons, a classic children’s book from 1934 which tells the story of a boy who joins a band of outlaws and takes part in a rebellion against the feudal elite. This was a typical Trease story, historical fiction for children, written to help nurture the children of Britain. Another of his works, Tales out of School, was a ground-breaking survey about children’s books, whilst A Flight of Angels was inspired by the deep sandstone cellar-caves dug out under Nottingham by the old wine merchants.

Recommended: Nottingham: A Biography (1970)

Next to Weavers is another plaque, this one marks the site where a 16-year-old D H Lawrence (b. 1885) began his working life. It was after leaving Nottingham High School that Lawrence worked at the Haywood Factory, home of J A Haywood’s surgical appliance warehouse. Lawrence only lasted three months, leaving his role as a junior clerk in 1901 following a bout of pneumonia and the unexpected death of his older brother William from erysipelas. Shattered by the death of her son, Lawrence’s mother turned her attention to her younger boy, nursing him tirelessly and transferring to him the hopes and ambitions that she had had for William, creating a dynamic that formed the heart of Sons and Lovers. The novel was also influence by his experience of factory life at Haywood’s and the bullying he received from the factory girls. 

Recommended: Sons and Lovers (1913) love me so much, you want to put me in your pocket. And there I will die smothered.
(from Lawrence's Sons and Lovers)

In Sons and Lovers Lawrence has Paul Morel walking up Castle Gate, and he wrote that it was a street where the inhabitants coloured their doorsteps with yellow ochre. 

A couple of doors up from here is a former home of Geoffrey Trease. Still in the family, the Treases’ library has been preserved and contains all of the prolific author’s 113 titles, many in several versions and translations. 

Across the road is the Congregational Church. It was here that Alma Reville’s lace-worker parents were married. The editor and scriptwriter was born in Nottingham in 1899 a few hours after her future husband and collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock, was born in Leytonstone. It was in 1925, on a stormy boat journey back from Munich, that lovesick Hitchcock proposed to seasick Reville. She later said, ‘It was the first time I had ever seen him in a state of disorder, and the last time too. His hair had been blown about by the wind and his clothes had been soaked with ocean spray.’

Reville was the only person to whom her husband would defer. She can even take credit for there being music during the famous shower scene in Psycho, as it was on her insistence that Hitchcock, who had wanted the scene played out in silence, agreed to include Herrmann's shrieking violins. On receiving his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, Hitchcock remarked that ‘…without Alma I might be in this room tonight, not at this table but as one of the slower waiters on the floor.’

Head up Castle Gate until reaching the former home of Ann Gilbert (b. 1782). The writer’s Recollections of Old Nottingham was based on a lecture she had given three years earlier to a Nottingham literary society. In the book, Gilbert described Nottingham as it was in the 19th Century. The literary critic also wrote poetry and hymns. Hymns for Infant Minds (1805) was an early collection of her poems and songs written especially for children. Gilbert’s younger sister and collaborator, Jane Taylor, wrote the words to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Cross the street and pass The Royal Children, joining Hounds Gate. About half way down, on the left-hand side, was the site of a ‘Library for Females’.

At the end of Hounds Gate is a building which once housed the studio of the renowned artist Evelyn Gibbs. Gibbs taught at a school for handicapped children while writing her influential art book The Teaching of Art in Schools (1934) which was illustrated by her pupils. Gibbs herself illustrated several of Nottingham author Hilda Lewis’s books. Gibbs had moved to Nottingham during World War II and it was here that she created the Midlands Group of Artists. 

Turn left and walk long Wheeler Gate

Half way up, on the left, is Eldon Chambers where several old houses are tucked away. One of them contains a carved staircase almost identical to the one at Bromley House Library. Both staircases were made by William Stevenson, a master-carpenter and cabinet maker, and the author of Bygone Nottinghamshire (1893).

Opposite here, where Sainsbury’s Express is, was the home of a grand bookshop between 1897 and 2005. Sisson and Parker (Est 1854) moved to the former hotel from nearby Albert Street, selling novels and dictionaries. They later supplied text books for schools and colleges as well as religious books and stationery, and housed a lending library on the premises. In the early 1980s Hudsons replaced them but before the decade was out Dillons had taken over the store. A place to lose away the hours, Dillons was well-stocked and covered several floors of this fine building. The brand ceased to exist in 1999 and, as with many of their stores, Waterstone’s took over the premises. Nottingham soon had two large Waterstone’s bookshops within close proximity of each other and something had to give. The writing was on the wall (or literally the floor) for the Wheeler Gate store which never did change its Dillons branded carpet, and it closed its doors six years later. 

Alan Sillitoe and John Harvey have featured Wheeler Gate in their work. 

Recommended: Harvey's Lonely Hearts (1989)

Cross the Zebra and Wheeler Gate becomes Beastmarket Hill.

Follow the arc of the street until reaching The Bell Inn, arguably the oldest pub in Nottingham. 

This is a former meeting place of Nottingham Writers’ Club whose former members include Helen Cresswell (b. 1934), author of Moondial and the Lizzy Dripping series.

Across from here is Yates’s Wine Lodge, described in The Unfortunates (1969), B S Johnson’s book in a box in which a journalist arrives in an unnamed city (that’s really Nottingham) and heads to report on a football match at an unnamed stadium (that’s really Forest’s City Ground). His attempts to make his weekly report are disrupted by memories of the city and of his best friend Tony, a young victim of cancer. A promotional film was made about the book designed to be read in any order (apart from the first and last sections). The film, released in the same year as the book, showed Johnson in Yates’s having a drink. 

Recommended: The Unfortunates (1969) 

...that's right, I remember now, that call streets boulevards in this city...
(from Johnson's The Unfortunates)

In the 1990s Joan Adeney Easdale (a.k.a. Sophie Curley) (1913-1998) was a regular in bars like Yates’s and The Bell. Thought to have become schizophrenic following a break down, Curley was a local eccentric. In her youth she had been destined for great things as a poet. Virginia Woolf described her as her 'discovery' and published some of her works. In the 1930s she wrote plays for the BBC. Her granddaughter Celia Robertson, wrote a book about her called Who Was Sophie?: The Two Lives of My Grandmother: Poet and Stranger (2008).

A bit farther up from The Bell is Bromley House Library. Sandwiched between a charity shop and a newsagent’s is its entrance. This grand building could easily pass as a museum or stately home but it’s a working library with over 40,000 books. Since 1816 the library has been the place for writers and intellectuals. Michael Faraday visited here and George Green, a father of quantum physics, called it his first university. With its spiral staircase, fine art and working meridian line, Bromley House is a hidden gem. There’s even a secret garden providing a perfect escape from the bustling city. 

If you’ve a bit more time take a trip to the top of St James Street where you’ll find Newstead House. Otherwise skip the next section and head for the Market Square.

Newstead House: The romantic poet Lord Byron lived here as a 10-year-old while an unqualified ‘surgeon’ worked on his lame foot using a vice, ‘treatment’ that was as useless as it was painful. He lived with his widowed mother and took Latin lessons from Mr ‘Drummer’ Rogers. 

The Market Square. 

William and Mary Howitt lived in a fine house on South Parade, it’s place now taken by the Wetherspoons pub and a Nat West bank. 

Devoted to “the entertainment, the good and the advancement of the public”, Mary Howitt (b. 1799) championed rights to education, the suffragette movement and free expression. She considered herself “bound to no class” and her writing was popular with both adults and children. In addition to her own prose and verse, she translated the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and the novels of the feminist reformer Fredrika Bremer. Her moralistic stories and poems for the young include The Spider and the Fly. Another prolific writer, William Howitt (b. 1792) is best-known for writing the controversial book The History of Priestcraft and being involved in local politics. Much of his writing focused on country life and guides and he often collaborated with his wife. Living in the heart of Nottingham, the Howitts witnessed first-hand a turbulent time in our history; one that included the Reform Riots, of which they were on the side of those seeking radical reform. 

Recommended: Mary Howitt: an autobiography edited by her daughter (1889)

The Council House was where Cecil Roberts became the first author to be named one of the honorary Freemen of the City of Nottingham. He received the title here in 1965. 

As a fifteen-year-old, Roberts had worked beneath the Council House - when it was the equally grand Exchange Building - as a clerk in the Market and Fairs Department. Young Roberts was based in a cubby-hole; bereft of daylight and fresh air he endured the smells coming from the butchers in the bloody Shambles, the stalls of poultry and the nearby penny lavatories. Roberts was the only author to be granted a Freeman of Nottingham title during the 20th Century. He later discovered that a mouse had nibbled on his ceremonial scroll. 

In 2008 Alan Sillitoe became this century’s only writer to receive the honour.

The Council House has been the workplace of the current Sheriff of Nottingham, the acclaimed author Catharine Arnold.

Recommended: If you’d like a guided tour of Nottingham’s literature hotspots then take the Nottingham Booklovers Walk, with Felicity Whittle, award-winning Blue Badge Tourist Guide and founder of Gold Star Guides. This 2-hour guided walk covers much more than the above and celebrates many more of our writers. 

If you've any additions or amendments you'd like to make to this route please drop me an email.