I’ve forgotten to introduce you all to a major element in my travels in the UK this summer, National Express, a company providing affordable (read: cheap… ish) bus travel between cities within the UK.
Now I don’t do very well on buses. There is something about it that does not agree with me- probably the combination of often uncomfortably high heat, lack of personal space, and smells of other people or their foodstuffs. This glorious combination means that I can really only eat soda crackers and drink water when travelling for more than a couple hours by bus.
Given how badly I take bus travel, you may be asking why exactly I booked all my transportation between cities by bus instead of by train. Money, money, money. I don’t have much. And so I am now a member of National Express’ Discount Card program. I am so special.
So, you can imagine that my seven hour bus ride from Bath to Nottingham was unpleasant.
But in the end, I got to Nottingham in one piece (although a little ragged upon arrival) and ended up having a delightful conversation the woman who was in the seat beside me for part of my journey. She was born in Ireland, very close to Westport, where I visited on my travels through Ireland in 2009. We chatted for a bit and she told me that she’d lived in Canada for several years- never in BC, however, and that one of her daughters and her family were in Alberta. Small world. This lady had also lived in Australia and had yet another daughter living in the Land Down Under!
My hostel in Nottingham is conveniently located just a block from Victoria Bus Station. However, National Express drops off it’s passengers at the Broadmarch Bus Station, on the other side of town! Fortunately, there is a free shuttle between the two stations, which was a relief.
My home for the next few nights was Igloo Hostel and, having stayed in several hostels before, I can confidently say that this was a very well run hostel. The price is a little higher than I like to pay per night, but it included internet access, linens, and a guest kitchen. What really made the price worth it were the spectacular staff at the hostel. They were friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable. Genuinely interested in your experiences in the city, my visit was definitely better for having stayed at this particular hostel.
My stay in Nottingham was longer than both Oxford and Bath because I intended to relax while in Notthingham, take it easy on the attractions and tourist stuff. Also, I was sick with a cold… which I’m pretty sure the others in my dorm also caught because of me! So sorry, ladies!
Well I certainly didn’t do very many attractions or activities but this was due to an unfortunately discovery of the financial variety- quite simply I was out of money!
So I cut back. I did Nottingham Castle, though, because it was in the city limits (read: no transportation costs).
Now, I knew that Nottingham Castle of today was not the Nottingham Castle that most people would imagine- not medieval or renaissance. The current Nottingham Castle was built in the nineteenth century and is what is known as a ‘ducal mansion’, or a big house. And yes, the anticlimactic tone with which you (hopefully) read ‘a big house’ was quite intentional… for that is all it is. It’s official name is actually Nottingham Castle Museum. The gatehouse through which you enter and where you pay admission is just what you’d expect… but once you officially enter the grounds there is a small sign that reads “So Where’s the Castle?” and that is exactly what you’re thinking. Because, although you are greeted, upon entering, by lovely gardens and paths wherever you look, there seems to be a very… not so Robin-Hood-y type building in front of you. The helpful (but slightly teasing) sign explains about the site being the location of many ‘Nottingham Castles’. The current building is from 1831. Admittedly, that is prior to Queen Victoria’s reign, but not by much.
So… I did know it wasn’t the Nottingham Castle, but I wasn’t expecting nineteenth century. But the gardens were pretty and well-kept. That is all.
Alright, not all, but when you pay admission for a castle… a-hem.
The Museum was nice, but I had, at this point seen quite a few museums and galleries and it was all beginning to wear a bit thin. I did find a few portraits that I liked, but nothing really got me until I discovered the small space in the basement of the fake castle.
Tucked in the basement of the castle is exactly what most visitors to Nottingham are really looking for- Robin Hood. There is a small area, clearly for children, dedicated to the legend that draws visitors to the city. There are costumes (for kids), activities (for kids), a brief history and timeline of the legend (for kids)… and not a thing for adults. I suppose what their really saying is that adults shouldn’t be interested in the legend of Robin Hood- that we should be choosing our travel destinations based on culture and deeper interests than what enthralled us as children. How insulting.
But you needn’t worry. I didn’t succumb to their implied loftiness of mind. The little girl in me who thought that Disney’s Robin Hood was just about as dashing and handsome as an animated fox could possibly be was happy to have found the little compromise of the castle’s organisers.
Someone managed to get this little sign past whoever is trying to stop the city from going Robin Hood- crazy. Overall, Nottingham Castle was a waste of money- the gallery was nice enough, but more often than not, visitors to the castle will be disappointed. The gate-house entrance is deceptive and the gallery not quite what most people were coming to Nottingham to see.
In 2009 I took a train from Paris to Versailles. I was helped by an English couple who happened to come from Nottingham. On the train we chatted a little and they told me of their city council’s attempt at changing Nottingham’s image by down-playing Robin Hood and trying to uphold other draws of the city. The couple disapproved of the attempt and were pleased to report a resurgence of the Man in Green’s presence in the city.
Having been to Nottingham myself, I am inclined to think that the city went a little too far in toning down the city’s reliance on the Robin Hood legend to draw visitors. Instead of providing alternatives, the city has withdrawn much of the attraction of their city. By building on the pull of the famous outlaw’s story, the city’s tourism board could have expanded in so many ways (archery lessons, anyone?). Instead, the city is… just a city with an interesting history and good shopping. Consider that I found a much better Robin Hood-style hat in Oregon than I did anywhere in Nottingham. Something isn’t quite right about that.
So, after my sad experience at Nottingham Castle, I weighed my options by consulting the ‘experience Nottinghamshire’ visitor’s guide. Ninety-nine pages thick and Robin Hood is mention on… prepare yourselves… two pages. Pages eight and nine have some Robin Hood-themed experiences, but most of the information isn’t Hood related at all.
I had wanted to go to Sherwood Forest while in Nottingham, however I also wanted to do a walking tour of the city, which I have found to be interesting in other cities (given adequate research before choosing a tour). I didn’t know exactly what I would do or how it would work to take the bus the visitor’s guide advised (would I need another bus to get me to the entrance to the Forest? What else was there to do? Can you just walk through the Forest on your own?), so I chose to do the city walking tour. I still wanted a Robin Hood-theme, so upon the recommendation of one of the staff at the hostel, I took the Robin Hood Tour of Nottingham Town. The brochure said,
Explore Nottingham town with its most famous son, Robin Hood, as your guide! visit the places associated with Robin Hood and learn how simple ballads over 700 years old grew into one of the greatest stories ever told.
On the Saturday morning, I walked down to the Cross Keys pub, where the tour was meant to meet at 11. After a short hesitation at the door, I walked in, hoping to find the guide or a ‘pre-guide’, who gathers the people before the guide arrives and deals with admission. I entered the pub and, my eyes adjusting to the dimmer light, I looked around and made eye contact with a man at the bar, who was sipping a coffee.
“Can I help you?”
“I was looking for the Robin Hood walking tour, but I think I definitely have the right place.” And I did, because he was… well he was Robin Hood. I mean, actually.
See what I mean?
The tour was set for two hours, from 11 until 1pm. The group was small, about eight people, and he asked at the beginning if we had any objections to extending the tour by about a half hour. We all agreed and he seemed pleased, adding that with a little more time, there could be a couple more stops, more photos and more information. He introduced himself as Robin Hood and explained that the tour was meant to show how the legends evolved over the centuries into the story that we know today.
His explanation began in the Lace Market area of Nottingham (originally Snottingaham, an Anglo-Saxon place name) and we slowly moved through the areas of the city.
Our guide “Robin Hood” was clearly well researched on the city- so much so that he could easily have been running three different tours judging by the amount of information that he was sharing. I’m fairly certain that he was holding back, trying to keep within a reasonable time. Well, despite saying he would only be about a half hour over, by the time we had made our way through the city (learning more than my poor head could every absorb), it was just after 2pm. And that was when we were ordering a drink to sip while he wrapped everything up. We’d made it to one of the three pubs that claims to be the oldest pub in Nottingham, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, (supposedly established in 1189) and by the time we’d had our drinks and the discussion had finally died down enough for me to leave without being rude, it was just after 3pm.
The information was fascinating- the pieces that the current story had picked up over the centuries reminded me of a glacier picking up different rocks as it moves, eventually depositing them in a heap and left to be understood by those who come after. Good grief. I just reread that. Oh well- that’s as good as it’s going to get at this point.
I enjoyed his storytelling style (though I feel he needs to rehearse more to minimize those points where he would lose where he was in the narrative), and he was quite charming. But for pity’s sake- FOUR HOURS? ARE YOU KIDDING? I mean, REALLY!
I happened to check the reviews on this tour a few weeks ago and I noticed someone who was on the same tour had left a review. It was fairly positive but he did mention the length (and he didn’t even stay the whole time because he was with his kid!). The guide had replied, basically reminding the reviewer that he (the guide, Robin Hood), had checked in at regular intervals to make sure we were all good to keep going. Silly Robin. Everyone knows that past a certain point in a group setting, especially with such a small group, there comes a point where you cannot really leave or say that its getting a bit long. There’d be that awkward pause where everyone would wait for the reason why you’re trying to leave and unless it is important… you’re stuck. And asking how much long it would be didn’t really work. Bah.
It was such a good tour- but he need to be kept in check!
Sadly, because of the tour’s length, all the information that really was enthralling to hear is gone- there is a point where no more information can be held on to… my main memory of the tour was that there was so much information and that it was four hours. Sad.
After making my escape, I grabbed lunch (£2.50 at Tesco!) and ate in the Old Market Square, recently made over to include benches, a performance area, and a combination water display and water park for kids. Our guide had walked us through the area, mentioning that the renovations to the pedestrianized area had contributed to the revitalisation of the city- bringing the community together from young to old, especially as the Square is surrounded by shops and dominated by the Council House, a tourist centring point. The Council house is flanked on either side by two large stone lions, named Menelaus and Agamemnon.
I spent a full three days in Nottingham, and though I’m not usually a fan of the over-the-top-let’s-capitalize-on-a-tourism-gimmick idea, I found very few Robin Hood things. Here’s what I found,
I liked Nottingham, but because of my finances, I didn’t get to do what I wanted most, which was to go to Sherwood Forest and see the Major Oak. This just means that when I return to England, I’ll have a reason to visit Nottingham!
The next posts will be of my return to Scotland on the Haggis Adventure Five Day Highland Fling tour! Get ready- it was pretty fantastic! Here’s a teaser photo…
You can click on the photos to see it in a larger size- do it for this last one- its worth it, I promise!