A Day Out with Elspeth In Southwell (and Newark again)

I’m doing the cathedrals of England, and I’m nearly done. The big ones, that is. I’m less bothered by parish church cathedrals, and even less so by most of the catholic ones. It’s not the title, it’s the church itself; so I’m more keen to see Beverley Minster and Sherborne Abbey as I am those churches with a place for a bishop’s bum who are upgrades of quite ordinary ecclesiastical edifices.

The ones left now are mostly in places that I’ve not been able to get to yet, but I made a special effort to go to Nottinghamshire, rising at dawn and being in transit for 5 hours to get there, and quite a complicated journey.

Southwell had seemed a little bottom of the pack. My first cathedral book, which I was given on my 21st birthday, doesn’t even have a picture of it. Other books put it in the minor, back of the book category, with small pictures which mostly focus on those leaves.

That seems to be Southwell’s main glory – freestanding foliage made of thin stone. It’s almost as if the rest of the minster isn’t needed – just that little polygonal chapter house. And even then, only the bit round the door and the seat decorations.

Well, the leaves weren’t the bit that I went for, nor what I took away.

I’ve decided that I rather like Nottinghamshire. I don’t think I’ve seen its countryside before. There’s a swathe of midlands-ish particular shade of red brick that goes right across England; and against the verdant green that’s close to the shade of a certain legend’s clothing, it was a pleasing experience to view.

I got back to Newark too – I’ll tell you about that later – but both towns enhanced my view of the county, and both had similar qualities.

I arrived in Southwell, which can pronounced both ways, locals tell me, via a bus which can arrive anytime in 15 minutes of the advertised time. So beware Stagecoach’s 28s and 29s from Newark to Mansfield.

I first saw Easthorpe — a kind of village tacked on to Southwell, where the Bramley apple comes from. It melds into one of the few main streets of Southwell, and the minster popped out as a kind of surprise. I like to savour that first moment of a first meeting, but here it was, unprepared.

This is a seriously good church. It’s quite big too, and not at all minor.

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My first view of Southwell Minster

The friendliness I experienced at the minster desk (though one guide couldn’t see the rudeness of asking her colleague for a permit in the midst of her talking to me), and at the Tourist Information Centre was excellent. The TIC had been so helpful prior to my visit. It’s little but well stuffed with all about Nottinghamshire, and is far better than the new one at Newark which tries to look flash and feels clinically white and trying too hard. It didn’t even have the excellent town trails about itself that its sister at Southwell did.

There was one thing that spoiled the day, and I know I can’t write more without telling you what it was. The minster was having a concert that night. It was strewn with mounted lights, wires, and the loud mouths of those setting up who had no respect for the building that they were in or that visitors might want a different atmosphere. No it’s not just another concert hall, another job – it’s a sanctuary and I mean in the sense of being peaceful and set apart, whether or not yours is the Christian God or particularly the church of England. I bet other faiths don’t let this go on, I thought. I thought it even more later, but I will save expanding on that for a post on the city concerned.

Suffice to say that my journey that day included 3 towns but I am only doing the two in Notts here.

Southwell Minster is free to enter – hurrah – but its photo permits are quite a lot at £5 and I’m not sure what I feel about charging for the right to take pictures. There’s a berth between the 300 photo snapper and those who take “just one of the nave”. I’d have resented paying for a pass that day when the minster was not looking its best inside.

Oh, but what a church! If you like Norman architecture, GET HERE! I recently did a ‘facetious, wicked and opinionated’ talk on the best place in England to see the Normans, and I didn’t get time to come here. I should have – for there are several things which make Southwell stand out. It’s the only church left to have a pair of complete Norman western towers. This once common arrangement is well exemplified here, and helps us imagine the many lost or altered abbeys with such a frontage. It also has a third Norman tower at the crossing. And it has lead clad pyramid spires, the sort that we think the Normans actually built. This is at least the 3rd lot, and annoyingly, the grain goes in the wrong direction – it should be herringbone, pointing like the spire, not straight down, Mr Gilbert Scott!

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Sorry, I no longer have a wide angled camera

It has Norman detail everywhere, looking mostly recently restored, but without the heavy hand of the emu (my name for Victorian restorers, because they peck at things and spoil them). Its favourite motif is the cable mould, so there are rope patterns round arches, along sides of walls (‘string courses’), and at least 3 good Norman doorways and an interesting porch.

Southwell may be smaller than the other great Eastern Cathedrals, but it’s no less lovely or impressive.

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Southwell Minster’s crossing

It’s a bit dark inside though – this is one of the few churches with still Norman shaped windows, and it has only 2 rows of them instead of the usual 3, so that the galleries (‘triforium’) are unlit. I’m not sure what I think of the roof: being round like the general spirit and rhythm is right – but it both feels a further darkener and isn’t quite right. The aisles are satisfyingly and contemporarily vaulted.

And what of the non Norman bit? I’m usually not bothered by early English and feel annoyed when it has taken over from the Romanesque I so enjoy. But I like the choir here. It is lighter, and a place to linger.

Digital CameraAnd as for the leaves? I had to look hard to imagine why these were singled out as the great medieval carvings. I recall the Saxon tympanum stone more, and the cables that I’ve already mentioned. The chapter house is as usual a pleasing and quieter space, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others.

Southwell’s got a ruined medieval palace which you can visit a small but grand roofed part of for free, with an overdone soundscape and video. There are gardens but much is roped off and marked, incendiarily, as private. I was more cross when I worked out that the Bishop probably lives here.

I didn’t got to the out of town workhouse, which makes me so angry. “Imagine the Victorian Poor” says the National Trust leaflet. I think many of us fear for the late Elizabethan poor, which we might be ourselves, and how the founder’s ethos of “an empty workhouse is a successful one” might reflect welfare policy today. I’d rather put my efforts into changing that ethos. I don’t think a visitor attraction with an entry fee is what Oxfam means by “Make Poverty History”.

The town is little, and doesn’t take long to walk round, but there are many shops and cafes and it’s upmarket. There are country-feeling walks in easy reach, but I ended up getting cross with all those big prebend’s houses.

I found three hours here was suffice, and also I didn’t trust that bus.

So I’ve given myself little time and space again for Newark, but I liked the York-like feel of it, and I did three things which I couldn’t last time.

I got in the church – not as special quite as I’d hoped, again, quite dark, with the organ console positioned for maximum attention. Who are we worshipping, I wondered?

St Mary M’s is huge and I liked the coloured ceiling.

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I also entered the hard to find little local museum and gallery, which involves a lift, inside the town hall and buttermarket – the beige stone building in the large market place. One member of staff was sensitive to my interest and schedule – unlike a colleague – but I was able to view a very splendid Georgian ball room.

The TIC — which was small but well formed, by Castle Station – has moved, next to the Palace theatre on Appleton Gate, and in with the new Civil War museum.

I sensed the Richard III experience at Leicester in all ways of this £8 new attraction, and left well alone. (You’ll see what I mean in my next post).

The stations are apparently not as far apart as I estimated – but I think that the online distances are wrong. At full speed, which is quite rapid, it took 20 mins to walk from Newark Northgate to the bus station. I meandered (and got stuck in a housing and industrial development) between the Castle and Northgate stations, but I made a discovery – there’s a river path, much nicer than either Appleton or Northgate streets, which passes barges and warehouses as well as greenery. It’s unlit and it’s quite weird in one place, being forced off the river path, then invited back on it by ALDI supermarket, down a rough path, where a new bridge reassuringly appears. On the Castle station side, the walk becomes pastures, but you need to be on the bank with Zizzi and Pizza Express to access Northgate station as there’s not a bridge again till beyond the point you need to cross. They could make that a proper, nice walk, and I do wish that NNG station (that’s it’s code name) had something round it to do or eat/shop – not just a tiny cafe within the gated station.

I am mentally spending more time in the Midlands and may soon return with further adventures – cinematic, literary, mental and actual.





A Day Out With Elspeth in Lincoln and Newark

Lincoln1I’d not been to Lincoln for a dozen years and wondered how the exciting things that the marketing teams told me about had developed.

Well, access by rail hasn’t improved – you can only really get to Newark or Nottingham and I wasn’t coming from either, but I did visit the former since I was going to get stuck there anyway. Fares to Lincoln are pricey and there’s no prebooking, even from a nearby and kindred region. I travelled longer than I was in Lincoln, even though I’d not come from far.

Everything else planned for Lincoln has come to fruition. Across the street from the station, you’re now met by a considerable, very new campus of Lincoln university – AS Byatt’s 1990 novel about academia was set here because it didn’t have a university then. I wonder if it’s the only uni in the world whose library is housed in an industrial building. Next door, the Engine Shed is so clad in modernity that it’s unrecognisable. It is a gigs venue. Behind is LPAC – the performing arts centre. Both felt dead when I sought out a coffee, but they were things I felt lacking in the city which it now has. There’s not exactly an arts cinema as promised, though you can see artier films at Bishop Grosseteste campus – anyone else grossed out by that name? You do pronounce it how it sounds. It’s out of town, and no leaflet or map explained where or how far. Otherwise, you’ve a multiplex.

Lincoln sometimes looks and feels like York, and around the station with the timbered building over the old High Bridge, the guildhall come gatehouse ahead, and the small beige stone pre-Norman churches, you might feel you were somewhere akin. But Lincoln has less of that feel as you walk up into town. If you wondered what happens if you turn your back on the cathedral and wander away from the river: you see another 11th C diminutive church, a sneaky timbered building down an alley, a rare Norman guildhall, and eventually, you come to a common that gives a view of the city. Otherwise, it’s retail park. Interest is generally found by going up – and I do mean, up. North and well above the water level, sharply.

Beyond the Stonebow gate, it feels small town and a bit grimy and chainy shopping wise – there’s hardly anywhere to eat round here. (All the chain restaurants are by Brayford Pool, in not very sympathetic surrounds, ruining the water feature). It’s only as you start to puff up the hill that you see the bits the photos are of, and interesting shops and cafes appear next to and within ancient buildings. You may well need that rail as you go up Steep Hill.

Finding out what else has changed since 2003 showed me that deviating off this street reveals that Lincoln is a bit of a one street city. It feels like a mid sized midlands county town – which it is – but neither grand nor quaint; it’s what keeps it out of York’s league, because York does variety over a larger area, though it does do a little scruffy too. Lincoln’s major public works haven’t improved any of those side streets, and that includes the one linking the Drill Hall with the new museum, the appealing sounding Flaxengate.

Drill Hall was what is sounds – a military training centre, made of red brick and suitably battlemented. It is now a live arts centre. But you enter not though the castellated main gates on Broadgate, whose closedness suggests that the building is still dead, but through a door meant for performers and deliveries on Free School Lane, and it’s not well signed. Its cafe is lively inside, but shuts at 4 – something I was to come up against regularly today and on other sojourns.

The Usher Gallery’s extension will date, I predict. It may be of golden hue now, because it’s new, but its blockiness will be quickly regretted and that paving area will look as good as a “public realm works” as its 1960s counterparts. There didn’t seem to be much inside the new museum for Lincolnshire, called The Collection. Collection of what, I wondered, stepping over mosaic insets into the floor. There’s some displays cases of maps and bits from digs, but no story of the county. It felt like a boutique trying to hide its lack of wares by setting things out nicely and spaciously. The Usher gallery was more old fashioned art; a big room was between exhibitions. I didn’t linger long.

Returning to the main street, now called The Strait and Steep Hill, you see what puts Lincoln on the tourist trail. Here are those photos in brochures – the two Norman stone houses (two thirds of Britain’s collection), the red brick against black and white timbering, the protruding old shop fronts – now more colourful – and their independent wares. You have to stop to shop just to ease your ascent. Useful for business?

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And then you come out onto the prize view – Castle Hill, the old market (still functioning as such on some days), with the castle gate at one end, the cathedral’s at the other. The building which houses the TIC draws the eye – an overhanging timbered building on a stone base – but most centuries are represented in this square. There’s another cute church, a classical building… and the striking triple towered facade of England’s most admired cathedral.

The Castle has also had a makeover, which was just complete the weekend I went. Yet it was hard to see where the millions – and my £12 – were or would be spent. There already was a Victorian chapel, and most of the castle is about the walled walk and its view of its neighbour, rather than having much to go in and see. A big focus of the castle – and the reason for the works now – is the Magna Carta document, whose birthday it is. All I learned about the Magna Carta is that there is no The. The queues were offputtingly long and the entrance to the ticket office is shared with the shop, meaning I couldn’t even browse. I decided my life and day were too short to join the queue, and you have to enter the bailey anyway and thus you see much of what is on offer – mostly an enclosed lawn.

Going under the vast gate to the Cathedral, whose front never looks quite as satisfying as it might, I was faced with another queue and fee. It’s £8 (you can make it £16 if you buy a joint ticket with the castle), and again, you have to enter to buy and ticket, and get to view much of what’s on offer for free. Being more of a Norman and perpendicular person, Lincoln cathedral’s mainly 13-14th C offerings don’t really tempt me, and I passed on that too.

Lincoln5So instead, I wandered the Cathedral Close, which is the most interesting part. I picked up an excellent Toucan city guide for £5. Behind the cathedral is the Potter’s gate and  a big stretch of green. There’s a tithe barn, wonky lamp post and buildings in blue and early brick.

Many people stop their journey at Castle Hill, but it’s worth taking the other road out of it and continuing north to Bailgate. It may not have such historic buildings, but it does have atmosphere and more interesting shops – as well as Lincoln’s best Georgian building: the Assembly House. Go as far as the Roman Newport Arch, and then retrace. There are other things to see, slightly further away. The Lawn asylum is no longer a museum, but the Museum of Lincolnshire Life and Ellis mill are still open to visit.

That in essence is Lincoln: deviations will bring forth carparks, offices, ring roads and soulless chains.



There’s a little along the river path worth meandering by, such as the two old pubs – the Green Dragon and the Witch and the Wardrobe (almost Narnian) – and Greyfriars which you now can’t get in; and the English Heritage owned ruins of one of the greats bishops’ palaces – you can also stay in part of it as a hotel. But then, you (or I) really have done with Lindum Colona.

Hence, back to the uninviting station and on a train towards


I was forced to change at Newark – and by change, I meant, stations, not just trains. There’s no shuttle bus or linking line – you have to walk. And your route is not on a map. Castle Station is near that landmark, and as you walk over the bridge towards it, you feel you’ve landed somewhere interesting. It’s also opposite the tiny, 4pm closing TIC. Newark Northgate station is not on maps, nor near the centre of town (I estimate it’s a mile, going by my 20 min walk there), and it’s not even on that street – it should be Newark Appletongate station. Despite being the mainline station, there’s nothing main about it or to do around it.

If you should need to walk between stations, from Castle Stn: Go over the bridge keeping the castle on your right. You could turn left, follow Northgate to the end and bear right, but it’s more fun to cut through the town, up Boar and Chain lanes, through the market and to Bridge Street. Appletongate has the theatre on it and you should emerge near to it. Turn left out of the narrow passageway, turn left and keep going for over a mile.

Newark Castle is free as it is all ruins, but substantial, commanding and picturesque, in a park, with a free leaflet if you can catch the TIC open, and I think, occasional tours to the bits deemed too unsafe for us to wander in alone.

From there, I didn’t know what to do, as signs weren’t helpful, so I headed towards the tall tower of St Mary Magdalene. Intrigued by this big late Gothic church and its designation to one of my favourite people, I eagerly followed the spire, to find it too was a 4pm closer – and I’d just missed it. So what is within, I still do not know. At 252 ft, it is not, as rumoured, the 5th highest spire in England, it’s the 9th, though it scrapes in as 5th if you miss out the cathedrals. (Yes I have the heights of all of them and checked.) It may be in the top 5 best parish churches of Britain. Which I didn’t get to go inside!

And that was to be the highlight; for Newark only seems to have a small gallery and museum in the Town Hall, also shut… and the despite being a bank holiday Saturday, it was preparing to sleep at least an hour before most shops would normally close.

Lincs Newark market and churchLincs Newark Olde White Hart

The big market place suggests a town of importance, and the wide array of old street names – often ending in ‘gate’ – suggest a large town of antiquity. The town centre may still spread over some area, but its photographic depictions are misleading. Despite the leaflet on timbered buildings, including the coloured medieval Old White Hart (not even public! a building society just uses the bottom of it), Newark is mostly Georgian and red brick. Its Town Hall is golden and classical, but little else really stands out. Its arts offerings are an Odeon cinema and the old (1920) but mainstream Palace theatre, and its shops and cafes less varied than I had first thought too.

Hence my stay in Newark was not a long one, and that time should’ve been enough to catch the things I wanted – but they were CLOSED! I spent a disproportionate time getting to the diminutive station and generally hovering by tracks and going through hated ticket barriers.

But I’ve been back – see my post on Southwell and Newark.

See what else I’ve been up to: