The guide inside the Nottingham Castle, displaying regret and a yellow set of teeth, told me that if I wanted to see a castle, I had come to the wrong place and, indeed, the wrong county.
I did not need to be told that — I had sort of guessed it the moment I stepped into the alleged castle, which I thought once housed the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham, adversary and nemesis to Robin Hood in ballads and tales from medieval times.
Right under the castle is a bronze statue of Robin Hood, his bow arched, his sinews taut as he shoots down an invisible antagonist. On the walls are depicted other martial — and marital — scenes from the life the man who robbed the rich to feed the poor, including one showing King Richard the Lionheart joining the hands of Robin Hood and his beloved, Maid Marian.
A nasty surprise
Though the garden leading to the castle was beautiful, we were clearly being led through the garden path and we realised some nasty surprises awaited inside. Beyond the doors, the setting was ultra-modern — the very first thing that greets you is the museum shop, with cases full of sham Robin Hood memorabilia.
It seems that my Robin Hood experience was going to be as ersatz as the mythical hero himself.
The castle is not really a castle — it's a Ducal Mansion, whatever that might be. A castle did exist on these grounds in medieval times, on the foundations of which the present mansion was built between 1674 and 1679. It was burnt down in 1831 by slum-dwellers who were the necessary but detested cogs of the industrial revolution, but was restored and reopened in 1878.
It seems there have been suggestions to knock it down and replace it with something akin to the original — and with good reason. Carpeted and fitted with automatic doors, it’s a travesty of a castle, to put it mildly — it’s more like a children’s museum.
What was worse, the tour into the entrails of the castle, caves and tunnels under it, where one was gleefully promised “gruesome tales about Roger Mortimer and King David of Scotland”, was cancelled.
The injustice of it all can cause you to be put off Robin Hood completely. All this fuss over a man who probably never was, in whose name the city of Nottingham runs a hundred business and sells a million products.
With these thoughts, one is apt to be struck by the masochistic impulse to walk over to the City Centre, take out a calculator and spend a few hours at Pound World or 99 Pence store, comparing prices across continents and marvelling at how objects made in India cost lesser here.
Bravely resisting that urge, however, I venture into the city, stopping briefly at the quaint little Lace House in which an elderly lady sat making laces.
The little building is of interest because it was built in the 14th century — it stood at another site and was moved to the present location, close to the castle, in 1970. Lace, incidentally, was Nottingham’s speciality along with coal — there still exists a Lace Market here.
We chatted a bit, a common ground was found — the lawlessness among adolescents and the death of reading — and we lamented what the young were coming to.
In the City Centre, seeking the ingress to the famous underground caves, I went around in circles before discovering that they are accessible through a shopping mall! In fact, though Robin Hood pulls in more tourists, Nottingham would do well to market its caves.
The City Centre area was once known Tiggua Cobaucc — Place of Caves. The first reference to the caves appeared around 900AD, and people actually lived in them till 1845, until it was outlawed to rent them out.
Pulse of the city
The Old Market Square before the Nottingham Council House is obviously the pulse centre of the city — it’s the venue for assignations, the place to shop, to soak in the sun, to eat and drink and make merry. On warm days, the very young and the adolescents cavort in the running waters of a small pond before it, trams and buses whirring by, the Council House bell speaking time every 15 minutes.
On an impulse, I got on a tram headed for Phoenix Park — it was packed with people returning from office, many with bottles of liquor or groceries in hand, most of them getting off at a car park from where they would drive homeward. Cut down to the essentials, life is not much different across continents — work, food, drink, home...
We pass a locality inhabited by Asians — one house declares that its inhabitants have had enough of the noise and the vibrations trams create.
Seeing a new place alone is not ideal, a man from Barbados who had photographed me before the Council House had advised me; still, the shop advertising Malika Brides, above Ali the meat seller, was not enticing.
Drink and food were, though. The Hard Rock Café supplies beverages that are extremely potable, though as the name suggests, the music can get to you.
So you forage for food — that’s an easy choice today. The Indian cricket team, celebrating its win over England, had had their fill at the Laguna Tandoori. What’s good for Zaheer Khan is good enough for me!
Missed the forest
The one regret was not visiting Sherwood Forest — the animus towards all things Robin Hood, engendered by the sham at the Castle, had made me choose to not travel an hour to see what people said was nothing more than woods.
But I’m already regretting this decision — maybe Robin Hood did live there, in spirit if not in flesh. Maybe, next time…