The historic county town of Nottingham, situated on the River Trent in England's East Midlands, is universally known as the home of the world's first 'superhero', the legendary Robin Hood, who famously 'robbed from the rich to give to the poor'. Today's historians have cast doubt on whether Robin actually existed; and if he did, whether he did indeed live in Sherwood Forest near the city and do battle with the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, as the much-vaunted legend has it. What is not in doubt is that Robin has done much to promote tourism in this ancient city, which boasts another, very real and unique attraction in the form of a system of sandstone caves beneath the city, used as dwellings by Anglo-Saxons and later as the medieval hang-out of thieves and vagabonds, and even later as bomb shelters during World War II.
From an Anglo-Saxon settlement founded in around 600 AD, Nottingham developed into an important commercial capital for the region during the Middle Ages, and then went on to become one of England's major manufacturing cities, producing top-quality Victorian lace and hosiery. Today, it is saved from being just another heterogeneous English county capital by its legends and unique attractions, making it a city well worth including on the itinerary of any tour of the British Isles.
Towering over the city centre of Nottingham is a magnificent 17th-century mansion, built on a sandstone outcrop (Castle Rock) on the site of the original medieval castle erected by William the Conqueror in 1067. The castle building now houses the city's finest art collection, and a small museum charting the history of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. The art galleries include interactive displays and the artworks are presented in a vibrant, interesting way. The well-kept grounds of the castle are used for a full calendar of events, from historic pageants to an outdoor theatre season. There are also fascinating cave tours, a medieval-style children's playground and a picnic area, as well as a rather famous statue of Robin Hood himself.
A system of man-made caves carved into the sandstone beneath the city of Nottingham has been developed into a modern, award-winning attraction known as The City of Caves. Anglo-Saxons originally inhabited the caves, and their lifestyle is depicted in dramatic presentations for visitors who come to explore Nottingham's 'underworld'. Over the centuries, the caves have been put to various uses by the locals, and were saved by protestors when developers planned to build a modern shopping centre over the top of them. Now guided tours take visitors through the caves and through the ages, from the mystical 'Enchanted Well', through a working medieval tannery, to the Victorian slum of Drury Hill and a World War II bomb shelter. Please note that The City of Caves is not wheelchair accessible.
Accessed by the A614 highway, Sherwood Forest makes a great getaway close to Nottingham city. Rather reduced from the green splendour it evinced in the days of Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest is nevertheless as ecologically important and interesting as it is historically. Around 500,000 visitors a year come to enjoy Sherwood Forest Country Park, wandering the family nature trails, and admiring the huge ancient oaks and teeming insect and bird life. A big attraction is the mighty Major Oak, still flourishing in the forest after 800 years. Sherwood Forest is also the site of the popular Robin Hood Festival, held annually in summer.
A short distance from the M1 motorway near Nottingham is an ancient limestone gorge, honeycombed with caves, where archaeologists have found traces of Ice Age inhabitants who lived here up to 50,000 years ago. The Cresswell Crags are a rare site, featuring Britain's only known Ice Age-era rock art. At the east end of the gorge visitors can find out its archaeological significance at a museum and education centre, equipped with several high-tech interpretive exhibitions. The area itself can also be explored, rewarding visitors with its sweeping views and interesting rock formations; while actual tours of the caves are run on weekends and during school holidays only. Check the website for details.
Although the Robin Hood legends give the city a certain romantic allure, the network of sandstone caves, the man-made City of Caves that have been home to many groups of people through the ages, are Nottingham's greatest attraction for tourists. Just outside of the city, the Cresswell Crags offer natural cave systems of great archaeological significance due to the evidence of Ice Age inhabitants.
Above ground Nottingham is a pleasant, busy English town, equipped with an impressively large Market Square and thriving shopping streets around the site of its central Castle Rock, which is now topped with a Ducal Mansion (the original castle having been destroyed). The city was once a lace-producing centre and the Lace Market Centre provides some insight into the history of this delicate art form. Nottingham is also renowned for its 'watering holes', and three of the local pubs claim to be England's oldest: The Bell, Old Salutation and Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem.
Those on the trail of Robin can seek him out in Sherwood Forest where the huge and ancient oak trees are accessible via a pleasant network of walking trails. There is also a Robin Hood Festival held annually in summer in Nottingham which will delight fans of the legends.
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