Off with Their Heads

‘Pillar of Famous Faces’ – Image © Zoe Clarke (https://www.flickr.com/photos/elstruthio)

One of the more recent entries in the increasingly lengthy list of lost Nottingham monuments was a curious brick pillar upon which were fixed ten sculpted heads of historical figures, each accompanied by the name and years of birth and death of the individual in question. Not the most handsome monument, it is true, but one that was, nonetheless, full of character.

It was located between Middle Hill and the Great Central Railway viaduct (which was succeeded by the current tram viaduct), in a paved area with brick mounds near the subway that led to the Broadmarsh Bus Station.

This relatively secluded area became, perhaps inevitably, subject to vandalism, before becoming popular with skateboarders and BMX riders, who referred to it as Broadmarsh Banks. Sadly, ‘improvements’ in 2009 saw the removal of the brick mounds and the pillar, and thus the end of an era. At the time of writing, the site is changing once again – remaining as public realm, but now designed to complement the recently-opened Nottingham College City Hub.

Looking towards the former site of Broadmarsh Banks and the brick pillar, April 2021 (Image credit: https://nottinghamandbeyond.wordpress.com)

But back to that curious pillar.

The sculpted heads had originally been retrieved from a building that was situated at the corner of Broad Marsh (the street) and Carrington Street in the days before the latter was truncated by the shopping centre.

‘Corner of Broad Marsh and Carrington Street, Nottingham, 1968’ (© Picture Nottingham/Bernard Beilby)

The building contained a large Burton menswear store and was demolished in 1972 during the redevelopment of the Broad Marsh area. According to an article by Geoffrey Oldfield, the heads ‘formed the keystones of the curved pediments above the first floor windows’. Oldfield adds that, ‘When the time came for demolition, Mr Terry Doyle, an architect acting for the developers, suggested that the heads be preserved and so special arrangements were made so that they were retained for preservation.’

One of the sculpted heads that later formed part of the pillar, shown in its original location in detail from a 1970 photo
View of the former site of the Burton store, April 2021; note the building to the left, which is also present on the 1968 Beilby photo ( Image credit: https://nottinghamandbeyond.wordpress.com )

The heads were duly used to create the structure previously described, bringing into existence a unique and diverting artefact that provided a link not only to the loss of an impressive Nottingham building, but also to a venerable British institution.

Burton’s was founded by Sir Montague Maurice Burton, who was born Meshe David Osinsky in Lithuania in 1885. Burton had set up as an outfitter in 1903, having come to Britain in 1900. His business, originally called The Cross-Tailoring Company, was registered as Montague Burton the Tailor of Taste Ltd in 1917. The firm is said to have made a quarter of all British military uniforms in the Second World War and Burton was knighted in 1931 for ‘services to industrial relations’.

The Burton pillar became a familiar part of the Nottingham streetscape over the years and has an important place in many people’s memories (and therefore in the social history of Nottingham).

The heads attached to the pillar represented the following figures:

South face: William Shakespeare and Robert Burns
West face: Horatio Nelson, Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Joshua Reynolds
North face: Captain James Cook and David Livingstone
East face: The Duke of Wellington, Cecil Rhodes and James Wolfe

The loss of the pillar, along with that of a well-known and much-loved (albeit unofficial) skatepark, was, and is, regrettable.  At the time of the changes, a spokesman for Westfield, the then-owners of the Broadmarsh Centre, stated, ‘The works are part of a wider scheme to improve the look and feel of this area. We have listened to the views of our shoppers and local residents who have expressed their desire for a refurbishment of this important route to make it more attractive and in keeping with the new arts centre. This is part of our ongoing commitment to the local area and we hope everyone who uses this part of town will be pleased with the results.’

A BBC News article in January 2010 reported that, after the brick pillar had been pulled down towards the end of 2009, the Burton heads were, incredibly, ‘left lying around until Nottingham City Council collected them.’ It was subsequently felt that only four of the heads (one online source states that ‘half’ of the heads had ‘been knicked [sic] already’) were in good enough condition to be preserved, and they were stored at a council depot, only to be stolen. Lamentably, a council spokesman is quoted as saying, ‘It is regrettable that our attempts to salvage these unusual pieces of local history have ended in this sad way.’

Two of the heads after removal from the pillar and before collection (image courtesy https://hookedskate.com/)

The BBC article also informs us that the Nottingham Civic Society had turned down an offer to take the heads, with Ken Brand of the Civic Society commenting, ‘ I don’t think they were really worth saving. They had broken noses, broken chins and so on. I don’t want to get too nostalgic about this…The cost was too prohibitive to repair them…It’s not really a loss to Nottingham.’

And so, after a catalogue of negligence and apathy, and seemingly without any attempt to involve the wider citizenry of Nottingham in a conversation about a possible new home for these fascinating objects, an intriguing link to our past was itself consigned to memory.

The pillar at night (image from https://www.nottskate.org.uk/)

Selected Sources:

‘A curious structure’ – Geoffrey Oldfield – Issue 4 (Nov-Dec 1978) of Nottingham Quarterly (General Editor: John Sheffield), pp. 14-16 (http://www.thesparrowsnest.org.uk/collections/public_archive/9857.pdf)

‘Skatepark ‘flattened’ without notice’ – Claire Carter, Nottingham Evening Post, November 2009 (https://web.archive.org/web/20091130041317/http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/homenews/Skatepark-flattened-notice/article-1552912-detail/article.html)

‘Thieves steal historical Nottingham busts no one wants’ – BBC News, January 2010 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/nottingham/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8470000/8470916.stm)

‘From Slums to Skate Parks to Shopping: The History of the Broadmarsh’ – Dan O’Neill, Left Lion, June 2020 (https://www.leftlion.co.uk/read/2020/june/broadmarsh-centre-shops-history-nottingham-skate/) – Twitter: @danoneill87

(The Burton pillar can be seen in a video featuring some dizzying BMX stunts at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ry-PIPc5II&t=155s)

Star of the Show

By the time I was allowed to go to the cinema on my own or with friends, the ABC on Chapel Bar, the Odeon on Angel Row and the Classic  on Market Street had all been converted into multi-screen cinemas. The Odeon had actually been twinned before I was born, and I don’t remember visiting either the ABC or the Classic with my family when they were still single-screen venues.

I only became aware of the Elite on Upper Parliament Street, which remained a single screen cinema until its closure in 1977, much later in life, but it has fascinated me ever since.

The Elite Picture Theatre, to give it its full original name, was Nottingham’s first ‘super cinema’, offering features and facilities above and beyond those of its local rivals, and it was opened on Monday 22 August 1921 by the Mayor of Nottingham, Alderman Herbert Bowles.

In an article about the opening, the Nottingham Journal reported that, ‘The Mayor expressed the hope that the people would support the promoters to their utmost capacity. He was one of those who firmly believed in the old adage: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” ‘

The Mayor was presented with a ‘suitably inscribed’ gold cigarette case, which is presumably still in someone’s possession to this day. The opening film was Pollyanna, starring Mary Pickford and based on the novel by Eleanor H Porter.

The Nottingham Evening Post noted that, ‘The picture…is still “the thing,” but the big house at the top of King and Queen-streets also comprises beautifully furnished writing rooms, lounges, and restaurants, and in the largest of these, the delights of dancing may be enjoyed. There is a Jacobean restaurant, a French café (in the Louis Quatorze style), and a Georgian tearoom. Electric elevators give access to each of the three floors, there is comfortable seating accommodation in the theatre for 1,600 people, and such items as a full orchestra and the newest type of organ – a magnificent instrument, which alone cost £10,000 – will add to the enjoyment of the visitor.’

Illustrated weekly The Bioscope added that ‘…it is the intention of the managing directors of the Elite to encourage the production of British films in every possible way. Mr. Finch [one of the managing directors] is convinced the best British productions can hold their own with any in the world, and in the future he thinks their superiority will be undisputed.’

After epitomising the glamour of cinema in its golden age, the Elite’s trajectory over time was to follow that of many other picture houses.

Cinema admissions went into decline from the 1950s onwards, mainly as a result of TV ownership, but also due to other factors such as diversification of leisure interests and the growth of consumer culture more generally. The Elite, which had been taken over by Associated British Cinemas in 1935, having shown the first ‘talkie’ in Nottingham in 1929, limped into the 1970s and survived a demolition proposal, before being converted into a bingo hall in 1977. The bingo hall remained open until the early 1990s.

The cinema closed with an X certificate double-bill of Erotic Young Lovers and Take an Easy Ride. The former was presumably the 1973 West German film of that name, while the latter, although a British production, was possibly not one that would have contributed much to Mr Finch’s sense of national pride.

The Elite building’s exterior remains impressive and has had a restoration and clean-up. The interior, meanwhile, retains some of its original features, including elements of the ornate auditorium, which was eventually converted into (and seemingly still is) a nightclub. Street-facing businesses remain on the ground floor, while there appear to be (or have been) offices and other businesses in the rest of the building. 2019 saw proposals to convert vacant office space on the first, second and third floors into student accommodation, which is good news for the future viability of the building and a hopefully sympathetic treatment of the remaining original features.

Cineworld lies a stone’s throw away, offering a contemporary cinema experience to the masses. Will home streaming of films prove to be the kiss of death for such venues in much the same way that television and other factors were for the traditional cinema? Only time will tell. One encouraging sign, though, is that a small chain called Arc Cinemas is part-way through a programme of opening new sites, including two locally, in Beeston and Hucknall (the former an 8-screen new-build due to open later this year, the latter a classy 4-screen resuscitation of the Byron).

But let us return one final time to the Elite, where a mystery presents itself.

There are twenty five niches at the top of the building that originally (and until relatively recent times) contained statues. When I looked at the building recently, only three statues remained. Initial research seemed to indicate that at least some of the statues were found to be unsafe during the restoration/cleaning works and that one or more of them had suffered damage over time while in situ. Details still seemed to be thin on the ground, though, until further digging unearthed more information.

It seems that safety concerns were indeed the primary reason for the removal of most (possibly all) of the statues. In fact, the upper section of one statue had fallen off, due in the main to rusting of the iron bar that secured it to its niche.

The statues that are not currently present are said to be inside the building and the intention is that replacements will be commissioned where necessary (presumably where restoration/repair is not feasible). This will result in a mixture of original and new statues at the top of the building.

In fact, one of the three statues that are in place at the moment was the first replacement to be commissioned and completed – a Shakespeare (or Shakespeare-esque) figure created by a company that has links to the organisation involved in the original work on the building. The original version of the figure was returned to the Elite’s owner/developer after being used to model its replacement.

So let’s raise a glass to this continuing, very worthwhile project to restore one of Nottingham’s most respected buildings to something as close to its former glory as can possibly be achieved in this day and age, with 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of the opening of what was once one of Nottingham’s finest picture palaces.

Selected Sources:

Going to the Pictures: A Short History of Cinema in Nottingham – Michael Payne
Ninety Years of Cinema in Nottingham – Brian Hornsey
Cinema Treasures – Elite Picture Theatre – http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/21746 (accessed 20/02/21)
Nottingham Journal, Saturday 20 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)
Nottingham Evening Post, Saturday 20 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)
Nottingham Journal, Tuesday 23 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/) The Bioscope, 25 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)
The Bioscope, 25 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)

Middle-Aged Kicks

‘You were lucky…’

What might constitute middle-aged kicks for those of us racing through the survey age-range tick boxes at a rate of knots? For my part, I’m not particularly interested in becoming a MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra), but, in much the same way that I personally am baffled by the popular pursuit of spending a month’s salary on a bike, acquiring a Tour de France fancy dress costume and pedalling off in the direction of Skeggy, I suppose one of my own favourite pursuits – exploring abandoned spaces – might attract a similar level of amusement and bemusement (possibly even opprobrium) were it to come up in everyday conversation.

Which, of course, it probably won’t, because most conversations that we have as humans – particularly as middle-aged humans – tend to be stultifyingly dull. Thus, when I go into work on Monday morning, the fact that I spent yesterday afternoon crashing through undergrowth in order to locate an inconsequential ditch in an overgrown brownfield site will likely as not go unmentioned. You know the score: ‘Morning! Good weekend?’ ‘Yes thanks. You?’ ‘Yes, not bad thanks.’

One of my favourite footpaths is the one that bisects the former industrial land (now cleared, other than a single tall chimney) to the south of the Wilkinson Street Park & Ride facility. This wasteland is bordered by the River Leen to the east and (partly) south, and a railway line to the west, and will probably eventually become a housing estate.

The wasteland areas to the north and south of the path, formerly home to factories carrying out soap manufacture and bleaching and dyeing, have tended in the past to be well secured by fencing, but I noticed on a recent walk that a gap had appeared in one of the fences (presumably courtesy of the local ne’er-do-wells), allowing access to the southern portion of the site.

Old and contemporary maps reveal the existence of a short length of watercourse in this part of the wasteland. In its truncated present day form, it appears to feed into the River Leen via a sluice near Meadow Brown Road. This watercourse is, in fact, classed as a drain. Not exactly a lost river, then, but I headed over to the area yesterday to inspect it anyway.

The site in 2006. Note drain in bottom left hand corner
A satellite view of the site as it is today

Stepping through the gap in the fence, and pointing myself roughly in the direction of the point where satellite and map imagery had shown that the drain meets the southern boundary of the wasteland, it was immediately clear that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park (which, in hindsight, should have been abundantly obvious), so I was glad that I had my sturdy walking boots on. Passing a couple of rudimentary dens, I headed deeper into the site and stumbled my way through brambles and low-hanging tree branches before reaching the southern perimeter.

At this point, tracking the perimeter, I was making my way past fences behind which lay the back gardens of some of the properties on Meadow Brown Road, so it was necessary to make as little noise as possible, given that I was on private land. It wasn’t long before I spotted a manhole cover, which alerted me to the presence of a small channel of running water a couple of metres away, largely hidden by the undergrowth. Excited to have located the object of my quest – yes, I know, not exactly the source of the Nile, but a man must deal with the hand that he has been dealt – I knelt down next to the channel and observed that the water disappeared into a concrete pipeline which did, indeed, appear to lead in the direction of the sluice that fed into the Leen.

The pipe that appears to take the water to the Leen

While retracing my steps, curiosity and a little luck helped me to discover the other end of the drain, which was completely hidden from view behind a bank. There, the water emerged from another pipe, which led from who knows where.

And here my brief tale ends. It would be interesting to discover the history of this short length of water. Late-19th Century maps seem to show that it was once part of a longer channel, which led from the area north of Wilkinson Street down to Bobbers Mill. Perhaps the bleaching and dyeing and/or soap works, when they appeared on the scene, then co-opted part of it.

It seems odd that this one, short section survives in the open.

The drain’s presumed outfall into the River Leen

Rock of Ages

It is a good shrubbery.

Head Knight, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

It is still a source of wonder to me that the University of Nottingham allows the public to roam freely around the grounds of its University Park campus. It’s not something that is widely advertised, but it’s certainly not discouraged either. I’ve explored the campus on many occasions over the years, but I still occasionally happen upon a feature that is new to me.

I particularly like to visit the grounds out of term and towards the end of the day, when they are at their most tranquil. Given the lack of restrictions on pedestrian entry into the grounds, it always surprises me that there aren’t more people around and it often feels almost as if I have the place to myself.

Last week, I decided to go for a short circular walk around the campus, the walk beginning with an ascent of the hill that rises near the University’s west entrance and leads up to an area that includes the Trent Building. It was as I was about to reach the crest of the hill that I spotted an information board that I had never seen before. It concerned itself with something called the Bassingfield Stone.

Most Nottinghamians will be familiar with the Hemlock Stone – mainly on account of its size and location – but relatively few, I’ll wager, will have seen or heard of the the more diminutive Bassingfield Stone, which is, at the time of writing, fairly well hidden inside a shrubbery. So well hidden, in fact, that it is unlikely that any casual passers-by would notice it if they had not already been alerted to its existence by the information board, which states that the stone is, ‘Tucked away in the shrub border to the west of the Trent Building’.

Fortuitously, and in line with the time of day, there’s no-one around as I identify the shrubbery/shrub border (is there a difference? Is ‘shrub border’ a posh way of saying shrubbery?) and make my way towards its interior, where I discover the mottled grey stone, perhaps a metre-or-so in height and rather phallic in appearance, resting contentedly on a plinth.

Attached to the plinth is a plaque, which reads, ‘This large erratic, consisting of hornblende schist, was brought into the district by glaciers from the south-west Highlands. It attracted the attention of Bronze Age man who adapted it for use in agricultural religious rites. Discovered by G. F. Turton Esq.,(N.N.S.F.C.) at Bassingfield Gravel Workings. Presented by B. S. Whiting Esq., Manager.’

As ever in such scenarios, I’m immediately made aware of the glaring gaps in my knowledge of the world. I’ve already realised that I don’t know exactly what a shrub is (some sort of plant, presumably), or at what point an assemblage of such entities may be termed a shrub border or shrubbery, but the words ‘erratic’, ‘hornblende schist’ and, indeed, ‘Bassingfield Gravel Workings’ present further mysteries. Frankly, I’m not even sure I know exactly when the Bronze Age was.

The internet comes galloping to the rescue. An erratic, as suggested by the information board and plaque, is a rock that has been transported by a glacier, then deposited, and is different in size and type to rock that is native to the new place in which it finds itself. Hornblende is a name for a particular group of minerals and a schist is, ‘a coarse-grained metamorphic rock which consists of layers of different minerals and can be split into thin irregular plates’.

Bassingfield, it transpires, is a hamlet that lies between Gamston and Radcliffe-on-Trent, and the name in geological circles for the zone of river terrace deposits in the area in which the object of our attention was discovered is ‘the Bassingfield Sand and Gravel’. The Bronze Age, meanwhile, for anyone else as intellectually-challenged as me, began in Britain ‘around 2,000 BC’ (according to a BBC web page) and ended circa 650 BC.

G. F. Turton, discoverer of the stone, is described in the book Quaternary of the Trent as an amateur archaeologist, while B. S. Whiting was presumably the manager of the gravel workings when the stone was discovered in 1949. At least some workings in the area were still operational at that time – a report in the Nottingham Evening Post of 6 October 1950 details the sad story of William Wady Shepherd, 39, of West Bridgford, who was fatally injured when the dumper he was driving at what is referred to in the report as ‘Bassingfield quarry’ fell over ‘upside down, into the pit.’ The truck weighed ‘about 2½ tons and was carrying about 2 tons of gravel’ and death was due to  ‘laceration of the heart, multiple injuries, hemorrhage, and shock’.

Still gazing at the stone, I make a mental note to have a walk around the Bassingfield area at some point. Then it’s time to make my way back out of the undergrowth. Thankfully, there are still no other visitors in evidence. Had there been, they would almost certainly have come to the conclusion that I had gone into the bushes for a wee.

I make my way back down the hill with a spring in my step, invigorated by the knowledge that there is always something new for the curious wanderer to discover on his or her perambulations.

The Bassingfield Stone

Small Pleasures

Virtual commute image courtesy Mr Google

Look for small pleasures
That happen every day;
And not for fortune or fame.

Popular song

Home working sucks.

When things are back to normal:

I will step out at an unearthly hour every weekday and appreciate the relative calm.

I will signal for the bus and not be annoyed by anyone who sticks their arm out at the same time, but is not standing at the Officially Sanctioned Stopping Point.

I will make my way to the top deck, sit in my usual seat and think to myself, ‘Blimey, even after all these years, IT’S BLOODY BRILLIANT SITTING ON THE TOP DECK OF A DOUBLE-DECKER BUS’.

I will watch my fellow commuters board with interest and enjoy sharing this enclosed space with them for the first time in an age.

As the bus draws towards the city centre, I will appreciate my home city anew – its architecture, its vitality and its homeliness.

As the bus draws to a stop, I will wait for everyone else to get off first, before emerging into the fresh air, walking along Milton Street and acknowledging the chap dispensing copies of the Metro.

Turning into Parliament Street, I will appreciate the joie de vivre of the school kids waiting for their onward connections, before crossing the road at a place that is Not an Officially Sanctioned Crossing Point. Divine retribution will catch up with me when I descend into – then trip over the top of – one of the trenches created in the tarmac over the years by the passing buses.

Walking past buildings I’ve walked past thousands of times before, but not since lockdown, I will be hit by a pleasant wave of nostalgia, before this sensation is replaced by thoughts of the MASSIVE breakfast cob I am going to order when I arrive at Mary’s Kitchen (please God, let Mary’s Kitchen have survived all this nonsense).

When I finally arrive at work, I will be in a Zen-like state of mind.

My renewed appreciation of the 40 minutes detailed above may even last for a few days.

Image courtesy Google

Distancing by Default


‘I find industrial cities exciting. I like their toughness.’

Zaha Hadid


Nottingham isn’t quite so tough these days, following the demise of so many of its industrial concerns. Arthur Seaton would barely recognise some parts of the city. But there are a few light industrial estates dotted around here and there, and they are a source of fascination to me.

The industrial area closest to where I live has become a location that I’ve started to visit more frequently of late, and I like to visit it out of hours. There are three main reasons for this:

1. Once everyone has packed up and gone home, it is like a ghost town. Thus, it is possible for me to indulge the fantasy that I am the last person left alive in a post-apocalyptic world.

2. I can nose around and take photos to my heart’s content, without being questioned by burly gentlemen in boiler suits.

3. Social distancing. In Sainsbury’s, I can almost guarantee that some gormless individual will contravene the two-metre-distance rule while I am seeking bananas that have attained an acceptable level of ripeness. At the popular local park – well, let’s not even go there, either literally or metaphorically. But the industrial estate? Glorious isolation.

A local business park after hours, or a local leisure park at any time, will serve the same purpose.

Just don’t all turn up at once.

Curtailment


‘I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.’

John Burroughs


I completely identify with the quote above. In fact, bizarrely, given that I have a little more time at the moment by virtue of the fact that I’m not having to commute, I’m finding it even more difficult to fit everything in.

Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that two of the activities referred to in the quote have been curtailed. Daily walks are only supposed to last ‘up to an hour’ and the idea of meeting up with friends to socialise has been more-or-less completely knocked on the head.

Limiting a walk to an hour or less is not easy when I’m used to it being a more open-ended experience, but perhaps a new appreciation of the sights on my doorstep will add a silver lining to the Cumulonimbus.

Open for Business

The lovely new foot and cycle route between University Boulevard and Thane Road, which includes a bridge over the Midland Mainline, is now open. Nottingham and Beyond sent its intrepid reporter, Dick Duckling, along to have a look. Over to you, Dick.

‘Thank you. As you can see from the photograph above, this new addition to our pedestrian and cycle network really is a thing of great beauty and utility. A picture paints a thousand words. Actually, in this instance, it fails to paint the fact that I was being blown off my feet by a gale, but no matter.

‘The bridge is apparently named after Dr Stewart Adams, who was a major part of the Boots team that developed Ibuprofen. Sadly, Dr Adams died in January.

‘To arrive at this location, I turned off University Boulevard down a road between Nottingham Tennis Centre and Nottingham Science Park that appears, as yet, to have no name.

‘Let’s have a walk up that welcoming ramp to see what views are on offer.

‘Splendid. The view to our left (top photo) is towards the Beeston Sidings Nature Reserve, which can be accessed from the science park, while the scene to our right shows the water channel heading in the direction of the Royal Mail facility at Padge Road. What a treat it is for the humble pedestrian or cyclist to be able to gain access to these areas. As we proceed over the railway bridge, I’m sure that more visual treats await us.

‘Simply sublime. Here we see views along the railway towards and away from the city. Unfortunately, you need to be reasonably tall to properly appreciate the scene from the central point, so children and small adults should consider bringing a portable stepladder or similar device. Caution is advised – as the bridge becomes busier, cyclists will inevitably revert to their natural instinct – i.e. that of taking no prisoners.

‘Onward and downward…

‘Yes, a real treat here for fans of recycling and/or epic industrial processes, of which I am one. As it’s Saturday today, however, there’s not much going on, and, to add insult to injury, barriers are being erected at the side of the walkway/cycle path – presumably with the intention of shielding this magnificent sight from passers-by. Spoilsports.

‘Before we proceed any further, let’s take a look back in the direction from which we have come. We can now see, on our left, the University of Nottingham’s magnificent Trent Building, with its iconic clock tower.

‘Reverting to the task in hand, we turn around once more and descend towards Harrimans Lane, where we will cross the road and carry on along the new path that leads (eventually) to the Boots sentry post, erm, I mean security gatehouse, at Thane Road.

‘To our right is the HGV entrance to the Boots campus and in the near distance is Imperial Tobacco’s Horizon factory. What a fantastic alternative commuting route this new path will be for many of the workers there. Oh, hang on a minute…

‘At any rate, as you can see below, there are certainly plenty of options available here for the adventurous pedestrian/cyclist.

‘It’s time to press on towards our final destination, along a stretch of path that leads us around the eastern edge of the Boots HQ, alongside the canal and past the listed D90 building,…

‘…all of which brings us to the Thane Road Gate (below), where some interesting possibilities for onward investigation present themselves.

‘It’s been an invigorating journey.

‘Full marks to Nottingham City Council for this excellent initiative, which opens up some fascinating liminal areas for the student of urban topography. This is Dick Duckling, signing off, until my next intrepid adventure.’

Thank you, Dick.

Up, Up and Away

It’s astonishing how much trouble taking an interest in one’s environment can cause in this age of paranoia.

Earlier this month, I found myself involved in a set-to with a security guard who appeared out of nowhere, blocking my route forward on a public footpath, after I’d been having a look through some hoardings at the crumbling warehouses near Nottingham station. He demanded, in a somewhat belligerent manner, to know what I was up to, and was less than impressed when I informed him that I didn’t see why I should tell him anything and was sorry that I couldn’t help him with his enquiries.

With that experience still fresh in my mind, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise when, whilst in the middle of taking a photo of a 1951 gatepost outside a deserted Firbeck Academy in Wollaton on a recent Saturday afternoon (the gate in question being a forgotten remnant of an earlier, more innocent time, when schools didn’t resemble maximum security prisons), I was rudely interrupted by a fat middle-aged woman sporting an Asda uniform and a Croydon facelift. The conversation proceeded thus:

‘Can I ask why you’re taking photos of the school?’

‘I’m interested in local history. Can I ask why you’re asking me why I’m taking photos?’

‘You’re taking photos of a school. It looks dodgy.’

‘I’m not taking photos of a school. I’m taking photos of a gatepost.’

‘Well, it looks dodgy. I’m allowed to ask you why you’re taking photographs.’

‘I’m taking photographs in a public place. I don’t have to tell you anything.’

At this point, a newly-arrived, thuggish-looking chap, dressed in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms that have possibly never seen better days, having heard all or part of the conversation, started to put his own two penn’orth in:

‘It looks dodgy. You shouldn’t be taking photos of a school.’

‘Look, if you think something dodgy is going on, then that’s an indication of the way your mind works, not mine.’

‘You’re making yourself look guilty by arguing.’

‘I’m trying to make a point. Anyway, if I was up to something dodgy, I’m hardly going to stand here and tell you all about it am I?’

And so on and so forth. Eventually, they both head off on their way to whatever pitiful pursuits their limited mindsets allow for and I am left to contemplate whether I wouldn’t be better off sitting at home in my underpants watching Channel 5 on a daily basis instead of embarking on my beloved urban perambulations. Shortly afterwards, I encounter tracksuit-bottomed man once again. Unaware of my approach, he is peering furtively around the corner of a pedestrian subway. As I pass him, I resist the almost overwhelming temptation to comment upon the irony of the situation.

This daft debate was the second in a swift double whammy of deflating happenings. Twenty minutes previously, I’d disembarked from the number 35 bus, looking forward with great anticipation to my exploration of the Balloon Wood area – in particular, the triangle of land bordered by Coventry Lane, the railway line and Wollaton Vale. Keen to have a look at a striking circular modernist building slated for demolition that had latterly been occupied by Spices restaurant and was, prior to that, a pub called The Gondola (the name referencing the passenger-carrying compartment beneath a balloon, not the Venetian boat), it soon became obvious that I’d arrived a little too late. The building was no more.

A few relics remained – the roadside sign, the perimeter railings (with a banner attached to them advertising a £9.95 ‘Early Bird’ menu), a set of steps that now led nowhere and a safe lying on its side next to a pile of bricks – but life had moved on and another repository of memory had been eradicated.

In its days as The Gondola, the pub once served as the local for what architectural historian Elain Harwood called ‘Nottingham’s most notorious housing estate’, the Balloon Wood Estate, colloquially known as the Balloon Woods flats. The Balloon Wood Estate, consisting of 647 flats in interlinked seven- and six-storey blocks, was completed in 1970, but only survived for fourteen years before being demolished in 1984, a victim of construction and social problems that eventually made conditions there untenable.

Even by the standards of some of Nottingham’s other concrete jungles, the Balloon Woods flats seem to have been pretty grim. A 1974 article in Grass Roots magazine, a Nottingham publication, describes the estate as, ‘A concrete maze…looking uncomfortably like a prison – or a termite town, maybe… Washing flaps in the breeze on the balconies, children lean at precarious angles over the walls on the high walks, and the doors of broken lifts gape open, forcing tenants to climb the concrete stairs to reach their homes.’ In many of the dwellings themselves, meanwhile, ‘Tenants are used to black fungus growing on the walls, peeling wallpaper, and rain penetrating the ceilings of the top flats.’ Residents consist of, ‘…the homeless, those from clearance areas, people just out from the services, one-parent families, and old and single people with nowhere else to live.’

I wander around the area where the flats once stood. It’s inoffensive enough visually, and obviously a huge improvement on what went before, but there’s still an edginess to the proceedings. I’ve walked happily through St Anns, The Meadows, Radford and Forest Fields at all hours, but I feel vulnerable here, for some reason. A woman walks past, losing her rag completely with someone on the other end of the phone that she’s holding – not just shouting, but screaming into it with a level of vitriol that I’ve rarely encountered before on the streets of my home city.

I cross a footbridge and follow the railway line that runs to the south of the area. It’s part of the route that runs from Nottingham to Ilkeston and then onwards towards Chesterfield and Sheffield. A second bridge leads to a path that passes alongside the wood that lent its name to the flats. In some ways, this wood is a remarkable survivor. Looking at it on an overhead satellite view, it seems to be almost begging (from a developer’s perspective) to be razed to the ground and overwritten by a continuation of the housing to the south.

Balloon Wood, Balloon Wood Estate, The Gondola, The Balloon (another lost pub), the Balloon Houses (a pair of properties located at the top end of Balloon Wood until the mid 1920s)… Where did the balloon connection come from?

Theories suggest that either experimental work on a ballooning project took place here, perhaps initiated by a rich local hobbyist, or a balloon from elsewhere flew over (or landed in) the area at a time when such an event would have been even rarer than it is today. Meanwhile, a plaque on the front of the Fellows Morton & Clayton pub in Nottingham commemorates ‘Nottingham’s first successful balloon flight on November 1st 1813 by James Sadler’, so maybe an association with that event isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either.

Casting the net slightly further afield in terms of noteworthy Nottingham balloon associations, one of the locations demolished to make way for Victoria Station was called Balloon Court, while there is also an East Midlands saying that runs something along the lines of, ‘You’re daft, meduck – you follow balloons’.

The archives await.

On the final leg of my walk, I follow part of the former route of the Nottingham Canal, which once ran through these parts on its way towards Langley Mill, before it’s time for me to head for home.

An exploration of this interesting area is recommended. Just don’t take any photographs of the old school gate.

 

 

By the Time I Get to Phoenix Park

Stanton Tip, Cinderhill
Stanton Tip, Cinderhill

Walking motivation has been in short supply of late, thanks to a combination of the lower temperatures, a shortage of daylight hours and general laziness. A proper stroll was therefore much overdue as I set out to explore a route between two business parks in northwest Nottingham – Nottingham Business Park, near Strelley, and Phoenix Park, which is on the former site of Cinderhill (or Babbington) Colliery.

I travel towards my start point on a number 35 bus, whose route takes in many areas and features of historic interest. So much so, in fact, that, in late 2018, Nottingham City Transport announced the launch of History Bus 35, a guide to the history of some of the places that the service travels through. The guide was written by Robert Howard and you can read about the launch (and follow a link to download the guide itself) here.

Nottingham Business Park is a bleak outpost on the borders of D H Lawrence country. Much of the action (such as it is) of Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow takes place a couple of miles away in Cossall, or Cossethay, as it is known in the book, so I suppose it’s unsurprising that some of the ‘street’ names on the business park, including Lawrence Drive and Chatterley Park Way, reference the once-controversial author.

‘Business’ and ‘Park’. Which sorry individual first conflated those two words, I wonder? Just one in a long line of corporate linguistic misappropriations. A 2015 article in the Washington Post claims that the first office park opened in an upper-class suburb of Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1950s, ‘as commuters became uneasy with simmering racial tension in city centres.’ These days, business parks are a ubiquitous edgeland feature, with locations determined by logistical and economic factors.

Nottingham Business Park is home to such concerns as Keepmoat (‘a leading UK home builder’), Highways England, Yü Energy (a supplier of business utilities), Remit Training and Centiq (‘Trusted experts in cloud infrastructure and SAP HANA platforms’ (me neither)).

As I wander along the thoroughfares that link the various uninspiring office buildings to each other and to the outside world, I feel a profound sense of sympathy for everyone for whom this place will be lying in wait on Monday morning. What a pitiful location in which to have to earn a living. I imagine that Lawrence would have been appalled to have his name and that of one of his most famous creations associated with this sensory vacuum. His poem All That We Have is Life should be posted somewhere on Lawrence Way for all to read:

All that we have, while we live, is life;

and if you don’t live during your life, you are a piece of dung.

And work is life, and life is lived in work

unless you’re a wage-slave.

While a wage-slave works, he leaves life aside

and stands there a piece of dung.

 

Men should refuse to be lifelessly at work.

Men should refuse to be heaps of wage-earning dung.

Men should refuse to work at all, as wage-slaves.

Men should demand to work for themselves, of themselves,

and put their life into it.

For if a man has no life in his work, he is mostly a heap of dung.

Wage-slave benches, Nottingham Business Park
Wage-slave benches, Nottingham Business Park

Adjacent to Nottingham Business Park is a new housing estate called Woodhouse Park, which, perhaps inspired by the business park, has used Lawrence-related names for most, if not all, of its Hopperesque streets. These two vapid environments deserve one another.

As I try to escape from Nottingham Business Park, I’m somewhat nonplussed by the fact that there are footpath signs in evidence near to the main road, but, bizarrely, absolutely no evidence of any footpaths near the signs. Several minutes of uncertainty follow before I decide to take the plunge and cross the main road anyway.

I manage to locate a path that leads towards Broxtowe Country Park without too much difficulty and follow it into Chilwell Dam Plantation before nearly being run off the footpath by, in quick succession, a quad bike and two motorbikes – an indication that I’m nearing the Broxtowe Estate, built in the 1930s and assuredly not without its problems in the present day.

Broxtowe Country Park has an air of abandonment on this mild Saturday afternoon. The footpaths and the large expanse of grassland contain only one other person – a dog walker, and it’s only as I near the other side of the park that one or two other figures emerge. Everyone else is at home watching Netflix, or whatever it is that everyone gets up to these days.

Surrounded on all sides by housing and largely bereft of facilities, Broxtowe Country Park feels like a cursory afterthought that has since been left to its own devices. In part the former site of Broxtowe Colliery, it is a curious, characterless non-space that is unlike other, more inspiring country parks in and around Nottingham. It seems regrettable that this barren, largely featureless place survived while the adjacent Broxtowe Estate supplanted both Broxtowe Hall and the site of a Roman fort.

Broxtowe Country Park
Broxtowe Country Park

As I reach the eastern portion of the park, I pass a tarmacced area next to which water emerges from a pipe into a curiously attractive recess before disappearing down a slope. The path onward (which is really more of a road, although no cars are in evidence) also starts to descend, more-or-less following the route of the mineral railway that once ran through here. A small stream runs to one side for most of the way before it vanishes into a culvert as I make my way out of the park and emerge back into civilisation next to a petrol station and a care home complex.

Urban splash - water feature at Broxtowe Country Park
Urban splash – water feature at Broxtowe Country Park

Before turning towards Phoenix Park, there’s one other nearby place that I want to explore – Quarry Holes Nature Reserve, which sits between Tilbury Rise and Nuthall Road, not too far away from Cinderhill Island. The mineral railway ran through here too, and the name of the reserve is a bit of a giveaway. According to an information board at the entrance, ‘The distinctive mounds and slopes of the reserve were created when the site used to be an important quarry – supplying limestone for building projects.’ The board also reveals that stone from here was used to repair the old Trent Bridge.

Quarry Holes Nature Reserve
Quarry Holes Nature Reserve

Historical interest aside, there’s not enough here to detain me for long, so I begin to make my way towards my final objective.

Phoenix Park is a on a slightly more human scale than its spirit-sapping cousin to the west. A Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, together with the park and ride facility next to the tram terminus, all of which integrate well together, give the place a certain amount of hustle and bustle. Families and couples move from their cars into the restaurant to avail themselves of its entirely adequate food and vanilla atmosphere, while arriving trams disgorge their load of carrier bag-wielding Saturday afternoon shoppers returning from the city centre.

Reminders of the site’s coalmining past are much in evidence – one of the roads is named Colliers Way, a spoil tip reveals itself behind the park and ride and a plaque in the centre of a small roundabout gives some information as to the heritage of the site: ‘Opened by Mrs. Mel Read MEP for Nottingham & Leicester North West on 2nd December 1994. This new Business Park – Partly funded by the European Union – is built on the site of the former Babbington Colliery which, when it closed in 1986, was the oldest working mine in Nottinghamshire. Following Nationalisation of the mining industry in 1947, it employed 1,900 men. It reached a peak output of 864,000 tons in 1968.’

Businesses located here include E.ON, British Red Cross, Peppermint Technology (‘…innovative legal cloud software for UK law firms’), SF Group (‘The Recruitment People’) and Multi Packaging Solutions (‘…packaging solutions for the branded and healthcare markets’).

Call centre worker or deep-pit coal miner – which is the heap of dung? Both? The last deep-pit mine in the UK, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, closed in 2015, so I don’t suppose I will ever have the chance to compare the two.

E.ON offices, Phoenix Park
E.ON offices, Phoenix Park

I hadn’t planned to climb the spoil heap, but there’s a path leading up to it and I can’t resist. It’s not long before I’m at the summit, king of the castle, taking in the tremendous views all around me. Proposals exist to turn at least part of this place (known as Stanton Tip) into housing, but I’m hoping that it’s held in suspension for just a little while longer.

View from Stanton Tip towards Bulwell, Rise Park and Top Valley
View from Stanton Tip towards Bulwell, Rise Park and Top Valley

 

 

The walking and cycling guide to the Aspley/Broxtowe/Cinderhill area entitled Garden City, by Chris Matthews, contains some excellent background to the history of the area and is highly recommended. It can be downloaded (along with several other similar guides) from Chris’s website.