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Nottingham travel tips: Southwell, good for Lord Byron bad for Charles I


Southwell Minster commands the view in this Nottinghamshire town but it also features a rich artistic and historical heritage

As you descend the hill and approach Southwell, nestling in the Trent valley, my favourite view appears, and it is spectacular: Southwell Minster is revealed, its two towers topped by pointed roofs in imitation of a French gothic cathedral. Life in my childhood town revolves around this building.

Twinned with towns in France (Sées) and the Czech Republic (Ceský Brod), Southwell has had many diverse visitors. Not least Charles I who spent his last night of freedom at the Saracen's Head hotel, before being arrested and carted off to prison. The hotel used to be called the King's Arms, until the civil war banished any royal association. In one of the bars, there is a copy of the death warrant, signed by Oliver Cromwell.

The famous leaves of Southwell – carvings that adorn the Minster's Chapter House – bear witness to the abuse of the parliamentarian roundheads: the blows from swords are clearly visible, a half-hearted attempt to rid the place of "idols".

My secondary school was the Minster school. We used to hurry along a "secret passage" that was next to the playing field and up to the Minster for assemblies. Many of my male schoolmates were choristers. An enduring memory (captured on a popular Christmas card) is of them having a snowball fight while still wearing their distinctive red gowns. The site of the school is now undergoing an extensive excavation after the remains of a huge Roman villa was discovered.

Southwell is a thriving centre for the arts: every summer it plays host to a folk festival (southwellfolkfestival.org.uk); the Gate to Southwell is a traditional musical event that goes back to medieval times. Each June morris troupes dance from Nottingham to Southwell in order to pay the "Southwell Pence" to the Minster. The performance finishes in the cathedral crossing, performers and townsfolk alike, singing Lord of the Dance.

The Millennium production Touchwood took place in the midst of the majestic Minster in 2000, while back in the mists of time, a teenage Lord Byron took part in a production of The Weathercock (in 1809), which was performed at the Assembly Rooms (now part of the Saracen's Head).

Newstead Abbey (newsteadabbey.org.uk), once Lord Byron's residence, is less than 20 miles away and open to the public at weekends (admission £6 per car, to grounds and gardens, entry to the house via tour only, for an additional £5 ). His childhood home, Burgage Manor, can still be seen on the edge of the Burgage (the village green). In July, Southwell Poetry Festival draws crowds and performers from across the country. Hosted at the Bramley Centre (home to Southwell Library) there are workshops and readings by local, national and international authors.

What to see: Southwell Minster (Church Street, 01636 812649, southwellminster.org, admission free)

Christy Fearn's debut novel, Framed, about the Nottingham Luddites will be published on 31 March and is available to order from Open Books. She will be taking part in the International Byron Society Festival in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire on 27 June and Southwell Poetry Festival 2013 on 20 July

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