Hidden in plain sight: The revelation of St. Nics.
OK then, I admit it, I felt sorry for you at first. That doesn’t mean I feel guilty though, because I think it shows that I care. After all, I had spent most of my lifetime not even noticing you.
I hope you don’t feel too hurt? I’d better explain: At first glance you appear to have been banished you see, exiled beyond the drab back-walls of the Broad Marsh Shopping Centre, from where you are bound to look out across Maid Marian Way. Didn’t they once call it the ‘ugliest street in Europe’? And… if that view isn’t unsightly enough, then you have that dull modern rectory and a monstrous 1970s concrete multi-storey car park for company too. It doesn’t get greyer than that, does it?
I thought that you seemed lost in the greyness, at first, as if you had accidentally wandered out of the city centre and hadn’t yet found your way back. Your demeanour was that of a loner… coyly standing on the edge of a world that had passed you by. It must gall you, mustn’t it, that your ancient counterparts, St. Mary’s and St. Peter’s, have bagged Nottingham’s prime spots? If the mantra ‘Location, location, location’ is important for a church, then there is no doubt that you’ve drawn the short straw. By the way, do you mind if I call you ‘St. Nics’ from now on, rather than ‘St. Nicholas’, it sounds more… well, ‘chummy’.
Of course, it wasn’t just your location that caused me to pity you; it was your bricks too. I know they mark you out as unique, but who on Earth built a church out of bricks back then? They do make you look a little unloved, like you have been hastily thrown together by cowboy church builders as an afterthought. Those builders didn’t push the boat out, did they? You’ve got no spire pointing heavenward, nor have you the haughty grandeur of your stone-built neighbours. Nobody opted for high-church ‘shock and awe’ with you, that’s for sure. I’ve even been told that, since you were built, a few of your more decorative features have… how do I put this… fallen off.
Now your garb is distinctly minimalist. It makes you seem almost diffident … shrunk into the shadows, quietly puritan perhaps? You’ve got a nice clock I’ll give you that. I love that gothic diamond-shaped face of black and gold, ornately proclaiming that ‘It is time to seek the Lord’; but it turns out that even your best feature was probably a hand-me-down from the old Nottingham Exchange building, which used to stand in slab square. You see… even your time is told by second-hand hands… it all fits the down-on-your-luck image, don’t you agree, St. Nics?
My interest in you has been kindled because I walk past you most days, now, on my way into work. You always draw my attention, even as I fight back against your magnetic pull, whilst I amble down the hill between Hounds Gate and Castle Boulevard. Your presence bugs me, to be honest. This is not for religious reasons, most decidedly not – I don’t do religion, but I do feel like I have some particular connections with you. For instance, my Grandmother was born in a Beerhouse room on Fink Hill Street back in 1922. The street is long gone, but it’s ghostly imprint is still marked out at the bottom end of Maid Marian Way. She was born on a Sunday and the bells that rang out to herald her emergence into the world would have been yours.
Do you remember Fink Hill Street? In those days it was just one of that tangled maze of streets which had stood since medieval times in the shadow of the Castle. Their evocative names were echoes of long lost history and spoke of colours and perfumes that probably hadn’t existed for years: Rosemary Lane, Walnut Tree Lane, Gilliflower Hill, Jessamine Cottages, Paddock Street, Mortimer Street and Isabella Street. You know that though, don’t you? You marshalled these unruly companions, standing tall above them in old photographs like the sensible older brother. Now you are all that’s left.
St. Nics circa 1895 – NTGM001595 (St Nicholas’ Church Walk, Nottingham) courtesy Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire and www.picturethepast.org.uk
Going even further back in time, you played a role in the life of my more ancient ancestors too. They lived near to the wood-yards, where they also worked, within earshot of the bustling canal wharves. The area was, strictly speaking, ‘extra-parochial’ but they chose you, St. Nics, as the baptism venue of choice. You may remember William and Betsy Wesley? They were baptised within your walls in 1838 and 1840 respectively. They were siblings of my Great Great Grandfather John Wesley. Twenty odd years later, they set sail from Gravesend on a ship called ‘Ironsides’, their spouses in tow, bound for a new life in New Zealand. A couple of years after their arrival, Betsy and her husband moved to Australia. It all turned sour for her there, in an alcoholic and litigious downward spiral that ended with her bloody self-inflicted death at the age of 36. William, on the other hand, stayed on in Auckland, a respected foreman of works on the New Zealand railways. He lived a long and contented life, dying at the age of 82.
Above: A sketch of St. Nics Circa 1890s, viewed from St. Nicholas Street – NTGM009550 (St Nicholas’s Church, Nottingham) courtesy Nottingham City Council and http://www.picturethepast.org.uk
Maybe you don’t remember William and Betsy, after all they were but two of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of screaming infants who took their first dip in the waters of your font. I often wonder, as I walk past, what other latent life stories might have passed through your doors. I bet, if you could unravel them, you’d have some tales to tell – of joy and sorrow; of ‘derring do’ and treachery; of workhouses and palaces; and of war, and peacetime, in a garden town that became black with industry and then became a modern city.
Back in the days when the Church was everything, I bet you were the beating heart of the community around you… hatches, matches and dispatches and all that stuff. I found out that Abel Collin, the charity guy, was buried in your tiny graveyard in 1705. Like you, his charity is still looking after Nottingham folk today. Abel’s grave stands amongst the faded and timeworn stones commemorating many more of your congregation who, like the rest of us, have left less of a trace on history.
You see – you can’t fool me completely. I know that, behind that unassuming exterior, you have a colourful past too. I’ve looked you up, in J. Holland Walker’s history from the Transactions of the Thoroton Society XLIV, published in 1940. JHW tells us that people first started writing about you in the twelfth century – eleven hundred and something-or-other. You may even have been in existence before the Norman conquest. You’re cracking on a bit then! It was a bit of a false start though, they say that first building was probably demolished in the rebellion against Henry II in 1177. I don’t know what brought that on, but I notice that you have a habit of upsetting people. Just like you did during the English Civil War, when the Castle became a ’roundhead’ stronghold under parliamentary pin-up boy and future regicide Colonel John Hutchinson.
Can you remember that day in September 1643 when a bunch of rowdy cavaliers sneaked in through your doors and began to pummel the castle with cannon from your tower. I suppose it’s understandable, when you think about it, that Hutchinson eventually set fire to you and pulled you down.
You disappeared completely from the map for nearly thirty years, can you believe that? That was until they started laying those bricks in the 1670’s. I guess that your rise from the ashes of the civil war is down to the generosity of the townspeople – you owe your existence to them wanting you back. The comeback kid!
Walker reckons that Lawrence Collin, the father of Abel (and who is also buried in your earth), may have chipped in a few bob. That’s ironic really, because it’s said that he was also one of the gunners who fired cannonballs at you from the castle. Perhaps his guilt played a part in your resurrection? According to Walker, building a church was a big thing back then, after the Restoration. Nobody was spending money on it. I think that means that your bricks are probably a bit more special than they look.
Then, if civil war wasn’t enough, you had to watch the bulldozers run riot around you in the 1960s. That maze of streets we talked about, the one you had looked down upon for hundreds of years, was razed to the ground… just to make way for Maid Marian Way, your companion of over fifty years now. Fink Hill Street disappeared from the map, together with the Beerhouse where my grandmother was born. Those atmospheric, shady, lanes that wrapped around you, were flattened. As was Abel Collin’s almshouses on Friar Lane, described by the famous architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in his The Buildings of England as ‘one of the best almshouses of its date in England’. Mind you he also said that you reminded him of a church in New England, so what does he know. But you, St. Nics… you stood and you watched it all happen, in your own quiet, understated way. I bet it made you just a little bit sad though, didn’t it?
I recently gave way to curiosity and had a peek inside your doors. I didn’t venture in too far – that’s not my place. I was expecting to see a dour and sad reflection of your outer shell, but I was wrong. Inside you are all whitewashed, bright and modern… almost glitzy (for a church). You somehow looked larger on the inside than you should, like a restoration TARDIS. Your inner space, washed with light from your many windows and dotted with red seats, was laid out like a theatre with its own stately proscenium arch. Intrigued, I flicked through your web pages. You’re a busy old thing aren’t you? It seems that you are still, in some ways, at the heart of the community around you. That community is different now, of course, a more youthful one perhaps, because part of it lies just across that ‘ugliest street’ in Central College.
So maybe I do owe you an apology then, after all. There is, no doubt, a lesson to be learned here about not judging a book by its cover… or something like that. For, despite my first impressions there is no denying the size of your brick-built heart. You are no sad under-achiever, hiding in the shadows on the edge of the City. You are a phoenix, a true survivor, riding the crashing wave of history, adapting… rebuilding… and very much still standing. In fact, you demand my respect… St. Nics. There… I’ve said it.
Incidentally, I caught a glimpse of you the other day whilst crossing St. Nicholas Street. You do look different from there, framed by trees and buildings that are closer to your age. It evoked, for a moment, those old photographs from the archives and it reminded me that, maybe, the spirit you had then still endures. Perhaps I had just been looking at you from the wrong angle all along?
Image of St. Nicholas Church Clock courtesy Elliot Brown at www.flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown/ and re-produced under creative commons licencing.
St. Nicholas’ church, Nottingham by J Holland Walker, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, XLIV (1940) – available online at www.nottshistory.org.uk.
Links with old Nottingham. Historical notes by J. Holland Walker, (1928 – Edited by Percy G. Whatnall) – available online at www.nottshistory.org.uk.
Article: ‘Maid Marian Way changes history’ – Nottingham Evening Post, 7th August 2013.
The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire (Pevsner Architectural Guides) by Nikolaus Pevsner (1979 – Yale University Press).
Great piece of writing. I’ve walked past this church many times, and even wandered around the churchyard, but you’ve brought this much-overlooked place to life for me.
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