Back to my 2022 England Autumn/Winter series, today we’re in grey and cold Nottinghamshire, nestled right in the middle of England.
Southwell (pronounced Suth-ull, not South-well) is a beautiful town in the heart of Nottinghamshire. I was born in the area but hadn’t been in over 25 years, so when a chance for a day trip to the town came up with a friend this year, I jumped at it!
Southwell is a great option for adding on to a stay in cities such as Nottingham, Lincoln, or Sheffield – or as a stop en-route to the Peak District. It’s easy to spend a day in the town, but you don’t need longer than that, making it the perfect day trip location.
We started our day at an amazing place – The Southwell Workhouse. Built in 1824, The Workhouse is the best preserved example in the whole of England of the hundreds of workhouses built across the country. The system implemented here shaped the way in which the poor were treated during the 19th century.
Up to 158 inmates at a time entered this building as a last resort – the idea was that workhouses should be a ‘deterrent’ to ensure that only the truly destitute would enter such a harsh regime. Adults were divided into categories – those unable to work (called blameless) and those capable of work but unemployed (called idle and profligate able bodied). Men and women were also segregated.
Walking through The Workhouse is a truly sobering experience. Men, women and children were forced to work 12 hour+ days at menial, pointless work including peeling potatoes and washing clothes with only bare hands and water. There was significant punishment for those who ‘misbehaved’ – most of them with mental health issues who were struggling in such a harsh environment – including no food, time in small cells alone and more monotonous work.
In 1929, the new Poor Law meant the workhouses were disbanded and handed over to local authorities – The Southwell Workhouse continued as an institution for the poor, homeless and elderly, running as a temporary bedsit until 1976.
Also on site is The Firbeck Infirmary, which was once the site where inmates of The Workhouse received treatment if they were unwell. After The Workhouse was closed, it remained as a site caring for the elderly and was used as such until the 1980s. When the site closed, inmates and staff found it difficult to adapt to new surroundings. The revolution in geriatric care that has taken place since the late 1980s indicates that the care provided in Firbeck in the 1980s bore more resemblance to that in 1871 than 2018!
After spending a few hours exploring The Workhouse and Infirmary, we headed in to the town centre and explored the lovely streets and unique shops. Southwell is a lively market town with a range of independent shops, many selling local produce – everything from cheese stalls to organic beauty products. The winter sun was deceptively cold, but it was nice to have a few spells of blue skies.
Following lunch, we visited Southwell’s most famous resident – Southwell Minster. The earliest church on this site is recorded in 627 but the current structure dates back to the 1200s and in to the 1300s. Its most famous element is its stunning octagonal Chapter House dating back to 1288.
Southwell is also where Charles I was captured during the English Civil War in 1646. The fighting saw the church seriously damaged and the adjoining Archbishop’s Palace was almost completely destroyed, first by Scottish troops and then by the local people, with only the Hall of the Archbishop remaining as a ruined shell.
To finish off our wonderful day in Southwell, we decided to stretch our legs and walk the Southwell Trail, which began life when the Midland Railway ran trains from Southwell to Mansfield. Today, this 7.5 mile trail is built on the former railway line and is now a Local Nature Reserve, stretching from Southwell to Bilsthorpe and passing the villages of Farnsfield, Kirklington and Maythorne. It was the perfect way to finish the day. You can find many walks taking in parts of the trail in the document HERE.
I had a lovely day exploring another off the beaten path destination in England – we really are so lucky there is history everywhere in this country and it doesn’t take much travelling to discover it. I’m excited to explore more corners of England over 2023 – and of course I’ll keep you updated on all of my adventures.