A day in Southwell, Nottingham

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.

The Workhouse

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.

Outside courtyard

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.

Punishment corner (L – would have breen bricked floor to ceiling with no windows)

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.

As a 1970s bedsit

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!

Inside the Infirmary

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.

The Minster

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.


  1. You have such beautiful sights and history in England, and this one didn’t disappoint. The workhouse sounds intriguing but also sad. It’s always hard to hear about people being mistreated. I would definitely visit there if I got the chance though. The Minister is absolutely stunning. I enjoy your posts, Hannah, and always look forward to the next one.

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    1. We are so lucky that there are so many historical towns and buildings all over the country. The workhouse was a truly desperate place for people. Aw thank you for your kind words and lots more adventures to come. Have a great weekend Kellye x

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    1. Oh I’m so glad to show you somewhere new Marion – there aren’t many places in the UK you haven’t visited 🙂 It’s a lovely town and well worth a visit if you’re ever back that way. Have a great weekend 🙂

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  2. Another place that I haven’t heard of, but fascinating all the same! The Southwell Workhouse carries a heavy history, and it really shows the depravity of those less-fortunate…I’m usually different when it comes to visiting museums, but the ones you visited look interesting to check out, especially as they show how it was like living in the area back in the day…glad you had a fun (and educational) time!

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    1. Oh it is such a sad place – I am so glad to live in the 2000s and not 1800s, thankfully standards of living have progressed significantly since then. It was definitely educational and a great way to spend a day. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely weekend.

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  3. What a lovely place to wander around, Hannah! With its two distinguished twin towers and beautiful stained glass windows, Southwell Minster ( do you know why is it called Southwell Minster?) looks like an amazing feat of architecture and engineering. I am not religiously inclined, but I do love visiting and seeing beautiful churches for their architectural styles. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. What a great question Aiva. So Cathedral is the word used where the bishop’s seat (a throne termed a ‘cathedra’) is – so all cathedrals have a bishop based there. Minsters on the other hand are more likely large community churches, linked to education or a mission community. As Southwell has no bishop, but was a mission community historically – it’s a Minster 🙂 I agree with you completely – there are many vicars in my family and though I’m not religious, I find peace in churches which sometimes I seek at difficult times. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend xx

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  4. That workhouse is an imposing place, isn’t it? I suspect it was designed to make people feel small in all aspects. Southwell looks lovely, but with a a bit of a past. Love exploring places like that!

    I’ve just looked it up and it’s not far from Newark. I’m up that way later in the year, might have to arrange a little diversion.

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  5. Southwell looks like an interesting place for a weekend visit. The nature trail is a lovely and probably a much needed distraction after the workhouse and the infirmary which are not the easiest places to visit. The Southwell Minster is a very handsome structure with many beautiful details to photograph. Another lovely English spot uncovered, Hannah.

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    1. Oh definitely, it was a nice contrast of things to do as the workhouse really was so heavy. And thank you, I appreciate your kind words – I love uncovering little known gems across England 🙂 Have a great weekend my friend.

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      1. Hey Hanna, thanks for ploughing through this longer piece. It was a case of all’s well that ends well. After 4 months there we definitely felt a bit emotional getting into the car that day for the cross-country drive to Kampot.


    1. It would have been absolutely and completely awful and unimaginable. Lots more England posts coming up – you know me, always off at a weekend in search of a new hidden corner of the country hehe 🙂 Have a great weekend Lyssy x


  6. It’s always so difficult to visit sites that represent the worst of humanity, but at the same time interesting to learn about them. It always gives me hope that when we as a society draw attention to places like this, we learn from our mistakes. I’d never heard of a workhouse before, so this was all new to me.

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    1. Oh it really is, but so important I think to learn about them and appreciate how lucky we are today in so many ways. Unfortunately workhouses were very common in Victorian England, far too many people suffered in them. Thanks for reading Diana and have a great weekend 🙂

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  7. I could never stop loving your amazing vintage architecture! Structures built with well placed stones and ornate, artful details are the best! And the scale is awesome, as well. The Minster and Chapter House…oh, my! Thanks for sharing your neck of the woods and travel adventures, Hannah 🙂

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    1. Aw Phil you’re too kind – we are so blessed in England with wonderful history and buildings, that’s for sure. I’m so glad you enjoy my England adventures and there are lots more to come. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend 🙂

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  8. What a sobering experience to see a workhouse. It really gives a vivid picture of how hard it must have been to be there. It brings to mind a Christmas Carol when Scrooge asks are there no workhouses for people to go and gets the response that many would rather die than go there. But on the other hand, the minster and chapel house are stunning- all the more so with those moody clouds. Wonderful tour 🙂


    1. Update! The husband tells me I’ve been to Southwell – haha. He said, “Uh, do you remember attending my brother’s wedding?” and I was like, “Of course,” and he was like, “That was in Southwell.” The ceremony and reception were at The Saracen’s Head where Charles I spent his last night of freedom. Super cool and historic hotel. Apparently we also walked the grounds of the minster. Mind you, this was a long time ago, but still, I’ve been there! 🙂

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      1. This made me laugh – you’re like me where I just can’t remember places I’ve been; over time they seem to merge in to one (part of the reason why I do the blog so I can actually remember haha) 🙂 So cool you went to the Saracen’s Head, it’s a famous hotel.

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  9. What an interesting history – the Workhouse must have been quite a sobering visit indeed, though it is always important to acknowledge such places existed not so long ago! It’s great that you could finish of the day with a nice walk! Thanks for sharing this perfect day trip idea – as well as the correct pronunciation of the town’s name!

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  10. I didn’t know about the existence of a place like the Workhouse. Thanks for telling the history of this – I suppose it wasn’t the best place to find yourself in. The Southwell Minster is beautiful inside and ending a day with a hike is always nice.

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