We sent Jane Hill to check out the new National Civil War Centre in Nottinghamshire. Turns out she’s a Roundhead.
Until I visited the new National Civil War Centre last month, what I knew about the English Civil War could have been written on the back of a postcard. Oliver Cromwell cancelled Christmas, one of the Charleses (or it might have been a James) hid in an oak tree, and – from that seminal text book 1066 and All That – I knew the difference between the Roundheads (“right but repulsive”) and the Cavaliers (“wrong but wromantic”).
Now I’ve visited the new centre, I still don’t know the full story – but I have got a sense of what it was like to be living back then, and a burning interest in finding out lots more about this oddly overlooked part of our history.
The National Civil War Centre is a new £5.4m attraction in the Nottinghamshire town of Newark. It’s in Newark because the town – a Royalist hold-out – was besieged three times during the conflict and has a remarkable collection of coins and weaponry from the time, not to mention its castle, dungeons and defensive earthworks. Oh, and a whole bunch of historic buildings that survived the sieges.
I used to come to Newark a lot when I lived in Lincoln some years ago, chiefly to catch the fast train to London. I knew it was a handsome, solid market town with some castle ruins, a Waitrose and a very big church, but hadn’t thought any more about it. I had no idea about its Civil War past.
You go into the National Civil War Centre through a gleaming modern glass and steel extension to an old Tudor and Georgian school building. It’s not finished yet – they’re building a joint entrance with the neighbouring Palace Theatre that will house a cafe and an expanded gift shop, due to open early next year. There’s high speed Wi-Fi so that you can download a special app, offering ‘augmented reality’: a bunch of really well-made videos that help the history come to life. And there are very friendly staff, keen to help you get the most out of your visit.
One big room houses the Civil War exhibition. The boards on the walls try to tell the story of the various conflicts in simple terms, but the real success is in conjuring up what life was like in besieged, plague-ridden Newark. You can try on costumes and armour, feel the weight of weapons and read about a big gun called Sweet Lips, named after a Hull prostitute.
I enjoyed playing a couple of computer games – in one, you try to attack the Governor’s House with a cannon (I kept hitting a neighbourhood cat instead); in the other you answer a series of Buzzfeed-style questions to find out if you’re a Roundhead or a Cavalier. It turns out that, on balance, I’m a Roundhead (swizz) despite saying I liked flowing hair and beards on men.
I have a weird affection for museum videos, and there are some interesting ones on show in Newark, made with real care and artistry. There’s a rotating programme of six, with two on show at any time. Part of me wanted a straightforward account of the conflict rather than these vignettes. But the short film I saw about the impact of the plague on one family packed an emotional punch I didn’t expect from a museum video.
“From that seminal text book 1066 and All That, I knew the difference between the Roundheads (‘right but repulsive’) and the Cavaliers (‘wrong but wromantic’).”
The National Civil War Centre building also houses a couple of rooms of fascinating artefacts from Newark’s ancient – and more recent – past. And upstairs there’s the old Tudor schoolroom with some fascinating graffiti from hundreds of years ago. There’s also a gallery for temporary shows on the more general theme of civil war; when I visited, it was a superb exhibition of Magnum photos from civil wars past and present including Spain, Korea, Vietnam and Syria.
But what’s particularly special about the National Civil War Centre is the way it’s integrated into the town. The exhibition doesn’t end as you leave the building. Armed with the augmented reality app, I visited the parish church, the size of some cathedrals, which was a lookout post during the siege. I saw the timber framed building where Queen Henrietta Maria is thought to have stayed. I saw the remains of massive earthworks built to defend the town. I looked around the ruins of the castle, beautifully sited on the banks of the River Trent. And most importantly I had a really good mooch around Newark, which has a wonderful proper old market in the huge marketplace, surrounded by alleyways, lanes and a profusion of independent shops.
If you’ve ever travelled between London and York or Edinburgh, by road or by train, you’ll have been past Newark. It’s right there on the A1 or the East Coast Mainline, north of Peterborough and south of Doncaster. You probably haven’t stopped to visit before now, but if you like rivers and castles and history and markets and independent shops, maybe you should.
It costs £3 to park in Newark’s Livestock Market car park all day, by the way, and the National Civil War Centre costs £7 for adults and £3 for children. There are loads of nice cafes and restaurants if you want to make a day of it. I had a slap-up meal at The Ram, an old coaching inn that’s now a fancy brasserie with velvet banquettes, chandeliers and ladies who lunch. I enjoyed my day out very much indeed.1711 Views
Jane Hill is a novelist who also does standup comedy. When she’s not doing either of those, she works for the BBC on local radio projects. She lives with her partner in rural Leicestershire and once reached the Mastermind semi-finals.