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Why all eyes are on Nottingham Castle this summer

A new generation of Robin Hood fans has plenty to get excited about: three years ago, Sherwood Forest got a new visitor centre, now Nottingham Castle is taking centre stage with a £30m transformation.

Children explore the new Robin Hood’s Hideout playground, with a jumble of slides, climbing frames and wooden castle turrets, located just behind Nottingham Castle.

Photograph by Tracey Whitefoot
By Helen Warwick
Published 14 Aug 2021, 06:08 BST

The legend of Robin Hood looms large over Nottingham, and the city has been re-embracing its storied past in recent years. Another eponymous blockbuster hit the screens in 2018, the same year that Sherwood Forest opened a new visitor centre, and the 450-acre nature reserve, managed by the RSPB, is also host to the annual Robin Hood Festival, which will return with a slimmed-down programme this year. But the big news for 2021 is the reopening of Nottingham Castle after a three-year £30m restoration. New adventure playgrounds, artwork and spooky tours have brought the 950-year-old fortress right up to date, offering a multifaceted, immersive way to explore the legend of the infamous outlaw. 

The castle

The brawls between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham are well-known, but the city’s forbidding fortress has seen its own fair share of clashes since its days as a medieval motte and bailey, from royal rebellions to devastating fires. It was burnt to the ground by rioters in 1831 and, almost 50 years later, was rebuilt with a grand, manor-like replacement. Now the fortress has had a 21st-century sprucing up to ensure its turbulent history is kept alive. Key to the castle’s programme are its gloriously green grounds — the city’s leafy heart has been dotted with information panels and nature trails and will stage a host of family-friendly events, from Plantagenet battle re-enactments to outdoor film screenings.

The playground

Hidden behind the castle walls, and tucked into the dry moat, the new Hood’s Hideout is an adventure playground with a jumble of slides, climbing frames and wooden castle turrets. It’s strung with tree walkways — just like Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest hideout — where kids can scurry to its lofty heights like his band of Merry Men or attempt to penetrate the castle and fight off the Sheriff of Nottingham. And for local myths and stirring tales, there’s a storytelling chair, which sits just beyond the moat where the city unfurls at your feet.

The caves

Below ground, the castle’s eerie network of subterranean passages — some former dungeons, others wine cellars — have reopened for eerie, dimly lit guided tours. The 25-minute tours explore the intriguing stories of both Robin Hood and the city of Nottingham. The castle’s caves are part of a much wider maze of over 500 sandstone caves beneath Nottingham’s streets, dating back to the Dark Ages.

Nottingham Castle gatehouse, built in the 13th century. The fortress has had a 21st-century sprucing up to ensure its turbulent history is kept alive. 

Photograph by Getty Images

The exhibition

Don’t leave without catching the show on one of the city’s most famous sons, fashion designer Sir Paul Smith. Hello, My Name is Paul Smith is made up of over 1,500 objects that span Smith’s long and colourful career — don’t miss his iconic, multicoloured Mini in the visitor centre. For something a little more historic, many of the city’s galleries tell the story of the Nottingham’s industry and its rebellious history. Until 20 February.

The forest

The trees of Sherwood Forest will always harbour stories of Robin Hood — after all, this was where his he had his treetop lair, tucked out of sight from his nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham. There are reminders of the woodsman in and around the forest, but don’t miss the 1,000-year-old Major Oak, with its hulking, 10-metre-circumference trunk, and the nearby St Mary’s church in Edwinstowe, where it’s said he married Maid Marian. 

The tour

The hero of Sherwood’s story is brought to life on the Robin Hood Town Tour, led by the very convincing and award-winning Ezekial Bone — bow, feathers, beard and all. Join the guide as he shows you the ancient caves beneath the city, historic Lace Market, and the Old Market Square with a series of quirky stories and surprises up his sleeve. He’ll even take you to his favourite pub (one of the oldest in the country), the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, for an ale — or an orange juice — at the tour’s climax. 

Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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