Controlling a strategic crossing point over the Trent, the Saxon town of
was built on one of a pair of sandstone hills whose 130-foot cliffs looked out over the river valley. In 1068, William the Conqueror built a castle on the other hill, and the Saxon and Norman communities traded on the low ground in between, the Market Square. The castle was a military stronghold and royal palace, the equal of the great castles of Windsor and Dover, and every medieval king of England paid regular visits. After the Civil War, the Parliamentarians slighted the castle and, in the 1670s, the ruins were cleared by the Duke of Newcastle to make way for a palace, whose continental - and, in English terms, novel - design he chose from a pattern book, probably by Rubens. Beneath the castle lay a market town which, according to contemporaries, was handsome and well kept - "One of the most beautiful towns in England", commented Daniel Defoe. But in the second half of the eighteenth century, the town was transformed by the expansion of the lace and hosiery industries. Within the space of fifty years, Nottingham's population increased from ten thousand to fifty thousand, the resulting slum becoming a hotbed of radicalism. In the 1810s, a recession provoked the hard-pressed workers into action. They struck against the employers and, calling themselves
, after an apprentice-protester by the name of Ned Ludd, raided the factories to smash the knitting machines. This was but the first of several troubled periods. During the Reform Bill riots of 1831, the workers set fire to the duke's home in response to his opposition to parliamentary reform and, in the following decade, they flocked to the Chartist movement.
The worst of Nottingham's slums were cleared in the late nineteenth century, when the city centre assumed its present structure, with the main commercial area ringed by alternating industrial and residential districts. Crass
, adding tower blocks, shopping centres and a ring road, has embedded the remnants of the city's past in a townscape that will be dishearteningly familiar if you've seen a few other English commercial centres.