Many Nottingham writers have taken inspiration from their memories of Southwell, including D.H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, and B.S. Johnson, whose experimental book-in-a-box, ‘The Unfortunates’ (1969), includes Brian’s recollections of visiting Southwell with June, seeing the town as “a useful place to bring up children”.
Johnson recalls, “the delicate, convoluted carving on the capitals, foliage…” of Southwell Minster’s 13th century Chapter House. “And the stink of such dead places”.
“Certainly I remember a bookshop,” he wrote, “and going into it, perhaps I bought ‘The Leaves of Southwell’ there…”
B. S. Johnson was good friends with Alan Sillitoe who features Southwell Minster in his short story collection, ‘Men, Women and Children’ (1973), In Sillitoe’s ‘A Trip to Southwell’, Alec and Mavis go there on a date, getting off the bus at the stop nearest to the Minster.
“He liked the Minster,” wrote Sillitoe, “pleased it wasn’t a city church but one placed on its own, an island among green lawns. You could walk all around it, see every angle of its middle tower and two end pinnacles.”
Once inside the Minster, Alec tries to kiss Mavis, before they enter the Chapter House. “He knew it was a beautiful place, the round room and arched ceiling, built so cleverly he couldn’t think how and soon stopped trying to.”
Southwell Minster featured on the front cover of Nikolaus Pevsner’s original guide to the buildings of Nottinghamshire, part of a series of 46 volumes published between 1951 and 1974. The Minster and its Leaves of Southwell were a main reason as to why Nottinghamshire featured so early in the series, being just the second volume (1951). The latest edition, revised by Clare Hartwell (Sept 2020), also features the Minster on its cover.
The first printed guide to Southwell Minster was written by the novelist Elizabeth Glaister (1840-92). Her brother, Canon Glaister, was a curate there in the 1860s, prompting Elizabeth and her mother to move to Southwell’s The Burgage.
Glaister’s first novel, ‘The Markhams of Ollerton: A Tale of the Civil War 1642-1647’ (1873), is partly set inside the Minster and contains much local history. The author applied her extensive knowledge of architecture and embroidery to her writing.
During Glaister’s years in Southwell, the Minster had a lending library, with records of borrowing that go back over 200 years. She lived in the town until her death. Her grave – and that of her mother, who outlived her – can be seen in the churchyard.
Another writer whose remains lay in the grounds of Southwell Minster is the suffragist Lady Laura Ridding (1849-1939), whose husband, George Ridding, was the first Bishop of Southwell. There is a large bronze statue of him by F. W. Pomeroy inside the Minster. Its base is by the lauded church architect W. D. Caröe. The Riddings took an active role in local education and social work. The Bishop’s biography, ‘First Bishop of Southwell 1884–1904’ (1908), was written by his wife. In addition to writing five biographies, Lady Laura Ridding wrote a historical novel, ‘By Weeping Cross’ (1899), and she was President of the National Union of Women Workers, a group she co-founded at a conference in Nottingham.
A former Vicar-General’s only son, William Dickinson Rastall (1756-1822), was another literary Southwellian, who, having left university, devoted himself to the study of the law, writing several legal works. Later living at Muskham Grange, near Newark, he was a Justice of the Peace for the counties of Nottingham, Lincoln, Middlesex, Surrey, and Sussex. Dickinson, as he became known, wrote ‘The History of the Antiquities of the Town and Church of Southwell’ (1787), which contained illustrations of the church and its history. This, and his ‘History and Antiquities of the Town of Newark’ (1806), later formed half of a four-part collection.
Southwell Minster makes its way into D.H. Lawrence’s classic novels, ‘The Rainbow’ (1915) and ‘Women in Love’ (1919), the author having previously visited Southwell when he was twenty-five. In chapter 4 of ‘The Rainbow’ – about Anna Brangwen’s youth – Will Brangwen thrills her with talk of churches, architecture and different periods.
“Have you been to Southwell?” he said. “I was there at twelve o’clock at midday, eating my lunch in the churchyard. And the bells played a hymn. Ay, it’s a fine Minster, Southwell, heavy. It’s got heavy, round arches, rather low, on thick pillars. It’s grand, the way those arches travel forward. There’s a sedilia as well – pretty. But I like the main body of the church and – that north porch – ”
In chapter 13, their daughter Ursula, and Maggie, cycle to Southwell – and other places – finding they “had an endless wealth of things to talk about. And it was a great joy, finding, discovering.”
In the chapter Excurse, in ‘Women in Love’, Birkin and Ursula return to the car after arguing. They are driving when:
“They dropped down a long hill in the dusk, and suddenly Ursula recognised on her right hand, below in the hollow, the form of Southwell Minster.
“Are we here!” she cried with pleasure.
The rigid, sombre, ugly cathedral was settling under the gloom of the coming night, as they entered the narrow town, the golden lights showed like slabs of revelation, in the shop-windows.
“Father came here with mother,’ she said, ‘when they first knew each other. He loves it—he loves the Minster. Do you?”
“Yes. It looks like quartz crystals sticking up out of the dark hollow. We’ll have our high tea at the Saracen’s Head.”
As they descended, they heard the Minster bells playing a hymn, when the hour had struck six.”
Once at the Saracen’s Head they sit in the parlour by the fire, overwhelmed with mutual love. As they take tea, Birkin proposes that they both quit their jobs so that they can travel.
The Southwell-born screenwriter William Ivory adapted D.H. Lawrence’s novels, ‘The Rainbow’ and ‘Women in Love’, to produce a two-part drama, starring Rachael Stirling (as Ursula Brangwen), Rosamund Pike (as Gudrun Brangwen), Saskia Reeves (as Anna Brangwen) and Rory Kinnear (as Rupert Birkin). Ivory was educated at the local school, Southwell Minster, one of the oldest continuous educational foundations in England.
The poet Lord Byron often visited the Saracen’s Head, Southwell’s oldest pub, where Charles I of England is said to have spent his last night of freedom. As a teenager, Byron took part in an amateur production of ‘The Weathercock’ at the Assembly Rooms next door (now the hotel side of the Saracen’s Head). His relationship with the town began in 1803 when his mother began renting Southwell’s newly built Burgage Manor, with Newstead in need of repair. When on holiday, from Harrow and then Cambridge, Byron spent lots of time here until 1808.
In the March of 1804, Byron had been pleased to receive a letter from his half-sister Augusta. Their continued affectionate correspondence revealed his early impression of Southwell, as in April, he wrote:
“… this horrid place where I am oppressed with ennui, and have no amusement of any kind, except the conversation of my mother which is sometimes very edifying but not always very agreeable … I sincerely wish for the company of a few friends of my own age to soften the austerity of the scene. I am an absolute hermit.”
His wish for friends was about to be answered, as he wrote a week later: “My mother gives a party tonight at which the principal Southwell Belles will be present, with one of which, although I don’t as yet know whom I shall so far honour, having never seen them, I intend to fall violently in love…”
The 16-year-old Byron didn’t fall in love, but he did make friends with one of the ‘Southwell Belles’, 21-year-old Elizabeth Pigot (1783–1866), and her brother John, who lived opposite Burgage Manor, on the other side of Burgage Green.
Elizabeth Pigot wrote of her initial impression of Byron:
“The first time I was introduced to him was at a party at his mother’s, when he was so shy that she was forced to send for him three times before she could persuade him to come into the drawing-room, to play with the young people at a round game. He was then a fat, bashful boy, with his hair combed straight over his forehead…”
Byron began seeing less of his quarrelsome mother and more of his new circle of friends. These included John and Julia Leacroft, the teenage children of Captain John Leacroft. The Leacroft family lived at Burgage House on King Street, near the top of the green, and Byron visited them many times.
In the summer of 1806 Burgage House became one of the barns and larger premises in Southwell to host theatrical performances. Byron and his friends converted Burgage House’s drawing room into a makeshift theatre, where they performed amateur dramatics, Julia and Byron playing the lead roles. Their flirting continuing long after the staged dramatics were over.
By January 1807 it had been expected that Byron and Julia would marry but Byron had no such intention. The Leacroft family were not happy, and may even have attempted to entrap the poet, forcing his hand in marriage. It’s also rumoured that Julia’s brother John challenged Byron to a duel.
After leaving Southwell, for good, Byron wrote to John, “if we must cut each other’s throats to please our relations, you will do me the justice to say it is from no personal animosity between us.”
To Elizabeth Pigot, Byron wrote, “Oh Southwell, Southwell, how I rejoice to have left thee, & how I curse the heavy hours I have dragged along for so many months, amongst the Mohawks who inhabit your Kraals.”
Until 1811, Byron regularly corresponded with Miss Pigot, who remained in Southwell for the rest of her life, moving from the family house on the Burgage after her mother’s death in 1833. Pigot then lived at ‘Greyfriars’, 25 Easthorpe, where she died in 1866. Miss Pigot never married.
Byron’s theatricals and partying didn’t interfere with his early poetry and, encouraged by the Pigots, his plans to publish were put into action. In his first volume, ‘Fugitive Pieces’ (1806), Byron addresses his friends in Southwell, Elizabeth Pigot becoming ‘Eliza’, with Julia being the subject of ‘To Julia’, later re-titled ‘To Lesbia’, and then, ‘To a Lady’ (1807).
Much of the work can be seen as a document of Byron’s time in Southwell. As he wrote in the preface, it was printed, “for the perusal of a few friends to whom they are dedicated”.
In ‘To Julia’, Byron communicated to Miss Leacroft that he no longer loved her, for which he takes all the blame. His scandalous poems – which included one about his own unrequited love at Annesley Hall – suggested that he had many relationships in Southwell. Byron wrote that Southwell’s “inhabitants are notorious for officious curiosity”, a curiosity that would fuel the scandal. Byron’s friend, Reverend John T. Becher (1770–1848), a future Vicar-General of Southwell Minster, had written to the young poet in verse, insisting upon the book’s withdrawal. The gossip and scandal contributed to Byron having his initial volumes destroyed, and to further name changes when the poems were later reproduced.
By 1816, Southwell had its own theatre on the Market Place junction of King Street and Queen Street, now the Old Theatre Deli. There’s a plaque on the wall near the spot where George Bernard Shaw once stood.
Southwell now has its own theatre club, a community drama group founded in 1976. The Southwell Theatre Club usually perform in Southwell Library where they’re known for their murder mysteries and poetry readings.
Since 2007, Southwell Library has been a driving force behind the Southwell Poetry Festival. Now a major part of Nottinghamshire’s literary calendar, the festival started as a special event for the new millennium. Brought back in 2002 by popular demand, the event grew in scale thanks to the library’s support. The Minster and the Minster School have also become involved and the festival has attracted many leading poets, such as John Hegley, Jackie Kay, Hollie McNish, Lemn Sissay, Jo Bell, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage, Ian McMillan, Maura Dooley, Kei Miller, Paul Farley, Daljit Nagra, Elaine Feinstein, Kate Fox and Helen Mort. There’s been plenty of local talent on display too, with Matthew Welton, John Harvey, Rosie Garner, Henry Normal, Ben Norris, Mahendra Solanki, Andrew Graves, Georgina Wilding and Andy Croft all making an appearance. Croft, as the festival’s writer-in-residence, even composed a poem to address the old question of Southwell’s pronunciation (‘South-well’ or ‘Suth-ull’?).
Around the time Byron – our most famous poet – first arrived in Southwell, Samuel Plumb (1793-1858) was leaving, having lived there as a boy. Plumb was one of the Sherwood Forest Group. As was Charles Plumbe (1813-1899), who wrote of Southwell Minster in his poetry. The Plumb(e)s can be added to an illustrious list of writers to have written about Southwell, one of our great literary towns.