DATING back to Norman times, the Shire Hall in Nottingham is probably the only building in England you could have once been jailed, imprisoned and executed.
The Galleries of Justice, a museum based on the former law courts and prison at the Shire Hall, is a thrilling tourist attraction revealing crime and punishment through the ages.
In recent weeks, I have been writing about London Haunts and Horrors’ trip to Nottingham to visit some of its haunted pubs and places with dark and sinister histories.
Just before we left Nottingham on Sunday lunchtime after our weekend visit a month back, we dropped by the city’s former medieval courts and prison. We arrived dead on 11am and had time to look around the various static displays before the guided tour at 11.30am.
Nottingham is the centre of Robin Hood’s legend, so there were plenty of Sherwood Forest shenanigans to view, as well as ghastly torture equipment from days gone by.
Once the long-time base of the legendary Sherriff of Nottingham where hangings happened on its front doorstep, the East Midlands courtrooms date back to the 14th century and the gaol dates back to at least 1449. There was also a working police station from 1905 to 1985.
First stop on the tour was the court house, which by all accounts, saw interesting and infamous trials in its day. (The guide-dressed in old-fashioned garb rattled off quite a few but the only one I remember was Buster Edwards from the Great Train Robbery.) The courts closed in 1991.
As an aside, I find it obnoxious and disconcerting when guides stay in character all the time. Sure, it’s nice that they dress up and tell a story from the point of view of those who lived in the era, but sometimes it’s too much. Fortunately, the guides at The Galleries of Justice presented an entertaining view of the old courts and prison without laying it on too thick.[slickr-flickr tag=”NottinghamGalleryJustice”]
Probably the best bit of the tour was in the prison. From the courthouse, you were lead down the stairs to the cells. The prison was built over the centuries to include different levels of accommodation. While all pretty terrible from today’s point of view, The Pits down below were literally “the pits” – only a hole in the ground with room for prisoners to huddle into fetal positions.
I’ve been to quite a few prisons in my time (he says noting that it was all voluntary and all the gaols were not in operation at the time) and I thought Nottingham was one of the best in terms of quality of guides and uniqueness of building. The price of about £8 was also value for money.
Nottingham is clearly the centre of Robin Hood and I would have expected more tales about him and his merry men. While there was a large static exhibition there, the guided tour was more about how terrible the legal system was back in days gone by. I’m sure there are other more specialised tours for Robin Hood fans.
So if you are ever in Nottingham, check out the Galleries of Justice. It’s lots of fun. (They also do ghosty things at night, which I might attend if I ever visit Nottingham again.)