The history of Nottingham’s green spaces supports a vision for re-wilding the city and Broadmarsh land, taking it back into Sherwood Forest

Plans to transform and re-wild the land formerly occupied by the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre and bus station in Nottingham supported by the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust in consultation with Influence Landscape Architects have already captured the imagination of people locally and nationally and are gathering a groundswell of support at a time of deep concerns over the climate crisis and public health emergency. [1] Professor Paul Elliott, an expert on the history of urban green spaces and tree places [2, 3] and co-director of the AHRC-funded Nottingham Green Spaces Community History project [4] argues that the city has a golden opportunity to lead the country through its re-wilding and tree-planting initiatives.

Introduction

Re-foresting and re-wilding in urban and suburban areas creates rich opportunities for a greater range of species to thrive, increasing biodiversity by nurturing different kinds of habitats for flora and fauna, bringing green and blue places together through green corridors and building in greater resilience against climate change, disease and social inequality, the latter by challenging the association between access to nature and social class.[5] Re-expanding Sherwood Forest to include Nottingham with major tree planting schemes, careful re-wilding measures, the removal of roads with attendant traffic pollution, creation of new cycle lanes and more protection for existing green spaces such as gardens will help nurture an enriched natural environment, transform the quality of life and health of its citizens and bring numerous other benefits.

Taking Inspiration from Nottingham’s Green and Blue Past

View across The Forest, Nottingham, 2006. [Photo: Paul Elliott]

Sara Bowland, managing director of Influence has commented that the planned Broadmarsh proposals ‘would run counter to the conventional idea of urban parks’ which tended to be ‘manicured and a bit formal’ and in contrast ‘hark back to what Broadmarsh would have looked like in centuries gone by’ with more ‘rewilding, restoring, protecting’ for ‘foraging, pond dipping and protecting species.’ [6] This is certainly true; but even though historic green spaces such as urban parks and cemeteries might appear well manicured, they are (and have always been) havens of flora and fauna. Furthermore, whilst they may have been closely maintained to begin with, for various reasons including the cutbacks in local government funding and erosion of the hard-won Victorian public urban realm, in recent decades many of Nottingham’s historic green places such as cemeteries have partially re-wilded themselves and experienced managed re-wilding schemes supported by the sterling efforts of volunteer groups such as the Friends of the Forest and Friends of the Arboretum.

Just as Nottingham led the world with its interconnected system of specially planned public parks, arboretum, playing fields, cemeteries and public walks sparked by the Enclosure Act (1845) and driven by campaigning groups like the Sherwood Forest circle, so the city can likewise today be a pioneer in the creation of re-wilded urban habitats. Such a strategy will help support the drive from fossil fuels to green energy using solar, wind, water and ground thermal sources, and hopefully soon wind generators could become as common in Nottingham as they were two centuries ago when rows of windmills turned along the top of the Forest and other locations.

The Sherwood Forest Group

The county of Nottingham has long been famous, of course, as the home of Sherwood Forest and the major landed estates of the Dukeries. [7] Partly inspired by the ‘Sherwood Forest’ group of writers and intellectuals, during the nineteenth century, green-space campaigners created one of the first specially-planned systems of interconnected tree-lined walks, playing fields, cemeteries and public parks in the world. In fact in his original call for enclosure of the common lands in 1836, William Howitt, the nature writer, leading figure in the Sherwood Forest circle and member of the Nottingham Corporation, called for a Parliamentary act that would empower the town’s enclosure and preserve the ‘broad, beautiful expanse of meadow-land to the south … as a zone of beauty and health for ever’ for the ‘picturesquely situated’ ancient town, thus prefiguring the current re-wilding plans to put the ‘marsh’ back into ‘Broadmarsh’. [8] At the same time, Nottingham achieved one of the highest proportions of urban allotments in any British town, an association encouraged by the close local links between political campaigning and green space access. [9]

Enclosure and Park Development in Victorian Nottingham

Nottingham’s Enclosure Oak, The Forest, Nottingham, 2013. [Photo: Paul Elliott]

Until the early nineteenth century, as William Howitt recognised, Nottingham was renowned for the number and extent of its gardens, orchards, meadows and surrounding common lands – in many of which trees and shrubs were either planted or grew semi-wild. However, the common lands were hemming in the expanding urban population which exacerbated health and sanitation problems. Despite continuing opposition from burgesses fearing for their rights to common lands, inspired by urban improvement enclosure measures elsewhere and the Sherwood Forest group, green space campaigners obtained the Nottingham Enclosure Act (1845) which provided powers to sell off common lands in plots but also an ambitious serious of interconnected green spaces, long pre-dating US landscape-architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s innovative tree-lined parkways concept which bound urban green spaces with residential districts. An ambitious scheme of green-space creation and tree planting for beautification, botanical education and rational recreation was always at the heart of the Nottingham venture which by the 1850s connected together the Arboretum (1852) with its systematic labelled collection of trees, General Cemetery (1838 – another pioneering arboretum), Church Cemetery (1856) and the Forest with three miles of nine-foot wide avenues. The scheme was subsequently enhanced by a series of tree-lined boulevards during the 1870s and 1880s which reached through new residential districts whilst middle-class suburbs such as The Park and Mapperley saw development of villas with large gardens and much tree planting. [2, 10, 11, 12]

Sherwood Forest and Nottingham’s Tree Places

The county’s Sherwood Forest was always a key inspiration for Nottingham’s parks campaigners who invoked Robin’s Hood’s name at the opening of the Arboretum, planted an ‘Enclosure Oak’ to commemorate the new green spaces and saw the Forest as a surviving portion of Sherwood within the town, rejuvenated by a planting scheme designed by Joseph Paxton. Where trees had disappeared, their ghosts were preserved in local place names such as The Coppice whilst new names for rapidly expanding suburbs such as ‘Sherwood’ were deliberately intended to capitalise on local pride and identity, to evoke greater Nottingham’s afforested past and to capture the imagination of her current citizens. The trees and shrubs were supposed to reconnect urban dwellers with nature, provide peaceful solace in the midst of a manufacturing centre, and connect visitors with the past and future of the county – the civic nature of the scheme being underlined by members of the corporation and their families planting trees along Mayor’s Walk. Allotments were likewise largely preserved, partly for political reasons. Some of the ambitions of Nottingham’s urban foresters and parks campaigners were continued with the opening of major public parks across the city – at Wollaton, Lenton, Holme Pierrepoint and other places. However, some parts of the city such as St Anns never received major park development during the twentieth century. [2, 9, 13]

Expanding Sherwood Forest

Like the campaigns for expansion of the National Forest in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire and the creation of new Northern Forest – led by the Woodland Trust and other partners –  which aims to include various northern cities, re-expanding Sherwood Forest to include Greater Nottingham would provide hundreds of thousands of people with direct access to trees, plants and wildlife and underline the benefits of widespread urban forestry. With the risk of flooding increasing so much as a result of the climate emergency, large-scale tree planting, re-wilding and re-marshing around the Trent Valley and its feeder water courses and canals would provide greater protection by: binding soils and banks, enabling drainage and helping to break-up and absorb water flows. It would encourage more tree planting in public parks and along highways, railway lines, canals and embankments alongside pre-existing trees and shrubs, creating inter-connected green ‘corridors’ with enhanced ecology and biodiversity. Re-foresting and managed re-wilding across Nottingham would enhance local biodiversity, increase the number and resilience of local species and supply a richer range of inter-connected habitats, helping to combat the threats of disease and the looming climate emergency.

An enlarged Sherwood Forest would also bring other benefits providing more opportunities for health and leisure activities, helping to attract more external investment from commercial and governmental organisations, bringing increased employment and opportunities for training and apprenticeships in conservation, landscape-gardening and horticulture. Already famous for the semi-mythical exploits of Robin Hood and his merry band of followers, it would further enhance the fame of Sherwood at a time when Nottingham Castle is reopening after a major investment and improvement works and a new completely re-designed Sherwood Forest visitor centre has been opened, which will attract large numbers of additional visitors when we return to post-Covid normality.

Formal expansion would take immediate advantage of Sherwood Forest woodland lying just north of greater Nottingham and already within its boundaries including the Bestwood Country Park, Mill Lakes and Burnt Stump Country Park. It would expand upon new public green (and blue) spaces such as Gedling Country Park and the Broadmarsh meadow development and build upon woodland corridors such as those along disused passenger and mineral railways like those from Bestwood past Bulwell Forest to the City Hospital and the Nottingham Suburban Light Railway. The plan would require close cooperation between city and county councils and ideally investment in a new Sherwood Forest authority modelled on the nearby National Forest Company organisation, which would oversee expansion of the woodland areas into urban and suburban districts – in partnership with the Nottingham City Council Parks Department, the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust and other bodies and national campaigning organisations such as the Woodland Trust. Tree-planting targets could initially be set at around 30% of green coverage per square mile except in densely-built up areas where there will have to be more flexibility. Expansion of Sherwood into Nottingham city would not bring continuous tree cover, of course, but a varied environment – just as the medieval forest never had a dense tree canopy, but was a mixed landscape of woodland patches, heath land, meadows and other landscape types.

Conclusion

Recent events such as the distress and damage caused by flooding and the Covid emergency have reminded us of our vulnerability and the essential need to respect our natural environment. As temporary keepers of our world we have an ethical duty to bequeath a healthy, balanced and sustainable natural/urban environment to future generations. To achieve this, campaigners for the expansion of Sherwood Forest and re-wilding of the Broadmarsh can take ideas and inspiration from the history of Nottingham’s life-enhancing green spaces.

Paul A. Elliott, Professor of Modern History, University of Derby

p.elliott@derby.ac.uk

 

[1] ‘New vision to re-wild Nottingham city centre’: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/news/greener-broadmarsh-nottingham

[2] Paul A. Elliott, British Urban Trees: A Social and Cultural History (White Horse Press, 2016)

[3] Paul A. Elliott, Charles Watkins and Stephen Daniels, The British Arboretum: Trees, Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century (paperback edition, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019)

[4] ‘The Social World of Nottingham’s Green Spaces: a Community History Project’:

http://www.ng-spaces.org.uk/

[5] Paul Elliott and Mark Knight, ‘Bringing our cities into a genuinely national forest’: https://blog.derby.ac.uk/2019/10/bringing-our-cities-into-a-genuinely-national-forest/

[6] Phoebe Weston, ‘Going wild? A radical green plan for Nottingham’s unloved shopping centre’, Guardian, 4/12/2020: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/04/going-wild-the-radical-green-plans-for-nottingham-post-covid-regeneration-aoe

[7] Charles Watkins, Trees, Woods and Forests: a Social and Cultural History (2014)

[8] A. M. Howitt Watts, Pioneers of the Spiritual Revolution: Biographical Sketches (London, 1883), 203-4.

[9] Christine Drew and Paul Elliott, ‘Victorian gardening, horticulture and arboriculture in the Midlands: John Frederick Wood (1806-1865) of Nottingham and the Midland Florist and Suburban Horticulturist’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 120 (2016), 121-42.

[10] John V. Beckett and Ken Brand, ‘Enclosure, improvement and the rise of “New Nottingham”, 1845-67’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 98 (1994), 92-111

[11] Paul Elliott, Stephen Daniels and Charles Watkins, ‘The Nottingham Arboretum (1852): natural history, leisure and public culture in a Victorian regional centre’, Urban History, 35 (2008), 48-71

[12] Judith Mills, ‘The transformation of green space in old and new Nottingham’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 118 (2014), 93-114

[13] John Beckett, Nottingham: a History of Britain’s Global University (Woodbridge, 2016)

 
 

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