Get thee to the Dukeries
There’s more to England’s Nottinghamshire than the legend of Robin Hood
OGLESHIELD, Ticklemore, Gubbeen, Poacher or Stichelton?
They may sound like characters in a Shrek movie, but they are the names of British speciality cheeses. We are in the farm shop on the Welbeck Estate, on the northern border of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire.
Part of a chain of country estates known as the Dukeries, Welbeck was one of five properties purchased after the dissolution of the monasteries by a handful of interrelated aristocratic families who, between them, divided up great tracts of Sherwood Forest. Originally an abbey founded in 1140, Welbeck was converted into a country residence by the Cavendish family (descendants of the duke of Newcastle) and then passed to the Portlands, who own and manage the estate today.
We buy a piece of Stichelton (pronounced stickleton), which is made on one of the estate’s farms. A classic blue cheese, it cannot be labelled stilton as it’s made with raw, organic milk — the first blue cheese to be made this way in Britain since the 1960s. It is delightfully creamy and sweet, with a satisfyingly sharp bite.
It’s a short walk to the Harley Gallery, housed in the old gasworks that once supplied fuel for the reclusive fifth duke of Portland’s extensive network of underground tunnels (he also had a vast underground ballroom built). We have a quick look at the contemporary arts and crafts section, but it’s the Portland Collection we’ve come to see. Built up over four centuries, the displays include a handwritten letter by Oliver Cromwell, the silk gloves worn by Charles I at his execution, the consecrated drinking cup used at his last communion, a pikeman’s suit of armour and a royalist shilling minted during the Civil War.
We discover that the only way to catch a glimpse of Welbeck Abbey is on one of the circular walks from the Harley Gallery car park. One of the longer circuits takes in Creswell Crags, limestone caves that house Britain’s only Ice Age rock art, but we opt for a short cut and drive to St Winifred’s Church in the village of Holbeck. Built in 1913 as a place of worship for the Portland family, it’s screened by tall beech hedges and shaped holly bushes.
Lincolnshire The raised tombs in the churchyard with their mosscovered heraldic motifs tell the story of a dynasty.
Next is the National Trust-owned Clumber Park. Originally a swath of Sherwood Forest, it was enclosed as an estate by the duke of Newcastle to create a hunting ground for Queen Anne in 1707.
Although the original palladian mansion was destroyed by fire in 1879 and its replacement demolished in 1938 to avoid tax duties, the stateliness of the place with its lake, woodlands, parkland, gardens and gothic revival chapel remains undiminished.
We approach via Lime Tree Avenue (Europe’s longest double row of lime trees) and head straight for the late 18th-century kitchen garden. Framed by the Long Range Glass House on one side and red brick walls along the others, the restored 1.6ha garden is a visual and sensory delight. Two 137m herbaceous borders with classic English favourites such as blue hollyhocks and delphiniums, contrasting with yellow and orange dahlias, sunflowers and gladioli, are set against espaliered fruit trees, climbing roses, neat rows of vegetables — we have fresh beetroot in the restaurant at lunchtime — and a herb garden with multiple medicinal and culinary varieties.
It’s a short drive south to Thoresby Hall and Park, once the principal seat of the duke of Kingston and later the Manvers family. The Elizabethan-style mansion is now run as a hotel, but the extensive grounds are open to the public. We stroll though rolling green parkland dotted with majestic copper beech trees to the lake, where swans nest on islands of weed and large herds of deer are grazing. On our way back we skirt a game of cricket that’s in progress and cross a small bridge into a field of sheep. It’s so quintessentially English that we decide it must be time for tea, so we find a cafe in the clock tower courtyard and order a pot of earl grey.
The next day we head to Rufford Abbey, south of Ollerton. Founded by Cistercian monks in 1147 and converted into a private house by the sixth earl of Shrewsbury in 1536, Rufford is part ruined abbey and part Jacobean country house surrounded by formal gardens and woodland. We venture underneath the abbey to see an exhibition documenting the lives of the monks.
Walking down the well-worn night stairs, you can almost hear the monastic shuffling of steps; a strict and silent order, the monks would rise each day at 2.30am to attend services in the abbey church.
There’s less silence today and more rousing historical re-enactments. Our visit coincides with a Living History Weekend celebrating medieval life from the 12th to 15th centuries. The volunteers representing the Knights Hospitallers look the part, with their pallid, waxen faces peeking out under hooded garments. We don’t arrive in time to see the Battle of Worksop, but we do see a man easing himself into a suit of chain mail and others sharpening their swords or flexing their longbows. Women perched on small wooden stools comb wool and stir cauldrons of pease pottage or delicious smelling mishmishiya, a dish of lamb, apricots and onions flavoured with Crusader spices such as ginger, pepper and cumin.
Worksop Manor, the fifth Dukery situated on the outskirts of the market town of Worksop, was once the principal seat of the duke of Norfolk, but is now in private ownership. So it seems fitting that we should instead visit the home and hiding place of the people’s duke, Robin Hood.
The Major Oak — where Robin is said to have hidden from the sheriff of Nottingham — is a 15-minute walk from the visitor centre at the Sherwood Forest Country Park near the village of Edwinstowe. We pass stands of younger 600-year-old oaks — many of them weathered into weird and wonderful shapes — but nothing quite prepares us for the size of the 800-year-old Major Oak. Weighing an estimated 23 tonnes and with a girth spanning 10m and branches extending more than 28m, this is no ordinary tree — it’s an ancient monument steeped in lore and legend.
The reality is that the tree would have been but a sapling in Robin’s day, but why let that spoil a good story?
Thoresby Hall is now run as a hotel