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A cultural weekend break in Nottingham
11:49am Saturday 18th February 2012 in Leisure
A cultural weekend break introduces JULIAN COLE to a city he had never before visited and knew almost nothing about.
NOTTINGHAM conjures various images, from the sheriff and the castle to Robin Hood and the football team. Oh, and Coppers too, the documentary series on Channel 4 (bet the tourism people love that).
The city has been around for centuries, but was new to me. On the walk up from the station on a bright morning, the place seemed a little down-at-heel. A great concrete dollop of shopping centre didn’t help, and neither did the busy dual carriageway skirting it.
First impressions are important, but they don’t tell the full story. So, yes, Nottingham is not pretty at a glance, but parts are lovely, especially the Georgian streets up from that shopping centre. There are upmarket areas, two leading theatres, plenty of art galleries and a fine arboretum – plenty to occupy us on what was billed as a “cultural break”.
There are also two universities and therefore thousands of students, who of course stay in quietly on a Saturday night to study. Or perhaps roam riotously in drunken gangs, watched over by the massed stars of Coppers (which will not be mentioned again, honestly).
We stayed at the Mercure Hotel, which opened last September on the site of Nottingham’s oldest hotel, The George. Nothing much remains of poor George apart from a splendid old central staircase.
Everything else is smart and pleasant in the unremarkable fashion of the modern chain hotel. We had a spacious a top-floor room, well away from the Saturday night rumpus.
Here’s how the weekend shaped up. On the Saturday, we hopped on a tram and I nearly decapitated myself in the sliding doors. It would have been a shame if my head had gone on without me, but the only injury inflicted was a stern word from the conductor.
We travelled a few stops to the New Art Exchange, a smart and modern gallery with a great café. Cappuccino fix satisfied, we joined a ‘walk and talk’ tour of Everything Is Happening At Once, an exhibition by the Pakistani super-star artist Rashid Rana.
Rana’s work was unknown to me, but will not be forgotten. He uses a number of techniques to pull in the watcher, notably thousands of tiny pictures which show one thing close up and another from a distance. So what looks like a beautiful old rug is comprised of thousands of pictures from a slaughterhouse, while Desperately Seeking Paradise II is a huge mirrored wedge.
From one angle you see a reflection of yourself; move along and peer closely and you see thousands of pictures of life in houses in Lahore; step away and these tiny squares suddenly form a towering skyline reminiscent of Manhattan.
It is quite a trick and a rewarding show.
We walked back into town (well, there was that decapitation thing to worry about), stopping off at the arboretum to eat our sandwiches. Descending further, we spotted John Lewis; so that was an hour spent.
The rest of the Saturday included a very good pre-theatre meal at Harts restaurant, where the meltingly delicious confit of duck is recommended for barbarian meat eaters; my veggie wife declared her salad to be the best she had eaten.
After that, we walked to the Theatre Royal to see JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls. This is a new version of the Stephen Daldry production that began life at our own Theatre Royal in 1989. It was excellent in design and execution, and quite brought the troublesome old socialist’s play back to life.
Leaving the theatre, we scurried through the party-torn streets assailed by sirens all round. Nothing else of note happened.
On the Sunday, we visited Nottingham Castle, which is in fact an art gallery housed in a 17th century palace perched high above the city, with great views and good gardens. The main exhibition, Flashback, featured the work of Anish Kapoor, whose sculptural pieces thrilled and unsettled in equal measure.
On the way out, we popped into the Museum of Nottingham Life, a little like York’s Castle Museum, with mocked up shops, bedrooms and so forth, and an interesting visit.
Next was the Nottingham Contemporary, the city’s newest art gallery, housed in the sort of modern building you would never get away with in York. In Nottingham, squeezed between the ugly shopping centre and the fine Georgian streets, it looks great, makes perfect sense and is wonderfully spacious inside.
The main exhibition featured the studies of German artist Thomas Demand, whose large-scale photographs document the models of architect John Lautner. The photographs are puzzling in a good sense, making you wonder what they might be of; some are also really rather beautiful.
Then it was time for a sandwich at the Nottingham Playhouse, where Kapoor has his first piece of out-door art, The Skymirror, a huge concave mirror.
But enough culture already. Time for a pint. Armed with the Nottingham Real Ale Trail, which lists 14 establishments, we chose the Malt Cross, a music hall in the heart of the city. The beer was good, the surroundings interesting in a positive sense, with two levels, battered old sofas, scattered Sunday newspapers and so on. Beer lovers with time to kill and stomachs to fill could not find anywhere better suited to their purpose.
Our stay ended with a top-notch meal at MemSaab, said to be Nottingham’s finest Indian restaurant and a runner-up in the recent Observer Food Monthly awards. If the food we ate is any guide, this smart place deserves all the plaudits.
On our return to the hotel, the Sunday streets were as quiet as anything. It felt like a different city to the night before.
So that was Nottingham, or at least my first encounter with the city. After a slightly dubious first impression, we enjoyed the place very much.
• Mercure City Centre Hotel, St George Street, mercurenottingham.com
• Hart’s, Standard Hill, Park Row (hartsnottingham.co.uk/restaurant)
• MemSaab, Maid Marian Way (mem-saab.co.uk)
• Nottingham Castle, Frair Lane (nottingham.gov.uk/nottinghamcastle)
• New Art Exchange, Gregory Boulevard, Nottingham (nae.org.uk), closed Sundays.
Nottingham Contemporary, Weekday Cross (nottinghamcontemporary.org)
• We did not manage to visit Lakeside Arts Centre, which is part of the University of Nottingham. From March 3 until May 27, the gallery there will house the first major exhibition in 25 years of work by Edward Burra, the English painter and draughtsman know for his depictions of the underworld.