A GUIDE TO SOUTHWELL, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE
Southwell in Nottinghamshire is a lovely place to go for a day out, and some say one of the prettiest towns in the county! And, if you’ve never been to Southwell before, you might also be surprised to learn about some of the significant historical events that are connected with the town.
But, even if history’s not your thing, there are plenty of things to do in Southwell for all ages and it really does make for a pleasant day-trip.
In our guide to Southwell, we will endeavour to share with you some of our favourite places, things you mustn’t miss and a few extras too.
A BIT ABOUT SOUTHWELL’S HISTORY
Although most of the notable things about the town’s history are connected to the Southwell Minster, built in 1108, there is some evidence Southwell was also a Roman settlement at one time. But not much is known about that period. However, since the towns’ large cathedral was built and was the central diocese for this area of England, it was inevitably part of medieval history. And, as you will learn, the place of many fascinating stories!
One of those tales involves King Charles of England, who started the English Civil War because he believed parliament was unnecessary since he himself had been appointed by God to rule. Obviously, Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentarians strongly disagreed, war began and ensued for many years. Then, in 1646, King Charles spent his last night as a free man at The Saracen’s Head in Southwell (once known as The Kings Head) before he was discovered by some Scottish troops stationed nearby and handed him over to Cromwell. The Civil War effectively began in Nottingham (where Charles ‘raised the Royal Standard’) and ended in Southwell!
Today, it’s classed as one of the poshest neighbourhoods in Nottinghamshire and locals passionately cling on to their own pronunciation of their home as ‘South-well’, whilst the rest of us call it ‘Suh-thull’.
So, without further ado, let’s find out what you can get up to in Southwell.
Things To Do In Southwell, Nottinghamshire
Visit Southwell Minster
Well, you can’t miss it, can you! Standing very tall, with its recognisable twin towers, Southwell Minster in the centre of the town cannot be ignored. Whether that be literally or historically! And, it is an amazing feat of architecture and engineering so even if you’re not religiously inclined you won’t fail to be impressed.
I like it so much because it’s a mish-mash of several architectural styles. Bits have been added here and there and other bits have been blown up or set on fire here and there too. And what’s finally been left makes you question things – how come the roof looks like that? Why is the stained glass so different? Is it Roman or Medieval? And, all the answers pieced together tell the story of Southwell, if not the story of English history as well!
Why is it called Southwell Minster? A minster is the main largest church in an area, often with a collegiate for trainee priests. Southwell Minster has been notable in this capacity for over 900 years since it was given by the King to the Archbishop of York as his main southern residence.
Check out the stained glass angels above the main door, look out for the brass eagle lectern and ask somebody about The Leaves of Southwell. To be honest, the volunteers on hand are so informative so make sure you give them a chance to tell you some of their inside intel!
The Archbishop’s Palace, Great Hall and Gardens
Now lying in ruins next to the minster, the Archbishop’s Palace was decimated during the English Civil War. However, the Great Hall, which would have originally adjoined the palace, still remains and many of its medieval features are still intact.
Admire some of the 14th-century walls of the palace that still stand from the really pretty palace gardens then make your way around to the Great Hall (or state chamber) for a peek inside.
Whilst the palace was the designated residence of the Archbishop of York, and many a royal or noble guest stayed there, there was one notable resident with a story to tell. Cardinal Wolsey, once the Second-in-Command to Henry VIII, lost favour with the king when he failed to procure a divorce for Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Knowing his days were probably numbered he fled London and spent his last summer here in Southwell attempting to keep out of sight and out of mind!
Another notable guest was King Charles II who was held captive in the Great Hall before being transported to London to be beheaded. He’d been betrayed and captured earlier, in The Saracens Head, by the Scottish troops stationed nearby at Kelham.
Both Charles’ and Wolsey’s portraits now hang in the Great Hall.
The Saracens Head Pub
A historic hotel indeed. Given its close proximity to the Minster and palace, plus its strategic position on the old Newark to Manchester ‘stage-coach’, you can only imagine the stories these walls could tell. It has been a coaching inn since the 1500s, although a watering-hole for much longer, and many of the old features still exist. Timber beams, oak-panelled walls and huge fireplaces make this a cosy pub, to say the least. Lord Byron and Charles Dickens are some of the famous punters, and it gets a mention a few times in a couple of DH Lawrence’s books too.
But its reputation goes beyond the historical and into the gastronomical – fine food in a bistro-style from local and seasonal produce in the restaurant or good British pub grub in the bar.
I’ve always loved having a coffee in their colourful courtyard area too as the owners really go to town on their hanging baskets and planters.
If you would like to stay in the same bedroom as King Charles II, check out The Saracens Head’s rates here.
The Bramley Apple Story
Although it’s disappointing that you can’t actually see the tree (yet I’m assured it still exists) it is worth telling the story of the famous apple. Apple pies are possibly the UK’s number one pudding choice and who knows if they would have raised to such status if it wasn’t for the decisions of a little girl here in Southwell.
At number 75 Church Street (see the Blue Plaque for yourself) a young girl called Mary Anne Brailsford planted and nurtured a pip from one of her mother’s apples. However, it wasn’t until the new owners of the house moved in, a certain Mr Bramley, that the fame of this apple took hold. It turns out that Mary Anne had created a new variety all of her own and Mr Bramley’s gardener recognised this great apple’s potential as a cooking apple of epic proportions.
The tree is now in the care of Nottingham Trent University and they are trying to protect it from the deadly Honey Fungus.
There is a yearly Bramley Apple Festival, that takes place in the town in October. Or, you can take a walk along the Bramley Apple Heritage Trail’s and stop for a beverage at the Bramley Apple Pub en route.
Shopping In Southwell
Old books shops, bespoke jewellery, clothing boutiques and a great butchers are some of the shopping experiences to be had in Southwell. It’s one of England’s cutest market towns to slowly wander and buy some lovely things.
Make sure don’t miss some of the hidden alleyways and courtyards though – just off King Street you will see Bull Yard right before the Admiral Rodney pub, and Harmaan’s Walk can be found next to Bird’s Bakery on Queen Street.
And when you need some retail-refreshments you’ll be spoilt for choice with the lovely little Southwell cafes and coffee shops. Mosedale’s has always been a firm favourite for us.
Does Southwell have a market? Yes. Each Saturday, from 8am till lunchtime on a little square next to The Wheatsheaf pub on King Street.
Southwell’s Literary Connections
Both DH Lawrence and Lord Byron, raunchy 19th century poet, have connections to Southwell.
The Saracens Head pub gets a prominent mention in DH Lawrence’s Women In Love where one of the most powerful scenes is set around the fireplace in the inn’s parlour room and you can still visit and eat in that room today. But the pub was also a regular drinking spot for Lord Byron too and they’ve honoured that connection by naming a dining room after him.
And, if you care to take a walk to the top of King Street for a view of some of Southwell’s more distinguished residences you will also see the house where Lord Byron spent his youth in between school terms at Harrow and Cambridge University. His mother lived out her later years at Burgage Manor with a lovely view of Southwell’s poshest residences – it really is a green and pleasant walk to the top of King Street into Burgage.
Places To See Around Southwell
Whilst there are plenty of things to do in Southwell for day-trippers there are also a handful of worthwhile places to see around Southwell too that you could maybe combine on your day out. All of our following suggestions are within a 5-10 minute drive away.
The Swan Sanctuary
Attached to the Reg Taylors garden centre (which have a lovely tea room by the way) The Swan Sanctuary is a great place to take the kids. For just a small entrance fee (£3 on our last visit) you can feed the birds with seed and take a scenic stroll around the water and through the trees. It’s 9 acres of wetlands and parks with a few strategically placed seating areas.
The Southwell Workhouse
The Workhouse at Southwell is a fascinating historical museum run by the National Trust. Some people in Victorian England were so destitute and desperate they had to admit themselves to workhouses where food, clothing and board was exchanged for a hard days graft. In order to survive, they became a part of these hard communities with the hope that one day they could move on to better pastures. The museum is a real eye-opener for us adults, but probably just an opportunity for an interactive Victorian experience for the kids. Although that’s not a bad thing – they’d probably be scarred for life if the little ones really understood the significance!
The kitchen gardens have a few of the famous Southwell Bramley apple tree’s too.
Places For Icecream
For us, no visit to Southwell is complete without a stop off for ice cream. There happen to be a few dairy farms in the area and two of those farms put their produce to good use!
Newfield Ice cream Parlour is the bigger venue with over 150 flavours to grace their menu (although not all at once) and with a breakfast and lunchtime menu too. Their outdoor seating overlooks the rolling Nottinghamshire countryside so your ice cream comes with views for miles.
A more rustic and humble option, and also a little of a hidden gem (you heard it here first!) is off a quiet country road, 5 minutes from Southwell. The Real Milk Company are a purely organic dairy farm and they have an honesty-box policy where you collect your tubs of ice cream from little wooden sheds at the entrance to the farm. It’s so cute! You can also purchase other farm produce, including milkshakes that kids can make themselves AND you get to eat your ice cream surrounded by the cows who made it for you. Honestly, this was my favourite local Nottinghamshire ‘find’ of 2021!
It can be a little tricky to find so here is a link to it on Google maps.
A WEEKEND BREAK IN SOUTHWELL
If you’re thinking of visiting the area for the weekend one of the nicest places to stay in Southwell is the already mentioned Saracens Head – perfect if you go all-in for wooden beams and four-poster beds. Click here for the best deals at the Saracens Head.
Or alternatively, you could choose a hotel in the nearby city of Nottingham and visit Southwell on a day trip. We have written about our favourite 3 Nottingham hotels here. We also have tons of posts about our local city in our Nottingham section of the blog.
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Southwell is under an hours drive from Clumber Park and Lincoln too if you would like to read more about those places…