Stephen McClarence and wife reawakened memories aplenty by ploughing a fresh furrow in historic Newark
After saying goodbye to Britain’s friendliest B&B landlady (and that’s official), we’re standing in a frosty field in Nottinghamshire. Farmer Stuart Rose is pointing out the power stations strung along the far horizon. In front of them, a train speeds up the East Coast Main Line and the A1 hums with cars and Eddie Stobart trucks. And a few hundred yards away from all this busy modernity, the villagers of Laxton are maintaining a tradition of farming that hasn’t changed in a thousand years.
Laxton, between Retford and Newark, is the only place in Britain still using the medieval open-field system (explanations follow). “We’re just nestled away here,” says Stuart, secretary to the village “Court”, with the resplendent title Clerk to the Gates and Commons. Agriculture-in-aspic is a big tourist draw. Every year, Stuart, brimming with enthusiasm, takes dozens of groups on guided tours of the fields. It’s a fine end to the weekend in the Medieval Midlands which my wife Clare and I have just had.
We’ve been based in Newark, a place full of associations for her. Her first job was as a cub reporter on the Newark Advertiser 25 years or so ago (she keeps these things vague). So nostalgia lurks at every turn. “Newark College,” she sighs, spotting a sign. “I did shorthand and touch-typing evening classes there...” As she goes weak-kneed at the sight of the magistrates’ court, we decide to go our separate ways.
Newark, a busy market town without airs and graces, still has its medieval street plan. Roads and alleys wander off in all directions from the vast central square, said to be the oldest continuously used marketplace in Europe. “A cabbage and a cauli for a pound,” hollers a trader as all around him people are buying thermal socks, cream sponges, boxer shorts, spanners, machine washable slippers and Good Boy chocolates for dogs.
In one corner is the 14th century Old White Hart hotel, a stop on Newark’s Medieval Timber-Frame Buildings Trail. Its gaily painted orange, green and gold front has rows of carved figures, like a still life of The Canterbury Tales. They turn out to be saints and include a homely woman holding what appears to be a large French-stick loaf. Could this be the fabled St Beryl of the Baguettes, patron saint of Burgundy bakers?
Across the square, between a busking accordionist and the building where Byron’s first poems were published, is Porters, a food shop – strong on Stiltons – that’s been here 120 years. It feels little changed in that time, and still uses a bacon slicer and coffee roaster from the 1930s.
Co-owner Cathy Sawyer leads me past a gigantic whole Lincolnshire Poacher cheese, as big as a pouffe, and down steep, narrow steps to the coalmine-black Smoke Room. Here they cold-smoke bacon, cheese and garlic, a pungent process that leaves my jacket smelling of smoke for three days.
Round the corner, I take in the medieval parish church, as big as a cathedral, and, on the banks of the Trent, the castle, where King John died, famously of “a surfeit of peaches”. I browse some of the many antiques shops and arcades, and meet Clare, back from her nostalgic wander. The streets look narrower than they used to, she says, but, yes, the old holly tree is still growing outside the Newark Advertiser.
And it’s still a place where tweedy old ladies meet for coffee and slightly hard-of-hearing conversations. “Oh yes, I knew that woman. She was in our tai-chi group.” “Your tattoo group, did you say, dear?”
We’re staying at Compton House, a smart, antiques-filled B&B in an 1840s townhouse on the edge of the town centre. Lisa Holloway, who runs it with her husband Mark, was voted Friendliest Landlady of the Year in the most recent AA Bed and Breakfast Awards.
She certainly lives up to the title, with a feisty engagement with guests that creates a house party atmosphere.
With superb meals, the place pulls in thesps-on-tour.
“Hold on a minute, darling,” she says when I phone her a couple of weeks after our visit, “I’m just cooking dinner for Patricia Routledge.”
On the way to Newark, we got ourselves into medieval mood at Elston Chapel, an atmospheric barn-like building across a field five miles south.
With its 18th century graffiti, 17th century pulpit, 16th century window and so on back to its 12th century zigzagged doorway, it’s now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.
It’s not hard to imagine centuries of farm labourers trudging here to worship.
And so to Laxton, a neat redbrick village, and its three open fields: 2,000 acres cultivated on the medieval strip system with crops rotated and one field left fallow every third year. With its own visitor centre, it’s a “conservation village”, a sort of working museum, though not, says Stuart Rose, an agricultural theme park.
He climbs down from his tractor, unlocks his front door and plays us a 1934 Gaumont British newsreel, full of men in flat caps and waistcoats, ploughing with horses. “That one’s my grandfather,” he says.
He spreads a copy of a 1635 map of the village across the kitchen table, anchoring its corners with sugar, tea and coffee pots. “Enclosure was always on the cards here,” he says.
“But because of historically freakish things, the old fields have survived.
“It’s a community here; you’re part of it. On Jury Day on the last Thursday in November, the ‘12 good men and true’ of the jury inspect the fields.”
He takes us out to look at them, ridge and furrow picked out by the morning sun. “It’s lovely when the cowslips and the other spring flowers are out,” he says. “And on May Day, the morris dancers come and dance round the medieval castle site at sunrise... We’ve got an awful lot of skylarks.”
Compton House (01636 708670; www.comptonhousenewark.com) has B&B doubles from £90. Further information on Newark and Laxton: 01636 655765; www.experiencenottinghamshire.com.