Familiar Fortresses

As Nottingham celebrates securing the recently announced Stage 1 Heritage Lottery Fund grant for improvements to Nottingham Castle, I thought I would take a comparative look at a selection of castles and fortresses that, from various different perspectives, each create a specific visual image or atmospheric environment that better reflects the initial expectations of visitors to the Castle, who generally anticipate a "medieval-style" ambiance more evocatively associated with the Robin Hood legend.

Let's begin with "the imposters" – those castles that have posed as "doubles" for Nottingham Castle in various Robin Hood movies and television. They include places such as Dover Castle and Alnwick Castle in Kevin Costner and Co.'s "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" blockbuster; along with Chepstow Castle in the HTV/ Goldcrest "Robin of Sherwood" drama series and also not forgetting the Eastern European "castle" locations that were used in the 1996 Warner Bros. Television series "The New Adventures of Robin Hood" and the BBC TV "Robin Hood" series of 2009. All these impressive, authentic-looking buildings were, of course, often primarily chosen by location directors for their imposing facades and their proliferation of towers, turrets and crenellated battlements that all conveyed the familiar settings we had read about in the traditional Robin Hood tales.

However, if the location director could not find the ideal "castle" that he was looking for, then, in true Hollywood fashion, the movie studios would simply just build a fantasy one of their own! Possibly the greatest example of this was for the Douglas Fairbanks 1928 black and white, silent classic "Robin Hood," where Fairbanks built some of the largest sets ever seen in Hollywood. Five hundred workmen constructed an enormous version of "Nottingham Castle" by spreading out truckloads of rocks on the ground and covering them with a netting of chicken wire and plaster to make a mould for the veneer of the castle. As the walls grew higher and higher, they also built a moat; a massive drawbridge (raised and lowered by concealed petrol engines) and cavernous interiors, so huge, that they could not be lit by the conventional sunlight and reflectors used in the early days of film.

If however, location scouts want "the real thing", many consider that, with its rich history of more than 1000 years of wars and plagues, the spectacular fortress in the town of Carcassonne in Southern France represents the quintessential, authentic, medieval castle. With two defence walls, measuring nearly 2 miles long and 52 towers, it is easy to see why Kevin Costner's 1991 movie filmed many location shots inside the chateau walls. Carcassonne is a hugely popular tourist destination, where there are no entrance fees into the castle city and children are encouraged to search the atmospheric, narrow cobbled streets for the legend of Robin Hood!

In their own unique ways, each of the fore-mentioned castles reflect certain elements that have coloured public perceptions of what they imagine Nottingham Castle to be like, based on the popular tales they have read and the film and television dramatisations of the Robin Hood legend. However, over the centuries various historical events in Nottingham's past have resulted in the site where the legendary castle reputedly once stood being presently occupied by an Italianate-style mansion, leaving the City Council and the newly-formed Castle Trust with the difficult conundrum of "squaring the circle" between the long-overdue improvements to the Castle building and also fulfilling the public expectations of visitors searching for Nottingham's traditional links to Robin Hood as an icon of popular culture. Recent comments in the Post and other media indicate that it will be a challenging and somewhat complex balancing act, requiring some imaginative vision tempered with a measurable dose of reality and the inevitable compromises. So let's wish them well and hope their proposals finally bring about a satisfactory resolution to the controversial issue of Nottingham effectively getting to grips with successfully exploiting the full potential of its globally famous connections with Robin Hood.