One stop north of Grantham, halfway between Nottingham and Lincoln, lies the historic market town of Newark. Officially it's Newark-on-Trent, the river being a key feature, and the nearby county boundary places it in Notts rather than Lincs. It's where a Roman road (the Fosse Way) crosses the Great North Road, has its own castle and held considerable strategic importance during the Civil War. Best of all it's kept its heritage heart without significant modern damage, so is actually worth visiting.[12 photos][visit Newark][map]
All roads lead to the Market Place, or rather they don't because the town has sensibly kept most motor vehicles at bay. This is a very large open space, approximately rectangular, filled with rows of red-striped stalls and surrounded on all sides by shops and civic buildings. I was underwhelmed to see just four traders, one selling stacks of DVDs and another old metal toys, but this turned out to be because Thursdays are for "pre-loved and collectors" so I missed the proper stuff. #nerdfact Newark was the first town in England to hold a market on a Wednesday.
Several of the buildings around the rim are very old, including two timber-framed beauties from the 1460s. Slotted into one corner between Boots and Smiths is The OldeWhite Hart, a former coaching inn, whose highly decorated frontage is embellished with tiny figures of saints. It's even older round the back. Opposite Nat West is what must be the oldest Greggs in the country, based inside the Governor's House where Royalist commanders established an HQ during the Civil War. The plaque on the front reads "Prince Rupert stayed here after his quarrel with the King, October 19th 1645", immediately above adverts for Oven Baked Pepperoni Pizza and Pumpkin Spice Latte. However Greggs now have plans to move to larger premises two doors down leaving the Grade I listed building empty, which is already the fate of The Olde White Hart after long term tenants the Nottingham Building Society moved out earlier this year.
The Town Hall is an imposing sight, with its neoclassical facade dating from 1776 when Newark's civic coffers were full. Step up beneath the tetrastyle portico to follow a public walkway through the centre of the building which opens out into a wholly unexpected arcade painted salmon pink and lit with chandeliers. The doors to the town's museum and art gallery are alas firmly locked, and have been since March 2020 while the town council "review its future and relevancy", but it's expected that the period rooms and galleries will reopen at the end of the month. With that pleasure denied I ought instead to have visited the National Civil War Centre on Appletongate, a proper modern three-storey £8-entry attraction, but I hadn't left enough time in my schedule to give that the hour I suspect it deserved.
I also had no luck getting inside the Church of St Mary Magdalene, the town's loftily impressive Norman Gothic church, because I arrived at the same time as a parishioner in a Lincs Co-Op Funeral Services hearse. Instead I was left to walk around the exterior, where I failed to spot the hole in the steeple supposedly made by a musket ball during the Civil War but did find a blue plaque dedicated to Constance Adelaide Smith. It was she who popularised Mothering Sunday in this country in the 1920s, specifically to keep the upstart American invention Mother's Day at bay, and that's why we still send our cards before Easter and not in mid-May.
Newark's retail offering is pretty good, especially for smaller independent shops like jewellers, art suppliers and Vale of Belvoir butchers. It has a branch of Boyes, the northeast's almost-department store, and a short arcade where you can pick up a sewing machine, a rug or a tattoo. The country set seem well catered for but there's also a Wilko and a New Look tucked away mostly out of sight, as befits a town where a 2-bed flat can still be picked up for a five figure sum. One of the most exuberant outlets is the former Ossington Coffee Tavern, a temperance palace built by a Victorian viscountess to encourage non-alcoholic nights out. It was not a success despite its prime riverside setting and closed after just seven years, a fate which has recently befallen the Zizzi's restaurant occupying the ground floor. The message frozen on its chalkboard is "Book Now For Mother's Day", but alas Constance's hospitality bonanza was never realised.
The river crossing carrying the former A1 is called Trent Bridge - not that one - and is rather older than its maximal chain of Roman numerals would suggest. It leads to the lesser side of town where the cattlemarket and enormous sugar factory are located, and also to a decent-sized riverside park. Just upstream is Newark Town Lock, a large cut built for busier times, overlooked by a bloke from the Canal & River Trust on duty in case any craft might perhaps want to pass through. And downstream by Waitrose is the town's second station, the humbler quainter one with hourly trains to Leicester and Grimsby, not capital connections to King's Cross and Edinburgh. It's named after the substantial fortification that overlooks everything in this paragraph, the much transformed Newark Castle.
It's been here since the 12th century, and in the early 13th was the site of a monarch's demise. King John arrived here sick after a calamitous journey across The Wash, his overnight passing traditionally blamed on poisoned plums or a "surfeit of peaches". Newark was besieged three times during the Civil War, after which the Parliamentarians slighted the castle but never finished the job, leaving the gatehouse and a thick curtain wall to rise high above the river. Victorian restoration means what's left looks a lot more complete than it originally was, but the ruins form a most expressive backdrop and can be freely explored during a nice walk in the gardens. The best view is out of the largest bay window looking upstream towards the town lock... Newark, on Trent.