Saturday, 27 August 2011

Nottingham Council House

Central Stairway
One of central Nottingham's most iconic sights is the 200 foot high dome of the Council House.

Yesterday afternoon I took advantage of the opportunity to turn up, and have a tour of the Council House. I was the only one there at the 3.00pm tour slot, with a larger group due at 3.30pm. I was offered a whistle-stop tour, or I could wait and join the other group for a longer tour. I chose the whistle-stop option, and set off with my own personal tour guide.

She was humorous, down to earth and extremely informative. Though at times it felt like a supermarket trolley dash, I saw everything that there was to see, and learnt much about this magnificent building. The picture above sets the tone for what awaits you. As you enter the building through large bronze doors, you are met with the 'take your breath away' sight of the main staircase, with its columns and floors made from the finest Italian marble, and the floor being an inlaid mosaic of the city's coat of arms. At the top of the first flight is a statue called "The Spirit of Welcome", which was a gift to the city from Sir Julian Cahn. Apparently, though the dress looks a bit pitted, this is the impact of the finest lace being placed on it as the bronze statue was being finished. In the right hand corner you see the 200 year old Town Bell from Weekday Cross (around where the Nottingham Contemporary stands now) which was rung to announce executions, which took place outside what is now the Galleries of Justice.
Opening by the Prince of Wales
Let's go back for a moment to the time before it all began. Even up to the 1920's, Nottingham had a reputation for having some of the worst slum housing in the UK (Ray Gosling, in a BBC programme about Nottingham and Leicester in 1963 said he was 'shocked' by what he saw in The Meadows, describing it as having "some of the worst slums in the country").

But the 1920's were truly bad, and the area where the Exchange Arcade now stands was a bit like 'The Shambles' in York, only bigger, with retailers of every sort. The regeneration of central Nottingham in the 1920's seemed to encompass at least two main visions. One was a major slum clearance programme to improve the living conditions of residents, and the other was to construct a municipal building of sheer opulence. A new council house seems to be the brainchild of the then Mayor of Nottingham (note, not Lord Mayor, as this title didn't come about until 1928), and was designed by the architect Cecil Howitt. The new building was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1929. Let me mention one thing from each of the four floors that I visited, and which impressed me hugely.

Exchange Arcade Dome
The ground floor of the building is predominantly an upmarket shopping mall called Exchange Arcade, and was included in the building's design to help fund the construction of the Council House. Very forward thinking to my mind.

Looking up into the dome, you can see four murals depicting different parts of Nottingham's history, and painted by a local artist, Denholm Davis. On one of the upper floors, I could look out on to a small balcony and see these murals much closer.

The murals depict the following;
  1. The Danes capturing Nottingham in 868 AD
  2. William the Conqueror ordering the building of the castle in 1068
  3. Robin Hood and his Merry Men
  4. King Charles 1 raising his standard at the start of the Civil War in 1642
The interesting thing about it is that the artist used local celebrities as models. So the building's architect, Cecil Howitt appears in the guise of William the Conqueror's surveyor, and some say that the legendary Notts County goalkeeper, Albert Iremonger appears as Little John. The murals are very stunning. While looking at these, the bell chimed the quarter hour. I was told that the bell was called Little John, was a tone and a half lower than Big Ben in London, and can be heard for up to seven miles away. Now that was new to me.

The Ballroom
The ballroom is to be found on the first floor, and this is the largest, and arguably the most impressive room in the whole building.

Anyone who stands in Old Market Square, and looks at the Council House will see the balcony, from which many famous people have waved to the crowds. Behind that balcony lies the ballroom.

It is alleged to have been inspired by the ballroom at the Palace of Versailles, and is mainly used as a large reception area, and for the great banquets. It has large mirrors which are designed to give the impression that the room is even bigger, and magnificent columns embellished with gilt. From the ceiling are hung absolutely beautiful Art Deco light fittings, decorated with brass tassels. The guide said that these lights are uninsurable.

I stood in one of the minstrels' galleries, looking down on the ballroom with its fully sprung walnut dance floor. One can only begin to imagine what some of the occasions would have been like. This was truly a beautiful room.

The Sheriff's Room
As you're taken from room to room, you're impressed by the magnificent panelled walls. An example of this is the Lord Mayor's Parlour and waiting room, which are also on the first floor.

The parlour is panelled in carved walnut, and the sitting room has beautifully made use of stunning antique oak panelling said to be from Aston Hall in Derbyshire. This was where some of the other panelling in other rooms came from also.

After so much panelled walls, it comes as a bit of a shock when you go to the second floor and see the Sheriff's Room, as picture above. Apparently, the 'feminine feel' to this room has often been remarked upon, and its strange contrast to most other rooms. The answer it seems is that at one time it was the Lady Mayoress' room, and that's why it looks so different. It is officially described as being decorated in the Adams Style, with soft green and gilt. I'd never heard of the Adams Style, so on looking it up when I got home, I found that the Adams' were brothers from Scotland living in the 18th Century, who "advocated an integrated style for architecture and interiors". If I were being pedantic, the proper term for this style of architecture and furniture is the "Style of the Brothers Adam". The room also has the only crystal chandelier and matching wall lights in the building, and they are magnificent. What a room.

Council Chamber
Making our way up to the third floor, which I think is the highest visitors are allowed to go, the guide pointed out in the numerous corridors we walked down, socket attachments in the skirting boards. These were part of the original design, and were there so that carpet cleaner hoses could be attached to them when cleaning was being done, and the dust and dirt was fed through to giant bags somewhere in the building. Now I think that's neat.

We went into the Council Chamber. After spending many hours over the years in the public gallery's of council chambers, trying to keep awake during debates on subjects that were supposed to have been of interest to me (over the years I've come across very few local councillors who are very good at public speaking - Nottingham of course may be very different, as I've not heard anyone yet), I was keen to see this debating chamber.

From the above picture you can see that it is another panelled room. There are seats for 55 Councillors, and no seat is more than 26 feet away from the Lord Mayor who occupies the plush seat in the alcove. Microphones are a fairly new phenomenon, and are mostly used to ensure the accuracy of what Councillors say. The room is a superb design acoustically speaking. There is one further aid to acoustics that I had never heard of before.

Acoustic Panels
Around the room, as in the picture opposite, are fabric covered panels, with seaweed behind each of them.

Every ten years these panels are taken down, cleaned and repaired as necessary, and their quality has been shown to work over the years. Now isn't that neat and innovative?

There's one more fascinating and historical fact that I'd like to mention. When Council is in session, there is a stand in front of the Lord Mayor for his official mace. The Sheriff sits beside him, but in front of the Sheriff, there are two stands for two maces which sit there during Council sessions. All three maces are on display in a cabinet between sessions. But why two for the Sheriff?

In the 15th Century, Nottingham was divided into two boroughs - the French Borough and the English Borough, and in 1449, King Henry 1V granted permission for there to be two Sheriffs. When in later years Nottingham came to have one borough and one Sheriff, discussion took place as to which mace should be retained. In the slightly humorous view of my guide, "With typical Nottingham compromise, they decided to keep both mace's". So that's why two mace's are placed in front of the Sheriff at Council meetings to this day. Don't you just love this city?

Well, I may only have had a thirty minute whistle-stop tour of the Council House, but I loved every minute of it, and if you get the chance to look around, take it.

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