Southwell Minster and Workhouse.

The U3A History Group outing to Southwell in Nottinghamshire, in June, proved to be a visit of contrasts. Southwell Minster is the Cathedral of the County of Nottingham, even though it is some miles from the County Town. It is an imposing building, with magnificent Norman architecture and the sense of grandeur and space was heightened on the day by the absence of chairs or other church furniture in the main area of the Minster. Instead, local schoolchildren were having an activity day in the vast space provided and we could appreciate the awesome dimensions of this medieval place of worship.

The Minster, set in the heart of rural Nottinghamshire in a delightfully unspoiled small town with some very fine Georgian and Queen Anne Houses, was founded in Saxon times and the present building begun in 1108, the Nave, towers and transepts being Romanesque and the Quire, early English.

An excellent audio tour provided the details needed to appreciate the historic building and its many outstanding features, including the 14th Century misericords, 16th Century stained glass windows, a brass eagle lectern of 1503, and a powerful and moving 20th Century ‘Stations of the Cross’. 

There are many other notable features in the Minster, the most outstanding being the 13th Century Chapter House, which at the time of our visit housed an embroidery exhibition to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation. Some members of the group took the opportunity to enjoy this display which included a Coronation Maid of Honour’s dress and various clerical garments.

I felt that I had to agree with John Betjeman who said "everywhere around is an atmosphere of peace and in the Minster there's one of prayer."


By contrast, the visit to Southwell Workhouse, gave a sense of oppression and hopelessness. The Workhouse, built in 1824 and implemented from an idea by the local incumbent, Rev John Becher, became the model for all workhouses nationally. The feeling of despair was heightened by the segregated accommodation, the maze of stairways and corridors, and the sparse way of life within. 

We viewed the kitchens, the laundry rooms, the dormitories and the exercise yards, as well as the children’s quarters, with schoolroom and nursery.  The disparity between the inmates’ housing conditions and those of the Master and Matron was enormous and increased our sense of inequality and injustice. 

The Guides who took us round, in small groups, were very knowledgeable and gave us valuable insights into the social history of the time, the implications of the workhouse system and its eventual demise. To comfort us after this harrowing visit, welcome refreshments were laid on for us at the end.

One small town, two contrasting ways of life. An exceptional journey.

Heidy Hague