Where the Foss Way Intersects the Great North Road
Patrick Mercer OBE served in Nottinghamshire’s local Regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, before becoming a BBC journalist. He was elected as Newark’s Member of Parliament in 2001 and, unusually for Britain, lives in the center of his constituency. No wonder he’s proud of Newark.
For me, Newark has proved that there really is a grand design in life. In 1948,my father was ordained from a theological college near to the town. Sometime later, it was sold and became the headquarters of the District Council—the spot where elections of all sorts are organized, the votes counted and results declared. So it was that 53 years after my father had been there, I stood on the same spot and swore to serve the people of Newark as their Member of Parliament—which sparked my deep affection for the place.
In medieval times, Newark was the most significant market town between London and York
Newark was once one of the most prosperous towns in eastern England, and I wish that were still the case now. In medieval times, it was the most significant market town between London and York, principally because of its position on the River Trent. This mighty river runs from the heart of England to the coast, with Newark standing astride a major ford. People have always congregated at fords, because they are natural funnels, making trade and commerce the focus of the town from ancient times until now.
A substantial castle was built here to dominate and defend the river crossing, and around which a thriving community grew up. When you look at the castle and admire it, the typical Newarker’s response would be, “Aye, it’ll look nice when it’s finished!,” but it does contain the remains of King John, who died there in the early 13th century. At least, parts of him are there; his entrails were removed from his body and taken to be buried in Worcester Cathedral, following the theory that a man’s soul was contained in his innards rather than in his mind!
Then came Newark’s most celebrated chapter, when the town became the seat of King Charles I during the English Civil Wars. The town was besieged three times, with Charles’ surrender to the Scots army in nearby Southwell effectively marking the end of resistance to Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces. And that’s what I always tell anyone who’s interested—that it was really events in Newark that laid the basis for democracy as we know it today in Britain.
Since then, the town’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the centuries. The Napoleonic Wars saw the town expand hugely with a large number of people settling there due to the increased demands of local agriculture and the series of mills that had been constructed in town. About this period, the town grew out toward the nearby village of Balderton, the two becoming almost one place.
The 19th century gave rise to Newark’s most famous political son, William Gladstone, prime minister of Britain more times than I care to remember. Gladstone started as a Tory, but switched to the Whigs, apparently without causing much comment in Newark. In the town hall square there’s a blue plaque commemorating where he made his first acceptance speech to represent the town in Parliament. Whether you regard Gladstone as the “Grand Old Man” or the “Murderer of Gordon” probably doesn’t matter very much, but the museum contains a splendid variety of his ephemera.
Violent times begat a number of different things for Newark in the 20th century. She lost a record number of her sons during World War I, but it was really the events of 1939 to 1945 that created the area’s contemporary social and economic structure. Britain’s move toward total war in the mid-1930s is a remarkable story, with Newark showing its impact more clearly than most other places. To supply the growing Royal Air Force, a substantial ball-bearing production plant was built in the town that continues in business today. To house the workers and their families, a housing estate sprang up that was christened Hawtonville. At one time, this was the largest such housing estate in the Midlands, a model of its kind. With diminished demand for aircraft parts after the war, however, the estate became increasingly run-down.
Today Hawtonville is the single largest concentration of my constituents, and the neighborhood can only be described as “challenging.” The quality of housing there was initially very good, but incremental “improvements” have not always been of the highest quality. As a result, this sprawl of a couple of thousand dwellings is fine in parts, but many areas are less than lovely. What is so interesting about Hawtonville, though, is the social makeup of the place.
Just over 10 years ago, there was a celebrated criminal case where a man called Tony Martin was approached by two young men on his dilapidated farm in Norfolk, which had been subject to several burglaries in recent years. As the two youngsters entered Martin’s property, he opened fire with a shotgun, killing one and seriously wounding another. The case became something of a cause célèbre and encouraged me to introduce a Private Member’s Bill that gave greater protection to householders in such circumstances. Both these young men came from the Hawtonville and were habitual criminals.
I’m not suggesting that criminality is widespread in this housing estate, but in the 21st century, relatively prosperous, east-middle England, Hawtonville does still stand out as an area of remarkable diversity. Most of Newark’s drug crime is clustered here, for instance, but by the same token, so too are most of Newark’s churches and religious community. In short, it has the feel of an area that is at least 20 years behind the times, and one upon which a very great deal of social and local government resource is expended.
Adjacent to Hawtonville is Newark’s hospital. Like every other facility in this proud, old town, the hospital is built on the site of earlier versions and has been and continues to be a source of both pride and anxiety. As Britain’s population ages, so does Newark’s, and the demands on National Health Service properties such as our hospital have grown exponentially. The difficulty is, of course, that healthcare has become both more expensive and more technical, with British health authorities seeking to achieve economies of scale whenever they can. So towns of modest size, like Newark, find it increasingly difficult to justify complex hospitals. It makes more economic sense for district hospitals to become centers of excellence in larger population centers. The logic of this is inescapable, but it still means that smaller communities get fewer health resources and people have to travel to access the latest medicines and techniques.
While that may be logical, it’s unpalatable. Older people in the town resent having to travel for medical attention for which they have paid handsomely through taxes all their life. Recently Newark lost the facility to deal with heart attacks, not because of financial constraints as such, but because of increased capability and capacity in hospitals in Lincoln and Mansfield. And here’s the rub—Newark lies right at the eastern boundary of the county—outside the administrative bounds of Lincolnshire. This is difficult enough, but when the Byzantine organization of the NHS is grafted upon local factors, then difficulties multiply.
For instance, the local NHS is administered by two distinctly different healthcare trusts, the logic of which completely defeats me. The ambulance service (meant to whisk my constituents away from Newark into the centers of excellence mentioned above) is organised on a tri-county basis, whose headquarters is almost 40 miles away in the city of Derby! To an American reader, 40 miles may not sound like much, but to anyone who knows how difficult it is to move from east to west through the maze of minor roads in this part of Britain, 40 miles is an odyssey. The movement of patients is one thing, but the ability of loved ones to travel hither-and-yon across these road networks leaves the honest burghers of Newark exasperated.
I’ve mentioned the financial conditions in which both Britain and Newark find themselves at the moment, but the clearest demonstration of this is the state of our schools. Primary schooling (i.e., for children 5-11 years) has very capable schools throughout the constituency that are largely housed in adequate buildings. But our secondary schools are a major problem. All sorts of social factors mean that up to 40 percent of children coming into secondary school are categorised as “special needs.” In other words, they are reading at three years or more behind grade level.
So by the time these students get to secondary school, the staff has their work cut out. Unfortunately, the fabric of our three secondary schools has deteriorated so badly over the years that one needs to be bull-dozed and the other two need serious refurbishment. The problem here, though, is emotional as well as economic.
The last government made promises to rebuild and renovate all of the three schools. As the financial crisis deepened, though, it became obvious that putting this plan into practice was not possible. In the interim, however, the staff, parents and children had invested a huge amount of hope and faith in what their new schools might look like. And this, of course, took place when the schools were losing up to 1,000 student-hours per week, as the kids were sent home due to leaking roofs, broken boilers and a host of other physical problems. Sadly, the new Coalition Government scrapped the investment that had been promised to the schools and has made no other plans for what will happen. It was like a child promised a visit to the zoo that had to be cancelled who was told just that—the bald facts, with no lollipop and no vision of when another visit could be planned. The result was predictable anger.
These cuts necessitated by Britain’s economic quagmire have affected other areas as well. For instance, Newark has a proud tradition of administering justice to its own miscreants via our magistrates and local courts.When Justice Department cuts resulted in the axing of Newark Magistrates’ Court, I was deeply surprised because of the town’s relative isolation. Now those who have to appear in front of a court must travel almost two hours by public transport to Nottingham, witnesses and accused sometimes having to share the same busses. When someone is sent to prison, that individual is no longer incarcerated in Lincoln, but serves his or her time in Nottingham. That in itself is not the issue, but it does make visiting hellishly difficult for the prisoner’s family and dependents.
Despite the challenges of our times, the mixture of characters in this part of the country is unique. The average Newarker is a delightful combination of resilience, cheerfulness, common sense and enormous good manners. This actually makes canvassing during elections quite difficult, because very few people are willing to tell me that they won’t vote for me. I come back with canvass cards that show 90 percent favoring my party; sadly that isn’t reflected when people go to the polls!
Combined with this wonderful mixture of characteristics goes a very strong independence of mind and spirit. The romantic in me tells me it’s because we live on the edge of Sherwood Forest, with its strong, maverick traditions and a love for outlaws! What it does make for, though, is for a set of people who will largely stand on their own two feet.
That’s why, for instance, the Polish community has been so successful in this town. The headquarters of the Free Polish Air Force was established here during the Second World War. Newark contains the largest Polish military cemetery in the UK, and the Poles remain an honored and welcomed part of our community. For instance, the Mayor’s Mace Bearers are traditionally of Polish birth or Polish background. And we have had a mayor whose first language is Polish. On the back of this relationship, many Polish immigrants have settled in Newark, and, in stark contrast to many other parts of the country, there has been no real friction. This is a considerable source of pride to me.
We also play host to a large Traveler community. Again, if you look back over the history of the region, fords and road junctions tend to attract travelling people, and as far as there is any permanence in such a way of life, Newark is it. So, caravans and horse-drawn carts are still a frequent sight in this town.
There has been enormous change to the local economy. I would still describe Newark as largely agricultural, but the number of people who are actually employed upon the land is remarkably small. British Sugar produces a substantial proportion of the nation’s sugars and sweeteners from the many thousands of acres of sugar beet around. Such farms, while large, though, are not manpower-intensive. A large part of our local revenue springs from the land, but not many people are physically employed there.
Another source of pride is the local charity called the Newark Patriotic Fund. It exists to help the wounded from our wars as well as their families, of whom we have a depressingly large number. If we want to raise money, the volunteers have only to stand in the center of Newark and sell wristbands to achieve an overwhelmingly generous response. The most humbling thing I’ve noticed is that the more ordinary, the less privileged the appearance of anyone whom you ask to give money, the more you are likely to get!
On reflection, I would describe Newark as a little bit of old England with a remarkably successful twist of the 21st century. When you’re next in this part of Britain, please come visit us. You will see and meet some of the most resilient and entrepreneurial people in Britain. All of the traditions that saw the Civil War decided here continue and I, for one, am proud to call myself a Newarker.