The castle is located in a commanding position on a natural promontory known as Castle Rock, with cliffs 130 feet high to the south and west. In the Middle Ages, it was a major fortress and an occasional royal residence. In decline by the 16th century it was largely demolished in 1649, but enough fragments remain to give an impression of the original layout of the site. A ducal mansion later occupied the site until it was burnt out by rioters in 1831, and later adapted into a museum and art gallery which remain in use today. The earliest documented castle on the site was of the Norman motte and bailey type and constructed in 1067, the year after the Battle of Hastings, on the orders of William the Conqueror. During the reign of Henry II, this was replaced by a much more defensible stone castle which was both imposing and of strong architectural design. For centuries the castle served as one of the most important in England for both royalty and nobles alike. It was in a strategic position due to its location near a crossing of the River Trent and was also a place of leisure as it was close to the royal hunting grounds at Tideswell and the royal forests of Barnsdale and Sherwood. Whilst Richard the Lionheart was away at the Third Crusade, the castle was left derelict and occupied by the Sheriff of Nottingham. The castle is the scene of the dramatic showdown between the Sheriff and legendary outlaw Robin Hood in many tales. In 1194, a historic battle took place here when the supporters of Prince John captured it. A decisive siege took place when Richard I returned to reclaim it with siege machines that he had used at Jerusalem. Shortly before his 18th birthday, Edward III staged a coup d'état against his mother Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, following their murder of his father Edward II. The king was aided by William Montagu, castellan of Mortimer's castle, who allowed them entry through a secret passage, allowing Mortimer to be arrested and his guards killed, whilst Isabella screamed in protest. This event has led more than an historical impression on the castle, as the sound of a woman screaming has been heard in the caves beneath the building and in Brewhouse Yard nearby. The screaming is believed to take the form of words in a foreign language, possibly Isabella's native tongue of French, crying out for her son to 'have pity on gentle Mortimer'. Anguished pacing has also been heard in the cell in which Mortimer was imprisoned before his execution in 1330, leading some to speculate that he may not be content in his death. A phantom child has also been reported on the site and the gallery within the castle is allegedly haunted by the Countess of Nottingham, who is said to only appear to those who will die within a year.
It was into this background of history and intrigue that we staged a siege of our own, on a rainy Saturday afternoon. What followed was the consumption of much beer a long with a healthy dose of fun, hilarity, impromptu renditions of Toto songs, and a rubber duck called Bethany. Having wisely purchased our tickets in advance, we made our way inside, an act that led to the first bone of contention for the day. The 2013 commemorative glasses had run by the time of our arrival, meaning that some of us, including myself, ended up with older additions. Mine was from 2010! This slight low point was rectified by the fact that I was given extra vouchers upon presentation of my CAMRA card and the promise that we could swap the glass for a new one on the way out. Following the winding path through the castle grounds, and past a myriad of food and craft tents, led us to the main beer tent which, in a nutshell, is what I hope heaven is like. The tent was enormous with racks and racks and racks of beer as far as the eye could see, along with more food tents and temporary bars for the likes of Navigation, Nutbrook and Blue Monkey respectively. I was genuinely a bit overwhelmed and wasn't entirely sure where to start my adventure. After a few minutes to let my sense acclimatise I let my head for names do the talking and found a beer that I decided would be the day's first tipple, namely On The Beer City (4.4%), from Norwich's Winter's Brewery. I've found out since that the beer is dedicated to Norwich City, but in no way detracts from the quality, as the beer was light and golden with fresh aromatic hops. I decided to opt for halves throughout the day, largely because it's more than a third and also because the number of vouchers I had was easily divisible by 3 (the price of a half). It also meant I could 'savour the flavours' of each selection by consuming more of it. Who said there was no logic in beer tasting?
Following this, the quest was on for something darker. Both Jade's dad and brother are fans of dark beer. Matt is as well to some extent and I've been getting into it more recently myself. After a moment of inquisitive searching, and a brief pause caused by a rather attractive member of the serving staff, we'd located a good place to start. The option this time was Night Watchman from Welbeck Abbey and it proved to be a good one. This is a slightly smoked porter with strong aromas and flavour and a strength cranked up to 5% that made sure it went down easily. Doug liked it so much that he had another one. The festival magic was well and truly on us by now and we were eager to move along the rows of beers in search of other tasty treats. Whilst the Morris dancers started up behind us and Jade wandered off in search of real cider to wet her whistle, we relocated to another position further into the tent, in site of the novelty T-shirt stall, which I had to resist the urge to visit. I opted for something different for my next beverage when I was swayed by Shiny Brewery's Haysi Fantayzee, a 5% cloudy wheat beer which dripped with fruity flavours and a tang of citrus zest and went down a treat.
It was around this point that we invented a fun game to delight ourselves and brighten the lives of those around us. It basically involved mercilessly jabbing the person in our party who ended up in the centre of the rough circle that we habitually arranged ourselves into, whilst simultaneously shouting the word 'Middle!'. It sounds rubbish but was in fact genius. I decided that it was time to ramp up the percentage a tad more and my next 2 choices reflected that. The first was Dark Ruby from the Sedgeley-based Sarah Hughes brewery. This was exactly what it sounds like, being a classic dark mild with a strength of 6%, that packed a surprising punch. Other members of the group had a go with this as well and we all agreed that it was excellent. I was equally proud of my next choice, largely because I managed to sway people into choosing it for the description alone. From the Howard Town brewery, Dark Peak is a strong, dark ale with hints of liquorice and a rum kick, all at a noticeable 6%. This went down a storm with pretty much everyone, especially Jade's stepbrother Marc, who is a bit of a rum fiend. I was well on my way to tipsy at this point so I decided to opt for something slightly weaker before the inevitable break for food. This time it was a 5% beauty from the Gyle 59 brewery in Devon. EXB No.1 is a strong ale brimming with bags of hop and malt flavour. Following this, food was calling, so we made our decision to wander out into the grounds for some much-needed sustenance, although we did make sure to stock up on vouchers on the way.
We couldn't have chosen a worse time to go for food. Our decision to fill our bellies coincided with the heavens fully opening and down came the rain. Bucket loads of it. This was a small inconvenience but didn't dampen our spirits, especially when we saw the range of unusual meats available in burger form, springbok, zebra and ostrich included. Whilst Jade plumped for the springbok, I tried something I knew less about, in the form of kangaroo. Very tasty it was too, juicy and soft and very firm to the taste, especially with the welcome addition of salsa and salad. Two things happened after this. Firstly, we lost both Doug and Matt on the way to the toilets, and secondly we found ourselves in the smaller and proportionally busier beer tent, whilst we waited for the rain to ease and the party to regroup. There was still time for a beer in this kind of situation though and, on Jade's insistence, I went for an interesting sounding brew from the Double Top brewery. At 5.2%, Madhouse was another dark one, in this case a modern style porter with coffee notes. It certainly helped to combat the wetness from the October downpour happening around us.
With the party finally gathered in the same place, we retraced our steps to the main tent again and found a spot in the middle where the concentration of people was significantly less and then, right on cue, the singing started. Our attempt at doing our best versions of both Africa and Hold The Line (complete with fuzzy guitar) were interrupted by repeated games of 'Middle!' and the need for both toilet breaks and more beer. The other plus was that the people around us seemed to be enjoying it though. The next beer on my list was another 6%er, this time Hook Island Red from Five Points brewery in Hackney. This was a red rye ale with tons of flavour packed into its intimidating appearance. By the time I returned to the group, an attempt to get the whole room to sing Bohemian Rhapsody was in its infancy and didn't really show signs of developing further. It definitely wasn't from lack of effort on our part! I needed to slow things down again by now so I went for something with a less threatening percentage, namely the 5.1% Ragnors Beer'd from Kinver Brewery in Staffordshire. This was copper coloured and well hopped and tipped me dangerously close to being off my trolley. I managed to persevere though and carried on for a while longer. Next up I was drawn to Tunnel Mouth (4.8%), a dark winter ale with hints of chocolate, coffee and liquorice, straight out of Barnsley's Geeves Brewery and perfect for winter nights as the year draws in.
The evening was drawing on now and our group started to disband, almost in time with the water that started to seep in through less secure parts of the marquee. I decided that I should use my last 3 vouchers on a beer that I felt was aptly named, given the circumstances. At 5%, I went for Reckless Danger from Fool Hardy. This is an amber ale with a hoppy finish and a moderate fruity aftertaste. Upon returning from the bar, Jade showed me a rubber duck that she had somehow pilfered from the Dancing Duck area of the tent. The events surrounding this avian abduction are lost on me, although the duck did have 'Bethany' written on the bottom, a name which it was quickly christened with. And with that, and the consumption of the last dregs of beer, the game was up. We said our goodbyes and made our wobbly out, making sure to exchange our vintage glasses for brand new, though not necessarily clean, 2013 ones on the way. The day had been wonderful and more than fulfilled my expectations. It's easy to see why this particular beer festival is getting more and more popular and why more and more beers are being introduced for it. It's because of the strength of the values that it embodies, the togetherness of beer drinkers and the collective yearning for discovery for the perfect beverage. It was certainly something that I reminisced about on the bus trip back to Long Eaton and will remember for a long time. If next year is anywhere near as good, it'll be beyond incredible. The Nottingham Robin Hood Beer Festival has signed off for another year but it has certainly left an indelible mark and some unforgettable memories. Roll on 2014!