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The Comedy of Errors

Life on Alfreton Road

24 May 18 words: Benedict Cooper
photos: Jamie-Lee Grady

We don’t really do Alfreton Road any more. Not like Arthur Seaton did in Saturday Night Sunday Morning, bingeing in the bars where “the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill.” Not like the workers who ground away in the sweatshops of an earlier, even darker day and, dirty and spent, spilled out by the thousands into the cobbled streets when the big bell went.

Believe it or not – or ask your parents – Alfreton Road was once a highstreet to rival any in the city centre for verve and identity. Every high-street bank had a branch up there; it was a hip strip for clothes and record shops; it teemed with people of all class and status; it was a magnet for rock and blues fans and musicians from all over the country; and it boasted the “toughest pub crawl in Nottingham.”

Details of that past remain. The Sir John Borlase Warren isn’t going anywhere (this writer hopes), and the facade above the Rose & Crown pub hasn’t quite faded yet, even though the life has long left the old lounge downstairs. In the hinterland between Alfreton Road and Ilkeston Road, you can still tick off the street names of Alan Sillitoe’s iconic book, to which Nottingham owes so much. And while the students who inhabit the posh converted factories might not quite get the significance of Raleigh Street, anyone who claims to know their Nottingham history bloody well should.

Lament the loss of an era if you like. Plenty do. The day the last factory fell silent was a dark one for Nottingham. After the workers left, one by one the banks, shops and pubs began to close; lights and signs flickered out for good, taps went dry, and the “piled-up passions” that fuelled a wild age in Nottingham’s working-class history calmed and drifted away forever.

But there is life on Alfreton Road.

It might have lost its ready stream of workday patrons, but through the seventies, eighties and nineties, Alfreton Road kept its reputation as a wicked night out. The Running Horse was known around the country for its exclusive rock and blues gigs; rumours persist that The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix once played there. “That’s a load of rubbish,” says Rob Gibson who now owns the pub; “The Runner” as it’s known to those in the know. But the pub did pull in some serious names if you know your music: John Otway, and Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, to name two.

“There used to be a pub on every corner,” says Rob. “The street got a reputation as the heaviest bar crawl in the Nottingham. It was what you did, you hit the pubs on Alfreton Road on your way into town.”

“IF YOU BLOODY MADE IT INTO TOWN!” one of the regulars shouts along the bar.

The Running Horse shut ten years ago. So did The Falcon across the road, on the ridge of Canning Circus. The Organ Grinder hadn’t opened yet and the building was derelict, despite having once been the home of a star of Alfreton Road’s night scene, The Red Lion. They’re all open again, and there’s a new kid on the block: city-centre-style craft bar The Overdraught, in the building on the corner at the Canning Circus end. You know, the one that used to be a fancy dress shop.

But it’s not just the pubs that make Alfreton Road such a mad mix of life. As the days of factories and furnaces waned, a new period was beginning. The fabric of Nottingham has become dramatically more diverse and exciting because of immigration from all over the world; Alfreton Road is a rich sample of that new wave of life.

Now, it’s teeming with character and characters: Rose the tailor who stitches and sews and cuts tirelessly in her little red-fronted shop down towards Forest Road; the colourful tattooist who tinkles away at his keyboard in the window of the shop in between clients; the Kurdish and Turkish barbers up and down the street; the African, West Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern restaurant owners; Music Inn, one of Nottingham’s best guitar shops; the king of Nottingham urban radio, Kemet FM; and Nottingham HiFi Centre, which has been selling audio gear up here since 1968.

If your main interaction with Alfreton Road is making a taxi driver wait outside Kaya while you pick up party supplies after a night guzzling pints in the city centre, then you might’ve missed the fact that there’s a fantastic Korean takeaway, Caribbean food shops, an Anatolian social club, an Afghan and Persian rug shop, a family portrait snapper, a Jamaican takeaway, and good old Reno’s Italian (and Eritrean, now).

It’s a scrappy mix, there’s no doubt about it. As well as all these quirky high points, there are the bookies, and the iffy mobile phone shops. Plus, a fair cross section of the Nottingham underground seem to pass through at night. Speaking as someone who lives just round the corner, it can sometimes feel like a strange, uninviting strip where people come to get all their bad behaviour out the way in one go.

But somehow, it works. Alfreton Road is a seam between the imposing streets and alleys of Radford, that middle-class playground of tutu-wearing, pre-drinking students in the Arboretum, Forest Road, with all its woes, and well-heeled Canning Circus, where the Park Estate joins Derby Road.

Love or hate the new wave of modern student housing developments, it is bringing new life to this part of town. Over the winter just gone, where late night spot Junktion 7 used to be, the steel skeleton of a new student housing building gradually took shape like the hull of the Titanic. It’ll be joined by another when they finally knock down that scrotty old building on the corner of Highurst Street, and yet another a few doors down from the Runner.

Alfreton Road used to be a self-contained district in its own right; an outlier of the city centre. It’s starting to feel like that again. Between the Sir John, The Falcon, The Running Horse, The Organ Grinder, The Footman’s Rest and now The Overdraught, it’s turning into a great night out in itself. Especially because two of the Turkish restaurants down the road have had serious refurbs that make them as good, if not better than, any restaurant in town. And if some indie clothes or record shops moved back up the street, it could suddenly be quite the hip little neighbourhood .

Alfreton Road is a feisty one-off, but it wouldn’t be Nottingham if it didn’t have a bit of a hardness to it. It can feel a little neglected up there on the hill, though, with only locals dropping by; even the students tend to give it a miss and head straight for town.

Next time you’re thinking of having a beer or a meal in the same old place, why not have a wheeze up Derby Road instead? Mingle through the ghosts of the workers that streamed the streets, released from the monotonous graft of a day in the factory; and in the fictional footsteps of Arthur Seaton, the lad, the rebel out for a good time, who mused on life in this rag-bag on the top of the hill, now waiting to be discovered again.

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