We tried to find some quiet places to read a book in Nottingham - and realised there aren't many

Nottingham Arboretum has been voted one of the quietest places in the city Nottingham Arboretum has been voted one of the quietest places in the city
Nottingham Arboretum has been voted one of the quietest places in the city | David Hallam-Jones

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We sent our resident 'grumpy geezer' Ben out in pursuit of the sound of silence (it was not a success)

Maybe it’s an age thing. I am over 40 now, and the grumpiness is growing right on cue. Or maybe it’s the age. 

This age of anxiety. Of relentless stimulation; the constant self-inflicted shelling of the senses that begins with the first bleary-eyed glare at the phone screen before the bedside lamp goes on, and only subsides when we finally put the bloody thing down for bed, dozens, maybe hundreds of frenetic, involuntary checks later.

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X, TikTok, breaking news; scrolling and scrolling through the meaningless views. We all do it. And we all say we want to cut down the screen time; cut down on the sounds and the pics and the likes and the videos and the apps, and give our strained brains some rest. 

And then five minutes later, almost unconsciously, and certainly addicted, you find yourself reaching for that smooth, flat pill-shaped box in your pocket and taking another dose.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I used to read a lot more than I do. And by that, I mean a quaint, atavistic practice involving paper and ink: reading a book. I used to sit and read in cafés for many happy hours, never once taking my phone from my pocket. 

Maybe these are just handy excuses for my laziness, but I swear my concentration span is getting worse. Have my powers of focus been shot to hell by Instagram and YouTube? Or is it the constant noise and stimuli of simply existing in a world riddled by screens: at work, on the bus, in the pub, and all over the house?

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When we’re not doing it to ourselves - sabotaging our peaceful moments at home - we’re out in the world being harassed by the jarring sensory siege of being around other people.

The stunning spiral staircase adds to the library's character The stunning spiral staircase adds to the library's character
The stunning spiral staircase adds to the library's character | Nottingham World

The speaker blasting music on the otherwise silent bus. The shuddering, spine-rattling explosions from the meathead wagon with the exhaust souped up to sound like a clattered-out Kalashnikov. Every shop, every bar, every café, and - thanks to the ubiquity of Bluetooth speakers - every city square, street, and park now seems to have its own drone.

But is that really true? Are there not a few remaining refuges out there where you can enjoy being in public, and being in peace? 

I decided to find out. By going for a walk around Nottingham's city centre, to scout out the coffee shops, parks and daytime pubs in search of silence. Here’s what I found out.

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Our pursuit for the sound of silence

(There’s one place I know of before I set out that is truly tranquil and music-free. The idyllic Bromley House library, with its mini maze of soft carpeted floors, centuries-old dark wood bookcases, and magnificent spiralling wrought metal staircase. But that’s a members-only place, not accessible to most.)

I start by walking through the Arboretum, considered the city centre’s most tranquil escape, reputed inspiration for J M Barrie’s Neverland. 

Nottingham's Arboretum is said to have been the inspiration for J.M. Barrie's Neverland Nottingham's Arboretum is said to have been the inspiration for J.M. Barrie's Neverland
Nottingham's Arboretum is said to have been the inspiration for J.M. Barrie's Neverland | Liyuan Liu

On this chilly early, rainy, pre-spring day the only sounds were of birds chirping, a toddler tittering at the site of two squirrels scurrying round a tree trunk, and the occasional tram sliding past on Waverley Street.  But – and here I really do sound like a grumpy old git – when the weather’s nice you’ll be lucky to find a spot that’s not within earshot of a speaker. 

Nevertheless, it is a wonderful green oasis that can provide the most idyllic quiet, beset though it is by the city on all sides.

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I take a rambling, unscientific route through the city, stepping inside various places and doing a quick sound check. And actually, the second place I pop into – student café Goldsmiths - is blissfully music-less. (I didn’t hold out much hope for the first place, Costa at Premier Inn – all of the big coffee chains have music banging away all day long.)

So far so good. But then, a series of blanks...

The Playwright on Shakespeare Street could be a relatively tranquil spot - it’s cosy and woody and the daytime music is usually low and nicely background. But even they’ve decided to feed the hunger for multi-sensory stimulation. In the last year, they’ve installed TVs on the walls, usually playing sports.

You wouldn’t expect the studenty sporty pub the Horn in Hand to be quiet, of course, but I did think Yarn, in the Theatre Royal, might be more of a mellow, ascetic sort of place – not at all, the music in there was up to bar level volume.

Maybe my memory is playing tricks, but I’m sure that coffee shop 200 Degrees - which now has branches all over Nottingham and many more beyond – used to be a no-music venue. It certainly isn’t now, sadly – not in their Milton Street branch or the original Old Market Square site.

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The search for silence goes on. With no success in another one, I had high hopes for - cosy little café Fox on Pelham Street. 

Jamie Barnes, BOX Nottingham’s general manager, said: “We’re really excited to be introducing BOX to  Nottingham and we can't wait to welcome guests to the bar this weekend so that they can see what it’s all about.”

New and exclusive menu items for Nottingham include the ‘Notts Totts’, a twist on loaded tater tots with pulled beef brisket, tender leeks and Stilton cheese and ‘The Stilton Burger’ with smoked pancetta, as well as gourmet burgers, premium kebabs and protein salads.Jamie Barnes, BOX Nottingham’s general manager, said: “We’re really excited to be introducing BOX to  Nottingham and we can't wait to welcome guests to the bar this weekend so that they can see what it’s all about.”

New and exclusive menu items for Nottingham include the ‘Notts Totts’, a twist on loaded tater tots with pulled beef brisket, tender leeks and Stilton cheese and ‘The Stilton Burger’ with smoked pancetta, as well as gourmet burgers, premium kebabs and protein salads.
Jamie Barnes, BOX Nottingham’s general manager, said: “We’re really excited to be introducing BOX to Nottingham and we can't wait to welcome guests to the bar this weekend so that they can see what it’s all about.” New and exclusive menu items for Nottingham include the ‘Notts Totts’, a twist on loaded tater tots with pulled beef brisket, tender leeks and Stilton cheese and ‘The Stilton Burger’ with smoked pancetta, as well as gourmet burgers, premium kebabs and protein salads. | Submit

Again, the last place you’d expect silence or sanctuary is sports bar Box, but for an extraordinary example of the exact opposite of what I’m searching for you really should check out the modern, multisensory, multiscreen neon orgy that awaits inside.

You don’t always have to go inside a venue of course. Sometimes they impose it on you in the street, as an enticement to go in. 

That’s clearly the plan at tattoo studio Bodycraft, which is tucked down an alleyway at the top of Pelham Street, and so has resorted to blasting music out of a speaker hooked up to the street-facing wall. As I walk past it’s playing Bump Bump Bump by B2K and P. Diddy.

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I wondered whether the café at Broadway cinema might be the sort of place where you don’t get music – I don’t know why but I have visions of Wes Anderson-votary, beret-topped film students reading Camus in there, which might call for silence. But no, they play music as well, albeit, when I popped in, very mellow and inobtrusive. 

In fact, every single café and pub I went into bar Goldsmiths was playing music, at midday on a Thursday.

I even sought out Castle Rock pub the Kean’s Head, because, again, I think of that as a no-music venue. I was wrong, and now they have digital menus on big wall-mounted screens. But I could have sworn that used to be one of the rare music-less sanctuaries in town.

By this time I’d given up on pubs and cafes. (Although I’m happy for readers to correct me by pointing out their favourite, quiet places). But I had one more idea left, and surely a safe bet: the Barker Gate Rest Garden of all places. 

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Barker Gate Rest Garden, Hockley, NottinghamBarker Gate Rest Garden, Hockley, Nottingham
Barker Gate Rest Garden, Hockley, Nottingham | David Hallam-Jones

Nope. That was one of the loudest places in town on this particular day – thanks to some building works involving drills and circular saws meeting violently with the pavement on Woolpack Lane, 

Sensibly the builders all had heavy duty ear protectors on – maybe that’s the answer.

So that was that. Of course, there aren’t always building works going on right next to the rest garden. So that’s an option. But if you want to sit down in a café with a nice book, and only the mellow background hum of people to be heard, clearly, sadly, we’re in a world of diminishing options.

Silent Book Club

But there’s a lovely note to end on. And a reassurance for me – clearly I’m not the only one who this is getting to. Because the lovely people at Divine Coffee House on Haydn Road in Sherwood have come up with a beautiful antidote to all of this noise – the ‘Silent Book Club’, where readers can be guaranteed an “hour of calm book joy”. 

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The next one’s in April. And if I don’t find any quiet cafés between now and then I might just have to go. 

At least that’s one hour of guaranteed quiet. Lasting the full hour without reaching for the digital pill in my pocket: that’s up to me.

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