Millennium Post

Inside Batman’s secret lair

The day our resident Batman fanatic had been waiting for dawned bright and breezy. My four year old son leaped out of bed because today was the day we were visiting Wollaton Hall in Nottingham, the new ‘Wayne Manor’ in The Dark Knight Rises.

Our mission was to discover why director Christopher Nolan chose Wollaton, a relatively obscure estate, and to see if it passed my son’s stringent Batworthiness test. So, off we set for our day at ‘Wayne Manor’, knowing that Batman would not be in residence and we would have the luxury of scrutinising his new home minutely. We were under its spell as soon our car began the ascent up the wide tree-lined avenue to the mansion’s imposing front. Wollaton was completed in 1588, yet it is remarkably different from much of the opulent architecture of the time. Elizabethan in its grandeur but Jacobean in its brooding demeanour, there is also an obvious Italian influence which comes from its master mason, brought from Italy, and it’s impressive Sistine Chapel-esque painted ceilings, the work of Baroque maestro Verrio. And if there’s something almost Eastern about its soaring minaret-like towers, it’s because it was conceived as a homage to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It is immediately obvious why Chris Nolan, weaver of dark dreams, wanted Wollaton for his Caped Crusader. The hall has that combination of fantastic, sinister and sophisticated that sets his Batman apart from its predecessors.

As any Batman buff worth his salt knows Wayne Manor burned down at the end of Batman Begins and Bruce Wayne vowed to rebuild it ‘brick by brick’. In The Dark Knight, he’s seen living in an oversized bachelor pad that is the farthest thing from his ancestral home. In the trilogy’s final film, Bruce Wayne builds his home anew, and the makers of DKR knew they couldn’t just resurrect the original Wayne Manor; they would have to find him a lair that was different but also similar enough to be a tribute to Batman’s childhood home.

And so it was farewell Mentmore Towers and hello Wollaton Hall!

Mentmore, the original ‘Wayne Manor’ has been many things, from glorified gallery for Baron Rothschild’s art collection, to a
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
[Guru to the Beatles] ashram, to a sought after location for Hollywood films including Eyes Wide Shut and Batman Begins. In fact, it has little in common with Wollaton other than its extravagant Jacobean facade. Where Mentmore is polished and prosperous, Batman’s new pad is a tad decrepit and forlorn, but that suits the gloom of a Chris Nolan production perfectly.

The house’s eventful history, steeped in tragedy and spectres, would have appealed to the film’s location hunters, as much as its look. Beneath the mansion is a network of subterranean cellars and passages in which paranormal ‘experts’ swear they have encountered restive spirits. We didn’t get to look around, but you can just imagine Batman sneaking in and out of them to fight crime! If that’s not enough, a centuries-old pipe organ in the main hall can be heard on wind-swept nights when there’s no-one left in the house.

Certainly, enough has happened under this roof for it to house a few ghosts. It’s been through a devastating fire, like Wayne Manor itself. It has also been a penitentiary for German prisoners during World War II. And the spirit of the cantankerous Lady Middleton has allegedly never left her erstwhile home.  Paralysed after a fall, she spent the rest of her life cooped up in the room she now haunts.

The thought of ghouls lurking in the manor excited our young Batman freak no end and we spent a few happy hours pursuing ephemeral phantoms through long gloomy corridors and up sweeping, squeaking staircases. But we weren’t convinced that anything sinister actually lived there till we came face to face with wall upon wall of mounted animal heads on the topmost floor. The leering grins and glazed eyes of the stuffed animals half-hidden in the shadows of Wollaton’s almost-forgotten natural history museum was creepier than any ghost could have been. Our little boy was satisfied though, that in this house, his hero had all the atmosphere he could need.

The day wasn’t complete without a peek into every nook and cranny immortalised by DKR. So we had a look around the kitchen where Catwoman, disguised as a maid, had attempted to crack the code to Bruce Wayne’s safe.  We strolled in the gardens behind the hall where Gotham City’s elite had partied while the reclusive owner watched from the suitably forbidding rooftop.

The cemetery scene with Michael Caine and Gary Oldman was also shot here, though the estate does not actually have its own graveyard. A sprinkling of CGI, a discreet set design team who kept the climax shrouded in secret and the wonderfully sinister aspect of the house made that final scene the unexpectedly shocking denouement it was. For good measure, Chris Nolan filmed it ringed by the fiercest of
guards to prevent leaks of the ending to the press or public.

Of course, if Hollywood’s finest turn up at your door, you must make the most of it. Wollaton has, quite naturally, capitalised on its new connection with some Bat-themed offerings, though not as many as you’d expect from a place of such significance to the Batman fraternity. There’s a snazzy new logo for the Hall, as close to the Bat Signal as legally permissible. There’s also a Bat Trail for kids, with bat motifs on the garden paths, which delighted my toddlers. And a store packed to the rafters with Caped Crusader merchandise

As we said our goodbyes to ‘Wayne Manor’ standing proud on its hill, we conjured up, one last time, the vision of Batman in his echoing Bat Cave directly underneath, testing some cool new gadget.

But Batman has left this building, possibly forever. Can Wollaton become a star in its own right?

Shreya Sen-Handley is a writer and illustrator. She now writes for The Guradian and other UK newspapers.
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