Most often the backdrop for the popular legend of Robin Hood, Nottingham is little remembered for its most defining physical feature: hundreds of sandstone caves. There are a recorded 544 man-made caves under the city: some used as modern venues, some recently discovered, and others that have been lost for centuries, still waiting to be unearthed.
‘A lot of people were unaware of the number and variety of caves we have,’ says Paul Johnson, research fellow at the University of Nottingham, ‘myself included, before we started.’ He leads the Nottingham Cave Survey (NCS), an archaeological project mapping the extent of the subterranean network. In just the last two years, the NCS has uncovered more than 100 caves that were previously unknown.
The area was once defined by its caves. The Saxon settlement that began here was named Tiggua Cobauc, or ‘place of caves’ by a visiting monk in 868. Since then, the caverns have had a constant presence in the city’s history. They were the foundation of Middle Age trade and infrastructure – used to brew beer, tan hides, create wells and hide cesspits. They were the extra space for the overcrowded Victorians. They were protection for city dwellers during the Second World War air raids and were even the proposed seat of local government during the Cold War, should things have turned nuclear.
The caves beneath Nottingham Castle are the first stop on this trail. Castle Rock, as it is known, is a 130-foot cliff face with two or three large holes bored through. It has the outer appearance of a giant wedge of Edam and its exposed face showcases the bedrock of Nottingham’s cave history: Sherwood Sandstone.
“If a man is poor he had only to go to Nottingham with a matlock, a shovel, a crow, an iron, a chisel or a mallet, and with such instruments he may play mole and work himself a hole or burrow for his family”
‘Sherwood sandstone is ideal for cave making,’ says Johnson, ‘as it is soft enough to cut and quarry easily by hand, but is stable enough not to collapse.’ Move a hand across the stone and the grains fall away with relative ease. So easily in fact, that in 1870 an observer said, ‘If a man is poor he had only to go to Nottingham with a matlock, a shovel, a crow, an iron, a chisel or a mallet, and with such instruments he may play mole and work himself a hole or burrow for his family.’
It was on top of this particular cliff that the imposing citadel of Nottingham Castle was built, with an almost panoramic command. The cliff turned out to be as much a trouble as it was a protection. Tunnels could be dug to come up within the ramparts – in 1330, when nobleman Roger de Mortimer usurped Edward II, he withdrew to Nottingham Castle and presumed safety. However, through a secret cave passage, an 18-year-old Edward III snuck into the castle and captured the nobleman in a scuffle. The hidden passage came to be known as ‘Mortimer’s Hole’, and for a long time, it was believed that these Castle Rock caves marked the entrance. In fact, the true Mortimer’s Hole was not uncovered until 2010 by the NCS – a tiny passage lying under the nearby Park Estate, partially blocked by rubble.
Rounding the corner finds a pub built into the cliff wall. Tea-coloured rain water dribbles off the sandstone and runs straight onto the roof. ‘Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem’ is dated 1189 and is rumoured to have hosted Richard the Lionheart’s men en route to the Crusades. It is also ‘the oldest inn in England’ – at least according to the engraving on the outside wall.
However, the same is said of two others in the area – ‘Ye Olde Salutation Inn’ and ‘The Bell Inn’. So what sparked the competition? Caves hold the answer. Beer brewing flourished early in Nottingham as the caves provided expansive cellars with cool, constant temperatures and plentiful aquifers of uncontaminated fresh water.
“We are finding that in the city, an absence of caves below a property is more remarkable than their presence”
The darkness of the caves was also useful, lending itself to the process of tanning hides to make leather. The vast pit of a medieval tannery can still be explored, although in an unlikely place. Walking east, the Broadmarsh Centre comes into view – a sprawling 1970s-era concrete shopping centre built over a warren of caves. At an unceremonious entrance between an escalator and a Wimpy, the ‘City of Caves’ tour takes you round the back of another shop unit, down a winding set of stairs, and into the maze of sandstone beneath.
Once inside, the tannery is an immense space. Hewn around a tall supporting pillar, its lofty ceiling is draped with replica sheets of drying leather, while circular depressions show where man-sized barrels once stood to soak hides. This space would once have reeked of urine and excrement – used to remove the hair follicles from animal hides – but today, thankfully, it has a cool, fusty air. It feels deep and faraway. The sound of thunder or passing trams are an indiscernible rumble, which occasionally dislodge the odd grain of sand from the ceiling. My thoughts turn briefly to the scenes of flash floods in the city above. ‘The water-table does not vary through the sandstone too much,’ says Johnson, allaying my fears. The pillar cave is thought to be the only example of an underground tannery and is joined by an adjacent buried Victorian street and a Second World War shelter.
3D scans of this area by the NCS reveal the winding complexity of the ‘City of Caves’, with caverns, passages, wells and tanneries furling one over the other. It’s hard not to believe they were conceived as one large interlocking network. ‘With so many caves beneath the city there’s no simple answer as to whether they were an isolated, or an extensive network of caves,’ admits Johnson. The models do, however, speak for the area’s variety of underground spaces. Some are single passages, like Mortimer’s Hole, others isolated pits, while clusters of them are more interdependent. They are almost impossible to describe without generalising.
Nonetheless, the sheer ubiquity of caves still surprises Johnson: ‘We are finding that in the city, an absence of caves below a property is more remarkable than their presence.’
This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.