Brian Spencer goes below ground to find links with Nottingham’s subterranean past.
During pre-history the land on which Nottingham is built was part of a huge desert stretching as far as Mansfield. This desert was frequently washed by floodwaters that left the pebbles now featuring prominently where the weathered red sandstone is open to view. Known by geologists as Nottingham Castle sandstone, it is easy to work and from this it was soon exploited by digging caves used as houses, pubs and even factories; some even served as air-raid shelters during World War 2. Recent surveys have estimated that there are at least 418 caves beneath the city.
As early as 868AD people were living in caves cut haphazardly into the sandstone. What became Nottingham was known then as Tigguacobauc. This tongue twisting name seems to have been coined by Asser a Welsh monk, Alfred the Great’s chronicler. Apparently Tigguacobauc means ‘Place of Caves’, leading to the theory that from as early as Saxon times, or even previously, people were living in man-made caves deep beneath what became the City of Nottingham. If someone wanted a new home all they had to do was find a suitable sandstone outcrop and start digging. The result was a reasonably dry hole with a temperature hardly varying a degree or so above or below 14°C throughout the year. This latter feature was quickly exploited by publicans who could not only build public rooms for next to nothing, but more importantly the caves created an ideal place to store their ale.
Between Asser’s time and the Middle Ages, there were roughly 100 caves already in use, but from then on until the 1600s there appears to have been an expansion in cave dwelling. This was probably mainly due to the rapid expansion of Nottingham’s population, partly from the growth of industry leading up to the Industrial Revolution a couple of hundred years later.
Myths surrounding the caves tell of their use by druids, or even buried treasure; cock fights were allegedly held in secret places below the city streets and highwayman Dick Turpin is supposed to have hidden in one of them. Even the notorious Victorian murderer Charles Peace is reputed to have made his way up to Nottingham in order to hide in the maze of underground hideaways. What is certain though is that the cave beneath the old Town Hall was used as a jail for prisoners. Folk legend also claims erroneously that it is possible to walk underground from one end of the city to the other, something never proven despite the skilled efforts of cave explorers.
As recent as recorded history an area of marshland south of the city centre near the River Leen was filled with slum property criss-crossed by narrow winding lanes. One of them, Drury Hill, a street so narrow that it was possible for a pedestrian standing on one side of to shake hands with someone opposite. Narrow though it was, at one time Drury Hill was the main road from London. All this area of slum back-to-backs and tiny overcrowded workshops was levelled in 1968 and developed as the Broadmarsh shopping precinct.
When the Broadmarsh Centre was being built in the 1960s, the network of tunnels dating from the 13th century was almost lost for ever, but an outcry of public opinion made the developers think differently. As a result what is now known as the City of Caves has preserved a unique part of Nottingham’s history.
Entered curiously from the top level of the Broadmarsh shopping centre, a narrow winding passage and stairs lead down to another world far removed from the commerce and bright lights a matter of feet overhead. Although street access to the caves is now blocked, different sections of cave system were once separate parts of an interlocking underground society. The first section visited on a self-guided tour of the city caves is through an area that would have been the cellars for slum dwellers living cheek by jowl on an upper level. All their waste, was simply dropped into a deep cesspit, close to a communal well filled by rain water filtering down through the porous sandstone. Although the water was initially fresh and pure, little thought was given to the way the contents of the nearby cesspit found its way into the drinking water supply. As a result the potentially fatal diseases cholera and typhoid were common in the 19th century.
With a little imagination, it is easy to pick out rooms built to expand overcrowded housing and even complete houses carved from the rock, when the need arose. Pillars left by medieval tunnellers still support the weight of the Broadmarsh Centre high above, although some are helped by modern pre-stressed concrete pillars.
Moving on, the next feature, explorers come to an extensive tannery whose noisome smells must have been an everyday part of the troglodyte dwellers of nearby houses; at that time dog poo was used to tan the already stinking hides. Water for tanning came from wells dug deep through the sandstone, the same wells used for drinking water by families living close by or on the surface. Incidentally this part of the cave system is the relic of the only remaining underground tannery in Britain.
Beyond the tannery are caves used during WW2 as air raid shelters and have artefacts remaining from that time. Beyond a series of surprisingly quite graceful pillars are the remnants of Nottingham’s slums, the only tangible evidence of Drury Hill. Finally and before climbing back to the 21st century shopping experience, the passageway winds its way through what were once the cellars of the Eagle Tavern. This is where the publican Sam Hancock kept his beer. He even brewed it close by using water that would have been unfit for human consumption, but luckily for beer drinkers the very process of brewing kept the beer safe.
The only other accessible cave is the one known as Mortimer’s Hole beneath Nottingham castle and reputed to be where Roger Mortimer, lover of Queen Isabella was imprisoned in 1327. Together they plotted to seize the crown following the death of her husband King Edward II. As the tunnel appears to have been used as a sally-port, a hidden access to the castle, it is difficult to imagine how Mortimer could have been guarded. The street-level exit of Mortimer’s Hole is close to Brewhouse Yard and the Trip to Jerusalem pub. During the English Civil War, gun ports were cut in the rock, for cannons firing on troops below on the River Leen flood plain. Tours can be booked in the castle museum and lead downhill from the southern walkway.
There are still at least a couple of Nottingham pubs with rooms and cellars carved deep into the rock. The Salutation Inn on Castle Gate has a complex of cellars, brew house and even its own well (now unused!). Underground tours can be arranged by arrangement with the landlord. Nearby is the reputedly oldest pub in Britain, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem where crusader knights are supposed to have gathered before setting off for the Holy Land. Only the pub’s façade is made of brick and cut stone, it is simply built on to a series of cosy rooms and the still used brewery carved from the rock. Again tours can be arranged by request.