Exploring underground Nottingham


We caught up with Dr David Strange-Walker from the Nottingham Cave Survey, to delve into Nottingham’s hidden world beneath the city streets.

Tell me again, just how many caves are beneath Nottingham?

To date we know of 543 caves, of which about 400 are probably still there. There are probably another hundred or so that we don’t know about yet!

How did Nottingham come to have so many caves?

It’s because of the geology and the topography. Nottingham is built on sandstone which is very soft, making it easy to excavate, but also surprisingly strong, which means our caves don’t collapse. The city is built on cliffs which flank the floodplain of the River Trent, and from the earliest times cave dwellings were cut back into the cliff-face to make houses. Later, in the medieval period and after, people cut caves below their properties to use as cellars. This was an easy way to increase space in your property, and became more important as the population of the town expanded during the industrial revolution, while the physical size of the town remained the same as it was in the medieval. City of Caves woman walking credit VisitEngland

Over that time people used caves for a huge variety of purposes – houses, dungeons, tunnels, tanneries, malt kilns, pottery kilns, chapels, cemeteries, sand mines, pub cellars, restaurants, butcheries, hermitages, tourist attractions, cold storage, fireproof storage, wine cellars, follies, lounge caves and even cannabis factories.

What is the Nottingham Cave Survey aiming to do?

Our ‘mission statement’, if you’ll excuse the phrase, is to investigate, record, archive, visualise and promote Nottingham’s man-made sandstone caves. So we’re trying to find ‘new’, unknown, caves; we’re visiting and recording many of the known caves with our 3D laser scanner; we’re creating a full GIS database of all knowledge and documentation about the caves; we’re producing management strategy and documents for the City’s heritage professionals and planners; and we’re opening up virtual access to the caves through our website and forthcoming Nottingham Caves smartphone app. In summary we’re trying to ensure that the caves will be preserved and protected into the future by showing and telling how interesting and unusual they are. http://nottinghamcavessurvey.org.uk/

_CPA9379Do you have a favourite cave?

I have two, quite different. The first is a stand-out medieval gem – Cave BK2, below Birkins’ lace warehouse on Broadway (now Propaganda nightclub). This was a medieval malting complex for turning barley into malt for brewing, and has a well, cistern, germination floor and kiln. It has carved crosses on its walls – a good indicator of a medieval cave. The exciting thing is that this is a completely intact medieval industrial complex – without a lot of work you could put this back into use as a malting. Intact medieval industrial facilities basically don’t exist in Britain – there are a few medieval mills and the like around the country, like the one at Fountains Abbey, but they have generally been altered significantly. This is a bit of a time capsule, and an outstanding survival.

The second is a small 19th-century cellar cave beneath a house on Newcastle Terrace in the Park estate. Many of the large houses in and around the Park were designed and built by the Victorian architect TC Hine. His earlier houses of the 1840s often have small storage caves beneath them. This particular house, built I think in 1864, has a long cellar cavebeneath it split into two chambers. On the right is a really nicely-tooled wine cellar, with bins and shelves, partitions and alcoves. On the left the chamber is much more roughly hewn, with a bench seat carved on one side, three rustic alcoves on the other, and a smoke vent cut into the ceiling. I suspect that this is a room for entertaining – post-dinner smokes by candlelight in an unusual, atmospheric setting. What is clear, however, is that this is a designed cave: rather than the rather simple underground chambers of the earlier houses, Hine has designed this one as something of which to be proud. I would like to think that there might even be architect’s drawings of it, stashed away somewhere. It’s a little piece of social history.

Best cave attraction to visit in Nottinghamshire? 

YeOldeTripwebCan I have three? They’re all a bit obvious, but they’re all good. The Trip to Jerusalem is a clear first stop on the tourist trail. Local beer in a medieval cave – what’s not to like?

Secondly the City of Caves in the Broadmarsh Centre. This must be one of the country’s most surprising tourist attractions, with one of the most unprepossessing entrances! What’s wonderful about the Broadmarsh caves is the stratigraphic slice through Nottingham’s history, from the 1960s concrete coffered ceiling through Victorian and Georgian cellars down to medieval caves. And it’s all real down there: the tannery is a genuine medieval tannery, the cellars with their fireplaces and steps are genuinely the relics of Victorian and older houses._CPA9463

Thirdly, the Mortimer’s Hole tour at Nottingham Castle. Another real medieval cave, which played a significant part in English history. Or did it? The events definitely happened, and one of the caves beneath the Castle was definitely involved, but there are lots of arguments about whether Mortimer’s Hole is the real Mortimer’s Hole. But that’s a story for another day!

Do you have a favourite cave in Nottingham? If so, let us know in the comments below!

Posted on 17 June 2013
Featured author: Erin

Australian now calling Nottingham home. Piano playing, cake making, bicycle riding lady who loves travel.

Comments (2)

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  • My favourite has to be the cave I went to as a shelter in World War 2. We lived on Thorncliffe Rise and every evening during the time of the sirens we went to a cave in a private garden in St. Andrew’s Road. Although I was probably only 5 I do remember a great camaraderie and singing to keep cheerful. Many many years later I visited a cave below the castle and it took me back to the 1940s. The smell of the sandstone was so redolent of the days when, clad in my “siren suit” , I trudged up Thorncliffe Road to the safety of one of Nottingham’s famous underground caverns.

    Posted by Pamela Haddon
  • The Skipton Building Society 19 Angel row on the corner of st James street has under it a very large wine cellar. It goes down three levels to the main chamber via carved steps the huge wine barrels arrived through a drop in street to be placed the two rails sat the sandstone floor. The mixture sandstone carved and brick built bins stretched. Underground up st James st which used come out up spiral iron staircase into what was a carpet shop in the 1970s. I was able to save a Wedgewood numbered wine bin number

    Posted by Peter Pearson

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