photo: Emma O'Neill
Nottingham’s 450 manmade sandstone caves not only transform the town into an explorable 3D chasm, but - as I found out on a Walk Through the Underworld art tour - they also bleed myths and shadows of the unknown, unexplained and indefinable into the sounds, sights and stories of Nottingham’s streets. The tour, led by Sidelong’s LJ Klee and Jo Dacombe, not only transported me physically to dark, secret chambers, but also – through the use of storytelling, poetry readings, installation and performance art - transported my mind to places where fantasy and reality tease each other.
Preparation for this journey began a few days before the tour, when an email from Sidelong, which I thought was only outlining health and safety information, discreetly included advice such as, “There is a risk of undiscovered portals into other worlds” and “If you meddle with the unknown, please be ready to accept the consequences” - the blurring of reality and fantasy had begun. And it only become murkier when I arrived for my tour outside England’s oldest inn, Ye Olde Tripp to Jerusalem, and was given an ‘I Am a Troglodyte’ badge along with my head lamp. A ‘troglodyte’ Jo soon explained is a cave dweller who purposely separates themselves from society - my first clue that it’s hard to be in a cave without your mind also going underground.
Donning our badges, the nine members of my tour group were led past a healthy looking veggie patch at the bottom of Nottingham Castle into our first small, dark, cave. The only light came from a pile of pink, green and orange glow sticks and a glowing white fibre optic-like structure. It was strange to see the artificial colours bounce off the cave’s thick walls and this fusing of the artificial and natural was the perfect environment for LJ to reveal that this particular cave was once used as a laboratory for cosmic ray experiments. You can read the official 1973 paper relating to the tests; thankfully LJ was able to breakdown the academic jargon to explain that in 1973 the caves housed fluorescent tubes sandwiched between metal plates which were used in a system that detected Muons - particles generated by cosmic rays. I just had time to consider the very technical conversations that would have taken place in this cave, conversations that were absorbed by and still held in the caves walls - as all words and movements in caves are according to Jo - when we were taken to our next destination: a mammoth weave of honeycombed soft sandstone caves at the foot of Nottingham Castle.
Peering skyward to capture the extent of these cave walls from the outside, I almost missed the wooden box of shells and dry seaweed at the site. These physical relics of memory – skilfully planted at the site by Sidelong – not only reminded all of a time when the caves brushed against the River Leen, but also of the constant presence of the past in any space. At this stop we were also introduced to an amphibious beast that lived in the river and may still reside in the crevices of Castle Rock. While some think Kianpraty – a creature with a dog-like face, dark fur, horse like tail, flipper and walrus tusks - is a myth, LJ informs us that non-human fossils and bones have been found in the cave, the 1934 Sherriff of Nottingham described the creature in detail, and that there are rumours that people still try to summon the beast’s spirit in ritual ceremonies at the caves. I should add however, that all of this information is presented to the group on a very official looking local government sign – official until you looked close enough to see the local council logo was a forgery. I suppose it was up to me to choose if I believed in the beast or not, and considering the story was a lot more feasible than Robin Hood, I was convinced and definitely surveyed the caves in more detail as we walked towards our next destination.
To reach our next cave we had to walk through town. It was strange walking past crowds of shoppers after talking about Nottingham beasts, cosmic ray labs and the city's secret chambers. I wanted to shout, “you really don’t know this city!” to passers-by. We then entered the very posh Paul Smith store. I giggled as I walked past shoppers looking at the shiny collection of expensive trinkets; I knew a secret that these posh shoppers didn’t. One lady watched us all pile down a staircase in the store; and I have no doubt she was thinking we were heading to a secret sales rack, not a secret chamber that a newspaper once reported to be a Druid temple.
The cave beneath Paul Smith’s is twice the size of my house, with three separate circular rooms. I wandered through the caves, stumbling upon a herb garden with iridescent fluoro material leaves – a herb garden, according to LJ, as it would potentially evolve into without sunlight. At one point everyone in the tour was told to face a wall. With our backs to each other and in complete darkness, I didn’t feel alone, but rather comforted and cozy in the dark cave. It felt strangely homely and the only explanation for this was that this was not an empty chasm without life, but a chamber of memories held literally within the walls.
Within the darkness the words of Plato were read by Jo, accompanied by LJ shining a torch behind us all and turning our shapes into shadows. Jo read extracts of The Republic, relaying a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon about the Allegory of the Cave where the two muse over humans who have been in caves from childhood, a people whose whole life and memories of life are shadows. I start to wonder if this makes their life any less of a life than surface dwellers; some of whom live in the shadows of their own dreams and ambitions. Before ascending from the cave, the group are told to create poesy from a selection of herbs laid out on the rock. These herbs are believed to protect you from evil spirits, and we are told that we may need them for our next destination. I tie a sprig of mint and thyme together, the aroma intensified in the confined cave.
Our final destination was the Ye Old Salutation Inn. The pub was really busy when we walked in, and we did receive curious looks as the group headed for a small door and a sign saying ‘enter if you dare’ instead of to the bar. This cave was deep below the pub with a narrow staircase leading to a series of windy corridors. Perched in two damp corners of the cave were old, worn toys – left for a child ghost called Rosie - believed to be from the Victorian era - to play with. Despite the tales of child ghosts, this cave definitely felt more ‘visited’ and less mysterious than the previous cave which isn’t open to the public and not visited by frequent ghost tours. There was a curious box in the corner of one cave however, which contained strange trinkets, and the group trawled through its content: human nails, family photos and a hair brush set, trying to make sense of it. We are soon told the box of trinkets is a decoy, a way of sending evil spirits in the wrong direction by placing some of your belongings in a far off place, somewhere hard to find, somewhere mysterious and somewhere that tiptoes between the spiritual and physical world – somewhere like a cave.
When the tour was over, no one wanted to leave the cave. It was nice to be in a space so alien, despite the tales of ghosts and witchery. It was a space where you could detach yourself from surface-dwelling thoughts; free yourself from the structure of a day in a place where time doesn’t exist - a place which will now and forever hold my words and thoughts in its walls.