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Street Tales: The Ropewalk

12 April 16 words: Joe Earp

"As well as decorating the walls of the tunnel with carvings, between 1856 and 1872 Herbert turned the caves into what became regarded as one of the wonders of Nottingham"

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illustration: Eva Brudenell

“Caves of wonder or inartistic and no great loss to the community?”

In 1856, Alderman Thomas Herbert, a wealthy and successful lace manufacturer, built himself a house in Nottingham’s fashionable Park Estate. The plot he chose was on a road at the top of a hill to the west of the castle. Originally 32 Victoria Street, the road was later renamed The Ropewalk.

For his gardens, Herbert purchased land overlooking The Park. However, this was on the slopes of the hill on the opposite side of the road, and in order to gain private access he had a tunnel constructed, removing large quantities of sand and soil. J Holland Walker, (1928) said; “...he found himself in the possession of several caves on the terraces overlooking The Park”.

As well as decorating the walls of the tunnel with carvings, between 1856 and 1872 Herbert turned the caves into what became regarded as one of the wonders of Nottingham. One cave was even turned into a conservatory with exotic plants. Walker said that it was filled with “...all sorts of weird beasties carved in the rock to look as if they were lurking amongst the plants”.

The cave adjoining the conservatory was made to resemble an ancient temple, with Walker describing it as Egyptian – rows of pillars and carvings of druids, sphinxes, gods and goddesses, and other strange creatures. Perhaps the most spectacular of the caves is the one that opens out onto the garden terrace. The cave mouth is not just a yawning opening, but a complete building facade including pilasters, windows and a door reminiscent of Petra in Jordan. Within the cave are lifesize carvings representing the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den.

Thomas Herbert was very pleased with his creations that showed off his wealth and tastes, and for many years he quite happily put them on public display. Daniel in the Lion’s Den became the most celebrated and talked about work of art in Nottingham, but how times and tastes change. By the time Walker published Links with Old Nottingham 56 years later, the caves and their carvings were no longer in vogue. Walker, in his introduction to the caves, says, “So inartistic are these carvings considered nowadays that it is no great loss to the community that they are not accessible to the public, but when they were carved in 1856 they were looked upon as the last word in artistic achievement.”

Unsurprisingly, over the last eighty or more years, opinions on Herbert’s caves and their carvings has changed once more and geologist Tony Waltham, in a report on conservation of the caves says, “Without doubt the finest single feature within the sandstone caves that underlie Nottingham is the group of statues depicting ‘Daniel in the Lions’ Den’…”

Time, human activity – including deliberate vandalism – and, primarily, the effects of the direct exposure to the elements has reduced the statues to a shadow of their former glory. Today, the statues lie behind airtight doors and shutters fitted to the original openings in 2005 by the East Midlands Geological Society.

For more on Nottingham history, check out the Nottingham Hidden History website.

Nottingham Hidden History on Wordpress

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