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The Comedy of Errors

The History of Canning Circus

17 December 18 words: Benedict Cooper
photos: Benedict Cooper

Six roads meet at Canning Circus, ferrying people up and down the hill, and out into the splintering streams of the city. This meeting of flows has deposited centuries of memories on the land around it, so we take a closer look at they’ve shaped the delta we see today...

From as early as the eighth century, multifarious lanes and pathways all led to the area once known as “sandhills”, which we now know today as Canning Circus.

In medieval times, traders and travellers arriving in the dark of night would rest up in the inns and houses clustered around the junction before making the final push into the city. In the morning, they’d wake to the sounds of the windmills creaking in the breeze, and the horse-drawn carts of commerce trundling over the earth.

When Queen Victoria was sitting on the throne, the area was still known as Zion Hill and, in that era of zeal and invention, took on a new role. Much of Nottingham’s booming manufacturing industry was established and remained there until late into the twentieth century, with the traffic-choked streets carrying the scent of tobacco from the factories down Alfreton Road.

The sandstone hill already had a dark side by then: as unconsecrated ground, murderers and people who had committed suicide were buried there. Those who now call the area home thanks to a wave of residential developments might be blithely unaware that they’re walking over the bones of centuries’ worth of people deemed unfit for burial in Christian graveyards.

People were wildly superstitious back then, and crossroads were favoured as burial grounds. It was believed that if a troubled soul with unfinished business wanted to come back and torment their acquaintances, they’d have a harder time finding them across all those junctions.

By the Victorian era, we were a bit more enlightened. In 1836, the year before Victoria took the throne, work was underway to develop the General Cemetery, which welcomed its first permanent resident in 1838. It was a wise move to start preparing the ground this way, considering the new surge of people coming into the city. In 1801, Nottingham was practically rural, with a population of just 28,801. In 1901 the population was 239,743, an increase of 732% in one century.

The city’s population exploded, but not for the benefit of most. People found themselves poverty-stricken and crammed into seething, stinking slums: the perfect incubators for contagious diseases. The water supply didn’t help. Nottinghamians used to drink straight from the Trent, with the unfiltered sewage of everyone who lived upstream infusing every gulp. And, bear in mind, the Trent goes through Derbyshire before it gets here. The alternatives weren’t much more salubrious: from one of the wells up on Zion Hill, the “drinking” water pumped out was found to contain 31.5 grains of solid effluent per gallon.

As the water cleared up and the century rolled on, the circus took on its modern shape and the features we see today: the listed building Canning Terrace, which acts as the gateway to the General Cemetery; the striking rounded redbrick building on the fork between Derby Road and Wollaton Street, one of the earliest Boots the Chemist stores; and the Sir John Borlase Warren pub, named after the Nottinghamshire naval hero and MP who became an admiral in the Napoleonic wars.

. It was believed that if a troubled soul with unfinished business wanted to come back and torment their acquaintances, they’d have a harder time finding them across all those junctions.

Canning Terrace was built as a series of almshouses for the poor, and was named after the nineteenth-century politician George Canning, who eventually became Prime Minister in 1827. As a reforming Tory, rare supporter of Catholic emancipation and opponent of slavery, he made quite an impression despite only holding the job for four months; Canning was the last British Prime Minister to die in office. In 1931, the whole area picked his name up.

While in one direction Radford, Lenton and Alfreton Road were darkening in soot and smoke, down another the Ropewalk – or Victoria Street, as it was known then – was heading for well-heeled grandeur. As the entrance to The Park Estate and the path to Nottingham Castle, The Ropewalk is striking for its local juxtaposition. Even today, Canning Circus might be the starkest and most physical border post in Nottingham’s rich-poor divide.

Some of the most arresting features of the area aren’t visible to a passer-through. Whether sitting in a historic pub like the Sir John or The Falcon, or a modern-day jewel like The Footman’s Rest, you could be totally unaware of the labyrinth beneath your feet.

All 500 or so cave structures in Nottingham are man-made, carved out by hands and picks for well over 1,000 years. They were largely used as functional storage rooms, kilns, refrigerators, tanneries and, occasionally, dungeons. But, as the caves underneath the Sir John Borlase Warren show, they were generally nothing more than cellars.

One of the magnificent exceptions is close to Canning Circus. Eccentric landowner Alderman Thomas Herbert commissioned a series of remarkable sculptures, carved from the sandstone of his newly acquired property. One of these is said to resemble an Egyptian temple, with a façade of pillars and carvings of gods, goddesses and druids.

Some pictures exist of the mysterious “Columns Cave” within the complex – the Nottingham Caves Survey has produced a dramatic virtual flythrough of it and many of the other subterranean warrens of the city – and there is the extraordinary “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” carving, based on the Old Testament tale.

All these mystery-sprinkled stories are there to be found by those who take the time to explore. So next time you’re about to zip through Canning Circus, over the graves of the tortured souls long-gone and the cave of columns below, bear in mind how paths have crossed for centuries past, on the city’s ancient hill.

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