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The Secrets of Nottingham's Undiscovered Caves

10 October 18 words: Joseph Earp and Scott Lomax
illustrations: Eva Brudenell

You all know this already, but, spanning the length and breadth of the underground of our city are a system of caves said to be at least a few years older than your nan. Better yet, there’s still some that are supposedly undiscovered; who knows what other mysteries lie beneath your toes? Fortunately, we’re about to shine a light onto the deep, dark tunnels that populate the hidden depths of the citeh...

Broadway, aka Propaganda Nightclub caves

Ayup. I’m Joe Earp, the old LeftLion Street Tales columnist and member of the Nottingham Hidden History Team. I’ve named this article Realm of Darkness after the late Paul Nix; a man of many talents and interests, and a founding member of the original Nottingham Hidden History Team. One of Paul’s life passions was the exploration of what he called his “realm of darkness”: the caves which supposedly gave Nottingham the name “Tigguocabauc” or “House of Caves”.

One of Paul's favourite sayings and a warning to visitors of the city was: “Don't stamp your feet too hard, as you never quite know where you’ll end up.” This was his little joke, but in reality Nottingham is built above a labyrinth of caves, all of which are artificial. Outside of Turkey, Nottingham is the largest urban conurbation in the world built over a network of entirely man-made caves.

A recent survey found that there are over 500 prime rock-cut caves and cellars within the city limits. The area bound by Parliament Street, Maid Marian Way, Canal Street, Bellar Gate and Cranbrook Street has the highest concentration of separate caves not linked by tunnels or passageways in the city, with an estimated 400 alone. It’s possible that a further 75 have been lost or destroyed, and it’s thought that at least another fifty are waiting to be found.

Nottingham is uniquely built upon a high ridge of sandstone. Geologically speaking, the ridge is made up of 230-million-year-old rocks of the “old red sandstone” group. Once called “Bunter Sandstone”, the local formation is now referred to as Nottingham Castle Rock sandstone, after its most visually obvious example: the massive, 40m-high Castle-Rock outcrop, itself full of caves and passages. Under the city is a layer of sandstone around 61m thick which “outcrops” over an area of approximately 4km to 4.8km, broadening out as it goes north of the city.

So, just how old are the Nottingham caves? As artificial holes in the ground or cliff faces, the question is rather “When were they first excavated?” The simple answer is that no-one really knows. Archaeological finds within a cave can only tell us when they were first and last occupied. Any dating that arises from the analysis of tool marks or architectural features do not take into account that a particular cave might modify or extend an early excavation. All the historians can tell us is when the Nottingham caves first entered the records.

Outside of Turkey, Nottingham is the largest urban conurbation in the world built over a network of entirely man-made caves

The first historical reference to the Nottingham caves is Asser's “Tigguocabauc” of 885 AD. In 1639, a record of an anonymous visitor speaking about Nottingham notes: “A great many of the inhabitants, especially of the poorer sort, dwell in vaults, holes or caves which are digged out of the rock, so that anyone possessed of a mattock could easily provide himself with a house.” Neither of these references tells us for certain when the caves were first cut or excavated.

The Antiquarian Charles Deering is more precise in his speculation. He attributes them to the “primitive” Britons from a time before the Romans. In 1751, he said: ‘‘It is highly probable that as soon as these people were provided with tools for the purpose, finding in these parts a yielding rock, they might improve their habitations by making their way into the main rock and framing to themselves convenient apartments in it.” We must remember that Deering and the Antiquarians held a limited view of prehistory, and classified any monument built before the Romans came to Britain as Ancient British.

If we accept the three historical records as accurate, there is one thing we can say for certain; there have been caves under our fair city for at least 1,200 years and, for much of that time, they were being used as domestic dwellings. Unless we find clear, dated evidence, we will never be sure as to when the first cave was excavated in Nottingham; until then, it will remain a secret.

Save the Caves

The City Archaeologist, Scott Lomax, for Nottingham explains what he has seen in regards to development of the caves since 2008...

I first began working as an archaeologist in Nottingham in 2008, and it was my job to map and record all the known archaeology within the city centre. In 2008, the City Council only had records of approximately 450 caves. By April 2010, that had risen to almost 540.

I’ve been carrying out the role of City Archaeologist since March 2016, and locating previously unrecorded caves has been a high priority for me. All too frequently caves were destroyed because they were only identified during construction work and it was decided they couldn’t be preserved within the new development. I became determined to find where caves are located so they can be considered and protected at the very early stages.

The forthcoming new Local Plan, due to be adopted in 2019, has a dedicated policy that emphasizes the need to preserve caves. Only in wholly exceptional cases will the destruction of a cave be permitted and if it is destroyed, it will have to have been fully recorded. But, with the continuing research, I’m confident that future loss of caves will be a rare occurrence.

There’s a massive need to open up more caves to the public, where they’re safe to explore. I was delighted to open up the Peel Street cave (the city's largest cave system) in May 2018, for the first time since the nineties, for tours. There are also plans by private cave owners to open up other caves, and that’ll be great for the city. Then there’s the annual cave festival that’ll help promote the caves and encourage tourism.

Great progress has been made over the past two years and I hope, working with colleagues, to continue this well into the future. I’m passionate about the city's caves, and it’s a priority of mine to ensure their future conservation, to better understand them and to let people know about them.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of renewed interest in these unique features of Nottingham's past. People are recognising more than ever before that the caves are special and are a key part of the city's heritage. Too often I have heard it said that "It’s only a nineteenth-century cave, it’s not that important." But every cave, no matter how old, contributes towards the story of the city and every effort needs to be made to protect them.

City of Caves website

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