Thursday, 26 November 2015

Subterranean Nottingham

Nottingham is one of the most fascinating English cities from a subterranean point of view.  Back in 893 the Welsh monk Asser wrote in his Life of Alfred about how in 868: 'the army of pagans leaving Northumberland invaded Mercia and came to Nottingham which is called in the British tongue Tigguacobaucc which means "the place of caves".'  Nottingham sits on very soft sandstone (Sherwood Sandstone) that can be excavated with ease while providing structural integrity, ensuring that well-designed caves do not collapse, a fact realised by the earliest settlers in the area.  On a higher outcrop a Norman castle was constructed in 1068 and a town grew up around its base.  The present castle building was erected in 1679; it was seriously damaged in Reform Bill rioting in 1831 and was later rebuilt on its spectacular site as a museum and art gallery.  There are in fact hundreds of these caves (around 500 have been recorded) and all are man-made; reference to a recent survey can be found here.

Over the centuries Nottingham's caves have enjoyed a variety of uses: beneath No.8 Castle Gate is a virtually intact medieval malting, the cool and stable climate enabled it to be used all year round.  Sand was mined underground for use in the construction and glass industries; some caves were used as subterranean dwellings, others later made secure air-raid shelters.  A series of caves below Broadmarsh shopping centre were originally individual features beneath houses flanking an ancient street called Drury Hill (criminally knocked down in the 60s - I sometimes wonder if the 'Swinging Sixties' refers to a wrecking ball).  The demolition revealed pub cellars, storage caves and an impressive underground tannery with a number of rock-cut vats in the floor.  Today they form part of the tourist attraction called 'City of Caves' which is well worth visiting on a guided tour.  (See map above).

The Flying Horse Inn, established in the fifteenth century, had two levels of rock-cut beer cellars and survived as a public house (rebuilt in the seventeenth century and heavily restored in 1936) until the late 1980s, but is now a shop at the entrance to the Flying Horse shopping arcade in the centre of town.  There is an underground restaurant at the Hand and Heart Inn on Derby Road, as well as cellars and bars cut into the rock; the Golden Fleece on Mansfield Road also uses caves as cellars.  Obviously while were in town we visited the Trip to Jerusalem with many of its bars cut back into the sandstone at the foot of Castle Rock.  Private drinking spaces were also excavated.  Between 1730 and 1740 Rothwell Willoughby, younger brother of Lord Middleton of Wollaton Hall, built himself a house on Low Pavement (now Willoughby House): above ground it appears to be a typical Georgian townhouse, while below three perfectly circular caves can be reached by a staircase from the garden.  These form a clover shape, each supported by a carved central pillar; from the largest a passage leads south towards the former location of the river Leen before it was diverted.  The smaller caves have tables carved into the central pillars and the largest has benches around its edges.  It is most likely that the smaller were wine cellars, while the large cave was a drink den.  Since 1994 the building has been a flagship store for the Nottingham-born fashion designer Paul Smith.

Incidentally, I had a very poor response from Paul Smith's 'Customer Services' department, who didn't even bother replying to my recent request to visit the caves.  The house next door is of the same period and is now a Jamie Oliver restaurant where we ate with the children; the toilets are part of a warren of passages and rooms below, which probably link(ed) with those under the Paul Smith shop.

Two excellent studies of the caves can be purchased at various places in town: Sandstone Caves of Nottingham (2008) by Tony Waltham and Nottingham's Caves (2004) by Andrew Hamilton.

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