by Paul Nix

Stop anyone who lives in Nottingham and ask them what they know about Nottingham caves and they’ll probably say they know of one or maybe more and will then proceed to tell you some story associated with the caves, but the tales they tell are not always as close to reality as they think.


‘You won’t get me down any more smelly caves, there damp, with dripping water and there’s creepy crawlys!’’

This comment was followed up by me asking which of the Nottingham caves they had been down, their reply is all too common.

‘‘No, I haven’t been down one in Nottingham, but I went down one in Derbyshire, it was years ago.’’

It was so long ago they can’t remember where or when. As to their comments, Nottingham caves are not damp and the only place you may see dripping water is possibly where the hand of man has tried to improve on nature. Because of the nature of Bunter Sandstone, its somewhat like a sponge, water will flow down through it and around caves.


Rock-cut houses in Narrow Marsh.
Copyright:Nottingham Hidden History Team.

The only possibility of seeing dripping water, is where brick, metal, wood or some other material has been inserted into the Bunter. This, due to capillary action, will divert water from its natural downward course and cause it to flow over the surface of the inset material, from where it could then drip. To test this yourself, if you lightly touch a cave wall it will feel dry and powdery, but if you press firmly and make good contact with the wall you will soon find your hand getting damp.

As for creepy crawlys they are conspicuous by their absence, livestock of the smaller varieties beetles, spiders, snails or mice are not to be seen. They are not found in caves because they cannot survive on a diet of sand, it has zero calories, and the temperature, although constant, is below what they would find comfortable. Some forms of fungus find caves a most suitable place to inhabit, they form a ornate curtain of white lace like material and are always found to eliminate from a piece of rotted wood.


‘‘I was once taken down a cave, don’t know precisely where it was, but it ran all the way to the castle’’

Although it is true that some tunnels were made they tend to be quite short and only connect together caves or areas owned by the same person or group. An example of this is the passageway known as Mortimer’s Hole, it may or may not be the actual one actually used to capture Mortimer, but when the Duke of Newcastle built his ducal mansion, on top of the castle rock, he cut a new entrance into the top of this


Sometimes this is the only way in.
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team.


passageway to give himself good access to his canal wharf’s in Brew-house Yard. I think the problem most people encounter is that their visit to the cave was lit by only a small torch, or even an oil lamp or at worst the flame of a match. Under these conditions, and in what most people find to be an alien environment, it would be very easy after walking or crawling, if the cave had not yet been cleared, around for half an hour to think you had gone a considerable distance. Add to this the fact that we subconsciously calculate distance by reference to objects of known size, and that these objects are possibly not to be seen in caves. An other example of a long passageway is Western Passage also in the Castle Rock. This is believed to have been a back way out, or Sally Port, from the old castle. It starts in King David’s dungeon and comes out close to the Park gates on Pevril Drive. Along


Steps down to the caves under the Red Lion
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team


it’s length are remains of what would have been defensive stations, small rooms that can only be entered from the back, like pill box’s. The occupiers of the castle would have looked upon it as an emergency way out in the time siege but if they did not protect it the invader would see it as a nice easy way in. The wine cellars below Wollaton Hall could also be looked on as an example of a tunnel, especially the small passageway at the end of the main wine cellar. This passageway, it is believed, ran down in the direction of Wollaton village, half way along the route it broke through to the surface. It could have been constructed to house a very early plate-way, the name given to the first type of railway because it ran on metal plates with a lip on the outside to stop it drifting off. This plate-way would have been used to haul goods up the hill from the village. Short passageways were in abundance in the Park, the block of land that runs from Park Terrace down into Park Valley, which originally had


Rock-cut passageway in the Park
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team

seven levels, each was interconnected by steps and underground passageways. Some are still to be seen but many have been lost as gardens have been modified and built on. Also in the Park is the Park Tunnel a tunnel of giant proportions, originally cut to give horse drawn traffic an alternative way up to Derby Road. Its architect took on the job knowing that if the gradient exceed a certain amount then the traffic for which it was intended would not be able to make the climb and he would not get paid. It did and he did not get paid. A good example of a short tunnel is, although it may have been destroyed when the building “was preserved”, is under the Flying Horse Hotel on The Poultry. It connects a small beer cellar under the basement with a larger one lower down and is 2.5m wide and about 15 meters in length and arch shaped. It’s the only pub I know with three beer cellars, one brick and two sandstone.


‘‘The caves were all formed by water action’’

There are no natural caves in Nottingham. A visitor to Nottingham in 1639 stated:

‘‘A great many of the inhabitants, especially of the poorer sort, dwell in valts, holes or caves which are digged out of the rock, so that anyone possessed of a mattock could easily provide himself with a house.’’.

Unlike the caves of Derbyshire, which were created by water action, all the caves beneath the city are man made, cut from the solid Bunter sand stone. Although it is possible that when a natural fault in the rock face presented itself to a cave cutter/digger he would not have been slow to take advantage of it. Investigations into the tooling marks, that cover the walls of cave’s, show that the work may have been done with a small pick like tool, with a shaft


Possible example of type of pick used
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team



about 14in/36cm and a head about 7in/18cm wide, with a triangular point on one end and a chisel point on the other. But this tool would only have been used to finish off a cave, the chisel end to level up uneven wall sand the point end to add a nice textured surface. The actual cutting/digging of a cave may have been done in one of two ways. The first method involves removing rock at floor level, with the chisel end of the pick, to a depth of say a meter. This undermines the rock above,


An early pillar in the entrance to the main chamber
of the fish gutting complex on Fisher Gate
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team

then driving wedges into the rock further up so as to cause the rock to fracture and the bottom piece of rock to fall. The second method starts like the first, by undermining the wall, but then a brushwood fire would be built against the wall. When the wall became very hot the fire would be quickly raked away and cold water thrown onto the hot surface of the wall. This sudden dropping temperature caused the rock to fracture and break away. The first method may have been used by Mr. Rouse in his sand mines in Peel Street because due to several accidents involving men getting buried he was closed down.


‘‘You wont get me crawling around on all four’s’’

All of the caves are of human size they have ceiling heights in excess of 1.98m 6ft 6in, some are a lot higher, and doorways no smaller than you would find in your own home. These caves were made to live and work in, you would soon get tired of banging your head every time you went through a doorway, and so they contain sufficient head and elbow room. Caves with very high


A byre in a Saxon Farmstead cave, less than a
hundred yards from Nottingham’s Market Square
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team

ceilings may often give an indication to what their particular use may have been. An example of this is a cave on Derby road with a ceiling height in excess of 6m 20ft, tracing previous owners turned up the fact that it had been used as a Wagon Makers Workshop. This explained the need for plenty of head room, but was the cave enlarged or was it simply a case of it being the right size for the job?


What Do Geologists Say About The Rock? The central part of Nottingham stands upon what geologists term the Bunter Pebble Beds. This is a sedimentary rock which belongs to a geological period called the Trias, though just to add some confusion there is a long standing debate in geological circles concerning exactly to which period the Bunter really belongs. Several authorities


A Medieval cooking pot, with rabbit stew, shows it’s self
Copyright Nottingham Hidden History Team

feel it should be placed in the Permian To resolve this problem without solving it, the Bunter, of which the Pebble Beds are one division, are often stated to belong to the Permo-Trias. To add an even further confusing element is the fact that the Pebble Beds are frequently found without any pebbles! The term ‘‘Bunter’’ is German in origin and means ‘‘bright-coloured’’.

How Much Of It Is There?

The rock which constitutes the Bunter Pebble Beds is a sandstone, and in the Nottingham area this has a thickness of about 200ft and outcrops over an area of approximately two and a half to three miles, broadening out as you go north from the city.

How Old Is Bunter Sandstone?

The Pebble Beds were probably laid down about 230 million years ago on a low lying desert plain or basin bounded by high ground in the area we now term the Midlands.


A Medieval brick thrall in a Rock-cut cave
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team

How Did We Get Bunter?

The Pebble Beds probably developed at a time when the climate was very dry and the country swept by winds, these caused considerable surface instability. In the wet season flooding brought on by heavy rain carried away large quantities of sand which was then conveyed by the river systems to be eventually deposited over a plain or basin.

Where Is The Best Place To See It?

The Pebble Beds can be observed in various parts of the city but perhaps the most dramatic section is the cliff upon which Nottingham Castle stands. The rock is yellow or buff coloured, though the coloration is best seen in a freshly broken piece, and contains pebbles of varying sizes .these consist of various types of rock, with quartzite and vein quartz predominating. In the main the rock is soft and consequently easily cut, however, where the sandstone is cemented by barite it is hard and far more difficult to work.


How Old Are The Caves?

Nottingham’s earliest reference to its caves comes in the year 868AD, when Nottingham was referred to as ‘‘Tigguocabauc’’ which means Cavy House or House of Caves. This was verified in 1986 when Oxford University retranslated The Life Of King Alfred which was written by the ninth century monk Asser (chronicler for King Alfred, the cake burning one).

How Many Have We Got?

If we take the area bounded by Parliament St., Maid Marion Way, Canal St., Bellar Gate and Cranbrook Street and roughly estimate the total number of separate caves, you might be surprised to learn that there are thought to be over 200 caves; it is possible that more than 75 have been destroyed or lost, while a further 50 or more may await rediscovery.

What Were The First Caves Like?

The earliest caves would have been cut into the face of the rock and used mainly as dwellings. Entrances wherever possible being above ground level to avoid the regular flooding of the river Leen. access was by foot holds or a ramp cut into the rock. These early caves had only one entrance, which most likely led along a short passage that widened at the far end into a small chamber. This chamber may have had a shaft rising vertically from the roof up to the surface to allow the escape of smoke. This may have been at the time when Asser passed and gave Nottingham its first recorded name.

Why Don’t Any Caves Look Like That Now?

When caves had been in use for some time extra chambers would be added, for storage and working in. These chambers were most likely cut into the sides of the entrance passageway, they were used for working in and might have had their own external entrances. At this time we would start to see new caves cut down into the rock, rather than into the rock face, as Charles Deering says in his History of Nottingham

‘‘Nay 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.’’

This apparent ease by which you could dig yourself a home would have attracted people to Nottingham, but local laws and restrictions on ‘Farriners’, as any outsider was called, would have prevented them. The early settlement covered by the caves would have been in the cliff face from Abbey Bridge to Sneinton, and the area now known as the Lace Market.


The living area of the Saxon Farmstead in Long Row, Nottingham
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team

Why Practice Trades In Caves?

The earliest trades to have been executed within caves were the ones that made use of their inherent features.

1. Flexibility:

Due to the natural softness of the rock it was easy to modify or extend a cave, converting a disused home into a workshop or two separate caves in to one large one.

2. Temperature:

Caves have a near constant temperature, of fifty three to fifty four degrees, winter or summer, this just happens to be the ideal temperature for malting.

3. Darkness:

A total lack of daylight, which made it possible to malt barley all the year round, and not just for three months in summer, and that was providing the weather was favourable.

4. Water:

A constant supply of clean water was available, this was a rare commodity in those days, it had filtered down through many feet of rock. Wells above ground did get polluted but some did stay clean as they where only accessible from within the caves.


A diver down a well under the Salutation Inn.
Most cave wells are only three feet wide
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team

5. Safety:

Because sandstone does not burn it enabled trades that required a fire to work in safety, there being no building to burn down. The only disadvantage was that cave walls reflect heat back and so some types of occupation may have found it rather uncomfortable.


A fake pillar in a Saxon cave, a buttress
Copyright: Nottingham Hidden History Team

Why Cant We See These Early Caves?

Some early trades would have altered or gradually become obsolete, or the need to practice them in caves no longer applied, but there would have been no shortage of people ready to move in with another use. Caves were extended to make them fit a new use, a house became a workshop, a workshop became a storeroom. Sometimes these alterations completely remove the features relating to their former use, or uses, but sometime just enough survives to give us a glimpse of what may have been one of the caves earlier employment’s.


About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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