by Joe Earp
As anyone who lives in the City knows, Nottingham like Budapest, is built over a large number of caves. However, unlike Budapest where the caves are natural, the Nottingham caves are entirely the work of human hands. Around the year 868, the Welsh monk Asser, chronicler to King Alfred, was travelling to Lincoln. He records in his diary; “…..this day passed Tigguacobauc.” This word, in his native tongue, is generally translated as ‘cavy house’, and is thought to refer to Nottingham. In those times a journey to Lincoln would have been along the remains of the old Roman road, the Fosse Way. The closest this road comes to the City is at Cotgrave over 12 miles to the south east. It is doubtful that Asser would have seen even the largest of caves from that distance with the naked eye. It is more likely that he simply saw smoke rising from the settlement and asked a native guide its name. The resulting Tigguacobauc would there for be Asser’s own interpretation of what he had been told. All we can say is that there were caves and people living and working in them at this time.
The Nottingham caves are to be found in groups or clusters in various locations throughout the City. Perhaps the best known and most recognisable of these are those of Castle Rock. There are far to-many cave clusters to talk about here, and so I have chosen just one, those known as ‘the Papish Holes’ or ‘Lenton Hermitage’. The caves are located on the north side of Castle Boulevard around halfway between the traffic island junction of Lenton Boulevard and the foot of Castle Rock. For many years they were clearly visible, abandoned and much neglected. In the last few years new apartments have been built on the land to the front and the caves have been restored. They are open to the public by request or on Heritage Days.
These caves are cut into the sandstone ridge now occupied by the Park Estate. The old course of the River Leen once ran in-front of the caves immediately to the south. They consist of a series of rooms or chambers including a dovecote and make up what would have been a substantial domestic dwelling. This is not unusual for Nottingham caves, but what is remarkable is a complete chapel hewn out of the rock. No one knows for certain when the first caves were excavated on this site or what they may have been used for. It has been speculated that the Druids cut the caves as a place of worship, and in more modern times, that the Romans built them as a crematorium. Certainly Victorian antiquarians found Roman tiles embedded in a chimney or ventilation shaft, but these were taken by souvenir hunters..
It is the chapel, known as St. Mary De Roche, which makes the Lenton caves so remarkable. It is believed that this chapel was created amongst existing caves by Carmelite Friars sometime in the reign of Edward I. Along with the Chapel; the friars built for themselves, or converted existing caves into a comfortable residence. There is evidence to suggest that the Chapel may have been a ‘shrine’, – a repository for a holy relic,- like the one at Repton. Pilgrims would descend to the level of the shrine and walk around it to view the relic, leaving through a different passage. What relic may have been contained in the shrine, we will never know.
By the 13th century the chapel had passed into the hands of Lenton Priory and the friars were replaced by monks. St. Mary De Roche became an important ‘satellite’ chapel or hermitage to the Priory. That religious importance was soon overshadowed by the Priory’s need for income and in 1447, the Chapel was given to the King in exchange for yet more land holdings, including some in Sherwood Forest. Part of the agreement was that the monks continued to say prayers at the Chapel, for the ‘….good estate of the King and his family’.
The Chapel was abandoned by the Priory shortly before the Dissolution. During periods of persecution Nottingham’s Catholics used the Chapel for clandestine mass’s and it is this association that has led to the name Papish or Popish Holes for the site. The site may also have become a private residence. In the Civil War the site suffered much damage by Parliamentary soldiers from the Castle due to its association with the Catholic faith. The antiquarian William Stukeley visited the Chapel sometime between 1694 and 1711 and published his account along with the first ever known illustration of the site in 1724. Stukeley, with a passion for such things declared the site to be Druidical remains. From then on, the site continued to generate and excite the curiosity and speculation of antiquarians and historians, as it still does today.