Nottingham Caves: Style and Countenance

 by Paul Nix

The features that present day visitors might observe in caves, fall into two distinct categories, the utilitarian and the decorative. Of the latter, some may have indicated to their occupier a functional use, but from current knowledge of their systems and working practices, these may not now be so evident.

Most caves you are likely to visit in Nottingham may have one or more of the following

Bore Holes:

Bore holes are small diameter, 20 to 50cm. , holes that have been drilled through the rock in an attempt to ascertain the cave digger / cutters position relative to the surface. It was very important to know your position prior to extending a cave, so as not to extend it beyond your own boundaries. They were also used to determine the thickness of the rock between two caves so that they could extend or widen a chamber but leave sufficient rock to support the ceilings. There are a few caves were some of these Bore Holes have been put
to good use as speaking tubes. Bore Holes are easily recognised as they tend to go off from caves at oblique angles, usually heading towards the surface.

Cess Pits:

A Cess Pit in a cave is an ancient form of dustbin. It is a deep pit, usually oblong but sometimes of irregular shape, cut in the floor of a cave. Into it you threw all forms of waste, both liquid and solid, but of course periodically it had to be emptied. However if you sold the property, you may well leave the emptying to the new owner and he might just cover it up. When Cess Pits in caves are rediscovered they are no longer damp and smelly but simply contain a dark grey type of soil. The soil is stratified, i.e. in layers, anything at the bottom went in first and if at the top it went in last. This means that if you find pottery from the 12th c half way down any thing below it could be 12th c or earlier and anything above it 12th c or later. Archaeologists like cess pits because if during the time they were being filled you dropped anything in, i.e. pottery, coins, etc., the fact that it was full of filthy, smelly and disgusting things made you not over eager to put your hand in to get them out.


In a few caves there are narrow shafts leading up to the surface that may have been used as chimneys. The size of these Chimneys varies greatly from less than half a meter across to two meters square. But identifying one is not just a case of, is it a vertical shaft has it got soot in it. If you light a fire in a cave the smoke will look for the easiest way out, up the steps, ventilation shaft or well shaft and these will all get a covering of soot.


Decoration can be anything from a very finely chipped pattern on a cave wall to a human or animal figure. You will more than likely notice crosses carved above doorways, incised or in relief, from their position and similarity they may be a sort of cave cutters/digger’s trade mark. They have been found in one’s, two’s and three’s, above and either side of the door jamb. Writing/graffiti may be seen in many caves most of it is recent in origin, 1850 to the present day, but some is much older. Usually the writing/graffiti has a date followed by one or more sets of initials, the earlier examples are usually carved rather than scratched. In a few caves rope moulding can be seen running along the walls about shoulder height, it resembles a rope carved in stone. It is sometimes referred to as a finger ledge. Faces carved on walls can only rarely be found and tend to be in very old and in ornately carved caves. Geometric patterns can sometimes be seen on the capitals of pillars and around doorways. Some of the Victorian caves contain carvings of animals, real or mythological, and life or larger than life size carvings of human, animal or religious figures.


A Cross Carved above a doorway
Credit: Nottingham Hidden History Team


A Gardirobe was a Medieval toilet, the word comes from France and means wardrobe, it most likely came over with the Norman’s in 1066. In a Norman castle a Gardirobe, besides being a toilet, it was also where you hung your clothing, the reason for this was due to the fact that the smell kept away the moths. Therefore Gardirobe meant to “guard your robe”. A Gardirobe in a cave tends to be a deep rectangular pit in the top of a thrall, just high enough to sit on, but deep enough so that you did not need to empty it so often. There are not many examples and they tend to be found in caves where going to the toilet in the middle of a job would have been inconvenient, i.e. malting.

 Malt Kilns

A malt kiln was where barley or other grain, after being steeped in water and allowed to sprout, was killed with heat, prior to being sent off to the brewers to make malt for brewing. The grain was spread in a shallow even layer over a hair net, originally it is thought made from real hair, and below it there would be a small but hot fire. Possibly charcoal was used to cut down on fire size, smoke and also sparks, as it would only take one to catch light to the net and all contents of the kiln would be lost. Malt kilns in caves tend to follow a set pattern, a small round cave with a domed roof and a small doorway at one side, a bowl shaped depression in the floor, about as deep as the roof height, usually leaving only about 50cm. – 19in. of floor around the bowl. In the bottom of the bowl a small opening leads off parallel to the fire pit and then opens out to form a stoke hole. A lattice-work of branches was used to support the hair net containing the the grain.


Looking into a Malt Kiln
Credit: Nottingham Caves Survey


Niches are small recesses incised into a wall or pillar. Their size varies from one just big enough to hold a candle, up to one the size of a small window, half a meter square. Although the back, sides and sill are usually rectangular, the top often curves down to join the back, in a long curve or slope. Niches are not as common as Thrall’s and Pillars but are often cut into a pillar on the side away from the door. Other places were Niches are often found, is in the wall at the top of a flight of steps, on the right hand side more often than on the left.


They tend to be pretty similar in shape, broad at the bottom and top, where they splay out to form the ceiling, and wasted in the middle. Most at first sight will look round in section but closer examination will usually show they were either square (four sides), hexagonal (six sides) or even octagonal (eight sides).They will nearly always be found holding up the ceilings of the main or largest chamber. Exceptions to this rule are where a Pillar is on the face of a wall,  again closer examination will usually show that the back of the Pillar is attached to the wall, therefore it is a sham Pillar or to give it it’s proper title, a buttress. Pillars are usually found in singles but two’s and three’s are not uncommon, a few rare examples contain many more.


Example of a Cave Pillar
Credit: Nottingham Hidden History Team


Many caves have Shafts, their main uses seem to have been two fold, possibly three. Firstly to allow goods to be lowered in or out, secondly to allow light to enter and thirdly, in some instances, to allow smoke and or heat to escape or fresh air to enter. It is important to note the differences between Shafts and Well’s. Shafts tend to be wider, shapes other than round, rectangular, square, oval and more irregular in shape, usually due to wear caused by ropes and goods abrading the internal surfaces and they have no foot holds. Sizes vary from half a meter across, for small sacks or ventilation, up to two meters by four meters, for a large barrel drop.


A Cave Shaft in the Brewhouse Yard Cave System
Credit: Nottingham Hidden History Team


Access to many caves is gained by simply walking down a few Steps, although in most caves the Steps will now be made of brick or concrete but closer examination may show that this is a covering for the original rock-cut steps which have become worn and none user  friendly. Spiral or curved flights of steps exist in a few rare cases.  Some historical references are made to caves being over sixty steps down.


Cave Steps
Credit: The Paul Nix Collection


The word means slave or a stand for barrels and that is precisely  what they are, except in a cave they are made of sandstone instead of wood.  Their use was simple, to put things on, they were used the same way we would  use a low table. They tend to run around the walls of a cave at a width of  three to four feet and a height that would have allowed a jug or flagon to  be filled from the barrel tap. In some caves thralls run around all the walls  only breaking at the doorways. Due to continued use the tops and leading edges  of thralls wear away or break, so it is not uncommon to find them repaired  with brick, wood or even concrete. This revamping does have a good side,  sometimes the thralls have been repaired with very old brick, in one known  instance of medieval origin.


These tend to come in two distinct types, tanning and horticultural,  the former is quite rare the later more common. Tanning vats, like the ones  under the Broadmarsh Centre, are rectangular pits cut in the floor of a cave,  mostly plain but some have grooves cut on opposing faces to allow the  insertion of boards to convert a large vat in to two small ones. The tanning process involved layering skins and oak bark Chipping’s to about two thirds  of the depth then filling with water. Sandstone being porous the water would  seep away, either the walls and bottom were clay lined or the Water Table  (the natural level of water within sandstone) was at a level that kept them  full all the time. These tanning vats and associated caves are thought to  mak

e-up the only underground tannery in Europe. Horticultural vats tend to  be like hollowed out, chest high thralls. Their original use is as yet  undetermined, but later uses include mushroom growing and seed propagation,  both make excellent use of the caves inherent features, total lack of daylight and when heated, a humid atmosphere.


Most cave systems have a well, malting caves could not have functioned without one. Shaft widths vary from two feet six inch’s to a little over a  yard and depths from as little as three feet to one in the castle grounds  over a hundred feet deep. One feature common to all wells is foot holds,  always in pairs and on opposing sides of the shaft. Most wells originate on  the surface above the cave, but are accessible where the shaft is breached by a cave wall at about waist height. Some wells drop from the cave floor, and  are often in what we would see as very inconvenient places, i.e. doorways,  were in the dark it would be very easy to step in to one. Their positioning  may have been to give some form of protection against unwanted visitors,  whose surprised commotion may have given the occupiers time to prepare themselves.


Some members of the original NHHT working down a Well
Credit: Nottingham Hidden History Team

Wine Bins:

From early times it must have been obvious to owners of caves that  they are ideal places in which to store wine. Wine bins, as bottle receptacles  in caves are termed, come in three distinct types, first, shelf’s of York  stone held-up by two parallel walls of brickwork,second, alcoves cut in cave  walls with wrought iron bars fitted across, third, alcoves with metal racks inserted. The first type seem to be the earliest, as the brick used is often Victorian and sometimes medieval, and one example contained a Tudor great brick.  From the associated debris and remnants left of these bins, bottles were either laid in layers on beds of straw, or each bottle had it’s own straw sleeve. One set of caves used by Jallands in Goosegate contained many free standing metal wine racks, some were sectioned off to form lockable corals.



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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