by Frank E Earp
“Caves of wonder or inartistic and no great loss to the community?”
In 1856 Alderman Thomas Herbert, a wealthy and successful lace manufacturer, built himself a house in Nottingham’s fashionable Park Estate. The plot he chose was on a road at the top of a hill to the west of the Castle, – Victoria Street. Victoria street was later renamed ‘The Ropewalk’ and the house is now 32, The Rope Walk.
For his gardens, Herbert purchased land overlooking the Park. However, this was on the slopes of the hill on the opposite side of the road and in order to gain private access, he had a tunnel construct. Where the tunnel immerged it was necessary to remove large quantities of sand and soil. As a result, J. Holland Walker, (1928) says; “….he found himself in the possession of several caves on the terraces overlooking the Park”.
As well as decorating the walls of the tunnel with carvings, between 1856 and 1872 Herbert turned the caves into what became regarded as one of the wonders of Nottingham. One cave he turned into a conservatory with exotic plants. Of the conservatory cave Walker says that it was carved with; “….all sorts of weird beasties carved in the rock to look as if they were lurking amongst the plants”.
The cave adjoining the conservatory was made to resemble an ancient ‘temple,’ – Walker calls it ‘Egyptian’, – with rows of pillars and carving of Druids, Sphinxes, gods and goddesses and other strange creatures. Perhaps the most spectacular of the caves is that which opens out onto the garden terrace. The cave mouth is not just a yawning opening, but a complete building façade including pilasters, windows and a door reminiscent of Petra in Jordan. Within the cave are life-size carvings representing the Bible story ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’.
Thomas Herbert was very pleased with his creations which showed-off his wealth and tastes and for many years he was pleased to put them on public display. Daniel in the Lion’s Den became the most celebrated and talked about work of art in Nottingham, – but how times and tastes change. By the time Walker published his work ‘Links with Old Nottingham’, 56 years later, the caves and their carvings were no longer in vogue. Walker in his introduction to the caves says; “So inartistic are these carvings considered nowadays that it is no great loss to the community that they are not accessible to the public, but when they were carved in 1856 they were looked upon as the last word in artistic achievement”.
Not surprisingly over the last 80 + years, opinions on Herbert’s caves and their carvings has changed once more and Geologist Tony Waltham in a report on conservation of the caves says; “Without doubt the finest single feature within the sandstone caves that underlie Nottingham is the group of statues depicting “Daniel in the Lions’ Den….”.
Time, human activity including deliberate vandalism and primarily the effects of the direct exposure to variations in the weather outside the cave, has reduced the Daniel statues to a shadow of their former glory. Today, the statues lie behind air-tight doors and shutters fitted to the original openings in 2005, by the East Midlands Geological Society.