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Nottingham Caves

Laser-Scanning Hundreds of Artificial Caves beneath Nottingham

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The Nottingham Regeneration Project has launched a large-scale initiative to survey, scan, and photograph the city’s enormous underground network of caves , which have immense historical importance for the region. The project aims to assess the archaeological importance of each of the caves and to prepare a three dimensional record of the caves so that they can be appreciated by visitors and residents in the years to come.

There are nearly 500 man-made caves cut into the natural sandstone, some dating back to the medieval period and possibly even earlier. They have been used for a vast array of purposes, including dungeons, beer cellars, cess-pits, tanneries, malt-kilns, houses, wine cellars, tunnels, summer-houses, air-raid shelters, sand mines, and jails – most famously the one said to have held Robin Hood.

“It would be a fair assumption that every building or site within the old city limits either has or had some form of cave beneath it,” said local historian Tony Waltham. “About 500 caves are now known, and this may be only half the total numberthat have been excavated under Nottingham.”

The earliest written record of Nottingham’s caves comes from a Welsh monk called Asser who when writing about Nottingham in 868 referred to the town as Tig Guocobauc, meaning house or place of caves in British.  In 1067, the Normans arrived in the region and built a castle on an outcrop of sandstone. The Norman’s built their own town around the castle with streets radiating out from it towards what is now the market square in modern day Nottingham.  The exposed cliff of the sandstone outcrop made this an obvious place for the early citizens of Nottingham to make their home. Some of Nottingham’s ‘rock dwellings’ or cave houses have been dated back to 1250, any earlier caves were probably destroyed through modification.  Records from visitors to Nottingham during the 1600s suggest that the occupants of these cave houses were generally poor and the caves were known as pauper holes. 

Throughout the medieval period Nottingham continued to grow and prosper becoming a centre for trades such as wool manufacture, tanning, malting, alabaster carving and pottery production.  A number of these activities were undertaken in Nottingham’s caves. To date 28 malt kiln caves have been located in and around Nottingham, each of which is roughly spherical in shape and featured a number of other smaller caves which made up the entire system.  Sandstone caves maintain a constant temperature of around 14 degrees Celsius and therefore made excellent cellars for the storage of ale.   

From the 1800s new caves were cut and existing ones extended as Nottingham’s industries and their need for storage space grew.  Wealthy industrialists living in the Park Estate carved tunnels with staircases and ornate columns in to the sandstone, often linking their house to their allotted garden.

Unfortunately, redevelopment of Nottingham’s city centre from the late 19th century onwards has meant that many of Nottingham’s caves have been lost.  A significant number of caves have been filled in with cement or bricked up, with others disappearing through natural collapse. Today, the caves have been virtually forgotten about or simply viewed as an annoying construction setback or negative influences on property value.

The Regeneration Project therefore aims to bring the historical significance of these caves alive for the Nottingham people and for visitors to the region. Ideally, once the survey’s extensive catalogue of 3D visualisations has been completed, an app will become available for public download which will enable people to walk through the city with smartphone in hand, revealing all of the complexity of the underground spaces. The app promises to be an extraordinary way to peer right through the city, as though wearing x-ray glasses, to see its most ancient foundations.

By April Holloway

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