The National Justice Museum in Nottingham is where my journey to explore the history of subterranean Nottingham began.
I booked a ticket for a networking event including coffee and pastries followed by a tour of The City of Caves, a morning hosted by The National Justice Museum, who also run the cave tours.
The morning began at 9am where I met some lovely people to connect with. We were guided to the caves entrance and taken on a fascinating tour beneath the city by our cave tour guide, Nico.
Nottingham was once described as ‘Tig Guocobauc’ which means place of caves in old Brythonic by the Welsh Bishop of Sherbourne Asser in ‘The Life Of King Alfred’ (893).
The city sits on a soft sandstone ridge, this is easily dug into using basic tools, so caves and dwellings were commonly created, the heritage, history and tales of these continue to fascinate us.
Many of the oldest pubs here continue to use the caves for seating areas to serve traditional ales alongside the modern cocktails and great food.
I found the history of these hand carved caves through the ages really intriguing. There used to be so much activity going on underground, people’s homes, a tannery, a source of clean water, a place to store food and ale and illegal activities taking place below some of the pubs, the caves were also used as an air raid shelter in the war.
Each period in our history had another way to make use of this underground space. Oh yes there were also cess pits dug out here, because obviously where there are people there is waste too.
But that is another great story told so perfectly by our guide, don’t worry there is no sign or smell of that now of course, just a hollow where it once was.
Discovering the caves
The caves were discovered during the construction of the Broadmarsh shopping centre in Nottingham when construction started in the late 1960’s, it is very lucky that they were saved at that time because at one point there were plans to fill them in.
Nottingham City Council conducted an in-depth study along with The Nottingham Historical Arts society which led to the caves becoming protected as an ancient monument.
Following the preservation order, volunteers from the 2418 Sherwood Squadron Air training Corp and Rushcliffe School cleared the caves. They were opened to the public for tours in 1978 by the friends of Nottingham Museum. Now the caves and tours are managed and run by The National Justice Museum.
It’s wonderful that they are now recognised for the depth of history they hold, and the importance of the heritage left for others to experience, imagine if this history had been lost forever.
Below ground in the caves, it is an almost constant temperature of between 10c – 12c so it is always comfortable summer or winter.
This also made for a great place to store certain supplies back in the days before fridges, properties that had access to the caves underneath them took advantage of this opportunity.
Some would even carve out extra space when it was required.
The City of Caves contains the only remaining tannery set below ground in the whole of Europe and the only known underground tannery in Britain.
This was a difficult and smelly production process, but in the times before synthetic materials we often take for granted these days, leather was the only kind of material for making important products such as horse saddles and tack, people’s shoes, boots and much more.
The main pillar in the cave would have been cut out in around 1250 but a rock fall filled it in, this area was later cleared and used in part of the tannery in 1500.
Leather was an expensive product and essential. The start of the tanning process once the skins were collected from the abattoir was to soak them in quick lime in the carved-out pits for this purpose. They soaked for three months until the lime formed a scab.
This helped to get rid of any remaining animal fats etc remaining on the leather skins. This had to be washed off and was taken through an opening at the back of the cave to the river Leen to be washed.
Working with quick lime was a very hazardous work environment, don’t forget there was no such thing as health and safety at work at that time.
Then a different product was needed, this was called ‘The Pure.’ Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? The Pure was another name for dog poop.
The pure would have been collected by children and the tannery workers spread this all over the leather to soften it up. At this stage it would be left to soak into the leather for another three months.
You get the idea already; this was a very smelly and hazardous process for those working in the tannery. The rest of the process was just as stinky and risky to the health of those involved.
The use of the river Leen for washing the animal skins in-between each part of the tanning process was also bad for public health, the general public used the river as a place to collect drinking water and to bathe.
A law was put into place to stop the tannery using the river in this way in an attempt to save public health.
Pubs of course made the most of the cave space to store ales and wines as well as for extra seating capacity and knew how useful this extra cave space would become, and it soon became known that using the seating underground was a more private place to organise illegal activities too.
The Luddites were especially notorious for organising criminal activities in places that were less discoverable by the authorities.
One such place was a pub with a good sized space below it, there was a horseshoe shaped seating area with a hole carved out in the ceiling that went to the street above it.
Now this might seem quite odd at first, now why would they want a hole leading to the street? Up above in the street there would have been children playing marbles and such like games, this sounds quite normal and innocent you might think.
That is just what they wanted the authorities to think too, but in fact, these children were working as lookouts.
Any sight or sign of the police approaching the area and the children were instructed to drop some gravel down the little hole so that the meeting could be swiftly disbanded in plenty of time.
The establishment next door was a solicitor’s office at the time, so there was rather a balance of Ying and yang going on here you might say.
What were the Luddites all about? They were a band of people who all had an opposition to new types of technology that they felt threatened people’s jobs.
When the new mill machinery started to be brought into the cotton, woollen, and lace mills for the purpose of mechanising the work and speeding up the production process, the mill owners needed a lot less workers to produce the lace or woollen materials than ever before, this meant many mills workers losing their jobs and possibly ending up in the workhouse.
These very motivated people organised meetings and discussed what should be done about this new machinery that threatened not only their livelihoods but also family life altogether if they lost their income and became homeless, belittled into going into the poor house.
The Luddites were very organised and had lots of supporters to help them plan out each mission carefully.
Smashing machinery was their aim, and they did this thoroughly whenever the opportunity was made possible with a cunning plan put together.
Now the mill owners were losing a lot of money through smashed mill machinery, and they had contracts to fulfil, lace and wool materials to be produced and delivered.
They lobbied the government about this problem and a new law was set into motion that made any kind of talk of smashing machinery, any meeting regarding this subject or people caught smashing mill machinery could be arrested and publicly hung.
A very unsettling period in time for these workers and those opposing change, 1811 – 1816.
Drury Hill Slums
During the tour you can see some of the remnants of the basement slums. This area would have been a very affluent place to live during the medieval period but in the 19th century all that remained of these buildings were the basements where some of the poorest families lived, they would have had just one single room to live in they would have cooked, slept, and eaten here in the tiny cave space.
Some chiselled out a little extra space from the sandstone. This was known as one of Britain’s worst slum areas, the living conditions led to terrible disease and sickness such as Smallpox, Cholera and TB that along with the nutrition problems, lack of clean water and lack of hygiene factored into a high death rate.
You can imagine the lives of the residents here as you walk through the small living areas and listen to the guide explain the reality of the situation they were in.
In World War ll the sandstone caves became useful as an air raid shelter, some of the caves were joined to create one of the 86 shelters for public use.
This has been mocked up to show visitors what this would have looked like. The sandstone was dug out of holes here to provide sand to fill sandbags that the city needed for protection during the war.
Another little fact about the history of air raids during the Second World war, you have probably heard about air raid wardens who’s job it would have been to ensure everyone stayed safe during an air raid and took responsibility for getting the residents to the safety of the shelters when the warning was sounded, he would don his warden hat and knock on doors and shout to those still on the street to get down to the air raid shelter at once and ensure everybody had their gas mask with them, including the children.
They could be fined for not carrying a gas mask at all times. A position that carried a lot of responsibilities and it was in Nottingham that the position of Air Raid Warden began.
Location and accessibility
The post code for the location of the main entrance is NG1 1HF but occasionally Google maps may direct you to go through the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre that no longer exists after it was demolished recently.
Alternatively you can use the post code for Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery at Weekday Cross NG1 2GB and take the Garner’s Hill Steps beside the Gallery to the bottom and go left to the caves entrance.
The attraction is not accessible to wheelchair users due to the nature of the caves and the uneven areas can be a problem for those with mobility issues. Pushchairs and prams are not permitted inside the caves. There are currently no toilet facilities on site.
One of the best places to park is at a large pay and display multi-story car park at Stoney Street which is very close by to Weekday Cross. Post code for the car park is NG1 1LS
This is also a great place to park if you are combining a visit to The National Justice Museum, High Pavement, Nottingham NG1 1HN
Nottingham’s City of Caves, or Tig Guocobauc,’ is a fascinating place to explore, and experience the history below the city with a knowledgeable guide who makes it so interesting and fun.
I can’t tell the tales like you’ll hear them told by your guide or pass on the atmosphere of being underground in these surprisingly extensive caves.
There Is a lot more to be discovered with a tour than I can write about. I left The City of Caves still buzzing from the experience and knowledge gained during my time below the streets with some wonderful people, including my friend Marysia Zipser whose idea it was to book the networking event with The National Justice Museum and cave tour together.
I highly recommend that you book a tour and experience the caves personally. Another place full of Nottingham’s historic past and caves with some tales of treacherous deeds and royal life is Nottingham Castle. (The castle itself is currently closed until further notice, but you can still read all about its history and Nottingham’s past through my article linked above.)
You may also like:
- The Workhouse – Southwell, Nottinghamshire
- Wollaton Hall and Gardens – The Home of Batman, Nottingham