1000 years ago Nottingham was known as Tigguocobauc: the house of caves. It’s likely the first caves were carved beneath the cliff of sandstone on which the city was founded but as the town grew, so did the number of caves beneath it.
What were Nottingham’s caves used for?
Butcheries, beer cellars and ice houses were common but the Nottingham Caves Survey has also mapped medieval dungeons, chapels, tanneries, kilns for malt and pottery, ‘gentlemen’s caves’ and secret (and not-so-secret) tunnels to Nottingham castle.
The Victorians also used the caves as stables, for cold and fireproof storage, or as tourist attractions, follies, and summerhouses. In the 20th-century there were catacombs, garages, and air-raid shelters. There is even an underground skittle alley, with a slot carved in one wall for your ball to return through.
How many of the caves have been preserved?
This is the first time all 549 of the caves known to exist have been fully surveyed. The most famous of the caves are beneath the Broadmarsh shopping centre in the city centre. The work of a small number of individuals and societies in the 1960s prevented the complete destruction of this vast network of caves. Today these are one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. It’s impossible to know how many other caves across the city have been blocked, filled or destroyed due to development.
What does this new research tell us about the caves?
As well as providing invaluable information on the state of the caves the results will help find the best way to conserve and re-use the caves, identifying sites that have the greatest potential to be used as tourist attractions, filming locations, art spaces, coffee shops etc.
The survey team is also creating a smartphone app which will allow you to see the caves hidden beneath the ground as you move around on the surface.
With all these holes, why doesn’t Nottingham fall in on itself?
Nottingham’s sandstone sub terrain was laid down by flash floods during the Triassic period, and then, critically, stayed unaltered for 250 million years. Unlike many sandstones it shows little sign of fracture or movement. Sandstone is too crumbly to be a likely site for natural cave systems, but this weakness makes it easy to carve, and in Nottingham deep, horizontal bedding planes make the artificial caves reasonably stable.
Can the public get involved?
It’s impossible to know if we have mapped all the caves. In a quest to find more, a team of volunteers is currently exploring the city, knocking on doors and following up leads. Have you heard stories of a site not yet discovered?
The Nottingham Caves Survey has been funded by a number of organisations, including the Greater Nottingham Partnership, Nottingham City Council, Experience Nottinghamshire and the British Geological Survey, and Historic England has been a major and constant partner throughout. The project has a wide remit: to investigate, record, visualise, promote and preserve Nottingham’s caves. It is run by Trent & Peak Archaeology, now part of the York Archaeological Trust.