Trent & Peak Archaeology / The University of Nottingham
About the Project Home Trent & Peak  Archaeology Nottingham’s  Caves What about  my cave? Project Team About  laser scanning Nottingham Caves Survey
Nottingham’s caves in history Nottingham’s sandstone outcrops played a significant role in the town’s growth and development.  In the 6th century the Saxons settled on a large sandstone outcrop to the east of the city centre in the area we now know as the Lace Market.  This outcrop’s elevated position overlooking the River Trent made it an ideal defensive location.  The Saxon town continued to grow, spreading out across the sandstone plateau.  Snotengaham, as it was then known, is the Old English name for the town meaning ‘the ham’ (or dwelling) of Snot’s people.  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 the same year the Danes invaded Nottingham, they held the city until 918 when King Edward the elder captured the town.   The next phase of settlement in Nottingham occurred with the arrival of the Normans who in 1067 built a castle on an outcrop of sandstone to the west of the Saxon settlement.  The Norman’s built their own town around the castle with streets radiating out from it towards what is now the market square.  Eventually the Norman and Saxon boroughs merged, and by about 1300 the Norman wall and ditch encircled the entire site, excluding the side overlooking the River Leen and River Trent.  The softness of Nottingham’s sandstone makes it easy to excavate with hand tools, and the structural stability means that excavated caves are safe to use, even with buildings above them.  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.  The main groups of rock houses in Nottingham are Sneinton Hermitage and those visible around Castle Rock, however there were others along Derby and Mansfield Road.  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. The town’s location on the main route between London and York and its proximity to the River Trent meant goods could to be exported with ease to other parts of the country.  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.  Within the City of Caves attraction situated underneath the Broadmarsh shopping centre is a medieval tanning cave, which is believed to have been in use from around 1500 – 1640.   Sandstone acts as a good aquifer and therefore wells are a frequently occurring feature in many of Nottingham’s caves.  These wells were cut to provide water for both private dwellings and industry.  The water table slopes down from the north of the city towards the Broad Marsh area where the water table is approximately 1 metre below the ground level.  Caves in the post-medieval period In the 17th and 18th centuries caves continued to be excavated in Nottingham’s sandstone for a variety of purposes.  A large proportion of Nottingham’s caves were cut as storage areas below buildings, the oldest storage caves have been located in and around the site of the old town. Sandstone caves maintain a constant temperature of around 14 degrees Celsius and therefore made excellent cellars for the storage of ale.   Towards the end of the eighteenth century demand for sand was increasing as it was a material used for both building and cleaning purposes.  From around 1785 James Rouse operated an extensive sand mine to the west of Mansfield Road.  The mine was hand worked and sand was transported out of the cave system by donkey.  Other smaller sand mines were in operation in the surrounding area, including what is now referred to as the Cemetery Mine which led off an earlier sand quarry.   During the 1700s unregulated quarrying on waste land either side of Mansfield road during led to people extracting their own sand to sell on.  From the 1800s new caves were cut and existing ones extended as Nottingham’s industries and their need for storage space grew.  Large rectangular cellar caves were cut beneath Shipstone’s Brewery in Basford, established in 1852, and the Nottingham Brewery on Mansfield Road.  In the Victorian period a number of caves were cut as follies, including ‘Daniel’s cave’ carved in 1856 in the sandstone terrace garden of wealthy lace manufacturer Thomas Herbert.  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.   Redevelopment in the Victorian period led to some of Nottingham’s caves being cut back to accommodate the walls of new much larger buildings.  At the start of the Second World War new caves were excavated and old ones reused to act as Air Raid shelters.  Caves were also cut to provide sand for sand bags.  Under Castle Rock new long and straight shelter caves with arch shaped roofs were cut, whilst one of the older caves was used to store radium! 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.