In the English city of Nottingham, shoppers and workers go about their days oblivious to the secrets beneath their feet. Underground, a vast network of hidden chambers crisscrosses through the soft sandstone. But these rocks have kept their secrets for more than a thousand years.
Amazingly, there has been a settlement in Nottingham’s location since before the 5th century, when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England. Prior to this, the region was inhabited by Celts who dubbed the city Tigguo Cobauc in the old Brythonic language – which translates as Place of Caves.
The first known reference to Tigguo Cobuac was made by Asser, the Bishop of Sherborne, in 893 AD. After the Anglo-Saxons invaded, the settlement was taken over by Snot, a Saxon chieftain. Thereafter, it became known as Snotingaham – “the homestead of Snot’s people” – from which the modern city’s name is derived.
Over the years, Nottingham has grown to become one of the U.K.’s major cities. It became an important center of trade in the 15th century and, today, it is the largest urban area in the east Midlands region, with a thriving local economy. It is also famous for its association with the legend of Robin Hood.
But while Nottingham has transformed itself into a prosperous contemporary city, its modern streets hide a secret that dates back to the Dark Ages. Fascinatingly, the caves that gave Tigguo Cobuac its name still exist beneath the streets.
At the heart of this is the ridge of soft sandstone on which the city was built. Because the rock provides little resistance to tools, many of Nottingham’s early residents decided to build themselves homes by carving out their own artificial caves.
Experts believe that the caves beneath Nottingham were used as dwellings as far back as the 11th century. But it wasn’t just residents in search of homes who took to carving their own spaces out of the rock. Over the years, the spaces beneath the city have housed everything from workplaces to storerooms – and much more.
As early as 1250, there was a tannery housed in a space that was hollowed out from the rock. It was the only such business to exist underground in the U.K. Utilizing two spaces, the cave boasted vats where the hides of sheep and goats would be tanned.
While the caves represented a clever – and economical – use of space, the conditions within were tough. In the tannery, children as young as eight lived and worked underground, creating ammonia from vats of excrement and urine. And although their location might have actually prevented the children from contracting bubonic plague, the quicklime used to strip animal fat left many with only partial use of their hands.
Soon, other businesses were following suit. With their year-round cool temperatures, the caves provided the perfect environment for brewing beer and many local pubs began carving out their own cellars. In fact, in some establishments, it is said that these storerooms doubled up as hiding places for criminals plotting illicit deeds.
Even royalty were thought to have made use of Nottingham’s caves. Back in 1330 Nottingham Castle was occupied by the nobleman Roger de Mortimer, who had deposed Edward II and effectively assumed the role of monarch. According to legend, the teenage Edward III used a secret network of underground tunnels to sneak into the castle and capture him.
Mostly, however, the use of Nottingham’s caves was far from glamorous. As the Industrial Revolution brought about a boom in the textile industry, many people arrived in the city looking for work. However, housing soon became a problem.
“There was a great crush in the city,” archaeologist Dr. David Strange-Walker told the BBC in 2014. “Slum landlords were housing families in caves, which is all fairly horrific.” In fact, conditions were so bad that a law was passed in 1845 making it illegal to use a cave as a residence.
However, despite this law, many had little choice and continued to live in Nottingham’s caves. Underground shanty towns developed on the outskirts of the city, often without access to sanitation or fresh air. In some, diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera were rife.
But it wasn’t just poverty that drove the residents of Nottingham underground. During World War II, Nazi bombs began raining down on the city, bringing destruction from the skies. In order to protect citizens, some of the caves were transformed into air raid shelters in February 1941 where people could be shielded from the blasts.
And as Nottingham has changed, its caves have been adapted to serve new purposes. In the 1980s, a cave used as an air raid shelter underwent an unlikely transformation into a caravan showroom. Meanwhile, at the Hand and Heart, modern patrons can enjoy a meal under twinkling fairylights in a long cavern beneath the pub.
The caves have proved to be resistant to threats posed by development, though. In fact, when the construction of a shopping mall threatened the survival of much of the system in the 1960s, the Nottingham Historical Arts Society stepped in and had the caverns declared an ancient monument.
Subsequently, large sections of the caves were preserved and opened to the public in 1978. Experts are currently aware of almost 550 caves still existing beneath the city – although Dr. Strange-Walker believes that there could be hundreds more waiting to be discovered.
While some of Nottingham’s caves have retained their historic aspect, others have blended into the fabric of modern life and have been put to more down-to-earth uses. In one apartment block, for example, the neighboring caves have been adopted by local children as movie sets and imaginary hideouts. “They’re pretty annoyed with me that we’re moving down the road,” one dad told the BBC.
Today, some of the caves – including the tannery – are accessible as a tourist attraction run by Nottingham’s Egalitarian Trust. Known as the City of Caves, these caves are open for guided tours and the organizers also offer workshops and special evening activities. For those interested in the city’s hidden past, it’s a fantastic opportunity to explore a side of Nottingham that few are lucky enough to see.