Caves beneath The Malt Cross, St James Street

As resident archaeologist for Nottingham City Council, Scott Lomax has been studying Nottingham’s unique cave system for nearly 10 years. Since 2008, the number of caves recorded under Nottingham has risen by nearly 300, and is quite likely to increase as the interest in this peculiar terrain grows. Ahead of Cave City: Nottingham Underground Festival, we had a quick chat with Scott to find out more.

Resident archaeologist - that sounds like a pretty interesting job! Do most cities have an in-house archaeologist, or is this something unique to Nottingham due to the caves?

Many city councils have an archaeological adviser, particularly for larger historic cities such as Nottingham where there are important archaeological remains known to be present and the likelihood of further significant remains yet to be discovered. Where cities do not have their own archaeologist, archaeological advice is usually provided by an archaeologist, or small team of archaeologists, who are responsible for an entire county (usually working for the county council).

How do you go about discovering all of these hidden caves?

Caves have frequently been found during construction work. However, when this happens it can be problematic because the cave could be damaged in the process of its discovery and its late discovery in the planning process can make it difficult to preserve the cave. Nowadays I try to determine whether a site might have a cave, using historic maps, documentary records, and knowledge of the local area, and ensure that ground investigations take place prior to development commencing. If caves are found through ground investigations, then they are fully investigated where it is safe to do so and preserved.

Caves are also occasionally found during renovation of old buildings. For example, a few years ago a pub in Sneinton had some work carried out in its basement. A wall was removed to reveal a continuation of the basement, at the end of which was an entrance to a substantial cave.

Caves are also identified following discussions with owners of properties. The caves are known to the owners but are not in the city council’s records.

I also spend a lot of time carrying out documentary research to work out where there are caves which are likely to now be covered up but in many cases are likely to still survive. A particularly useful source are auction records from the 18th and 19th centuries, which describe buildings and their cave cellars. Through this method alone I have identified more than 150 caves.

Is there a particular area of the city that is known to hold the first of Nottingham’s caves?

We know Nottingham had caves by the late 9th century but we are not sure when caves first began to be hewn in the city. No one is sure where the oldest caves are likely to have been located but it is my belief that they will be in the Lace Market, where archaeological evidence has shown a large defended settlement to have existed by the second half of the 9th century.

Unfortunately no caves of 9th century date have been identified (the earliest dated cave is of the mid-13th century). This could be because they have been destroyed by later development, or they may have been modified so much so that their earliest features no longer survive (many caves have been enlarged or altered over time) or we may simply not have found those early caves yet.

The City of Caves is Nottingham's cave museum. Located in The Lace Market, it is the best place to learn the history of Nottingham's underground world.

Which of the caves in Nottingham do you find most interesting? Have you got any good tales of what went on down there?

All of Nottingham’s caves are interesting, from the smallest I have seen (which measures only 3m in diameter) through to the largest (the Peel Street ‘Mammoth’ cave system). Each has its own important story, or stories, about the history of the city and each provides important information about the development of the city over hundreds of years.

Particular favourites of mine are the caves at Peel Street, a 13th century malt kiln complex on Castle Gate, those found during excavations at Lower Parliament Street in 2017 and the cave at Sneinton found during renovation work.

When you enter a cave that has just been discovered it is incredibly exciting because you are entering something that no one has stepped into, in some cases, for more than a century. You never know what to expect and so seeing features such as wells, pillars and historic graffiti, as well as objects from when the cave was used, or rubbish that has been discarded into the cave, gives you a connection to the past.

What kind of things have been unearthed to shed light on the original uses of the caves?

Many of the original features are known and can be deduced from looking at features within the cave. In most cases Nottingham’s caves were used as cellars for domestic or commercial use. Often understanding the history of the building above ground helps determine the function(s) of the cave below ground. For example, knowing a pub once stood on the site where a cave is found would strongly suggest the cave was at one time used for the storage of beer and perhaps even brewing. Through my documentary research I have found that brewing in caves was much more common than previously believed.

The functions of caves often changed over time. For example, some beer cellars were later also used to grow mushrooms and some were even used for scientific experiments. During the 19th century a few caves were used to assess the impact of light deprivation on the development of tadpoles. It is true to say that Nottingham’s caves have been used for dozens of different functions and it is likely there are many more functions we do not yet know about.

Scott's tours of Robin Hood's Mammoth Cave at Peel Street during #CaveCity are unfortunately sold out, but you can check out a video below to get a glimpse of this intriguing space under Nottingham's streets!

Cave City: Nottingham Underground Festival runs from 11 - 13 May 2018 and is packed with fun and intriguing events across the city, including tours, talks, activities and experiences. Discover more about this hidden landscape with guided tours at some of the city's lesser known cave locations, which have never before been explored by the public.

To follow all the subterranean happenings use #CaveCity on social!

This blog was written by Sophie Gargett, Marketing Assistant at Visit Nottinghamshire.


Cave City 2019 : Nottingham Underground Festival
Cave City : Nottingham Underground Festival | Visit Nottinghamshire

In celebration of Nottingham’s multitude of underground treasures, #CaveCity invites you to explore this mysterious terrain which has lain beneath the city for hundreds of years.



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