City of Caves

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City of Caves
City of Caves logo.jpg
Nottingham Caves at Drury Hill, Nottingham (9).jpg
Established2004; 16 years ago (2004)
LocationBroadmarsh Shopping Centre, Nottingham, United Kingdom

City of Caves is a visitor attraction in Nottingham based on a network of caves, carved out of sandstone that have been variously used over the years as a tannery, public house cellars, and as an air raid shelter. The caves are listed as a scheduled monument by Historic England under the name Caves at Drury Hill, Drury Hill being the medieval street under which they were formerly located until it was demolished to make way for the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. The newer City of Caves name refers to the fact that the city of Nottingham has hundreds of man-made caves, which have been in use for over a thousand years.[1]

The City of Caves was accessed from the upper level of the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre but can currently be accessed from Garner's Hill due to construction works in the Broadmarsh Centre, scheduled to finish in 2021[2]. The attraction, part of the National Justice Museum, has been run by the Egalitarian Trust since opening 2004.


A medieval tannery

Nottingham sits upon a soft sandstone ridge which can easily be dug with simple hand tools to create artificial cave dwellings. Indeed, Nottingham was described as Tigguo Cobauc in Old Brythonic meaning Place of Caves by the Welsh Bishop of Sherborne Asser in his The Life of King Alfred (893).[3] The caves here are some of the oldest remaining in the city, with pottery finds dating some of them to 1270–1300,[4] and were inhabited from at least the 17th century until 1845 when the St. Mary's Inclosure Act banned the renting of cellars and caves as homes for the poor.[5] None of the caves are natural; they were all cut into the sandstone for use as houses, cellars and places of work by the inhabitants of the city.[1]

If a man is poor he had only to go to Nottingham with a mattock, a shovel, a crow, an iron, a chisel or a mallet, and with such instruments he may play mole and work himself a hole or burrow for his family.

— Anon 1870

As of 2018 more than 800 caves in the city have been catalogued by Nottingham's City Archaeologist, Scott Lomax, including approximately 200 that were only rediscovered, through research by the City Archaeologist, since 2016.[6]

Construction of the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre began in the late 1960s, but the opening up of the caves to vandals and plans to fill them in with concrete caused a public outcry. A detailed study by Nottingham City Council, assisted by The Nottingham Historical Arts Society, led to the caves being scheduled as an ancient monument and the development plans were subsequently changed to preserve most of the caves. The caves were cleared by volunteers from the 2418 Sherwood Squadron Air Training Corps and Rushcliffe School and opened to public tours by the Friends of Nottingham Museum in 1978.[7]

Caves in Nottingham from medieval to now[edit]

Medieval tannery[edit]

Two caves cut into the cliff face and opening out to daylight housed the only known underground tannery in Britain.[8] The Pillar Cave was originally cut around 1250 but had been filled in by a rockfall by 1400. It was cleared and reopened as part of the tannery in 1500, with circular pits cut to hold barrels. A second cave was also cut with rectangular clay-lined vats. The small size of the vats in these caves indicates that they were probably used for sheep or goats skins rather than cowhide. There was an opening to the River Leen where they would wash the skins in the town's drinking water.[9]

Drury Hill slums[edit]

The basement walls here are all that remains of the buildings of Drury Hill, once a wealthy neighborhood in the medieval city that by the 19th century had degenerated into one of the worst slums in Britain. Poor families slept, ate and lived in the single room basements here with overcrowding and poor sanitation making it a breeding ground for cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox.[10]

Air-raid shelter[edit]

Some of the caves here were joined and expanded to house one of 86 public air raid shelters that were found in the sandstone beneath the city by February 1941 to protect its inhabitants during the bombing attacks of the Second World War, including a particularly severe one on 8 May 1941 that is recreated as part of the tour. Holes were also dug here to supply the sand used in the sandbags that helped to protect the city.[11]


  1. ^ a b "Caves of Nottingham". City of Caves. Beneath the houses, shops and offices of Nottingham lie hundreds of caves. Few people in Nottingham are aware of this labyrinth, which exists underneath the city streets, and fewer still have visited them. Nottingham has more man-made caves than anywhere else in Britain. People have worked and lived in them for over 1,000 years. None of these caves were formed naturally. They were all cut into the sandstone by the city's inhabitants for use as houses, cellars and place of work. Each cave in unique and created for a specific purpose, some have elaborate carvings, pillars and staircases.
  2. ^ Bunn, Matthew (22 February 2019). "Entrance to Broadmarsh Centre is closing as construction work begins". nottinghampost. Retrieved 18 July 2019.
  3. ^ "Tigguo Cobauc". City of Caves. The area which now makes up Nottingham city centre was once described as Tigguo Cobauc which means "Place of Caves". The only reference to Tigguo Cobauc appears in The Life of King Alfred by Welsh monk Asser, Bishop of Sherborne, who visited around 900 AD.
  4. ^ "Tigguo Cobauc". City of Caves. Nottingham was built upon a sandstone ridge. The soft sandstone was ideal for digging into and caves can easily be dug with simple hand tools. These caves are some of the oldest in the city and pottery found here has been dated to between 1270–1300.
  5. ^ "Living Underground". City of Caves. People in Nottingham have been living in caves like these since at least the 17th century. These caves and other locally were inhabited until 1845 when the St. Mary's Enclosure Act was passed. This banned the renting of cellars and caves as homes for the poor. The largest group of cave houses was at Sneinton Hermitage and some of these were inhabited up until 1867. Sadly none remain.
  6. ^ Neil Heath (22 July 2017). "'Hundreds' of undiscovered caves underneath Nottingham". BBC. Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  7. ^ "Broadmarsh Centre Under Construction". City of Caves. The decision to build the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre was taken in the mid-1960’s. When the Centre was designed it was decided to fill the caves with concrete. Once the site was cleared, in 1968, the caves were left open to vandals. There was a public outcry. Nottingham City Council, assisted by members of a local society – The Nottingham Historical Arts Society – made a detailed recording of the caves to show how important they were. They were recognised as being of national importance and scheduled as an ancient monument. Plans for the Centre were changed and most of the caves were saved. The 2418 Sherwood Squadron Air Training Corps and teams from Rushcliffe School cleared the caves of rubble. In 1972 the Friends of Nottingham Museum began running guided tours of the caves to give people a chance to visit them.
  8. ^ "The Tannery". City of Caves. This is the only known underground tannery in Britain. It was in use from 1500-1640. Tanning is the process of making leather from animal skins. In medieval times it was used for making shoes, belts, gloves, harnesses, armor, and bottles. These caves were cut into the cliff face and opened out to daylight. At the rear of the cavern was a yard where other burning processes were undertaken. Tanning was a very long process and the work was hard, dirty and very unhealthy. The awful smells from the tanning process clung to the workmen's clothes and hair.
  9. ^ "The Tannery". City of Caves. Two caves were used, cut in at the foot of the cliff face. For the Pillar Cave, this was its second use. Cut before 1270, it had been buried by a rockfall in about 1400. It was reopened as part of the tannery in about 1500. Circular pits were cut to hold barrels. Next to it a new cave was cut. The rectangular vats here were lined with clay. Skins may have been hung vertically in these. Both caves had wells. It is probable that the caves were part of a larger tannery, with a yard and sheds in front of the cliffs. The size of the pits in the cave suggest smaller skins – like sheep or goats – were being tanned, rather than cowhide.
  10. ^ "Drury Hill & Narrow Marsh". City of Caves. These basement walls are all that remains of the buildings of Drury Hill, which was one of the main streets in the Narrow Marsh area of the city. In Medieval Nottingham, this area was a wealthy neighborhood but by the 19th century, some of the worst slums in Britain could be found here. Housing was in short supply in Nottingham and the poorest families often rented basements to live in. Entire families slept, ate and lived in a single room. The overcrowding and poor sanitation made it a breeding ground for diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox.
  11. ^ "Drury Hill Caves during the War". City of Caves. During the Second World War, the people of Nottingham used the caves as air raid shelters to protect them from the bombs which descended upon the city. Older caves were re-opened and made suitable and new purpose-built air raid shelter caves were cut into the sandstone. The largest of these new caves was cut underneath the Player's factory in Radford and was capable of sheltering 9000 people. By February 1941, 86 caves in Nottingham were available as public shelters. The sandstone caves were also a useful source of sand for sandbags and a number of holes were dug to supply the demand. These caves were once separate caverns but were joined together during the Second World War so that they could be used as air raid shelters.

Coordinates: 52°57′04″N 1°08′48″W / 52.9510°N 1.1466°W / 52.9510; -1.1466