Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Going Underground: The City Where People Continue To Live In Caves
Nottingham Rock Cemetery cave interior.
On a recent weekend I took a small tour of some of the tunnels under Nottingham as research for my next novel, which is partly set in the city; and one of the main characters is, for a while, forced to live in the caves.
It was a fascinating experience.
Nottingham is a city that is built on a system of caves that have been expanded by the city's occupants over the centuries for living and working space. Some of them are available for the public to tour, others continue to be used by homeless people as they always have.
The city, which dates back over 1000 years, was built a particularly soft form of sandstone called Bunter sandstone. It has played a major part in the way that the city has expanded. This is the city that I grew up in and to which I regularly return.
Nottingham is most famous for being the city of Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The castle which now sits on top of the splendid rock overlooking the city centre is not the original one, which burned down in a fire in the 18th century.
A cave system extends from the castle down to the ground level and into neighbouring built-up areas. Directly below, at the bottom of the cliff, is probably the oldest pub in the world: the Trip to Jerusalem Inn.
In the days of pilgrimages to the Holy Land documented in the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, pilgrims would begin their journey at the castle gate and the first stop would be the Inn. The habits of Brits travelling abroad have not changed much over the centuries! The Inn is carved out of the cliff base. Looking up to the ceiling you can see a chimney extending right upwards to the castle above.
The Trip to Jerusalem Inn chimney carved in the rock.
Many of the buildings in central area of Nottingham have cellars and extended underground areas that were carved out, particularly in the 17th and 18th century.
The reason for this is that during the Industrial Revolution tens of thousands of people migrated from the countryside to work in the factories in the cities of England. In Nottingham's this was in the lacemaking factories.
The city could not expand beyond its tight boundaries because of a complex system of land ownership around the outside. Everybody living inside had the rights to farm strips of land outside the city walls to grow food, a relic of the feudal system. They also had the right to walk in the surrounding countryside to get fresh air.
Inside the city walls conditions were dire due to pollution from burning coal and the lack of a sewerage system. Overcrowding was terrible and in an effort to make more space people burrowed into the soft sandstone, carving out more rooms for both workspace and living space. The dispossessed lived in the caves.
But this was not a sustainable solution. As in many English cities at this time there was an outbreak of cholera in Nottingham. Hundreds of people died. The proper solution was not just to build sewers but to extend the city and build on the surrounding land.
This was the time of the Enclosure Acts in England which were used to appropriate agricultural land for building and development. In many cases this led to agricultural land, much of which was common land which everybody had a right to use, being grabbed by the rich and fenced off. Many people starved as a result.
But in Nottingham it was different. The 1845 Enclosure Act specified that developers or builders must come to an agreement with the owners of the land and those who had the right to use it before it could be built upon. This process took 15 years to pan out in the courts. But it was worth it because it was done amicably. Everyone benefited.
The map extract above from George Sanderson’s ‘Twenty Miles Around Mansfield’, published in 1835, gives some idea of the density of development and overcrowding which Nottingham suffered from prior to the enclosure of the fields around the town. Also visible are the Sand Field and Clay Field which were enclosed to the north of Nottingham. The field pattern is clearly visible.
One result of this is that certain corridors of green space and parks were kept and are still there today for all people to enjoy. They provide a vital means by which the city can breathe.
Today you can look at Nottingham from the air or walk around it and see the result of this expansion. Outside the original compact city is a ring of Victorian buildings, large homes which would have had a room for servants. These are now in the main subdivided into apartments or used by businesses.
Around that was built rows of small tenement homes for the workers. Many of these still remain, as in Hyson Green, but others have been since demolished because they grew to be slums, such as the notorious Meadows area between the castle and the River Trent immortalised in local author Alan Sillitoe's novel (and film adaptation) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
The 1930s saw further urban sprawl (above) in the form of large, planned estates of council houses on the lines of garden cities, with generous gardens for the workers to grow their own vegetables, two or three bedrooms and wide roads. Nowadays hardly anybody unfortunately grows vegetables in these gardens and the front gardens have been paved over for cars, because nobody thought that workers would own one, let alone two or three cars, in those days so no room was provided for them.
Nottingham has sprawled much more since then, with endless badly designed housing estates extending into the countryside. Very little of Sherwood Forest remains although in mediaeval times it came almost up to the castle itself.
Who knows? Perhaps Robin Hood and his outlaws used to live in some of the cave systems and used them to creep up upon the Sheriff in his castle.
When I visited one small part of the caves yesterday I found evidence that they are still being used by the homeless.
The part I accessed is through Rock Cemetery, one of the green spaces preserved by the Enclosure Act in the area known as the Forest (although it does not resemble a forest at all).
The entrance to the system is meant to be protected by iron railings but they had been tampered with to provide enough space for someone to crawl through.
Inside is evidence that people do in fact sleep there:
There is also evidence of drinking and drug use:
I talked to Dwayne, the council officer responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery, who confirmed that drug users and homeless people do use the caves. He had a relaxed, laissez-faire atitude to this. I met a German journalist doing a feature on Nottingham who told me she had told by a charity official that cutbacks in council spending have caused an increase in homelessness.
It's very dark and quiet in the caves. The rock is soft and crumbly and dry. It's also quite scary at first. There are occasionally roof-falls.
While some of the caves in Nottingham are accessible only through private property, and some are available for visitors to tour, the full extent of the system is unknown and it's possible to find entrances all over the central part of the city.
Nottingham's underground culture looks set to continue far into the future.
For further information about the 1845 Enclosure Act in Nottingham see John Beckett and Ken Brand, ‘Enclosure, Improvement and the Rise of “New Nottingham”, 1845-67′ (PDF), Transactions of the Thoroton Society, XCVIII (1994, published in 1995), pp. 92-111.