Nottingham Caves Survey

Researchers are creating the first 3-D map of the city's hundreds of manmade caverns.

If ever there was a true race of Mole People, they probably came out of Nottingham. The inhabitants of this legendary British city have been mining the soft sandstone ridge below them for more than a thousand years, hollowing out a complex labyrinth of roughly 450 caverns, the extent of which is still not fully understood.

These lacunae perforating the earth below Nottingham's modern housing have served as tanneries, cess pits, dungeons, summer homes, malt kilns, sand quarries, wine cellars, meat-curing rooms, decorative follies, pigeon coops and allegedly a bowling alley, although I'm having a hard time finding corroboration for that one. Edward III's army is said to have used a tunnel called "Mortimer's Hole" in 1330 to slip into town and capture the rebellious nobleman Roger de Mortimer. The Sheriff of Nottingham reputedly ensconced Robin Hood in a dank pit that was later used as a prison chapel. During World War II, the British fled into the cave system to avoid air raids, and at one point it also housed glowing stocks of radium.

Back in the 18th century, the joyless warren served as a sort of affordable housing option for the poor. According to one anonymous commentator from the period: "If a man is poor he had only to go to Nottingham with a matlock, 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 [incredibly grateful] family." (Brackets mine.)

The earthy bowels you see in the image above is "King David's Dungeon" below Nottingham Castle, once a crash pad for a luckless 14th-century Scottish monarch. The unusual visualization was created by researchers at Nottingham Caves Survey, an organization devoted to making the world's first comprehensive, three-dimensional map of the cave network. It's only taken about a dozen centuries for this project to come to fruition: The first mention of Nottingham's caves was made by a Welsh monk in the 800s, back when people were still calling the town "Snotengaham," after the delightfully named Saxon chief, Snot.

The folks at the cave survey hope their work will illuminate the historical or archeological importance of some of the buried structures (other spaces that served as pub cellars or toilets will likely be ignored). They are updating a previous mapping effort by the British Geological Survey in the 1980s, using modernized tools like a radar scanner that makes as many as 550,000 survey points each second.

You can see the current results of the radar exploration in these immersive videos of the cave's interior. If you want to delve further into the dark matrix, the Caves Survey has an interactive spelunking map. BLDG blog also recently visited the site with the leader of the survey, and in an entertaining account of the trip lets us in on the factoid that a cave once held a "museum of obsolete vacuum parts."

A flythrough of "Columns Cave," cut into the rock for decorative purposes by Victorian lace manufacturer Thomas Herbert:

The "Rock Cemetery" caves, an abandoned sand mine later turned into an 1800s graveyard:

The caves beneath "Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem" pub, allegedly the oldest inn in the country:

About the Author

John Metcalfe
John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.

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