Nottingham, Underground Town

Article excerpt

Byline: Alison Moore

There are hundreds of caves beneath Nottingham, cut into the sandstone over the centuries by the city's inhabitants. Some were cold, damp homes for the poor; some were extra rooms under medieval houses--a way of adding an extension without incurring a tax increase. Some were dungeons: deep bottle-shaped cells. There was a chapel, a brewery, and a tannery. More recently, dozens were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War--one, underneath a cigarette factory, could hold 8,000 people.

Some of these caves are open to the public. There are "cave bars"--Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is a pub carved into the cliff underneath Nottingham Castle. Others are private cellars. A few have even been converted into ironically expensive homes. Quite a number, though, have failed to survive housing improvements, the building of new office blocks and department stores, a new railway and wider roads. Drury Hill was a narrow, cobbled lane famed for the huge rock cellars underneath its houses, but was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for a shopping center. On the site of the old Town Gaol, on top of the now concrete-filled medieval dungeons, today there is one of the largest contemporary art galleries in the U.K.

The pull between history and progress is a contentious issue in Nottingham. Billions of pounds have been spent on transforming the city center. For some, the development is entirely positive, providing first-rate venues and facilities, creating new jobs and economic growth. For others, proud of Nottingham's architectural legacy, the regeneration has only contributed to the erosion of the city's character, the loss of historic buildings and independent shops, and the proliferation of new bars.

Nottingham is proud, too, of its literary heritage. The outlaw Robin Hood, whose story was first told in narrative ballads, is honored with a statue that stands between Nottingham Castle and Maid Marian Way. Newstead Abbey, 12 miles north of the city, is the ancestral home of Lord Byron. Arriving there from London with his mother, Byron found it in a state of disrepair but nonetheless lived there on and off, or in a house a couple of miles away, when he was not away at school or college. …