Nottingham was our last stop on those glorious summer days in the Peak District, and a fascinating one. I didn’t know it was a city of caves, built over sandstone that human beings have been tunneling out for centuries.
We attempted a derive of underground Nottingham. It involved much suffering, especially by my partner Mark who can’t abide tours led by ‘characters’. I hate them too, but for me being underground offset that — though for the record, I thought we’d be able to do them without a tour leader in costume and was proved dreadfully wrong.
The 450+ caves underneath the city do not appear to be things that city bureaucrats and planners cared about at all until recently unless it was to seal them up and stamp them out — sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that people with such power view awesomeness as a liability. Until I read Le Corbusier. This church survived, but with the indignity of corporate identity and its reinvented nature as a Pitcher&Piano chain pub plastered all over it.
Planners tore down all the old narrow streets with their twisting and interconnecting cellars, and built scenic car parking, with ‘local colour’ added through its naming in a most disheartening way (poor Maid Marian):
They also plunked down Broadmarsh Shopping Centre on top of them. The best tour (that we had time to find and embark on) of the caves has to be accessed through the shopping centre itself, with more care gone into warning you of stick figures in peril than the wonders beneath that might distract you from Top Shop:
I thought, actually, the characters in costume were pretty good for what they were asked to do — I finally understand how tanning works! I personally prefer straight exposition, but I didn’t mind the acting. The tannery carved out of the rocks several hundred years ago once looked out onto running water — human beings have transformed this section of the landscape with immense thoroughness, and with a rather jaw-dropping destructiveness once you realize what has been lost. The caves were still eerie and wonderful, despite our being part of a large group of people tramping through in hard-hats
The very poor lived in them — at much risk to health and life expectancy:
They were used as cellars and storage rooms and hiding places and escape routes and gambling and drinking dens:
During WWII people escaped the bombs in them. I wanted more, so I decided we would brave the prison on our save-money-by-visiting-both-attractions tickets — a terrible mistake. They did try to make horrific injustices and horrible punishments a little less horrible, but the gibbet is there hanging. They just weren’t sure whether this needed to be an indictment of past (and present) barbarities and solidarity with its victims (my strong feeling), or a house of horrors, or a curiosity box of punishments with some celebration of law thrown in.
There’s a statue of a woman being burned to death complete with fake fire, a celebration of changing prison guard uniforms alongside a most heartbreaking procession of punishments for crimes of hunger and poverty, and reminders of just how many were transported to other countries both to cement the power of Empire and to rid England of the troublesome poor the wealthy had no use for, especially the ones that did not just die quietly of cold and starvation.
If I were not heartbroken enough, here the caves were things of horror, holding felons (remembering that god these were some unjust laws in a system of complete injustice) and people imprisoned for debt. These were the only caves I would love to see blown into tiny pieces, along with this prison.
Perhaps as an attempt to lighten the horror of all we were seeing, was they had recreated Drury Hill. A city nerd’s dream come true. Having destroyed this neighbourhood of history and character and community developed over a whole lot of hard years (from whence also came most of the desperate poor came who were sent of to America, Australia), they rebuilt a cardboard and mirror version for our enjoyment. We wandered through it:
We walked past ghosts
This was such a strange version of the modern urge to recreate the material past that people in power have destroyed and that now fascinates us, but in a sanitised and safe way. A belated recognition of what gives a city its character and why people love it. A nod to tourists, but I imagine this is one of the museums every child growing up in Nottingham is brought to see and in some ways is forming ideas of what Nottingham was and is now.
In most ways I prefer this version to Disneyland’s fake high streets, because there is no way you can pretend that this ever was or is real. This is perhaps as good as such things get, its absolute fakeness was still extensive enough that an old couple had some trouble finding their way out, and it is both interesting and disturbing — which this kind of exhibit should be, with a splash of Roger Rabbit’s toon town thrown in. Here is a taste of what was here before:
These pictures are from a forum in which people remember what was and shake their fists at the planners who destroyed it all, as they do in cities around the world where what people most love and remember has been torn down in the name of progress. I have no love of the dirt, disease and misery that once filled some of these streets, but surely we were capable of transforming them into decent housing for the people who lived there. I love that curve of businesses and homes up the hill, and mourn its loss alongside those who lost their homes and livelihoods — I know well that you are never the same again after those things are torn from you, torn down.
City planners never really cared about that, which was always part of the problem. Empathy could have gone a long way to save what was best in our cities. Instead poverty was dispersed, and the earth flattened (a bit) and all the cold barrenness of malls and parking garages put in their place. The hospital where my mum was once a student nurse now turned into luxury flats. A few memories remain in the midst of profit’s rush to reshape a city for its needs.
The castle is also preserved, along with the castle caves and Mortimer’s hole. More costumed characters leading tours and telling gruesome stories and too many people on the tour with you. But these caves are really cool.
Really, the way to enjoy old and underground Nottingham is through its pubs. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is of course the most famous, and the place my mum most remembered from her time there. It was immensely awesome and also very busy. We also made it to the Hand and Heart.
It’s a fascinating city, really. One fighting to create employment for its survival and believing development will do that also, and I know the shopping centre is as much a part of that as these rather forlorn attempts to turn empty store fronts into something positive:
Byron lived here, Charles I planted a standard several hundred years ago to ‘start’ the civil war (I think the roundheads did that really) — the plaques marking this occasion are many and cover a fairly large area that you realise was once a hilltop. I bought a book on the caves I have yet to read, and which charmingly has pictures of most of the caves with a woman I assume is the author’s wife in each of them — wearing a stunning array of clothes and hairstyles. The pubs were many and old — they seem to have survived much better here than other places. There is more potential in some ways for a city like this to reinvent itself from the bottom up, unlike London where money floods in from top down forcing anything interesting and creative out or coopting and destroying it. The moral is, more power in reimagining and recreating the city to more people. So I will end on my favourite sign and a slide show: