The sound of falling bombs thundered around us as we huddled in the dark. Over the roar of explosions, we could hear the faint whine of plane engines recreating the horror of World War II. Our guide’s voice broke in above this recorded commotion, relating tales that were funny, sad, awesome, and gruesome too. My six and eight-year-old children lapped it all up with shining eyes, as we wandered through Nottingham caves, some dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. In Nottingham in central England, where we live, there’s something on every weekend with storytelling at its heart. And if it’s shocking, “gross-out” history my children enjoy it even more.
It starts with the fact that this atmospheric city used to be called Snottingham. Yes, Snottingham, after the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon leader Snot, and not for a preponderance of sniffle-afflicted people. In fact, snot was the least of their problems. The plague, a lack of toilets, poverty and, most of all, a legendary predilection for rebellion ensured that this Middle English municipality careened from one misadventure to another over the ages. One sunny spring day, my kids and I heard about all this as we explored the bowels of Nottingham: through a small part of a labyrinthine system of over 500 man-made sandstone caves, the largest complex of its kind in Britain, which extends all the way under the historical streets.
These caves were used for a variety of purposes, from living quarters for the poor, to tanneries and cellars. And, as our City of Caves guide informed us, our visit was on the anniversary of the day, in 1941, on which hundreds of people streamed into the caves to escape an attack during World War II. Nottingham, which produced lace, literature, and bicycles, had been largely left alone by German bombers until then. But on that 8 May, the skies went dark with German warplanes, which carpet-bombed Nottingham, killing and injuring hundreds. However, many residents escaped to the air raid shelters constructed in these millennia-old caves.
That’s where we found ourselves, huddling in the dark while our guide stage-whispered the story of the Nottingham Blitz. We peered at the propaganda posters on the wall and examined the reproductions of gas masks. There were small, red “Mickey Mouse” ones with ears for children. We circled an unexpectedly large artillery shell sticking out of a nibble pile in the adjacent cave with awe. There were dinosaur fossils on show; and a sand pit with a couple of them peeking out of the ground for children to try their hand at digging them up. We saw a well where the cleanest water in medieval Nottingham could be found, alongside the most gigantic cesspit, in which seven years’ worth of excreta could be stored. Apparently, the latter was only bothered with when it overflowed every eight years, threatening the clean water supply of the city’s rich beside it!
The Dead Wall was next. Hundreds of skeletons had been discovered behind a mysterious medieval wall during the ongoing excavation of Nottingham’s cave network. Tests proved they belonged to people who died of the plague. The disease was thought to be so infectious that the townspeople had avoided burying victims in the soil, for fear of contaminating crops. More grisly tales were to follow. We were shown underground tanneries, where men laboured in a pungent stew of rainwater, human urine, and dog faeces. Our little group of explorers wandered down Drury Hill, a subterranean street of slums where Middle England’s poorest had scooped out (sometimes with spoons) minute homes for themselves. Here they stayed till 1845, when the last of these cave dwellings were abandoned at the municipality’s orders.
Though the caves were dark, and sometimes rocky and narrow; some seemed quite cosy and are still used as pub cellars. In one of the larger caverns we sat on craggy old kegs below fairy lights to answer a quiz on all we’d seen and done. One chamber had successively been used as a medieval pub cellar, a Tudor banker’s vault, and then a pub cellar again in the Industrial Age. This obscure hollow in Nottingham’s belly was chosen by the rebellious Luddites— agitating against the loss of their textile manufacturing jobs to factories—for clandestine meetings.
Children had a part to play even here, as the story suggests they stood watch overground for the sheriff’s men, and warned the Luddites of impending danger by dropping pebbles down into the cave. They were never caught, and Nottingham proudly remained a rebel city. After a picnic lunch in the grand square onto which we emerged, our children reminded us of this rebellious spirit by running headlong into the fountains there. Though sated on fresh bread, sweet bell peppers, brie and salami; and tired out from the kids’ excited post-mortem chatter; we grinned, decided the sun was too strong in Snottingham, and jumped in after them.