Nottingham Cave Brewery Complex

Nottingham Castle up on Castle Rock, lit at night
Upper Cave Bar at Trip to Jerusalem Inn
Upper Cave Bar at the Trip to Jerusalem Inn

Nottingham has a complex network of brewing caves that used to support a thriving malt export tradeI have recently found pictures of medieval English malt kilns, and have been poking at finding more about how malt was kilned back then, but then I found the Nottingham cave brewery complex.

17th century inn with sandstone cliff behind, where beer was stored in caves
17th Century inn – the beer was stored in caves behind it.

That’s right, I said cave brewery complex.  Under Nottingham Castle.  More than thirty malting caves, each with a well and soaking vat.  Theres a large germination room with a sloping floor, to spread the wet barley.  There’s a great malting kiln.  Just think of the perfectly consistent year-round temperatures caves have.  Apparently Nottinghma had one of the greatest concentrations of urban malt kilns, and traded its surplus – for example, with Cheshire, for salt.  Geologist Tony Waltham writes, “in the centre of Nottingham, the number of pub cellar caves almost matches the number of pubs.”   There’s also “Brewhouse Yard”, a network of caves where local brewsters stored their beer.  No wonder Nottingham is famous for its ales.

Old Angel Inn and its cellar caves
The Old Angel Inn and its cellar caves, courtesy of the Survey

Is this perfect or what?  All right, this is not news, except to me. The earliest mention of these caves dates to when there was a Saxon settlement up top, circa 868 AD.    The brewing rooms are only one portion of the approximately 450-500 under Nottingham.  Room upon room, hallways, and staircases have been hollowed out of the sandstone.  One nobleman’s house has what appears to be a drinking den carved out below his cellars.  There’s a great column in the center, and banquettes carved out of the rock around it and around the walls, and an adjacent wine cellar.  Ye Olde Salutation Inn and Trip to Jerusalem Inn are both known to link to the network of caves beneath their cellars.  Out of the 450+, about 150 of the caves are probably still accessible.Deep water wells underground fed the malting process

Clearly there are some huge, gaping holes in my education.  I thought I knew my Robin Hood lore, but none of the stories I knew ever mentioned caves, and here Nottingham is famous for them.Starting in March 2010, the Nottingham Cave Survey began using laser technology to create a “point cloud” of data, giving a surprisingly 3D map of the intricate networks – at least, as best I can tell from much-too-small pictures on the ‘Net, there are several different networks of caves with various purposes. Apparently a lot of medieval Nottingham is gone, so having maps of the caves that can be underlaid the modern city helps show where other things must’ve been.  For instance, the real attention grabber to the cave project was finding what was probably the real Mortimer’s Hole.  Quick backstory:  Sir Roger de Mortimer and his lover, the freakin’ Queen, holed up in Nottingham Castle after Edward II died.  The Queen had in fact led a mercenary army from France across England and deposed her husband, becoming regent on behalf of their son.  Edward II died not long after.  She shared her regency with Sir Roger, who was busy usurping the young Edward II’s power and ruling England in his stead, and apparently subjecting the young King to notable disrespect and humiliation.

Portrait of edward III In helm with sword
Edward III

For some reason (I can’t imagine why) the young Edward thought Sir Roger might be a little bit responsible  for his father’s death, seeing as he was the Queen’s lover well before her invasion.  After a couple of years of this treatment, he took a small troop of trusted men up through the tunnels into Nottingham castle and captured Sir Roger, who was taken to the Tower and hanged without trial a little later.  The Queen was neither banished nor executed, but did not live at Court ever again, either.  Edward III went on to rule well for 50 years.There is a cave opening that has long served tourists as the entrance to “Mortimer’s Hole”, the tunnels the troops took, but it never quite matched up to historical records – and despite this all having happened in 1327, we have some pretty clear records.  From the new survey, what was almost certainly the real route emerged, with an opening in a back garden.  It’s pretty exciting.

Great open stone malting kiln under Castle Gate
Malt kiln under the Castle Gate. The woman is seated where the roasting platform rested.

Let’s give a nod to the organizations that are funding this: the Greater Nottingham Partnership, the University of Nottingham, and the Nottingham City Council.  Thanks, folks.There is, of course, a Robin Hood Beer Festival in October.  Darn, we just missed it.  Mark the calendar.  More than 1,000 ales featured this year, including local gems like Castle Rock, Nottingham Brewery, Lincoln Green and Blue Monkey (I had to mention them just to lighten up the whole Robin Hood scene).  Nottingham is famous for its ale, granted.  There’s the song to the tune of Lily Burlero (for the words, scroll down).  Nottingham even has its own branch of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale.

Plumpre House malt kiln caves
panorama of the Plumpre House malt kiln caves, courtesy of the Survey

And of course, Nottingham ale yeast is famous for finishing in 2-4 days,  which does kinda impress me.  But the caves – these caves are just coooool!!!Nottingham Ale (because we can’t have too many silly drinking songs, now, can we?)Fair Venus, the goddess of beauty and love,

Arose from the froth which swam on the sea; Minerva leapt out of Cranium of Jove,

A coy sullen dame, as most authors agree,

Bold Bacchus, they tell us, The prince of good fellows,

was a natural son- pray attend my tale;

But they that thus chatter, Mistake quite the matter, he sprung from a barrel of Nottingham Ale. 

Chorus- Nottingham Ale, Boys, Nottingham Ale, No Liquor on earth like Nottingham ale.

Map of the Plumpre malt kiln cave
Map of the Plumpre malt kiln caves

And having survey’d well the cask whence he sprung,

For want of more liquor, Low spirited grew!,

He mounted astride, And away to the gods and goddesses flew,

But when he looked down, and saw the fair town,

To pay it due honours,

Not likely to fall, He swore that on Earth, ’twas place of his birth,

And the best and no liquor like Nottingham Ale.

Chorus.

Ye bishops and deacons, priests, curates and vicars,

When once you have tasted you’ll own it is true.

That Nottingham ale is the best of all liquors; And who understands the good creature like you?,

It speaks every vapour-save pen, ink and paper; And when you’re disposed the pulpit to rail,

’twill open your throats-you may preach without notes, When inspired with a bumper of Nottingham ale.

Chorus.

Survey image of the caves under Propaganda Nightclub
Malting caves under Propaganda Nightclub, courtesy the Survey

Ye doctors, who do more execution, with powder and bolus, with potion and pill; Than hangman with halter, or solider with gun, Than miser with famine; or lawyer with quill; To dispatch us the quicker, you forbid us malt liquor, Till our bodies consume, and our faces grow pale; But mind it, What pleases, and cures all diseases, Is a comforting dose of good Nottingham ale.Chorus.

Ye poets, who brag of the Helicorn Brook, The rector of gods, and the juice of the vine; You say none can write well, Except they invoke the friendly assistance of one of the mine, Here’s liquor surpasses the streams of Parnassus, The nectar ambrosia,  on which gods regale, Experience will show it nought make a good poet, Like quantum sufficit of Nottingham ale.


Chorus- Repeated twice.

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4 Comments

        • The old caver in my heart was made happy by the mention of cave networks, but I had no idea. Nottingham wasn’t on my list – no forests anymore – and they’re going to have to convince me about their ales (I volunteer for that duty, sir!). I think I’d be trying to get a tour of some of these – I don’t know how many of the brewing caves are still accessible. It sounds like they’ve been out of use for quite a while, and there’s a great deal of rubble in some parts. It’s only sandstone, which gets really soft when it rains…
          Hey, what kind of water would you get from a sandstone well?

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