The quirky Bell Inn has stood at the edge of Nottingham’s vast Old Market Square since 1437. This reputedly haunted venue, boasting quaint and cosy snugs and bars, hides a dark and eerie sub-pub underworld that stretches deep into the gloom beneath the city.
Begun by Carmelite friars who lived in this part of Nottingham in the 14th century, the Bell Inn Caves are a little-known part of the city’s extensive human-made, rock-cut netherworld. Originally excavated as monk’s dormitories as well as, appropriately, for the brewing and storage of ale, the inn’s dark and mysterious medieval maze has been added to and adapted over the centuries.
The warren-like sandstone cave system boasts enigmatic caved-in tunnels, shafts, and abandoned staircases clawing upward in vain toward the modern city streets above. Exactly where some of these shafts and steps once surfaced is long forgotten.
A prescient pub landlady had one tunnel adapted in the early 20th century for the storage of a vast reserve of liquor to ensure that the good people of Nottingham would not suffer wartime shortages of gin and ale. The Bell Inn’s mysterious underworld also features rare Norman and Elizabethan brickwork, salvaged tram tracks, and a pair of putrid 53-foot-deep wells used by the medieval monks as a source of water for their holy homebrew.
The spooky labyrinth is accessed via a storeroom adjacent to the mens’ room, which itself is in a cellar beneath the main bar. From here, rock cut steps descend to a tier of sandstone grottoes used for storing beer barrels. From one of these cluttered caverns, a wooden trap door leads deeper still to a cavernous void with two exits. One exit leads to a series of rock cut steps and yet more caves and chambers, and the other leads to a tunnel heading determinedly away from the Bell Inn beneath neighboring buildings.
The only sign of these ghostly grottoes evident from the alehouse above is a glass observation window set into one of the bars, which lets people glimpse into deep shaft plunging into the darkness of the caverns below. Guided tours of this perilous and largely unlit cave system are carried out by torchlight at the visitor’s own risk. Hard hats are not provided, so underground explorers are advised to mind their heads!
Know Before You Go
"At your own risk" tours of the Bell Caves are available at certain times of the year. Tours are only recommended for fit and healthy individuals as a steep ladder descent is required to access the deepest caves. Wear sensible flat shoes and warm clothing, as the caves are a near-constant 50 Fahrenheit. Be aware your clothes may well get dirty and sandy. For the next available entertaining and informative tour, it is best to inquire during quiet times at the bar, or alternatively at the Nottingham tourist information office, or the official Visit Nottinghamshire website. Nottingham has more human-made caves than any other city in Europe, although most of this underworld is privately owned, dangerous, or permanently inaccessible. Nottingham's earliest recorded Brythonic name, Tigguo Cobauc translates as "Place of Cavy Dwellings."