It’s October again, and you know what that means! Let’s get spooky! Or as spooky as I can get, given that there aren’t really any Halloween events this year due to Covid (well, I guess there’s some virtual ones, but I’m not really sold on those). I do have one properly spooky post that I’m saving for closer to Halloween, so you just get some vaguely creepy ones the rest of the month. And I’m starting with City of Caves, which, (spoiler alert) I kind of hated!
I’d only been to Nottingham once before, when I went on a training course last year, and hadn’t had time to see anything other than the gallery where the training was held (Nottingham Contemporary, and it was pretty meh). So when I was looking for spooky places to visit, and City of Caves, the National Justice Museum, AND the Haunted Museum came up as possible destinations, revisiting Nottingham seemed like a pretty good bet (this was in September, before restrictions were tightened again, though these museums are all still open as far as I know), especially as we could easily get there and back in a day with our rented car.
City of Caves and the National Justice Museum both ask you to book a timed slot for entry (they’re under the same ownership), and because the website said that the City of Caves audio tour would take 40 minutes, and the National Justice Museum is only a short walk away, I stupidly booked a 12:40 slot for City of Caves (admission is £8.75 – you get a small discount if you book tickets for both museums together, but you can only get an Art Pass discount at the National Justice Museum, so I was forced to book them separately, as the Art Pass discount + full priced caves admission was still cheaper than the combined attraction discount), and a 1:30 slot for the National Justice Museum. We ended up arriving early, so we popped into town to get a doughnut for a late breakfast, and still made it to City of Caves with a bit of time to spare. Based on my experience with the Holburne Museum, I did realise that queuing was a possibility in these Covid times, but because we had a timed slot for City of Caves, unlike at the Holburne Museum, I did think the process would be a bit quicker. Silly me.
We arrived to find quite a few groups of people milling around the entrance – not obviously queuing, but waiting for something. We soon found out that this was because the “audio tour” mentioned on the website was one you would have to download yourself onto your own device. I had naively assumed that the audio guides and headphones would be provided to us and cleaned after each use, though if I’d really thought about it, I guess I’d have to concede that downloading a tour onto your own device (if you have one) is probably the safer and easier option. However, because they neglected to tell us this on the website, I was totally unprepared. I had my phone, of course, but I hate earbuds and never use them (I only ever listen to music inside my house or in a car, so I don’t need them), so I don’t even own a pair, and it seemed rude to all the other visitors to just have the tour blaring out of my phone. Also, if they had let us know in advance, I could have had the tour already downloaded, instead of standing about blocking the entrance with everyone else and having to use my data. This was the first sign of poor organisation.
The second was when we had downloaded the tour much faster than the people who had arrived before us, who were still sitting on a bench trying to figure it out, but we were just left standing there, completely ignored by the woman working at the entrance, who was clearly flustered and going from group to group attempting to help, whilst her colleague sat doing nothing behind a desk inside the entrance. I don’t mind waiting, but I at least like some acknowledgement as to why I’m just left standing somewhere! She ended up taking the group in front of us inside to get them audio equipment (which apparently is available if you are unable to download the tour and get real cranky about it) and left us waiting there whilst I was getting more and more impatient because the minutes were ticking away, and we had a schedule to keep. Finally we were allowed in (even though it said we had to pre-book, I’m pretty sure the people in front of us bought their tickets on the spot since I heard the till go) and ended up just sharing Marcus’s earbuds, which made walking around awkward to say the least. We also had to play the audio guide at a sped up rate so that we would finish in time, because the fifteen minute wait to enter meant we wouldn’t have gotten to the National Justice Museum in time otherwise.
Leaving the entrance fiasco behind us, we descended down some steps into the caves proper. I know a lot of the caves were dug out by hand, especially in their more recent history, but I still don’t know if the original set of caves were man made or were naturally occurring, since it was never explained in the audio guide (or we missed it by playing it at warp speed). At any rate, they were recorded as far back as 900 AD by the hilariously named Asser, and people were living in them from at least the 11th century onward, in addition to using them for smelly industries like tanning, as a shelter during the Blitz, and as cellars/storage space for the houses above the caves. I wouldn’t say they were particularly creepy (or no more so than any other caves), unless you had to live there, especially the slum housing in the Victorian era. They are also quite dark, being caves (there is some lighting, but not a lot), and I tripped over things a couple of times, at one point falling into a bench, which kind of hurt (even though I was wearing sensible shoes for once!) so caution is advised! The darkness is also why the photos in this post are so poor (well that and because they were caves, so there wasn’t a lot to look at).
The tour (insofar as I was able to listen to it with the earbud popping out of my ear every time Marcus moved) seemed to focus primarily on the industry that took place inside the caves, like the aforementioned tanning; the poor living conditions, and a few notable people who spent time in the caves, like a group of Luddites who used to have clandestine meetings down there to try to escape being caught by the authorities (the Luddite movement started amongst the textile workers in Nottingham), though I believe some of them ultimately ended up being executed, so I guess their attempt to hide wasn’t all that successful.
My main issue with the caves was the lack of, well, anything in them. Apart from the one mannequin that you can probably barely see in one of the Victorian rooms, and a few posters in the air raid shelter, there wasn’t really anything to look at in here, and only a few signs to read, so we were very dependent on the audio guide, and as I found it quite dull and difficult to listen to (for the reasons discussed above), I didn’t end up learning very much. I think more artefacts or mannequins, or even some authentic smells (particularly in the tanning section, which was a notoriously stinky industry due to utilising human urine) would have helped bring things to life a bit more. I’m not suggesting a full Disneyfication of the caves, just using artefacts and more signage to make it more of a museum!
I think it’s fairly obvious, even if I hadn’t come right out and said it at the start, that I really did not enjoy my visit of City of Caves. I was already in a bad mood from not being told about the audio guide situation on the website and being made to wait for ages whilst being ignored by the staff, and the caves themselves did nothing to improve it. I disliked the audio guide (what I could hear of it, anyway) since it skipped around various historical eras in a disconcerting way (to the point where we had to rewind it because we thought we’d missed a segue somewhere, not nope, there was just no transition) yet still managed to drone on for far too long (I’m not sure how that was possible, but it was). I’m sorry this didn’t end up being a creepier post (sadly, no ghosts are meant to haunt the caves, as far as I know), as I was hoping it would, but things can only get better, right? 1.5/5 for City of Caves.