Scientists in Nottingham, England, are studying nearly 500 man-made caves under the city and surrounding countryside. Some of the caves, hewn into the soft sandstone by generations of laborers, date back to the early Middle Ages. They were used for businesses, storage, shelter, and one is reputed to have been the prison of Robin Hood.
The Nottingham Caves Survey is mapping the caves with a 3D laser scanner that measures the interior surfaces with millions of data points. These “point clouds” are then converted into a 3D image, spruced up with video animation software, and made into short videos that take you through the spaces.
This is as close as you can get to a complete tour because most caves are closed to the public for safety reasons. When the Luftwaffe bombed Nottingham during World War Two, locals hid out in the caves. Better to risk an unstable cave than a German bomb!
Some caves are open, like the City of Caves, with reconstructions of a medieval tannery, bomb shelter, and “enchanted well”. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which dates back to the 12th century and is a serious contender for the coveted label “oldest pub in England”, has a network of caves that are used as cellars. There used to be a cockfighting pit down in the cellar, but in this more humane era it serves as a nice cool place to store ale. The staff say they sometimes see the pub ghost down there.
Nottingham owes its popularity as a tourist destination to its association with Robin Hood. But did he exist? And did he do time in the prison cave? There is no certain proof that he ever existed, but medieval England had no shortage of arrow-shooting outlaws hiding out in the woods. Sherwood Forest, being close to a major town and important roads, would have been prime real estate for someone like Robin Hood.
Robin Hood is first mentioned in Piers Plowman, written around 1377, and the first books dedicated to him don’t appear for another generation. By then he was already a popular folk figure and a lot of his adventures were simply the invention of imaginative authors.
A tantalizing entry in court records from 1225 mention an outlaw named Robert Hod. Records from 1261 and 1262 mention an outlaw named William Robehod, but one historian theorizes that this name had already become synonymous with outlawry. In fact, numerous Robehods and Robynhods crop up in court records after the mid-13th century. Apparently outlaws liked using a legendary name to give their robberies a touch of glamor. In the U.S., several second-rate gunslingers did the same with the name Jesse James.
If there ever was an original Robin Hood, he’s now so buried in legend it’s impossible to find him.