About the medieval tannery
The City of Caves in Nottingham comprises of a network of caves, carved out of sandstone, that have been put to various uses of the years including as a medieval tannery, public house cellars and, during World War II, as an air raid shelter.
Two of the caves in this intricate network historically housed the only underground tannery in Britain. The Pillar Cave was originally cut in approximately 1250 AD, but had been filled in as a result of a rock fall by 1400 AD. In 1500 AD it was cleared and reopened as part of a tannery. Circular pits were cut into the floor to hold barrels. A second cave was also cut with rectangular clay-lined vats. The smaller size of these vats indicate that they were probably used for tanning sheep or goats skins rather than cowhides.
Picture of the circular pits cut into the caves used as a medieval tannery by Robbie Cheadle
The medieval tanning process
Tanning, in medieval times, was a dirty and smelly process so tanneries were located away from towns and villages. Tanners sourced the hides from butchers, who delivered them with the horns and hooves still intact and stiff with dried gore, dung and dirt. The tanner removed the horns and hooves and then soaked the skins in water to clean and soften them. The medieval tannery in the Nottinghill Caves had an opening out to the River Leen in order to facilitate this washing process. This river also provided the town’s drinking water.
Picture of the medieval tannery during our tour of the Nottingham City of Caves by Robbie Cheadle
Once the hides were clean, the tanner would pound and scour the skin to remove any remaining flesh and fat from it. Next came the process of removing the hair from the skin. This was done in one of the following three ways: soaking the skin in urine, soaking it in an alkaline lime mixture or leaving it to putrefy for several months and then dipping in into a salt solution. Once the hairs had been loosened through one of these processes, the tanner would scrape them off with a knife.
The cleaned hide would then soften (“bate”) the skin by pounding dung into it or soaking it in a solution of animal brains. Bating was a fermentative process which relied on enzymes produced by bacterial found in the dung. Dog or pigeon dung was the most commonly used by tanners at this time. The bating process would take up to three months.
The hides were washed again in water and then the tanner preserved them with a solution made from the bark of an oak, spruce fir or any other tree that was available. The first phase of the preservation was done in a weak solution with the hides being taken in and out of this solution until the attained the desired colour. The second phase involved the tanner placing the hides in a deeper pit and layering them with bark. Cold water or a weak tanning solution was poured over them and then they were left for approximately a year. The tanning process was then complete and the tanner would sell the hides to another craftsman to turn into shoes or other needed products.
About Robbie Eaton Cheadle
I am an author who has recently branched into adult horror and supernatural writing and, in order to clearly differential my children’s books from my young adult and adult writing, these will be published under the name Roberta Eaton Cheadle. My first young adult supernatural novel, Through the Nethergate, has recently been published.
I have two short stories in the horror/supernatural genre included in Dark Visions, a collection of 34 short stories by 27 different authors and edited by award winning author, Dan Alatorre as well as three short stories published in Death Among Us, a collection of murder mystery short stories by 10 different authors and edited by Stephen Bentley. These short stories are published under Robbie Cheadle.
Through the Nethergate
Margaret, a girl born with second sight, has the unique ability to bring ghosts trapped between Heaven and Hell back to life. When her parents die suddenly, she goes to live with her beloved grandfather, but the cellar of her grandfather’s ancient inn is haunted by an evil spirit of its own.
In the town of Bungay, a black dog wanders the streets, enslaving the ghosts of those who have died unnatural deaths. When Margaret arrives, these phantoms congregate at the inn, hoping she can free them from the clutches of Hugh Bigod, the 12th century ghost who has drawn them away from Heaven’s White Light in his canine guise.
With the help of her grandfather and the spirits she has befriended, Margaret sets out to defeat Hugh Bigod, only to discover he wants to use her for his own ends – to take over Hell itself.
A clever melding of fiction and historical facts.