Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers.
Kinver Edge and The Rock Houses: A Day Out
On a sunny Sunday morning, I ventured to Kinver Edge in Stourbridge. Now belonging to the National Trust, it is a haven for tourists who can explore the many acres of woodland and open areas, and of course, the famous rock houses.
The edge is a ridge of sandstone rock which stretches for miles. It is steeped in history – there has been human activity in this area since the end of the ice age! On the northern corner of Kinver Edge is an Iron Age hill fort, and in the right conditions it is even possible to see the remains of Iron Age round houses. In medieval times, the Royal Forest of Kinver was one of the great royal estates of the middle ages, and the terraced roadways which run along the bottom of the Edge date from this time. At some point over the last 10,000 years, houses were carved into the sandstone. Over time, some of these dwellings have been named Holy Austin Rock, Crow’s Rock or Vale’s Rock, and Nanny’s rock. According to the National Trust’s Guidebook, ‘the earliest definite historical mention of a cave dweller is Margaret of the Foxearth who lived in Nanny’s Rock and died in 1617’.
Until 1774, Kinver Edge was common land, but in that year John Hodgetts Esq acquired much of the land. After he married into the Foley family of Prestwood, the property remained in the Foley family until 1906, after which date it was sold to Edward Webb. In 1917, after purchasing the land from Webb, the Lee family gave 200 acres of Kinver Edge to the National Trust to commemorate their late parents’ love for the place by making it available to everyone.
Victorians at The Edge
Visitors today will find the rock houses of Holy Austin Rock set up as dwellings from the Victorian/Edwardian times. Hunching through the carved, stone passageways, at first it is difficult to see why anyone would have wanted to have lived in a cave, but once you emerge into the bedroom and front room, you can understand. These houses were as comfortable as many other ‘normal’ houses of the time. With windows to let in the natural daylight and fresh air, vast ranges to cook on, a nearby well for fresh water, these houses are like any other. The walls are lime washed to protect against the rock dust, and the sandstone makes the dwellings cool in summer and warm in winter. In a time of severe overcrowding and deadly, unsanitary conditions in cities, the rock houses must have been pretty idyllic for working class people. Indeed, some dwellers lived into their 80s!
The censuses from the time show the kinds of people who inhabited these caves houses. From the lowly washer-women and labourers to the scholars, this rock has had a range of people living within it. Many, however, would have worked at the Iron Works in Kinver, and when this establishment was enjoying its heyday in the 1860s, 11 families were recorded as living at Holy Austin. Yet, after the closure of the Iron works in 1881, the population decreased.
Tourism, instead, became the main way people on the edge made money from 1901. Following the opening of the Kinver Light Railway, day trippers from the nearby industrial towns and cities would descend on Kinver Edge to enjoy the countryside and the peculiar rock houses. At this time, a tea-room was opened, and on one particular bank Holiday Monday in 1905 nearly 17,000 people visited – that’s a lot of tea and cake! The people of the rock houses were being interviewed by the media and having their photos taken for postcards before they knew it!
One such couple who posed for a painting by Alfred Rushton RA was Mr and Mrs Fletcher. No doubt for a few shillings, the elderly Fletcher’s let Rushton paint them in their parlour in around 1900, and the painting shows how cosy and idyllic life in the rock houses could be. Today, this same room is set up exactly how it was in the painting, even down to the wonky mirror on the wall!
Other occupants have included a woman known as Meg O’ Foxholes who lived in Nanny’s Rock. Although there is no concrete proof about who this woman was, it is thought she was a woman of some distinction (perhaps a wise woman, or at least someone her neighbours looked up to) because this particular dwelling enjoys a prominent position and is larger than most of the others. In Holy Austin Rock in around 1910, a woman called Jane Bragger looked after her nephew, Eddie Bragger. The two posed for a postcard photograph outside their cave house, but both lived unfortunately sad lives. Jane was a Shropshire-born girl who worked as a nurse in America and was due to marry an American man, but tragically he died before they had chance. After returning to England, Jane took care of her nephew after the death of his mother (her sister). Eddie became a private in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps during WWII, and survived Dunkirk but was taken prisoner by the Japanese and put to work on the ‘railway of death’ where he died in 1943. His name appears on local war memorials and he is buried at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand.
A great day out
I had a fantastic time, and who knows, maybe one day the rock houses and its dwellers might feature in a novel of mine.
This place is perfect for nature-lovers and history fans. After all that exploring, you can finish the day sitting on the terrace, overlooking the far-stretching views, with a cup of tea and a cake from the tea-room in Holy Austin Rock which had previously been used as a warden’s cottage. And you can bring your dog along! Perfect.
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