Rock Houses and Witches Caves
Updated: Jan 7, 2021
When we think of people living in caves it's usually memories of old school lessons where fur clad “cavemen” clustered around a fire with their families, inside a stalactite covered natural cave during the neolithic era. We know better now, and even during prehistory such a family would be rare, as most people lived in communities of built houses out in the open. Yet clustered around north Worcestershire are the remains of dozens of “rock houses” which, far from dating back to the “Stone Age”, were home for several families well into the 20th century.
The quaint little town of Kinver boasts some of the most well known and best preserved examples nearby but others are to be found at Wolverley too, where some have actually been incorporated into modern homes lived in today. The houses of Holy Austin Rock on Kinver Edge are clearly visible from the main road and are now a tourist attraction managed by the National Trust, this was a tradition that began in the early 1900s as Victorian walkers “taking the airs” clamoured to see these curious homes. Initially most visitors were welcomed by the inhabitants with a cup of tea and toast, this developed into the main rock house there becoming a seasonal cafe...on just one day in 1905 an incredible 17000 people were recorded in a constant procession shuffling past – I don't think they all got their tea and toast!
The rock people lived quietly in relative secrecy until 1777 when a “gentleman” named Joseph Heely got caught in a storm while riding along the path in the valley floor, he was given shelter by “a clean and decent family” as his diary records and he described at length the cosy homes the people had created inside the sandstone bluff, casting them in an idyllic light. This was probably true, as the families lived in fresh air away from the new iron foundries, with fresh water from one of the deepest wells in Britain, and the sandstone retained heat from their fireplaces very efficiently. If more space was needed it was simple to just drag all the furniture and fittings out, then a team of men with pickaxes and chisels just scraped out a larger room or a new one altogether. Lime whitewash coated the interior to prevent dust.
A mile or two further along the wooded ridge from Holy Austin though is an altogether different rock dwelling. This is Nanny's Cave, if there ever were any families living in it all trace is completely gone now. What we have is an atmospheric site that invokes feelings of primitivism and loneliness, and the only inhabitant that we know for sure existed is the one that gave the place it's legends. Margaret of the Fox Earth – an evocative title and deservedly so as this lady was indeed reputed to be a witch, a herbalist and a wise woman. Living alone in the caves through the reign of Elizabeth I she probably would have appeared every inch the traditional idea of a witch with a cauldron simmering away and plants and herbs hanging to dry. Her home in the rock was hidden away in the forest, far from the homes of Holy Austin, and it appears she existed peacefully until her death from old age in 1617. Probably just as well as the witch trials encouraged by James I were just getting going in England around this time.
Today the interior walls of Nanny's Cave are inscribed with layer upon layer of carved graffiti, some of it dating to the 1700s, with everything from runes, sigils and occult symbols to simple “Caz and Dave 85” inscriptions. The ghoulish faces and images can lend the cave an eerie air on a dark day and the remnant of a rough chimney chute on the front of the cavern is even stranger. As you'd expect, it is known locally as “the Devil's Chimney”, and became the means by which Satan supposedly crawled in and out of old Margaret's abode.
Most of the rock houses of Kinver are known and at least visible to the public, and Holy Austin is now a reproduction of what one of the more civilised homes would have been like, but do any still exist out there in their original state? Yes, there is one, quite off the beaten track but if you know it's location it can be accessed. Samson's Cave lies in woodland off a bridle path that crosses the estate of the magnificent Enville Hall. It looks like an ancient burial chamber, a low mound with a doorway and two windows cut into it's frontage. Inside looks a mess now, but the original fireplace and adjoining bread oven are still in situ much as they were and a lot of the original lime paint is still on the “walls”. Two bedrooms lie on either side of the main parlour and it is easy to imagine how life would have been here. With the walls smooth and white, a warm fire blazing, furniture and ornaments around and glass window frames wedges into the rock holes. It now lies abandoned but untouched since the last family lived there. Local hearsay tells me one family was wiped out by cholera in the mid 1800s epidemic and the cave home lay empty for years before it's final generations moved in. I have no idea why this subterranean dwelling is known as Samson's Cave, perhaps some religious meaning was applied to it, but the people living in it and the homes at Kinver Edge were officially known as “troglodytes” by Victorian society – the correct technical term perhaps but it does suggest a disdainful filter through which they saw these folk as somehow less human.
Kinver Edge is easily reached although the Holy Austin recreation is currently closed, but if you do manage to find Samson's Cave – please be careful. This is an unprotected and fragile site of our history and heritage.
Holy Austin Rock, converted into a tearoom now
The path into Nanny's Cave
Inside Nanny's Cave
Example of some of the ghoulish images inscribed within the cave
One of the tortured faces on the walls of Nanny's Cave
Samson's Cave, the lost rock house of Kinver. The plate leant against the wall previously covered the chimney opening
Inside the "parlour" of Samson's Cave, the original fireplace and bread oven still in place. Note some of the lime paint still on the walls.
The chimney opening through the top of Samson's Cave
View through the front "doorway" of Samson's Cave, with much of the paint still apparent