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The Dark Monk of Blackstone Rock

Blackstone Rock is a large red sandstone bluff overlooking the River Severn a little downstream from the town of Bewdley in Worcestershire.

Several caves bore into the cliffs, mostly used by hermits from the Medieval era right up to the late 1700s. This was a thriving hermitage, with cells and a chapel carved deeply into the cliffs. In later years boatmen on the Severn who were waiting for the tide to change – the river was very different in the past – would leave offerings of food, or even throw coins up to the caves, in return for the monks blessing their voyage. With hundreds of boats bringing cargoes up and down the Severn from Bristol and congregating around Bewdley, rumours also circulated that this and other cave networks close by were being used for smuggling.

It was said that the holy men would watch the river from the top of the cliffs for unwanted babies that had been put into the water, saving them if they could and raising each one with the surname of “Severn”. Local legend tells of one hermit though who was not all he seemed. This is the tale of The Dark Hermit of Blackstone Rock.

Sir Henry Wade was a knight from Worcestershire, betrothed to one Alice Clapton who lived in Stratford on Avon. An unnamed local man was envious of this engagement, and one day seized poor Alice, bound her arms and carried her off on his horse northwards. Sir Henry set off in pursuit as soon as the alarm was raised, gradually gaining on the pair as they neared what we know today as Birmingham. Weighed down by two people, the kidnapper knew his horse could not outrun the knight. The brute rode to the bank of the River Rea and shoved Alice into the water and, tied up as she was, Wade's fiancée sank quickly.

Henry stopped immediately and leapt to her aid while the man made off but Alice had met her tragic end in the water. Leaving her with some villagers who had rushed to help, the enraged Sir Henry rode after her killer. Pushing his horse harder and harder, he caught sight of his quarry entering Hagley Wood and chased him south towards Kidderminster but lost him again as he entered Bewdley. Bewdley at that time was located between several boundaries and known as a “sanctuary town” - out of the reach of laws and a hiding place for runaways and fugitives. Those hiding either from justice or from personal dispute could often lay low until the worst of the heat had died down or try to find passage from there to Wales across the Severn. Wade knew that he would find little help in finding his man there.

Resolving to avenge Alice no matter what it took, Sir Henry rode along the river to Blackstone Rock and, casting aside all his noble privileges and comforts, set up home in the caves there. He spent the next ten years brooding at his stone hermitage, clothed only in a hooded monk's habit, watching the comings and goings of the nearby town from the oak trees on the clifftop. His patience was as strong as his desire for vengeance.

One morning a figure approached the caves along the path from Bewdley. It was not unusual for wrongdoers to make their confessions to the various hermits dwelling at the Rock and as the man stepped carefully round the path to the top of the cliff he saw the waiting monk rise. His eyes bulged in shock as the hermit threw his hood back and revealed himself. The sinner was none other than the abductor and killer of Alice Clapton, and his confessor was Sir Henry Wade!

The man screamed as Wade hurled him from the clifftop into the Severn valley far below.

Henry lived his days out as a solitary hermit in that cave, never returning to his old life, and today screams are regularly heard from around the caves and a strange figure sometimes stands on the clifftop, watching...

I recount this story and many more in my book The Mystery Of Mercia, available now.

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