If you held a survey into what the British people see as a traditional National Trust property, they would probably say a large stately home in beautifully tailored gardens… it’s unlikely that anyone would say habitable caves. But, yes, the Trust owns those too as this is essentially what the Rock Houses at Kinver Edge are – a series of ‘cottages’ sunk into caves in the sandstone hillside over three levels. The first evidence of people living in the cottage caves can be found in the writings of someone who visited in 1777 and called it an ‘exceedingly curious rock’. However, the name – the Holy Austin Rock Houses – is reported to have come from an Augustine Friar from the 16th century so there could well have been some form of habitation here for centuries.
The Rock Houses were reported to have been in their heyday between the 1840s and the 1870s and there were 11 households of 40 people resident here in 1861. The men of these households worked either at the nearby ironworks or as agricultural labourers and it is mainly their stories that the Trust presents to visitors on a series of information boards in the largest ‘room’. The demise of the ironworks in 1881 hit the Rock House population hard and there were just three families living here by that time.
Later on, the site became something of a tourist attraction and the Trust exhibits old black and white photos of people visiting the Rock House Café at the site (early inspiration for the Hard Rock Café, perhaps?!). The National Trust took over the site in 1917 but the last tenants did not leave until 1964 and it wasn’t until 1990 that investment was made in restoring the cottages for the public to look at.
Although most of the cottages were just two rooms, some of the walls have been removed inside so there is now a larger open space for visitors to walk around, although one old bedroom is firmly out of bounds as the resident bat doesn’t like tourists! The sandstone ceiling is exposed in the room with the information boards, but two whitewashed rooms have also been recreated as they once were, with an open fire resulting in a lovely smell and a cosy feel to the place. The Rock Houses were ideal accommodation, cool in summer and warm in winter, so the complete opposite to my own flat – maybe it’s time to move to Kinver and live in a cave!
It doesn’t take long to explore the two cottages open to the public, the first has the recreated rooms and the information boards, while the second, further around the cliff face, has an old radio playing a recording of a former resident. Then you can climb up a series of steps to the upper level, where only rough caves remain. More importantly, though, this is also where you can sit in the garden with a cup of tea and admire the views. Those with the time and energy can then take one of several way-marked walks across Kinver Edge, some of which will take you past more rocks where people once lived. But I was in the Midlands visiting a friend and we had a car to fetch from a garage and a little boy to collect from crèche so there was no time to explore further.
One slightly annoying aspect of this visit was the presence of graffiti in the sandstone. Unfortunately, sandstone is very soft so a lot of idiots have chosen to carve their names into the rocks. I guess there’s not much the Trust can do about this except wait for nature to work its magic and erode the evidence. So I would advise visitors to focus on the stories of people like the Fletcher family who once lived and worked here and ignore the fact that some numpty called Tom, Dick or Harry passed by more recently.
Highlights: A very odd place to find houses!
Refreshments: Cup of tea with a slice of Pear & Ginger Cake