Life in a Rock House
A cave...or a home in the rock? On Kinver Edge there are several rock houses that have been carved out of the soft red sandstone. The most famous are the homes at Holy Austin Rock, now restored and open to visitors. There are stoves, furniture, windows and doors – all set into the sandstone, just as they were when the houses were lived in.
Daily life in the Rock Houses
The earliest record of people living here is from 1777 when Joseph Heely took refuge from a storm and was given shelter by a “clean & decent family”. He describes how the rock houses made good homes: “warm in winter, cool in summer”, and generally dry. Kinver Edge provided fresh air and open space which was considered better than the village with its smoke and risk of river flooding. The rock houses had water from the well and later, gas, but no electricity. Sanitation was by earth closets.
Inside space was determined by how much sandstone could be dug out. So rooms could be larger and ceilings higher than in the cottages or back-to-backs of towns. Rooms might then be divided as families grew, and often lodgers were taken in. The 1861 census lists eleven families living here, across the three levels.
Some rock houses were owner-occupied but most were rented. People worked on farms, others were self-employed or worked in local industry at the Hyde Iron Works, the Black Country or Kidderminster.
Teas and tourism
Fame of Kinver rock houses spread afar. In 1903 Alfred Rushton RA visited Holy Austin to paint Mr and Mrs Fletcher in their home at Holy Austin Rock, and Sir Benjamin Stone photographed scenes there at about the same time.
The site became a tourist attraction at the turn of the 20th century and the inhabitants served teas from their rock homes to visitors. A café continued here until 1967, long after the last occupiers had moved out. We have continued that legacy today – as the upper level of houses have been restored as a tearoom.
After the café close the Holy Austin rock houses then quickly fell into dereliction. Several decades of vandalism, uncontrolled wilderness and weather took it’s toll on the fragile rock.
Restoration of Holy Austin Rock
In 1993 the upper houses were restored as a family home once more. The restoration was accurately based on the many photographs from times past and the many memories buzzing to be told. A custodian was installed to live here and volunteers engaged in the rest of the site, discovering and restoring the original gardens. Proper visitor access was built and suddenly, Holy Austin Rock caught public interest.
In 1996 work began at the lower level – the original home of Mr and Mrs Fletcher. The huge space known as the Ballroom was made secure with brick arches and rock bolting. Windows and doors where reconstructed exactly as the originals. Chimneys were rebuilt and fireplaces installed. Using photographic evidence and the Rushton painting as the basis for decoration, the Fletcher cottage was depicted to represent life in the rock houses in the early 1900’s. Volunteers welcomed first visitors on 25th October 1997.
The Martindale residence was next to be restored, set slightly later in its twilight years of the 1930s and telling the story of tourism.
Other rock houses on Kinver Edge
Beyond Holy Austin Rock, there are other rock houses on Kinver Edge to discover. Nanny’s Rock is a natural cavern, and there are references to it’s occupation in the 17th and 19th centuries. Also known as Meg o’Fox hole, this empty cave is tucked away in the woods but can be found by following the purple waymarked ‘Rock House’ trail. Traces of an old chimney can be seen in the ceiling.
Vale’s Rock is on three levels and was occupied into the 1950s, but is now overgrown and currently closed to the public. There are still trees growing around here from an old orchard, and there is a well that used to supply water for the families here. We have recently completed a laser scan of the Vale’s Rock complex and are looking at a future project to make it more open for people to enjoy.
There’s much more information in The Centenary Guide - Kinver Edge and the Rock Houses available at Holy Austin Rock