Just a few miles south of the West Midlands conurbation, tucked below an escarpment topped with an Iron Age hill fort, lie some very curious former dwellings…the Rock Houses of Kinver.
I have known of these rock houses for years having spent many weekends and summer holidays there as a child in the 1970’s when staying with friends nearby. Back then the houses were deserted, some of them crumbling away with others fenced off. I still recall the excitement of exploring these former homes and searching around them finding the remains of old hearths and fragments of domestic pottery, and trying to visualise the people who dwelt there.
Today the houses are managed by the National Trust which has rebuilt some of them and recreated their interiors to give an insight into the daily lives of the rock house dwellers literally “living on the edge”. Remarkably people were still living in some of these houses until the 1960’s!
Kinver’s distinctive red sandstone was formed in desert conditions from layers of wind blown sand some 280 – 250 million years ago. An Iron Age hill fort dominated the northern end of the ridge but some 2,300 years later, people began to live below the edge rather than on it. From the 1600’s homes were carved out of the easily worked sandstone and the restored rock houses at Holy Austin Rock were amongst the finest cave dwellings in Europe.
Kinver’s red sandstone formed in desert conditions from layers of wind blown sand
The first house you reach after the walk up from the car park is the lower level of houses where after walking through the cavernous “ballroom” you find yourself entering a narrow passage to the cottages that explore the lives of the Fletcher family.
Passageway leading to the former home of the Fletcher family
From a painting by Alfred Rushton RA the National Trust have managed to recreate the interior of the Fletcher’s home in around 1900.
Painting as reproduced in the National Trust guidebook
The home of the Fletchers its interior restored today with a welcoming fire in the black lead range
Living in the rock houses was a quiet and comfortable existence by all accounts, the rock providing a warm haven in the winter and and one which was pleasantly cool in summer. The rock was easy to carve and so if another shelf or cupboard was required one could be easily gouged out of the rock! In the Fletcher home a section of ceiling was cut away, which can still be seen today, to accommodate a very tall grandfather clock!
Washstand and bowl in the bedroom
The simple bedroom with its quarry tiled floor and rag rug for comfort
Cold dry larder
The lime washed walls helped to control sand dusting and made the rooms brighter, it also acted as a disinfectant. Life in the houses was self sufficient with orchards and vegetable gardens providing food and deep wells to provide water. In latter years, gas supplies were laid to supply some of the houses.
Unusual glazing bars and shutters on this rock house
This house is recreated in a 1930’s style
Some of the deserted rock houses with graffiti showing how easy the rock was to carve
These unusual houses offered a rural lifestyle and their residents achieved some notoriety from curious visitors. Ultimately collapsing brickwork and the lack of adequate toilet facilities finally condemned the houses and their residents were relocated to nearby towns and cities, the last leaving in the 1960’s. Whilst the provision of more modern homes improved their lifestyles many regretted having to move away. New lives were made elsewhere and the rock houses lay forgotten.
The view that the rock dwellers would have had to leave behind when they were relocated
The National Trust have managed to record the memories of local people who recall either living there or from memories passed on by family members. An extensive audio archive has been collected.
Jane and Eddie Bragger c 1910
In Victorian and Edwardian times, Kinver was a popular destination for day trippers from nearby Birmingham and the Black Country escaping the smog and industry in search of a day out in the clean countryside air.
Kinver as seen from the top of the Edge
In 1901 a pole and line tramway linking Kinver to Stourbridge across the fields was opened. Known as the Kinver Light Railway for a ‘thruppenny fare it was accessible to all. Visiting Kinver Edge dubbed “The Switzerland of the Midlands” brought people in large numbers. In 1905 on Whit Monday the tramway carried nearly 17,000 visitors! However by the 1920’s buses had become a more popular mode of transport and the railway closed in 1930.
A couple of old postcards of the Kinver Light Railway
These day trippers were keen to send postcards to their friends of their travels and several cards of the rock houses survive, featuring some of the residents and of course the Rock House Cafe which was a very popular destination on Sundays and Bank Holidays!
Mrs Holloway seated by her home at Vale Rock on Kinver edge
Rock House Cafe where a jug of tea and four cups would cost 2/- with 6d back on the return of the jug and cups!
Refreshments were sold for many years and the old “Teas” sign can still be seen today
The upper level restored rock houses which is now the new tearooms…and yes you can buy a rock cake!
A short climb up the wooded slopes of the edge leads towards the escarpment
The management of the Edge is also in the hands of the National Trust since it was gifted by the Lee family in 1917. It was one of the earliest grants of land to the Trust and one of the first in the Midlands.
The Edge is two miles long and is an outcropping of the Bunter pebble beds, sandstone deposits containing rounded pebbles laid down in the Triassic era.
Bunter pebble beds on the Edge (photo from National Trust guidebook)
From the summit there are far reaching views to the Black Country and Clent to the east, to the south Bredon and the Malvern Hills, and in the west towards Clee Hill and Wenlock Edge. Some two thirds of the Edge is woodland and one third lowland heathland which is rare in England. Jt was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986
Heather on Kinver Edge (photo from National Trust guidebook)
Today this important landscape is home to a wide variety of wildlife including adders and slow worms, plus many other mammals, insects and birds. Lesser Horseshoe Bats have made themselves at home in the rock houses too and were in residence on the day of my last visit.
However the Edge also has another secret hidden away inside it…
What could be behind these doors…?
Back in the 1970’s when my friend and I used to explore Kinver Edge, we were always fascinated by a building complex known locally as “The Factory”. We would walk past its barrack block style outbuildings and its high security fencing and wonder what went on inside. Large cars would come and go at all times and there was always an audible hum in the air as you climbed up onto the Edge. Once on the escarpment, in between the trees and the brambles and gorse you could find metal grilles through which lights were visible in this strange building and tunnels below our feet and sometimes you could hear voices!
Well what was this secret place and why was it here? It turns out that its local name The Factory was in fact correct, as the “Drakelow Underground Dispersal Factory” to give it their proper name was originally built as a WWII shadow factory for use as a back up facility for nearby engine or gun factories.
An eerie quiet tunnel
In 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production informed the Government of their intention to build an underground factory in the hills. In 1942 it was designated Rover No.1D factory to provide components and back up facilities should the Rover car plants be destroyed by enemy action. By 1943, parts for Mercury and Pegasus radial engines were built here to be used in aircraft such as the Bristol Blenheim and the Sunderland flying boat.
Post war, the tunnels were retained for storage and for the development and manufacture of the Meteor tank engine. Later the buildings were used as a storage depot for the Ministry of Supply.
By the 1950’s East – West political tensions had taken a dangerous turn, the Cold War was on and nuclear threat was a reality and the Drakelow Tunnels had a new and chilling purpose…as a nuclear bunker.
Some of the site was developed by the Home Office in 1958 as a Regional Seat of Government (RSG 9.2). Designed to cater for a staff of 325, the building contained dormitories, hospital facilities, offices, a BBC studio and GPO Telecommunications facility. Under later Home Defence schemes, the tunnels were designated a Sub-Regional Control (S-RC 91) in 1963 and as a Sub-Regional Headquarters (SRHQ 9.2) in 1982. It would be from here, along with a chain of other bunkers across England, that the country would be governed in the event of a Nuclear War.
Following the end of the Cold War the buildings and tunnels passed into private ownership and today they are in the hands of the Drakelow Preservation Trust.
The wide corridors of the tunnels
Imagine my excitement back in 2014 when I saw a notice advertising a guided tour of these secret tunnels…to be able to finally enter those gates to the secret world within which had fascinated me for years!
Drawings on the wall date back to the days as a shadow factory
Offices with files and early computers thick with years of dust
The deserted canteen in 2014
Ventilation and heating ducts and generators probably accounted for the hum I used to hear!
It was incredible to be able to visit this bizarre and somewhat chilling subterranean top secret military establishment having known of it for so long. Today the Drakelow Preservation Trust run occasional tours and the tunnels are often hired for film shoots, Airsoft games and paranormal events.
Kinver Edge holds many secrets from rock dwellers living below the edge, wildlife living on the edge and civil servants and the military living inside the edge…truly Life on the Edge!