PROPERTY / The troglodytes of Kinver Edge: Caroline McGhie on plans to restore cave dwellings carved out of a rock in the Midlands

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The Independent Culture
IT IS easy to understand why early refugees from city life were attracted to Kinver Edge. The red sandstone knuckle of rock on the border of Staffordshire and Shropshire stands out for miles around, a remote and other-worldly natural monument set close to the industrial heart of the Midlands.

People lived for centuries in the caves here, warmed by the stone in winter and cooled by it in summer. They stayed right up until the 1960s, when officialdom decreed that the cave village no longer met the requirements of modern living and moved the remaining occupants into council houses. The last inhabited caves in this country finally lay empty.

Since then, vandals have done their worst. Tidy front doors and wooden window frames once slotted into grooves cut in the stone. All have long gone. The long flight of steps up to the circle of houses has been destroyed,

leaving a steep, muddy slide down the rock- face. One night an entire pillar, carved out of the stone by the cave-dwellers, was destroyed by a gang with a chainsaw.

Now, however, 30 years after the caves fell into disuse, the National Trust has moved in to restore what has at last been recognised as a unique piece of West Midlands social history. As the National Trust puts it, these were homes to some of the first commuters - families who left the poor housing of the industrialised Black Country in order to get back closer to nature.

'At the height of occupation during the Industrial Revolution there were 12 families and over 80 inhabitants - some Black Country iron foundry workers, others agricultural labourers and broom makers,' says Richard Offen, the Trust's fund-raising manager for the area. Though it has to be said that rather than catch a train, these dawn-'til-duskers probably travelled on foot, Stourbridge being only an hour's walk away.

'They had a comfortable, nice life,' says Offen. 'There was piped gas, water, and by the end of the 19th century quite a close-knit community.' The old gas pipes still run under the sandy path, turning at right angles into the houses. The well is now wreathed in ivy and scarcely visible. In the store rooms beneath the deepest part of the caves, unpasteurised milk will still stay fresh on hot summer days.

'From an uncertain early date, man has lived in, rather than on, the Edge,' Richard Offen says. 'Wherever the soft sandstone forms a suitable cliff it has been excavated into cave dwellings, and the most spectacular of these are at the northern end, in Holy Austin Rock - the name suggests derivation from a former religious use, possibly as a hermitage.'

The houses are arranged in two necklaces around the knob of rock. Those on the lower tier are buried into the belly of Kinver Edge; those on the upper level are built against protruding shards of rock, a mixture of brick and rock walls. Inside are the bare shells of what were once two rooms - one for living in and one for sleeping, with a storeroom at the back.

Each room had a fireplace cut into the rock, with a slanted chimney flue taking the smoke towards the outer wall. The flues are now exposed, making a giant honeycomb of the walls. There is a child-like fascination in seeing how people made workable homes out of so little.

The Trust, which was given some of the land in 1917 and some in 1964, has asked the architect John Greaves Smith to recreate the upper houses from old photographs. Three original houses are being run together to form a single larger dwelling, though the rock walls at the back will be left exactly as they are, together with the modern graffiti. The building firm involved, Treasure & Son, has worked on Ludlow Castle and Stokeshay Castle, but this is its first cave restoration.

'Some early inside photographs exist too, which show the interiors to be much like any turn-of-the-century workers' cottages with

candles, oil-lamps, rag-rugs, a kitchen range for cooking and heating water on,' Richard Offen says. 'It is clear that these houses

were regarded as rather luxurious accommodation and that people were always wanting to move up here. It was warm and dry and there were superb views.'

The plan now is to find a 20th-century troglodyte to move into the upper level by March, when the caves will be opened to the public. Some of the doors and windows will be reinstated on the lower level too, and story boards will be provided to show how the caves were used. The entire enterprise is costing pounds 300,000 - pounds 200,000 is coming from the Trust and a further pounds 100,000 must be raised by Richard Offen over the next two years. 'The new inhabitant will have to have some feeling for the area, be able to help people interpret the houses, and the requisite Rottweiler qualities to keep vandals at bay,' he says. Plenty of people have expressed an interest in taking to this new / old lifestyle.

Rose Novak, who was one of the last residents of the cave-houses to leave, is bewildered by the attention they have attracted. 'I don't understand what all the fuss is about,' she says. She moved in in March 1949 and moved out into a council house in 1956, although her grandmother and father stayed on to run a tea- shop there until the 1960s. People used to buy a jug of tea for a shilling, she recalls.

'I was 23 when I came to Kinver. We lived in Birmingham before and when I first set

eyes on it I thought 'There is no way I'm going up there.' It was just getting dark when I first saw it and it looked like Castle Dracula. But then we fell in love with it. It was wonderful. You could look over the Edge and see for miles. You could watch the rabbits playing

as it got dark.

'We didn't have a flush toilet, we had an old-fashioned one that you had to empty. And fuel had to be carried up from the bottom of the hill. The only thing I would have given my eye-teeth for was electricity.'

For years after leaving she couldn't revisit without being overcome by tears. 'It was the most beautiful home I ever had.'

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