So magnificent and awe inspiring were the landscapes and creatures described by Tolkien that it was believed impossible to make a film that would depict them as they had been imagined by the author. The only real attempt, an animated work by Ralph Bakshi in 1978, failed to satisfy the legions of Tolkien followers. Then, in 2001, a little known New Zealand film director, Peter Jackson, and New Line Cinema released the Oscar winning motion picture ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’.
Within months Tolkien had become one of the most famous Briton’s in history. Although filmed almost exclusively in New Zealand, the original inspirations for Tolkien’s Middle Earth are mostly located in the English shires of Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire.
The Hobbit truly began in 1930 when Tolkien apparently discovered a blank page while marking exam papers at Pembroke College, Oxford, and wrote the first line of the book.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”
Kinver Edge in South Staffordshire and its historic rock houses (Hobbit holes) are the most likely source for this inspiration. This is very plausible as during his youth Tolkien lived in nearby Birmingham and often pined for the countryside. At the time Kinver was a popular day out from the dirty and smoky city.
From 1901 a short train trip from Snow Hill Station to Amblecote in Stourbridge, followed by a ride along the newly built Kinver light Railway, could put a day visitor in the unspoilt countryside within two hours.
To the southwest of the village of Kinver are the lofty cliffs known as The Edge. A key feature of this formation is a huge outcrop known as Holy Austin Rock where enterprising people once made their homes by tunneling into the sandstone to create comfortable and weatherproof rooms.
Exactly who carved out the first holes remains a mystery. There is no physical evidence to suggest that they were prehistoric although the existence of any early caves would have been destroyed by later excavations. It is worth mentioning that an early iron age hill fort is located only 150 metres further along the same ridge and dates back to at least 200 BC. Historians believe it was occupied by the Romans around 60 AD and became a camp where soldiers could rest while travelling to and from Wales. Kinver was once also known as Cynibre meaning Royal Hill. A charter from 740 AD makes mention of the village which therefore predates King Offa of the Mercians. The Royal part of the name may refer to Eanberht, one of the last kings of the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce (Wiccia) nation.
Similar rock-cut chambers exist at both Bridgnorth and Nesscliffe Hill in the neighbouring county of Shropshire. Both are sited in sandstone cliffs in dense wooded areas and historical accounts acknowledge their existence as early as 790 AD and 1490 AD respectively. Given the age of these and other nearby examples it is likely that the original Kinver Edge caves were cut as early as 700 AD and probably had a religious significance . The examples at nearby Bridgnorth are called The Hermitage and were known as a sacred place, the sandstone escarpment into which the Kinver Edge houses were cut is called Holy Austin Rock, although there is no record of precisely why. Many of the rock-cut caves in this area have origins that appear to date back to the arrival of Christianity in England around 600 AD to 700 AD.
Shortly after the Norman conquest of England the town became known as Chenevare which translates as Great Ridge. Other names have included Cynfare – The Royal Road and Kynvare – The Royal Edge. Records dating back to this time reveal that both the village and the surrounding lands were once part of a great royal forest.
Given that the area was used as a royal hunting reserve from around 1080 AD, it likely that the King’s foresters (rangers) would have used the natural highpoints of Kinver Edge and Holy Austin Rock as a lookout to watch for poachers and other outlaws. It also seems likely that they would have used and maybe even enlarged any caves in the immediate area for their own comfort. As with much of Britains local history the actual origins may never really be known.
The forest itself was said to be 5.5 kilometres wide and nearly 17 kilometres in length, thus covering an area of 95 square kilometres.
Over the next 700 years Kinver grew larger both as a result of royal favour and the growth of farming in the area. It was also situated on what became a main route from Bristol to Chester which significantly increased its importance in the region. It is during this time that much of the nearby forest was cleared for crops and sheep pastures. By around 1650 AD the village was beginning a period of rapid expansion and there is some evidence to suggest that local people had taken to quarrying rock from the nearby cliffs. It is possible that the first permanent inhabitants of the Rock Houses were the descendents of the local quarrymen.
The first formal record of the Rock Houses of Kinver Edge appears in a book from 1777 ‘Letters on the Beauties of Hagley, Envil and The Leasowes with critical remarks and Observations on the Modern Taste in Gardening’ by Joseph Healey who describes being caught in a thunderstorm while walking along the edge of the cliffs. Fearing that he might be struck by lightning or catch a fever in the rain he struggled down the dangerous precipice towards some smoke he saw rising out of a cleft in the rocks. Fearful that he might fall but still very much aware that some young ladies were watching him with obvious amusement, he eventually made it to a wide ledge where he discovered the rock houses. He was offered shelter in one of them and accepted. He was amazed at how pleasant the homes were and describes them as: “curious, warm and commodious and the garden extremely pretty.” He went on to describe how they were well furnished with plenty of provisions and had access to water. He also found the inhabitants to be relaxed and decent people – proud of their houses and were happy to explain at length how they had laboured to build them.
It’s interesting to note that Healey could easily be describing Hobbits and their pride in their hobbit holes. In fact, the opening line of Tolkien’s book states; He adds; “The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.”
There are so many similarities between the 18th Century Holy Austin Rock Houses and Tolkien’s description of the Hobbit holes that it becomes an obvious assumption that he must have seen or read about these remarkable dwellings. Even the ledge-like pretty gardens reached by stairs from the road are the same as the description of Bag End.
According to an official guide book, written by Bob Clarke and printed in 2002, the next reference to the rock houses can be found in a survey carried out by W. Bright Esq. of Wellington, Shropshire which reveals that six families were living there in 1830. Their names are recorded as Benjamin Williams, Thomas Childs, Sarah Brookes, Lucretia Penzer, John Web and Benjamin Glover. Further census documents reveal that the houses were often kept in the family and handed down to their descendents. Records show that the Shaw family were residents at Holy Austin Rock for more than 150 years.
Over the next 50 years Kinver was a town divided. The expansion of existing ironworks and the addition of more modern iron mills split the population into those that worked in industry and those involved with agriculture. It was an unfair divide and those people exposed to the smoke and toxins of the newly born industrial revolution may have earned a little more money but paid for it with their health. Many dying before the age of 55. However, most of the residents of the Rock Houses lived to a ripe old age especially for the times. Here again we see a similarity to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins who is also exceedingly long-lived. One family in particular, the Fletchers, seem to have been regularly associated with the location and appear in a number of photographs taken around 1871. They are also believed to be the elderly couple featured in the 1901 painting by Alfred Rushton. A person only has to take one look at the image to see the striking similarity between the man in the chair and Tolkien’s Gaffer Gamgee or even an elderly Bilbo Baggins.
Photographs from this period show that residents had built in cooking ranges and well-made chimney flues that can still be seen carved into the stone walls.
After several years of financial difficulties the local Whittington Forge and Ironworks stopped production in 1879 causing a localised economic crisis. Another ironworks, The Hyde limped on but had effectively shut down by 1888. Many of the people who had worked at The Hyde and the Whittington were forced to move to the factories of Amblecote and Stourbridge.
The fortunes of the town improved again during the 1890’s when many wealthy businessmen moved to Kinver to avoid the smog and fumes of the industrialised ‘Black Country’ situated to the northwest. Another development soon benefited the town. After years of planning and in the face of many objections the Kinver Light Railway was opened in 1901 linking Kinver to Stourbridge. Not really a railway but actually Britain’s first cross-country tramway, it was an instant success both as a curiosity and as a means of transporting day visitors to the refreshing, smog-free, countryside. As the last occupied troglodyte dwellings in Britain, the rock houses became an instant tourist attraction with their residents serving teas and other refreshments. Even so, between 1900 and the 1935 most of the people who had lived at Holy Austin Rock moved away even though the houses had been connected to the local gas supplies. The pipe can still be seen corroded in the ground. Only the Shaw family remained but even they moved out shortly before the outbreak of WWII. The houses started to decay but a single cafe remained open until 1967 after which the site was abandoned.
Some of the houses were stripped for building materials while others simply fell into decay. By the mid 1960’s they were no more than a series of square shaped caves that were used by teenagers for secretive parties and by the occasional homeless person as a temporary shelter. Not only were they vandalised they also became unsafe and many of them were sealed off in 1968 to protect the public. This was a wise decision as it probably saved them from total ruin. It almost certainly saved lives. In 2008 a similar sandstone structure at nearby Bridgnorth collapsed killing a 16 year old teenager and seriously injuring an 18 year old woman who were part of a group who had had been camping overnight in the caves.
There may have been more rock-cut houses near Kinver besides those at Holy Austin Rock. In the book “Staffordshire” by Walter Bernard smith and published in 1915 there is the following entry. “Half-way up the hill is ‘Holy Austin Rock,’ a sandstone rock carved out into rooms with doors and windows. It is (still) used as a dwelling, though similar places on the other side of Kinver are uninhabited.”
There are many stories and legends about the caves. They were the setting for a 1897 novel by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould entitled ‘Bladys of the Stewponey’ which is based around the abduction of Bladys Rea the daughter of the landlord of the Stourton Stewponey Inn. She eventually escapes and finds sanctuary at the rock houses where she meets her true love Crispin. The novel was a success and was made into a film in 1919.
The mysterious Bolt Stone also features in several local myths. One of them claims that the hills around the royal forest were inhabited by giants. A terrible fight broke out between them over a pretty giantess and the Enville giant was driven out by the Kinver giant. To remind him never to come back the Kinver giant threw a great boulder after him which landed near the village of Compton, one and a half kilometres from Kinver, and was all but buried by the force of its landing. Although the Bolt Stone is said to be mentioned often in the Staffordshire Directory its current whereabouts remain a mystery. What is interesting is that Compton is to the east of Kinver while Enville is to the north. The Kinver giant obvious had a very bad aim or the story has been distorted over time. Another more intriguing version of the legend is that the Enville giant was struck by lightning while the sun was still shining and turned to stone. Yet again these are parallels to Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. In chapter II, Roast Mutton, Bilbo Baggins and his companions are trapped by three unpleasant trolls (giants) who are tricked into arguing until dawn when the sunlight turns them to stone. Later in the story they must hide in a cave during a storm to avoid rocks that are being thrown around by mountain giants.
If anyone remains unconvinced then it’s worth mentioning Drakelow and the secret tunnels under Kingsford Country Park. Drakelow is located at the southern tip of the Kinver Edge and has an interesting history. The name itself is suggestive. ‘Drake’ is an old word for dragon and ‘Low’ refers to a hill or mound. Although the secret tunnels were only built in 1941 as a potential underground factory and later used as a nuclear bunker during the 50’s it is highly likely that caves already existed in the area. Deep tunnels at Drakelow are mentioned in the book ‘Ismere: A Story of the Lady of the Mercians’ and in the review of ‘Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe’ by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), first published in 1911, the author refers to underground houses at Drakelow that have disappeared over time. One, in particular, is described as having a peculiar chimney that resembles a writhing yellow worm (dragon). Tolkien’s main storyline for the hobbit focuses on how Bilbo Baggins and a group of dwarves leave the Hobbit’s hole in the Shire, evade capture by trolls, climb a great mountain range, hide to avoid stone throwing giants, escape unpleasant goblins (orcs) and journey through a wild forest before reaching a lonely mountain and entering a deep and secret tunnel to steal treasure from a dragon. The similarities between Kinver Edge and The Hobbit as simply astonishing.
Holy Austin Rock may be connected to St. Augustine. There is a specific reference in the novel ‘Bladys of the Stewponey’ by Sabine Baring-Gould. In the text there is a character called Holy Austin who is named after the rock not the other way around. Holy Austin, a wise and religious man, is the guardian of Crispin who later marries Bladys Rea the heroine of Spanish descent. Yet again there are similarities to Tolkien’s own life. Friar Francis, a Priest from the Birmingham Oratory was of Spanish descent and was de facto Tolkien’s guardian even before the death of his mother, Mable Tolkien, in 1904 made it official. Tolkien himself fell in love with a young woman in 1908, Ms. Edith Bratt, an orphan who was estranged from her family and who bore a striking resemblance to Bladys Rea as described in Baring Gould’s novel. They married in 1916 and remained together all their lives.
Tolkien was famously reluctant to name the places that inspired his stories but openly admitted that many of them were based on his experiences in the English Midlands where he lived as a youth. Some of these have been traced to locations such as the Mill at Sarehole and the nearby Moseley Bog. It’s also well recorded that he hated living inside the City of Birmingham and took every opportunity to explore the surrounding countryside. Perhaps the similarities between the area surrounding Kinver and the theme of The Hobbit are no more than a extraordinary coincidence but it is just as likely that they may be some of the deepest inspirations for one of the greatest books ever written.
The remains of the rock houses were largely taken over by the National Trust who were forced to demolish a section of them in 1989. Efforts were made to close off the area as much as possible and there the matter could have rested. Fortunately, in 1990 a study commissioned by the National Trust identified that the Kinver Edge Rock Houses were actually of great international significance as they represented the largest collection of rock-cut houses in Britain as well as being the most recently inhabited. Funds were made available and an ambitious restoration project commenced in 1992. Using old photographs, copies of postcards depicting the original houses and the memories of local residents Treasure & Sons of Ludlow accurately reconstructed the first house. Since then various contractors and a dedicated team of volunteers have painstakingly restored many aspects of the site. Visitors can now truly appreciate what the Holy Austin Rock Houses were like during the Victorian period. Work on the site continues with plans to restore additional levels and visitor numbers are increasing year on year as people rediscover this little known part of their heritage.
An interesting footnote is that some of the caves have been colonised by the Lesser Horseshoe Bat which is classed as a vulnerable species in decline. It is estimated that less than 14,000 remain in Britain and great care is now taken to protect their habitat within the rock houses.
Some Additional Notes:
Please Note: The best parking for the Kinver Edge Rock Houses is 100m west of the junction of Compton Road and Meddins Lane, Kinver, Staffordshire.
- The restoration of the rock houses has been significantly summarised in this article. However, the efforts of the volunteers and local community cannot be underestimated. Without the concern and commitment of these individuals this fascinating and historical site would have been lost forever.
- Bolt Stones are sometimes large round boulders that are used to block the entrances to tunnels and caves.
- Bolt Stones may have a connection to Roman artillery particularly catapults and medieval mangonels.
- Although the official biography of J R R Tolkien by Humphrey Carter (1977) does not specifically mention a visit to Kinver, there is a reference in a letter written by Mabel Tolkien while they were staying at Rednal that her sons spent almost all summer in the countryside and were taken out by Friar Francis. She cryptically mentions that they went for ‘Tea in Hay’ (a place) which may well be a reference to Iverley-Hay which is an area directly adjacent to Kinver. The only other ‘Hay’ is Beach-Hay well beyond Kidderminster and close to the Wyre Forest
- The missing Bolt Stone was probably part of a sandstone outcrop near Pigeon House Farm. There is a reference in ‘Bladys of the Stewponey’ that it was blown up by gunpowder and removed to improve use of the field.
- Address: Compton Road Kinver Stourbridge Staffordshire England DY7 6DN
- GPS: 52.45012778,-2.241855556
- Phone: 0044 (0)1384 872 553
- Part of UK: England
- Sat Nav Postcode: DY7 6DN
- Entrance Fees: To Interior / External is free
- Disabled Access: Limited - Steep packed-earth paths
- Visibility from Road: Very Limited
- Image Credits: Header Image: Paul Vincent