Caves and Hermitages of the Severn Valley
by Chris Jenkins
Published Beltane 1997
The rock-cut Hermitage at Bridgnorth lies on a steep hill just south of the Wolverhampton road and less than a mile east of the town. The Hermitage lies in ruins now, destroyed by the passage of time and, it is said, by the fires of its temporary occupants, the homeless poor.
However what remains is still impressive. The Chapel is still extant, although the front end is now gone, and the stairs, which used to ascent to the upper chamber, are still there, but go nowhere as the upper chamber has disappeared.
The Hermitage was so-called because it was here that Aethelward or Aethelard, a Mercian prince, retired here for a short time as a hermit before his brief reign. In 924ce he came here to reside in solitude and contemplation. He was interested in literary matters as well as ancient customs and was a grandson of Alfred the Great, which meant that he had Welsh blood as this royal line had intermarried with the Welsh and Cornish royal families. Three of his sisters became nuns and his aunt was none other than Queen Ethelfleda, whose ability to repel the fearsome Danes renders impotent many a modern male ego! Indeed it was Ethelfleda who established a Burgh at Bridgnorth with a castle at Old-Bury on Panpudding Hill (Panpunten in Welsh). the Hermitage therefore has strong royal links and, given Aethelward's study of traditional lore, it would seem that it attracted someone with an interest in the main study of all folklore, that is magic.
However it wasn't just in Saxon times that this cave attracted magical folk. Not only were there two Witches Caves but also some mysterious stairs seen by some and not by others.
Unfortunately the Witches' Cave nearest the Hermitage has lost its entrance, but the interior still remains open and exposed to the elements.
The best picture of the original caves is the one shown here taken from Hubert Smith's article on pp 159-172 of vol 1 Shropshire Arch Nat Hist Soc Trans 1878 (photo shown in lieu). We can see quite clearly that this Witches Cave lay side by side with that of the Hermitage, and therefore this was a clear example of the "wise woman" tending the Sacred Site, often found for instance at holy wells. It emphasises the fact that the Hermitage may have been cut in an earlier pre-Christian age. We often find that rock-cut Hermitages are associated with holy wells or rock outcrops of particular sanctity and in the case of this one both associations are true. They also line the ancient route ways, indeed the main Roman road following a prehistoric route from mid Wales to the Midlands ascends Hermitage Hill by or near the present main road.
Many of the traditions concerning this site are female or Goddess-inspired. The large outcrop of rock just south of the Hermitage and well visible from the town is called the Queen's Parlour. this curious name implies a faery Queen's castle in which she had her parlour. Otherwise, who else would have a parlour in such a rugged eminence?
In between the Queen's Parlour and the Hermitage Cave are some more curious rock-cut shelters. This is the likeliest site for the second Witches Cave which tradition records was on a cliff face opposite the other. The effect of one of these caves can only be described as resonant and powerful. A few minutes inside its narrow recess gives a feeling of well-being. It has amore comfortable feeling than its sister cave perhaps because it is still in its original form, or perhaps because traditionally these witches who lived there (probably at different periods) tended to be either malevolent or kindly. The unkind one demanded a Witches Toll, for she had power to stop any horse on Hermitage Hill; a practice similar to that of two witches who lived by a main road coming into the city of Worcester. At times she could be seen on her broomstick flying "around to do evil". Conversely, the other witch could change into any shape she wished, most often into a cat or hare, in which latter form she was once chased across a meadow near the River Severn down below, but never caught. Perhaps she was protected by the power of the river Goddess, Sabrina, whose name derives from "white" and whose mythic origin in Geoffrey of Monmouth refers to her mother's milk-white countenance.
These witches were probably not there at the same time as the hermits, who are recorded as having lived there in 972ce and from 1328 to 1346ce. However, both before and after these hermits, it seems likely that this site was a druidess-cum-witch sacred site as caves so often are. My evidence for this can be found by referring to the rock-cut caves elsewhere in the area, but it is also significant that the sacred well (such wise women often guarded) lay just behind the Hermitage, over the top of the rocks behind and just within a field there; it was known as the Hermit's Well but may have had a more feminine name in its past.
Returning to the Hermitage once more: on the original plan given by Hubert Smith, the entrance to a series of tunnels is shown. He himself stated that this entrance had been dug for and not found, and yet curiously at that time there were witnesses who had seen an entrance to a tunnel there. This is a classic example of the type of earth mystery very little understood nowadays. In every part of Britain, caves have legends of fiddlers who disappear within their long tunnel systems, even if nowadays the cave does not penetrate very far into the earth. It seems likely that the reason some people don't see these entrances is because they form a link between our world and the other world. The important procedure to follow in exploring these magical route ways is to have, firstly, a pure heart; secondly, to follow the folklore (hence Aethelward's interest in this) and, thirdly, to go with a dog or other companion who is likewise pure.
Here at the Hermitage the tunnels are said to lead to a passage under Sabrina herself where a chest of treasure may be found. Incidentally, the Hermitage itself was also said to have treasure hidden within its depths. I shouldn't have to tell the reader that the treasure referred to is alchemical rather than physical gold.
The tunnels from the Hermitage are said to emerge: (1) at the steep staircase in Bridgnorth Castle, a Norman structure most probably built on an older defensive site; (2) in extensive cellars under Hoards Park House north of the town; and (3) at the old Friary near the banks of Sabrina below High Town.
By following Druid geometric principles, I have outlined in various articles in this and other journals, it can be seen that the classic angles of 90º, 120º, 60º and 15º are the keys to the layout, strongly suggesting that these caves were not laid out in arbitrary fashion. All the caves I have visited so far have been artificial and rock cut and I believe that they were cut as rock shelters in Neolithic or previous ages, because the rock-cut chamber at 735 949 (Ordnance Survey map reference - Ed) has, despite its modern, ugly, brick covering, all the feel of a classic prehistoric rock shelter, and indeed prehistoric finds were made here or in a similar cave in a valley nearby.
The ancient Forest of Morfe in which these sites lies has ancient names proving the pagan leanings or our forebears. Heathensditch lay nearby and gave its name to Heath Farm at Quatford; and to the north of this in the field by Forest Oak (the last remaining large oak of Morfe Forest) is the Witches Field, suggesting that witches met here by this ancient oak.
Forest folk are well known for their conservatism so it's no surprise that these prehistoric rock shelters are so well preserved. Furthermore, by Worfield Church (758 957) is St Peter's Holy Well, lying itself by a rock-cut shelter where a lady lived and acted as guardian, mentioned by James in his History of Worfield. So within this ancient forest we have at least three examples of witches or wise women guarding the sacred sites, and in the gorge at Sowdley Rocks to the south west of Worfield is a fourth; a witch lived in a cave in this beautiful gorge with its rock shelter and adjacent to her cave noted on the map.
Another Hermitage cave existed on the Wrekin, but unfortunately I have no legend or precise location for this as yet. All that we do know is that the Wrekin Forest was actually named after the occupier of this Hermitage and his name was Gilbert - which is probably why the Celtic name Wrekin survived in preference to Mons Gilbertus.
Sabrina has several rock-cut hermitages along her banks. Redstone Rock lies south of Stourport and Blackingstone Rock lies north west of the town. The latter has an interesting legend in which Robin of Horsehill short an arrow from a meadow below Ribbesford Church across the River Severn, striking a salmon in mid-flight and the arrow landed in front of this hermitage. The salmon contained the lost ring of Honorias, daughter of the Norman lord of Tickenhill, and the reward for finding this ring was that Robin took her hand in marriage.
This has all the hallmarks of a Fairy Queen legend, particularly with the dreamlike arrow heading towards the hermitage and the significant Robin name. However it is the Salmon of Wisdom theme in the Sacred River of the Goddess Sabrina which most indicates its magical power leading the way to a woman's heart (Mother Earth), and the magic ring, like that of Solomon*, lost inside a fish, was treasure indeed.
So it would seem that our rock-cut hermitages could have more about them than would appear at first sight. I could take the reader on a further magical journey; to Kinver with its caves dwelt in by witches and giants; to a tunnel legend and a rock-cut hermitage in Sedgley; even to Warwick and the famed hermitage where Guy of Warwick found solace after many heroic adventures. Alas there is no space hear to continue, but I hope that the reader will visit these sites and discover for themselves some of the magic which they offer.
* There is an ancient legend which tells how Solomon lost his power to the demon Asmodeus and his magic ring was thrown by the latter into the river at Jerusalem. Solomon only recovered his ring (and his power) years later, in the meantime becoming a vagrant while Asmodeus served in his likeness.
1. Alan Web - The Hermitage Cave in the Shropshire Review, 1996
2. Charlotte Burne - Shropshire Folklore, 1883
3. Robinson - The Wandering Worfe
4. Partridge - Hot of Bridgnorth, 1821
5. Jabez Allies - Antiquities and Folklore of Worcestershire, 1856
6. L M Jones - Customs and Folklore of Worcestershire
7. Roy Palmer - Folklore of Hereford and Worcestershire.