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Greensforge Roman fort, Holy Austin Rock & other oddities, Near Kinver, Staffs.

Although this is a site which is well documented historically, precluding speculations, it is well worth studying if you are interested in the Roman conquest of the West Midlands in about 46CE by Legio 14 "Gemina". The fort, or rather two forts, one opposite the other, are strategically situated on the confluence of the Smestow and Dawley, tributaries of the Stour, to guard an ancient road into mid Wales known as the "Hen Fford". Traces of this pre historic trackway have been found on Highgate common near Enville. The Romans built a road from Droitwich, passing through Broome, Wollaston and Stourton nr. Stourbridge, and terminating at Greensforge. There is a particularly spectacular and clear aerial view of the road in Shepphard Freire's "Brittania; Roman Britain from the Air", in fact in the centre pages. The road is clearly visible as it runs past Stourbridge Rugby Club. At Greensforge a fort was built in 47 CE, presumably to secure offensive operations against Caradoc/Caractacus, who was at large in the hills of Shropshire, and possibly to defend against a thrust by him from the west into the lands of the Cornovii tribe, some of whom had allied with Rome. Curiously, in the 19th Century, a huge encampment said to have been contemporary with Caradoc was found at Wrottesley near Wolverhampton, and it was said to have been his "camp", with British style sword blades and spears said to have been among the finds. Certainly, Greensforge and the neighbouring cohort fortress at Penkridge, were ideally placed to guard the Severn approaches. Aerial photographs of the forts at Greensforge are spectacular, and on the ground, on the corner of the lane near the Navigation pub, some of the embankment defences seem to be still visible. At some time following Caradoc's defeat, the whole fort seems to have been decommissioned, and rebuilt opposite. Three vast marching camps, easily accommodating 3,000 men were constructed, and we must suppose that this force was marched down with celerity from Viriconium (Wroxeter, Salop) to intercept an anticipated blow from Boudicca's allies the Coritani, from the east in AD 60. Fortunately for the Roman garrison, she was defeated somewhat further east, and the province of Brittania saved. However, it is interesting to think that these unassuming potato fields on the edge of the Black Country were once at the centre of attention in the Roman conquest of these Islands! The forts were excavated in 1968, and there were many interesting finds. Some of these are still displayed at Kidderminster museum. Nearby, Kinver Edge has many Roman marching camps, one of which seems to have been built on top of a previous British hill fort. Also, a site called the "Roman Baths" exists, but this seems to be a local Victorian whimsy. Also of interest to those exploring the area for the first time, are the"Rock Houses" at Holy Austin Rock near Kinver. These are said to be the oldest continuously occupied cave dwellings in Europe. One of the houses has been refurbished and is open to visitors. No one can say how long these sandstone caves have existed, but at Wolverley nearby, flint tools have been found in similar caves, and they may have been used during the last glaciation. There were other caves at Drakelow and also at Gibralter, a sandstone feature near Whittington. The old path that runs through the latter past Yew Tree House, is not only a lovely unspoilt walk (especially in the Spring when the Blue bells are out) but is, I think, a very ancient path, perhaps going back to the Mesolithic era. The last dwelling at Kinver was occupied, selling teas and ice creams, until the late 1960's. The sandstone is warm in winter, and cool in summer. Water was available from the nearby "giant's well", but had to be carried up to the houses, and it was sanitary considerations which finally led to the caves being abandoned. Religious ascetics used the caves during the middle ages and Holy Austin was one such friar. Other "Troglydites" included "Cunning women" such as "Nanny", after whom "Nanny's Rock" is named. The dominating feature of the village is St. Peter's church, visible for many miles around. This is also of sandstone, and has ancient features from Norman times. The views from the Church and the Edge are quite a spectacle, considering that the Edge is not a very high point in the scheme of things; however, the Stour cuts a deep gorge here and this accounts for the illusion of height. There is a toposcope at the summit, and nearby, the Worcestershire way and Staffordshire way converge, at Kingsford Country park. There are a few other oddities in this area too. One is the now disappeared chapel built by the protestant divine Richard Baxter in the 17th century. Baxter was especially concerned to minister to the cave dwellers and eventually retired to the Drakelow area to meditate. The church was a certain marker for the Luftwaffe and Red Air force during the cold war years, for the underground airengine testing centre and later County Nuclear shelter for Worcestershire in caves that were excavated below by thousands of mainly Irish labourers in the 1940's. About a dozen were killed in a major rockfall. Baxter's church was therefore knocked down, and now a monument to it stands nearby. The underground chambers are now closed to the public, but walkers will certainly encounter ventilation shafts to it walking in the woods above. The whole area is national trust heathland, so watch out for Adders, which are quite common here! Looking from the summit east, towards the Clent hills, the underlying sandstone produces heathland, and as a boy I was shown features that were said to be Round barrows. The largest of these, is "Round Hill", located next to a modern sewage works along Gibbet Lane, an old rough track now frequented by fly tippers (sadly). Look for the electricity pylons that stride along the heath, and you will see a small secluded farm (Round hill farm). The low tumulous is alleged to be a barrow, and is overgrown with gorse and small tree saplings. The Roman road from Droitwich to Greensforge ran a few hundred yards from the barrow, beneath the ridge behind High Park School, and directly beneath High park farm. Way back in the 19th century, a "Roman Eagle" was discovered somewhere near the course of the Roman road, and there was press interest (The "Black Country Bugle" records this) but the item turned out to be from a bedstead, rather than evidence of the passing of the Legions! The barrow was excavated by a Victorian clergyman, I heard, and "human remains" were found. A few hundred yards to the south, a bump in the land near Bunker's hill wood seems suspiciously like another barrow. This is the "hump" just past the cottages on Whittington hall lane going towards horse bridge lane. The way it rises in the land just cannot be natural. This must have been productive farm land for as long as people have been in these islands, and there is no reason to think that neolithic farmers would have ignored the potential for grazing sheep, and no doubt would have become rich and powerful from the trade in wool and cloth. Perhaps it was these people who constructed these monuments? The heath itself is haunted, it is said, by the ghost of William Howe, who was one of the last men to be gibbeted in England in the early 19th century, thus the ghoulish place name. When the lane was known as Fir Tree lane, he shot the local squire, Benjamin Robbins of Dunsley Hall, as he was returning from Stourbridge having about him much gold, following a livestock sale. Howe was discovered spending his ill gotten gains in the Whittington Inn (not the old manor now going by that name, but its predecessor in an old house nearby, on Horsebridge lane). The Manor is said to be haunted by the ghost of Lady Jane Grey, "The 9 day Queen", who stayed here as a girl. Perhaps this accounts for the eerie atmosphere that sometimes prevails, particularly at night. Certainly, the ghost stories are legion, and the area has always been popular with people looking for "supernatural" and neo pagan stimuli, and they in their turn probably feed into what is already an "evil" atmosphere. Thirty thousand spectators came to see Howe Gibbeted, and the stories began following a visit by some boys who had gone to see the rotting corpse, they asked it, "How bist thee, Will Howe"? And the ghostly reply came back, "Cold and Clammy!" A lady was famously scared out of her wits by an apparition of Howe, (his neck "stretched"), as she walked on the heath by night, and a Victorian account, has Howe banished to the underworld at dawn, just as he has attacked a passing wayfarer! My impressions (and I grew up on the heath) are of a place long associated with death, the otherworld and guardians of the threshold of the otherworld, a place perhaps where excarnation of corpses was practiced (i've had spooky dreams of such a scenario, before I even knew what "excarnation" was), and I kid you not, these emanations do seem to particularly centre on the barrow itself. One more fact worthy of record, is that the hill was the place where Charles (later King Charles the second) swapped his blown horses during the flight from the battle of Worcester in 1651. The Whittington Inn claims that this took place there, but this is incorrect. The King and his companions rode through Broadwaters skirting Kidderminster, through Cookley and crossed the Stour at Caunsall. They must have skirted Kinver too, and crossed the Stour again at the Stewponey, riding over the Heath to rendevouz at the Round Hill, where they were met (it is said) with fresh horses and information that Stourbridge was not guarded by militia. This turned out to be mistaken, apparently, and they had a minor skirmish with militia in the vicinity of Amblecote. There was a small cavalry engagement in the first Civil war on the heath, between "Tinker Fox" of nearby Stourton Castle, and Prince Rupert, who was staying at Wollescote Hall, near Stourbridge. Stourton Castle dates to Circa 1190, and was the Royal Hunting lodge and Royal Forester's lodge in the days when Kinver Forest was a vast expanse of woodland merging with the Wyre and Morfe Forests. King John was a regular visitor, and another structure between Swindon and Greensforge is still called "King John's hunting lodge" locally. Cardinal Reginald Pole, who became Cardinal of England in the 16th Century, was born at the Castle. As a boy, I was told that the Angevin Fortifications were erected atop an original Saxon fortified Manor built by Ethelfleda, the "Lady of the Mercians", but can find no evidence to corrobarate this. Further south, around Ismere and Axborough, there are many "bumps" in the land that look man made, and there is a record of an Anglo Saxon Royal hall having stood somewhere around this area when the Magasentae line were the dominant Royal line in Mercia. Other tumuli are to be found near Churchill near Harborough hill.

Posted by Forrester
18th March 2005ce
Edited 17th January 2006ce

Comments (1)

Another interesting take on the reinforcement of Greensforge during the Boudicca rebellion, is that three years ago a vast site in King's Heath Birmingham was discovered and the rumour was that there was hard evidence that the great battle between the Roman Legions and British tribes took place there.... does anyone know any more?? Posted by forrester 2
9th June 2009ce
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