Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe/Chapter IV

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I have divided Refuges into two classes—those that have been burrowed under the soil, and those that open in the face of a cliff. Occasionally they run one into another, and yet they materially differ. The first have their entrances elaborately concealed, whereas the latter are bare to the face of day, and no concealment is possible or attempted. Those who had recourse to the first trusted in being able, should the entrance be discovered or betrayed, to defend themselves by various devices, whereas those who resorted to the latter relied on their inaccessibility.

Where a cliff stood up precipitous or overhanging, and in its face gaped caverns, those who sought refuge in time of danger naturally looked to them, and contrived means of reaching them, therein to ensconce their goods and secure their persons. They might have to contemplate the devastation of their fields, and their farms burning, from their eyries, but they knew that their persons were safe. There were various ways by which these caves could be reached; one was by cutting notches in the face of the cliff for fingers and toes, so that it could be climbed to from below, but not accessible to an enemy exposed to the thrust of pikes, and to stones being cast down upon him. Or else the notches were cut laterally from an accessible ledge, but if so, then this mode of approach was carefully guarded. A second method was by ladders, but as some of these caves are so high up that no single ladder could reach their mouths, a succession was contrived notched below and above into the rock where ledges either existed naturally or were contrived artificially, so as to enable the climber to step from one ladder to the next. In the event of danger the ladders could be withdrawn. A third method was by a windlass, rope and basket, and this was employed where the ascent by finger and toe notches was peculiarly perilous, for the conveyance of goods or of children and old people. But cattle had also to be saved from the depredators, and in some of the cliff refuges are stables for horses and cowstalls, with mangers and silos; places also where the windlass was fixed and there the sharp edge of the rock has been smoothed to an easy slope to facilitate the landing of the beasts, that were hauled up by bands placed under their bellies. Provision was also made for the baking of bread and the storage of water, this latter in the same way as already described in the account of the contrivances for permanent rock- dwellings. These cliff refuges can have been had recourse to only on emergencies, on account of their inaccessibility.

At Cazelles in the commune of Sireuil (Dordogne) is a cliff 1200 feet long, and about 150 feet high. It has been worn into a deep furrow some twenty or thirty feet from the top, horizontal and running its entire length. The whole cliff overhangs its base. The entire groove has been occupied as a refuge, and there have been excavations in the back of the groove for additional chambers. In front, moreover, there must have been a balcony of wood, sustained by beams and props. In three places the edge of the terrace has been cut through for the convenience of hauling up cattle and farm produce. At the time when this was in use there was a hamlet at the foot of the cliff, as is shown by the furrows cut in the rock into which the tile roofing was let, and notches for the reception of the roof timbers.

No trace of a stair remains; in fact no stair could have been cut in the face of a rock that overhangs as does this. Another very remarkable cliff-refuge is Le Peuch Saint Sour on the Vézère. It is not mentioned in any chronicle as having been a resort of the English in the Hundred Years' War, and we may accordingly conclude that it was a refuge for the inhabitants of the hamlet at its feet.

S. Sorus or Sour was a hermit, born about the year 500; he set off with two companions, Amandus and Cyprian, to find a desert place where he might take up his abode. I will quote from the Latin life. "All at once in their wanderings they arrived at a place in the midst of vast forests, and dens of wild beasts, a place so barren and abrupt, of access so difficult, that surely no one had ever hitherto ventured to reach it either to dwell there, or for pleasure, even to visit it for curiosity. A rock very lofty furnished him above with a shelter that sufficed; out of the flanks of the rock issued a spring and watered the little valley that was on the other side surrounded by the Vézère."

I think that it was in the Peuch S. Sour that the hermit settled, though afterwards through the favour of King Gontram he moved to lands granted him at Terrasson. And now for a story. Here he resolved to live alone, and here he parted with his companions. But before they separated, "Let us have a love feast together," said he. But he had with him only a bit of fat bacon. He divided it into three parts, and gave a share to each of his companions. Now it was Lent, and one of them was scandalized at the idea of eating bacon in Lent, so he put the bit of meat into his bosom, where it was at once transformed into a serpent, which enwrapped him in its coils. Terrified, he screamed to Sour to deliver him, which the hermit did, and the monster was at once resolved into a bit of bacon. "Eat it," said the hermit, "and remember that Charity is above all rules."

The description of the place so well accords with the Peuch that bears his name, that I cannot doubt but that Sour occupied for some years the cave high up in the cliff, and only to be reached by crawling to it sideways, holding on to the rock by fingers and toes. But afterwards it was greatly enlarged to serve as a place of retreat by the peasants of the hamlet below. It consists of three groups of chambers cut in the rock, one reached by a very long, forty-round ladder, when a chamber is entered which has a hole in the roof through which, by another ladder, one can mount to a whole series of chambers communicating one with another. The face of some of these was originally walled up. A second group is now inaccessible. A third is reached by climbing along the face of the cliff, with fingers and toes placed in niches cut in the cleft to receive them.

A recess at the foot of the crag, arched above, contains three perpendicular grooves. This was the beginning of another artificial cave, never completed, begun maybe in 1453 and suddenly abandoned, as the glad tidings rang through the land that the English had abandoned Aquitaine and that the Companies were disbanded.

At the Roc d'Aucor, in the valley of the Vers (Lot), a gaping cave is visible far above where any ladder could reach and inaccessible by climbing from the top of the crag, as that overhangs like a wave about to break. Nevertheless, athwart the opening are, and have been from time immemorial, two stout beams let into the rock horizontally. Dimly visible in the depth of the cavern is some tall white figure, and the peasants declare that it is that of a man—a statue in marble, keeping guard over a golden calf.

In 1894, M. Martel and three friends, taking with them Armand, the trusty help in descending avens, pot-holes, and exploring the course of subterranean rivers, resolved on an attempt at the exploration of this mysterious cavern.

The mouth is 90 feet from the ground, and its floor is about 95 feet from the summit of the cliff,[1] which is crowned by the oppidurn of Murcens, the best preserved of all Gaulish strongholds in France, and was held by the English in 1370. The only possible way to obtain access to the interior would be from above, as the plumb-line let down from the summit fell 44 feet wide from the base of the cliff. Accordingly a rope ladder was attached to a tree on the top, and Armand descended furnished with a plumb-line, the end of which was attached to a cord. "Having descended 77 feet, he swung free in the air at the level of the transverse poles. Then he endeavoured to throw the lead-weight beyond one of the poles. He succeeded only after the seventh or eighth attempt, and was well pleased when the weight running over it swung down to our feet, as the position of the poles and the slope of the floor of the fissure did not allow it to rest in the cavern. 'Pull the cord,' shouted Armand. 'What for?' 'You will soon see. Pull'—and speedily the string drew after it one of our stout ropes. 'Now do you understand?' asked Armand. 'I have fastened my rope ladder to the cord that goes over the pole. Four or five of you pull and draw me in towards that pole, and so we shall get the better of the situation. When I have fixed the ladder to the pole you may all mount by the grand stair.'"

By good fortune that beam held firm, and first Armand got into the cave and then the others mounted from below. What made the entrance treacherous was that the floor at the orifice sloped rapidly downwards and outwards.

When within, it was seen that the posts were still solid and firmly planted in notches cut in the rock on both sides. In line with them were two rows of similar notches for the reception of beams extending inwards for about twenty feet, as though at one time there had been rafters to divide the cave into two storeys, but of such rafters none remained. The back of the cave was occupied by a gleaming white stalagmitic column that certainly from below bore some resemblance to a human figure, but the floor of the cavern was so deep in birds' nests, and droppings of bats, leaves and branches, that it was not possible at the time to explore it. This, however, was done by M. Martel in 1905, but nothing of archaeological interest was found. However, he noticed a sort of ascending chimney that extended too far to be illumined to its extremity by the magnesium wire, and he conjectured that it extended to the surface of the rock above, where was the original entrance, now choked with earth and stone.

But an investigation by M. A. Viré has solved the mystery of how access was obtained to this refuge. The beams visible from below are, as already said, two in number. The upper and largest is square, and measures seven by eight inches. The lower is nearly round and is four inches in diameter, and shows distinct traces of having been fretted by a rope having passed over it. It must have been used for the drawing up of food or other objects likely to excite the cupidity of robbers and routiers. The number of notches for beams of a floor in the sides of the cave is remarkable, but no floor can have been erected there, otherwise it would not have rotted away, whilst the two cross- beams at the entrance remain sound. The chimney supposed by Martel to communicate with the surface does not do so. Spade work at the foot of the rock revealed the manner in which the cavern had been reached. A tradition existed in the Vers valley that at one time there had been a tower at the foot of the rock, and old men remembered the removal of some of its ruins for the construction of a mill. By digging, the foundations of the tower were disclosed. It had been square and measured 44 feet on each side. It had stood about 60 feet high, and had been topped with a lean-to tiled roof resting against the uppermost beam in the cave and thereby masking it.[2]

A somewhat similar cave is that of Boundoulaou in the Causse de Larzac (Lozère). Although this has an opening in the face of the precipice, which is partly walled up, it can be entered from another and more accessible cave. At a considerably lower level flows a stream that at one time issued from it, but has worked its way downwards, and now gushes forth many feet below. However, apparently in times of heavy rain, the overflow did burst forth from the upper cavern, for in it were found the skeletons of a whole family that had perished on one such occasion.

At nearly 180 feet up the face of a sheer perpendicular cliff near Milau is the cave of Riou Ferrand, 45 feet below the brow of the precipice. The mouth of the grotto is partly blocked by a well- constructed wall. It has been entered from above and explored. It yields delicately fine pottery and a spindle-whorl, so that a woman must have taken refuge here, and here sat spinning and looking down from this dizzy height on the ruffians ravaging the valley below and setting fire to her house. Bones of sheep and pigs in the cave showed that it had been tenanted for some time, and tiles of distinctly Roman character indicated the period of its occupation. The only possible means of entering this cavern is, and was, by a rope or a ladder from above.[3]

I was in the valley of the Célé in 1892 with my friend M. Raymond Pons, a daring explorer of avens and caves. There was one cavern in a precipice on the left bank near Brengues that showed tokens of having been a refuge, from having a pole across the entrance. M. Pons obtained a stout rope, and the assistance of half-a-dozen peasants, and was let down over the brink, and by swinging succeeded in obtaining a foothold within. He there found evident traces of former occupation. But how was it entered and left in ancient times? From below it was quite inaccessible, and from above only by the means he employed—a rope.

At Les Mées in the Basses-Alpes is a very similar cave, with two beams across fastened at the ends into the rock, which is a conglomerate, at the height of 350 feet, and quite inaccessible. They are mentioned by the historian Bartel in 1636 as inexplicable by him, and by the residents in the place.

A not less perplexing rock shelter is that of Fadarelles in the Gorges of the Tarn.

Of this M. Martel writes: "In a superb cliff of dolomitic limestone of the cirque of the Beaumes Chauds, M. l'Abbé Solanet was good enough to conduct me beneath the Baume des Fadarelles, a chasm inaccessible, at the height of something like 1770 feet in the face of the precipice, something like the openings of Boundoulaou, but much narrower.

"In it one can see three coarse beams or rather trunks of trees from which the boughs have been cut away, each about 12 feet long. As this opening might well have been that of discharge of a stream, now choked, for the Baumes Chauds and its adjoining fissures, one is led at first to suppose that water had brought down these logs that had fallen into some pot-hole. But this hypothesis is untenable, for it can be seen that these poles have been artificially pointed at each end, and that they have been made firm by cross pieces of metal, either bronze or iron. This may be the remains of a roof or a floor destined to supplement the insufficiency of the overhanging rock—and of the size of the fissure, so as to convert it into some sort of shelter. To study the matter, a ladder of nearly 50 feet would be needed (to be let down from above). In the absence of all tradition, these beams of Les Fadarelles remain a mystery. As the face of the cliff is absolutely smooth above the opening, below and on both sides, completely devoid of anything like a ledge by which access could be obtained to it, the question presents itself to one for the third time, as at Boundoulaou and at Riou Ferrand, were these cliff-dwellers in the Causses like those in the Cañon of Colorado, or has the demolition of ledges by weather on these limestone cliffs proceeded with great rapidity?"

Two apparently inaccessible caves, that have been the habitation of man as a temporary refuge, and that have been explored by M. Philibert Lalande, show that there was a way in which some, though by no means all, were reached. The grottoes of Puy Labrousse near Brive, comprising five or six chambers, have isolated from the rest one that opens in the face of a sheer precipice at a considerable height above the valley. It can be entered only from behind, by a very small oval opening, preceded by a gallery very narrow, and masked at the entrance by enormous rocks, and which could be barricaded by stout beams, hollows for the reception of which are visible.

The other is at Soulier-de-Chasteaux on the Couze, an affluent of the Vézère. Here are two caverns excavated by the hand of man. The most curious is on the right bank near the top of a Jurassic cliff that is absolutely precipitous, and this also can be entered a retro. A narrow path leads to an opening very small, excavated in the vault of the cavern, through which a man could squeeze himself so as to descend into it by means of a ladder. The gaping mouth of this grotto, which is from 15 to 18 feet square, is in part closed by a breastwork of stone.

Below this cave is a very large shelter cut out square-headed in the cliff, but not deep; and this is used by the peasants of Soulier as a place for stacking their hay. Square hollows wrought in the rock show that formerly some building was accommodated to it, and the roof ran back under it. In Auvergne are many souterrains that have served as places of concealment in times of war. The Puy de Clierson occupies the centre of an area of four volcanoes. It is shaped like a bell, the slopes are covered with brushwood, and a ring of broken rocks forms the precipitous wall of the circular and flattish cap. The hill is composed of trachyte, and the upper portion is perforated in all directions by galleries and vaults that served formerly as a quarry for the extraction of stone of which the Romans formed their sarcophagi, in consequence of its powers of absorption of the moisture exuding from the bodies laid in their stone chests. The same may be said of Le Grand Sarcoui, shaped like a kettle turned bottom upwards. In some of the galleries are unfinished sarcophagi. But although originally quarries, they were used as refuges in later times. At Corent, on the Allier near Veyre-Mouton, are refuges in caves, so also at Blot-l'Eglise near Menat, which served the purpose during the troubles of the League.

Meschers is a village in Charante Inférieure, lying in the lap of a chalk hill that extends to a bluff above the Gironde. This cliff is honeycombed with caves, excavated perhaps originally as quarries, but several certainly served as habitations; the several chambers or dwellings are reached by a ledge running along the face of the cliff, but the chambers of each particular cave-house have doors of intercommunication cut through this rock. The Grottes de Meschers are said to have been used by the Huguenots at a time when it was perilous to assemble in a house for preaching or psalm-singing. But it is also quite possible that they served as refuges as well to the Catholics, when the Calvinists had the upper hand; as, indeed, they had for long. Their attempts at proselytising was not with velvet gloves, but with fire-brand, sword, and the hangman's rope. In that horrible period, exceeding far in barbarity that of the routiers in the Hundred Years' War, it is hard to decide on which side the worst atrocities were committed.

Later still, in the Reign of Terror, the grottoes may have harboured priests and nobles hiding for their lives. But now they shelter none but the peaceful dreamer, who sits there at eventide looking out over the yellow waters of the Gironde, ever agitated by the tide, at the setting sun that sends shafts of fire into these recesses—and sets him wishing that the light would reveal the details of tragic stories connected with these caves.

In the department of Ariège are a vast number of natural caverns, many of which have served as places of retreat for the Albigenses. Between Tarascon and Cabannes are some that were defended by crenellated walls, and are supposed to date from the Wars of Religion, but probably go back beyond the time of the English occupation. It is also said that the Huguenots met in them for their assemblies. In the country they go by the name of gleizetos, or petites eglises. They are found on the left bank of the Ariège. In the fourth century the Priscillianist heretics expelled from Spain settled in the mountains on the north slope of the Pyrenees, and propagated their doctrines throughout the country and among the population more than half pagan, and this explains the spread of Albigensian Manichaeism later. In 407 the Vandals, Suevi and Alani, during three years in succession swept the country, committing frightful ravages, as they passed on their way into Spain; and no doubt can be entertained that at this time the numerous grottoes were used by the natives as refuges. In 412 there was another influx of barbarians, this time Visigoths; their king Walla made Toulouse his capital, and gave over two-thirds of the land to his followers. After the battle of Voulon, in 507, Clovis took possession of Toulouse. In 715 the Saracens poured through the gaps in the Pyrenees, occupied the basin of the Ariège, and destroyed the city of Couserans. In 731 more arrived in a veritable invasion of multitudes, and ravaged all the south of France. Again the caves served their end as places of hiding. The south of France, rich and dissolute, was steeped in heresy. This heresy was a compound of Priscillianism, the dualism of Manes, Oriental and Gnostic fancies, Gothic Arianism, and indigenous superstition, all fused together in what was known as Albigensianism, and which was hardly Christian even in name. The terrible and remorseless extermination of these unfortunate people, who knew no better, by order of Innocent III. and John XXIII., presents one of the most horrible passages in history. The country reeked with the smoke of pyres at which the heretics were burnt, and was drenched with their blood. In 1244 their last stronghold, the Montsegur, was taken, when two hundred of them were burnt alive. Only some few who had concealed themselves in the dens and caves of the earth survived this terrible time. The last heard of them is in 1328, when some of the proscribed took refuge in the grottoes of Lombrive, when 500 or 600 were walled in and starved to death, as already related.

In Derbyshire are numerous caves—at Castleton, Bradwell Eyam, Matlock, and Buxton—but they are all natural, except such as are old mine- workings.

Poole's Hole, the Buxton cavern, may be traced underground for the distance of something like half a mile. It is now lighted with gas, its inner ways have been made smooth, and it is even possible for invalids in bath-chairs to enter. But it was at one time the haunt of an outlaw named Poole, in the reign of Henry IV., who made it his home, and here accumulated his stores. But it was inhabited long before his time, and proves to have been a prehistoric dwelling-place, and was later occupied by the Romans.

Reynard's Cave is high up on the Derbyshire side of Dove Dale, and the way to it is steep and dangerous. It is approached through a natural archway in a sheer cliff of limestone, about 20 feet wide and twice as high, beyond which a difficult pathway gives access to the cave itself. Near it is a smaller cavity, called Reynard's Kitchen. This cavern has undoubtedly served as a shelter, it is said, to persecuted Royalists. Here it was that the Dean of Clogher, Mr. Langton, lost his life a century ago. He foolishly tried to ride his horse up the steep side of the Dale to the cave, and carry a young lady, Miss La Roche, behind him. The horse lost its foothold among the loose stones, and the rash equestrian fell. The Dean died two days afterwards, but the young lady recovered, saved by her hair having caught in the thorns of a bramble bush. High up, among the rocks on the Staffordshire side in a most secluded spot, is a cleft called Cotton's Cave, which extends something like 40 feet within the rock. Here it was that Charles Cotton, the careless, impecunious poet, the friend of Isaac Walton, was wont to conceal himself from his creditors. On the top of Lovers' Leap, a sheer precipice, is what was once a garden where the two anglers sat and smoked their pipes. Close by is an ancient watch-tower, from which was seen Cotton's wife's beacon-fire lit to announce to him that the coast was clear of duns, and to light him home in the black nights of winter.

Thor's Cave is in a lofty rock on the Manifold River. The cliff rises to an altitude of four or five hundred feet, terminating in a bold and lofty peak; and the cave is situated about half-way up the face of the precipice. The cave is arched at the entrance, a black yawning mouth in the white face of the limestone. It is a natural phenomenon, but appears to have been enlarged by cave-dwellers. It has been explored by a local antiquary, and has yielded evidence of having been inhabited from prehistoric times.

The name of Thor's Cavern carries us back to the time when the Norsemen occupied Deira and Derbyshire, and Jordas Cave in Yorkshire does the same—for the name signifies an Earth-Giant.

In the crevices of Bottor Rock in Hennock, Devon, John Cann, a Royalist, found refuge. He had made himself peculiarly obnoxious to the Roundheads at Bovey Tracey, and here he lay concealed, and provisions were secretly conveyed to him. Here also he hid his treasure. A path is pointed out, trodden by him at night as he paced to and fro. He was at last tracked by bloodhounds to his hiding-place, seized, carried to Exeter and hanged. His treasure has never been recovered, and his spirit still walks the rocks.

At Sheep's Tor, where is now the reservoir of the Plymouth waterworks, may be seen by the side of the sheet of water the ruins of the ancient mansion of the Elfords. The Tor of granite towers above the village. Among the rocks near the summit is a cave in which an old Squire Elford was concealed when the Parliamentary troopers were in search of him. Polwheel in his "Devon" mentions it. "Here, I am informed, Elford used to hide himself from the search of Cromwell's party, to whom he was obnoxious. Hence he could command the whole country, and having some talent for painting, he amused himself with that art on the walls of his cavern, which I have been told by an elderly gentleman who had visited the place was very fresh in his time." None of the paintings now remain on the sides of the rock.

The cave is formed by two slabs of granite resting against each other. It is only about 6 feet long, 4 wide, and 5 feet high, and is entered by a very narrow opening.


  1. Martel (A.), Le Réfuge du Roc d'Aucor, Brive, 1895.
  2. "Le Roc d'Aucour," in Bulletin de la Soc. des Antiquaires de Quercy, Cahors, 1901, t. xxvi.
  3. Martel, Les Abimes, Paris, 1894.