Carved into the soft sandstone of a cliff overlooking a tributary of the Trent in south Derbyshire, the Anchor Church cave once provided a fashionable venue for aristocratic parties, hosting the local great and good for dining, drinking, and musical entertainments put on by the 18th-century Baronets of Bramcote. Such grottoes were much admired by enthusiasts of the picturesque movement that was popular at this time, and the 4th Baronet, Sir Robert Burdett (1716-1797), was a particularly keen visitor to the site, which lay close to (though outside the grounds of) his Palladian mansion, Foremark Hall. A painting by Thomas Smith of Derby, completed in 1745, shows one such gathering, with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen enjoying the cave while a man plays the flute. In his 1899 account Repton and Its Neighbourhood, F C Hipkins also describes the site as Sir Robert’s ‘favourite retreat’, noting that he ‘had it fitted up so that he and his friends could dine within its cool and romantic cells’. Traces of these modifications can still be seen today – but recently published research by Wessex Archaeology and the Royal Agricultural University’s newly formed Cultural Heritage Institute suggests that the space’s origins may be as much as 1,000 years earlier.
The cave, which lies between Foremark and Ingleby, was examined as part of a wider project by RAU research fellow Edmund Simons, who is exploring rock-cut sites across the country in order to develop a typology and methodology for analysing these sometimes enigmatic spaces. Work at Anchor Church included taking detailed measurements, drone surveys, and studying its architectural details, and Simons’ findings have recently been published as a case study in the Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society. His conclusions place the cave’s creation in the early medieval period, and link its use to another elite individual in the form of an exiled king.
In his paper, Simons notes that rock-cut dwellings can be tricky to analyse, as they represent negative features cut into negative features, with little in the way of conventional stratigraphy – but they can also represent treasure troves of early architectural detail. It takes rather more effort to modify a cave than a conventional house, meaning that early features are not so easily swept away by changes of use or taste, and these sites also tend to be abandoned rather than demolished at the end of their occupation.
‘If the site is stable and not vandalised or too exposed, features can remain undisturbed for many centuries and, unlike conventional buildings, features within rock-cut structures may preserve architectural elements for many centuries after abandonment,’ he writes.
Even before surveying the site, there were clues that the cave’s life long pre-dated its incarnation as a Georgian folly. The ‘anchor’ in its name is not a maritime reference, but speaks of the cave being inhabited by an anchorite, or religious recluse, during the medieval period. A fragment of manuscript preserved as a flyleaf in a 1545 book provides a possible clue to the hermit’s identity: it states that St Hardulph had ‘a cell in a cliff a little from the Trent’. This figure has been identified as St Eardwulf, a deposed Northumbrian king who became an anchorite until his death c.AD 830. As the saint’s shrine lay around 7 miles away in Breedon on the Hill, Anchor Cave is a strong contender for Hardulph’s hermitage, Simons argues – but finding evidence for early medieval occupation would present an even more convincing case.
The cave itself comprises two main spaces, Block A (to the west) and Block B (to the east), separated by a natural vertical fissure in the rock face. The larger Block A is accessed through an arched doorway, and although today it appears as a single, large chamber supported by two pillars, Simons notes that these columns actually represent the remains of long-demolished dividing walls that once split the space into three separate rooms. The line of one of these stone partitions, running between rooms A1 and A2, can still be traced on the roof of the cave, while evidence of a now-redundant and very narrow arch-headed doorway – complete with bolt hole – that formerly led between the two rooms still survives on the southern wall. Traces of the wall between rooms A2 and A3 can also be seen, with the pillar created by its removal still preserving a small part of the thin partition – as well as the marks of the crowbars or picks used in its demolition.
Room A2 provided the main entrance to the cave structure; it was accessed through a large round-headed door, and was lit by a rectangular window that seems to have been made bigger at a later date – the presence of 18th- or 19th-century brick in its base indicates that this is not its original form. On the external face of this chamber, though, you can see the remains of an earlier window, in the form of the neatly cut jamb and half the arch of a much smaller and higher opening.
Room A3 is the largest and most complex space, and while Georgian alterations were again evident in the form of brickwork and a crude fireplace and flue, it was here that Simons identified some of the most persuasive evidence for medieval use of the cave. Its now-lost dividing wall seems to have been adorned with a pilaster (a rectangular column projecting from the wall), the capital of which still survives, albeit in a badly damaged state, in the chamber’s ceiling. This Romanesque feature points to at least a 12th-century date for the main rock-cut structure, Simons suggests, and possibly a significantly earlier one. Describing the capital as ‘the most telling diagnostic feature’, he notes that ‘it has a very worn roll moulding along its top and is very Anglo-Saxon in appearance.’
Tantalisingly, a similar design can be seen barely 2 miles away, topping the columns beneath St Wystan’s Church in Repton. The crypt is thought to have been completed by the Mercian king Wiglaf (r. 827-839), bringing it within range of St Eardwulf’s period of seclusion – might this suggest a link between the two sites? As the crypt was begun in the 8th century, it could even indicate that the rock-cut cave was not built specifically for St Eardwulf, but was an even earlier structure that was adopted by the royal recluse. Adding to this picture, Simons argues that Block A’s two very narrow doors and its circular-headed external door are very reminiscent of features at other pre-12th-century rock-cut hermitages. They ‘suggest an earlier Saxo-Norman or more probably pre-Conquest date. In proportion and form they are similar to early medieval forms seen in conventional buildings,’ he writes.
Such details can be very illuminating; Simons notes that, like conventional buildings, rock-cut structures echo the architectural style of their era. Later examples include Redstone in Worcestershire and St Mary le Roche in Nottinghamshire, which ‘have some clearly 13th- and 14th-century pointed arches and even a quatrefoil window’. Meanwhile, Nescliffe in Shropshire, Warkworth in Northumbria, and Our Lady of the Crags in Yorkshire ‘all have clearly recognisable 15th-century flat arches and vaulting’. Could Anchor Church’s architectural features provide equally clear clues to the date of its construction?
If Anchor Church was a monastic retreat, this could explain its layout: Simons describes other known or suspected Anglo-Saxon rock-cut hermitages, which also combine three cells beside what may have been an oratory or church. Taken in this light, we might interpret Block B as the space geared towards worship, with its three roughly east-facing protrusions representing a sanctuary and side chapels, while Block A could provide living quarters and a ‘consulting room’ for visitors.
Such suggestions conjure up a tranquil image of a space dedicated to quiet contemplation and prayer, but one more hint of a particularly early date for its use comes from a rather less peaceful episode. Any hermitage would probably have operated under the supervision of a larger monastic institution – in this case, the Benedictine Abbey at Repton, Simons writes. That abbey met a violent end when the Viking Great Army arrived at Repton in AD 873, establishing their winter camp on the site and plundering the religious buildings nearby (see CA 352 for more on the Great Army camp, as well as evidence for Viking activity around Foremark at this time). Any hermits based at Anchor Cave during this upheaval would surely have fled or met a similarly brutal fate, and there is no record of monastic activity resuming in the area until Calke Abbey and Repton Priory were established in the 12th century.
‘The strong inference is that the hermitage may pre-date 873 and probably pre-dates the tenure of Hardulph. It may even date as far back as the building of the crypt at Repton in the early 8th century,’ Simons concludes. ‘This may be a unique example of an almost intact early medieval domestic interior.’
It is hoped that further research will corroborate the architectural evidence; the next steps for the site will involve a wider survey of the surrounding landscape, as well as a more detailed investigation of the cave, including scientific dating analysis.
Edmund Simons (2021) ‘Anchor Church Derbyshire: cave hermitage or summer-house? A case study in understanding a rock-cut building’, Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 28 (3).