Searching for the Hole Truth; Buried beneath One of the Busiest Spots in Britain Lies a Network of Caves Thought to Hold Mythical Secrets. Chris Upton Investigates

Article excerpt

In September 1896 the medical officer of the Birmingham Medical Mission made an interesting discovery in his back garden. To be precise, it was not Dr Crabbe himself who made the find, but his son, who was exploring (as young boys do) the murkier regions of the family patch.

Dr Crabbe's house was on Copeley Hill, a rocky outcrop of sandstone lying between Erdington and Gravelly Hill. Being Scottish by profession the doctor perhaps preferred the unusually rugged nature of his garden compared with the well-manicured lawns elsewhere on offer in Erdington.

The hill itself provided a natural sandstone wall to his domain, as much as 18 feet high, with a view over the river at Salford along with its ancient bridge. Not the silvery Tay, admittedly, but more than passable for Birmingham.

Master Crabbe already had an inkling that his garden had a secret. The mysterious arrival and disappearance of frogs suggested this, as well as the strange hollow sound of the cliff when he threw stones at it (as he was bound by his gender and size so to do).

With the aid of a few basic archaeological tools such as sticks, the young lad excitedly found in the undergrowth what appeared to be a tunnel entrance. Unfortunately, so energetic were his excavations that he also uncovered a long dormant watercourse, which gushed out and flooded the hole almost as quickly as he had found it. On one side of the hole, however, when the ivy and bracken were pulled away, was found a crude inscription carved into the sandstone. It read: 'T M 1707, 1787 and 1807.'

There was, of course, immediate speculation that this was one of those mysterious tunnels that litter the English landscape (or don't, according to your point of view), this one supposedly on a direct line between Erdington Hall and Aston Hall. Quite why the inhabitants of old halls preferred to burrow when calling on their neighbours rather than take a carriage has never been adequately explained.

Anyway, this wasn't a tunnel, it was a cave, one of a number of such caves in the vicinity.

They are, or at least were, one of the most unusual features of the north Birmingham landscape and go by the name of the 'Dwarf Holes'.

The name is certainly not a recent one. A grant of land by Thomas Wright and Henry Hurley to one Robert Massy from 1490 refers to 'two crofts of land and meadow now in the tenure of John Cooke of Aston, called Dwarffeholys and formerly Le Hyllys'.

A little later, a mill on the Hawthorn brook in the 1540s was known as Dwarfholes Mill. …