Mother Earth Living

Cave Homes: Can You Dig It?

Go beneath the surface and explore the hidden lives of underground homes.
By Susan Melgren
January/February 2012
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The sandstone cave homes of Kinver Edge are thought to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Regulated by the earth’s natural temperature, the homes stayed warm in winter and cool in summer. Although the Kinver Edge cave homes are no longer inhabited, several families lived in them at their peak in the 1800s.
Photo By Phile Parsons
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For thousands of years, people have been living cozily in underground homes. Homes carved into the earth benefit from its nearly constant temperature, keeping them comfortable year-round. Some cave homes were built out of necessity, others for delight. Discover cave homes’ quirky comfort and charming eccentricity in these visit-worthy spots scattered across the globe.

Kinver Edge: The Original Hobbit Houses

On the border of Staffordshire and Worcestershire in England lies Kinver Edge, a sandstone hill where people have lived in cave homes for centuries. The soft sandstone made carving homes out of rock easy—so easy, in fact, that when a family moved out, the neighbors would tunnel through to the adjoining home, doubling their home’s size!

The homes are thought to have started as a hermitage for a group living in religious seclusion, and several families lived in Kinver Edge at its peak in the 1800s. Although the homes had no electricity or plumbing, they were warm in winter and cool in summer. Despite their primitive appearance, the homes’ interiors boasted plastered and painted walls and nonessential rooms, including parlors. Smoke from the elaborate fireplaces traveled up sloped chimney flues over the tops of the sandstone cliffs.

Brightly colored doors and small gardens lend these homes a cozy cottage feeling that many believe inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. (Tolkien lived in nearby Birmingham.) Although the cave homes aren’t occupied today—the last residents moved out in the 1950s—Britain’s National Trust has taken over the deteriorated houses and has restored one to the Victorian period.

Learn more: National Trust’s Kinver Edge and the Rock Houses information page 

Forestiere Underground Gardens: A Mediterranean Paradise

When Baldassare Forestiere emigrated from Sicily to the United States in the early 1900s, he dreamt of starting a citrus empire. Unfortunately, the 70 acres of land he purchased in Fresno, California, contained nothing but rock-hard, inhospitable dirt that wouldn’t accommodate fruit trees. To escape the summer heat, Forestiere dug himself an underground home—and during the process discovered that the soil 20 feet below the surface was fertile enough to grow his dream orchards.

Forestiere spent the next 40 years carving out an underground compound reminiscent of the Roman catacombs. The space spans 10 acres and includes courtyards, bedrooms, a kitchen with modern conveniences for its day, a parlor, a fish pond and even a chapel. The hard topsoil provided the perfect building material for pathways and rooms. Skylights flood the underground rooms with natural light, and open grottos and courtyards admit sunlight to grow pomegranates, strawberries, grapes, jujubes, quince, kumquats, dates, almonds, figs and many citrus fruits.

After his death, Forestiere’s family kept the gardens open to the public. As Fresno grew, however, the property became more valuable, and keeping the gardens open became a struggle. Following a series of lawsuits, the gardens closed for several years. Now a California Registered Historical Landmark, the gardens have been restored and reopened for public tours.

Learn more: Forestiere Underground Gardens 

Coober Pedy, Australia: A Down-Under(ground) Town

Situated in the barren Australian desert, the old mining town of Coober Pedy doesn’t look like much at first. That’s because more than half of the town—including churches, restaurants, bars, museums, hotels and even art galleries—is underground.

Coober Pedy got its start when opals were discovered in the area in 1915. After Australia’s transcontinental railroad was finished in 1917, many construction workers and soldiers returning from World War I moved to Coober Pedy in search of riches. Desert weather made for harsh living conditions, so the soldiers, accustomed to living in trenches during the war, took up residence in underground dwellings to escape the heat. When summer temperatures soared into the triple digits, the earth’s temperature kept the underground homes consistently cool. Originally known as the Stuart Range Opal Field, the town changed its name in 1920 to Coober Pedy, from the Aboriginal words kupa piti, meaning “white man in a hole.”

Today, more than half of Coober Pedy’s residents live comfortably underground, some in former mines. Because the original holes were dug by hand, these homes tend to be small. As tunneling machines have taken the back-breaking labor out of building, newer homes are more spacious. Many of the homes are built into Coober Pedy’s hillsides, with street-level doors and windows that let in light. The sandstone from which the homes are hewn provides light, rose-colored walls.

Visiting Coober Pedy? Try one of the town’s underground hotels such as the Desert Cave Hotel, with 19 underground suites, or the Underground Bed and Breakfast, a three-bedroom underground home.

Learn more: District Council of Coober Pedy 


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