I’m on holiday with my family in the Wye Valley, which spans the border of south Wales and England. The last time I visited the area was when I was a child, probably ten or eleven. My memories are vague and I think I visited places, but maybe I hadn’t. One of those is Clearwell Caves. I’m sure I’ve been down them before.
Clearwell caves are more than caves, they are mines. For thousands of years, seams of iron ore have been mined, not primarily for smelting, but for the production of ochre, a red pigment. The redness is everywhere, leaching out of the soil and rocks.
The mine is still in operation, although on a very limited scale and mostly for educational purposes. We followed the tour, the steep paths up and down, peering into the dark caverns. In the pre-industrial era, the miners used candles and drank out of pools of water. Children were employed to carry 30 kg loads of iron ore on their backs using ‘billys’ – wooden hods. If they didn’t move fast enough, the miners placed shards of rocks between the load and their backs. The discomfort and pain forced the children, some as young as seven, to move faster. By 1842 children under ten years were banned from working in mines.
Rail tracks replaced children and engines carried the loads to the surface. The tracks and old engines are still there, as is the detris of the miners’ tools. These days you’re more likely to enjoy a BBQ or Halloween party underground than hear the clang of pick axe on stone or the pneumatic drill.
Across the vale is wooded area and hidden beneath the roots of the trees more dug out holes and small shafts. Amongst the green of leaves is the red of ochre. 8000 years of free mining in the Forest of Dean has created numerous holes and man made burrows. A free miner is anyone who has worked as a miner for one year and lives in the forest. They can mine wherever in the forest, except under houses and graveyards. There are approximately 150 free miners left in the Forest of Dean, the legacy of a lost industry.
At the top of the hill are three recreated Iron Age round houses. The place was deserted. We sat inside one, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. It wasn’t that bad. The walls were lined with ochre coloured mud, the roofs thatched and the benches covered in woolly fleeces. Pity nobody else was in the secret forest to enjoy the adventure.