For thousands of years ochre and iron ore has been mined at Clearwell Caves. You can still meet Freeminers here. For millennia Freeminers have held their ancient Forest of Dean birth-right to exclusively claim mines of iron ore, coal and stone.


Clearwell Caves were first opened to the public in 1968 when Ray Wright began opening the caverns to visitors. Ray's son Jonathan was registered as a Freeminer in 1981, he joined Ray full time in 1984.

Jonathan studied for his M&Q Mine Deputy Certificate on the last mining course held at Cinderford Mining and Technical College, between 1986/7. Jonathan is President of the Royal Forest of Dean Freeminers Association https://www.forestfreeminers.org/ and continues production of ochre pigments. Today he manages Clearwell Caves with his artist wife, Heather.

Clearwell Caves are a tribute to Ray and Jonathan's deep knowledge of the Forest of Dean, it's history and culture. You explore impressive caverns opened to the public, with displays throughout, and revealing the Cave's long history from the Stone Age to the present day. Although large scale working finished in 1945, Clearwell Caves are still producing ochre and they are an important part the Forest of Dean story.

Once you have explored the caverns open to visitors, if you would like to go beyond, we run exciting trips into the Deep Levels of the mine, see https://clearwellcaves.com/adventure-deeper/.


Many species of bat have used the caves over the years and it has become an important winter roost. In 1998 Clearwell Caves were designated a SSSI because of the exceptionally large population of Lesser Horseshoe bats that hibernate here. The Caves are now a major part of the Wye Valley SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and of European importance. See https://clearwellcaves.com/explore-the-caverns/

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The Forest of Dean forms a natural basin shape. The Carboniferous limestones which are riddled with caves, form the rim, creating the higher edges, often with steep cliffs and hills. Here at Clearwell you stand on limestone forming the rim of the basin. On top of the layers of limestone and forming the centre part of the Forest of Dean basin are shales and sandstones with coal seams, that belong to the Coal Measures.


Forest of Dean iron-ore mines are part of natural cave systems that began developing shortly after the rock was formed, some 300 million years ago.
The modern road running just outside Clearwell Caves entrance, follows a dry river valley, once a tributary to the river Wye. Surface rivers fed underground streams, forming caves and depositing minerals until the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, its been a relatively dry cave system ever since.

The original source for the iron ore in the mines still mystifies geologists as the remaining rock layers above the limestone contains relatively little iron mineralisation, compared to the vast quantity of iron ore that formed in the cave systems and later became the iron mines.


“All male persons born or hereafter to be born and abiding within the said Hundred of St Briavels, of the age of twenty one years and upwards, who shall have worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine within the said Hundred of St Briavels, shall be deemed and taken to be Free Miners." extract from Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838.

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Freemining is an ancient mining custom practiced in the Forest of Dean. Local inhabitants have exclusively taken minerals from the ground since prehistoric times - for as long as people have lived in the region. A Freeminer has the right to claim a gale and work it for iron ore, coal and stone. See https://www.forestfreeminers.org/ for more details of this curious custom. The custom is administered on behalf of the Forestry Commission by the Deputy Gaveller a Crown official experienced in mining. The photograph shows a previous Deputy Gaveller, Albert Howells, in his office at Coleford, inspecting a map book showing coal gales. Specific gales are granted to Freeminers at their request and each gale defines the mineral and area that can be worked.

By Norman times, Dean iron ore was an important part of the national economy. Freeminer's skills became a great military asset that was valued by Medieval Kings, who often requested their services in England, Scotland, Wales and France, particularly during the 100 years War.

The miners were protected by the King, becoming known as the ‘King’s Miners’ and ‘King’s pyoneers’, they became a privileged group, with their own Mine Law Court. Through the court they regulated Freemining customs, under supervision of the King's Gaveller, who in turn appointed Deputy Gavellers to do the work 'on the ground', administering the operations of the mines and the custom.

Freeminers have continued to use their skills on behalf of the Crown fighting in the last two world wars and on engineering projects up to the present day.

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There are many references to medieval Free Miners, who were instrumental amongst many things, in recapturing Berwick upon Tweed several times (1296, 1305, 1315) as it passed between Scottish and English hands. Legend tells us that it was for their indispensable services, particularly during his Scottish campaigns, that Edward I granted the Dean Miners a Royal Charter, as he had with other mining districts such as Derbyshire and Cornwall

Dean miners were continually called to campaigns that might involve siege or earth works, especially during the Hundred Year's War (1337 to 1453). After Henry V's campaign in 1415 (which included the battle of Agincourt) the King’s brother, John Duke of Bedford (Regent of England while Henry was abroad and Gaveller of the Forest of Dean) is believed to have delivered a document to the miners on behalf of the King, re-confirming their customs in return for their services in France.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the Mine Law Court records (including any charters and other ancient documents) were stolen from the Speech House and not all of them ever recovered. When some of the documents re-surfaced at an Inquiry over 50 years later in 1831, they were in the hands of Crown officers and used in evidence to a Government Inquiry into the miner’s customs. One of the documents that was recovered, The 'Miners' Lawes And Privileges' mentioned above, is thought to be a translation of a much earlier miners' charter as it contains ancient legal terms that hint at being translated from Latin or early French.

No actual charter is known to exist today.


Amongst other places, Freeminers were frequently requested to fight in France and fought for the King throughout the Hundred Years War, most famously they are documented at the famous battles at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). Miners became used to being an essential part of the King's armoury. Dean miners became known as 'The King's Miners' and 'King's Pyoneers', known today as 'Sappers' they undermined fortifications, to collapse them, making earthworks, trenches, building timber structures, installing stakes etc.

As well as their renowned mining skills, the Dean miners were also excellent archers and ferocious in hand to hand combat; they were hard men, used to operating in harsh conditions. By law from 1363 all English males from 7 - 60 years old were required to practise archery for at least two hours on Sundays and festival days, no other new distracting games such as football and golf were to be allowed to replace archery, on pain of death. Dean miners by their trade were strong and able to pull powerful warbows; their archery skills were an important asset during campaigns (even today archery practice areas known as 'The Butts', can be found in local mining villages of Clearwell, Blakeney and Staunton).

As late as 31st July 1522 Henry VIII demanded 300 archers from the Forest of Dean to go to Dover to fight in France; most of them, if not all, would have been Freeminers. By the beginning of the 16th century archery was in decline, the Forest of Dean was one of the last areas in England where large numbers of skilled archers could still be found.


In 1577 a dozen Free Miners were requested to be on board ship with one of England's great sea captains - Martin Frobisher. They were to be accompany him on his ultimately unsuccessful adventures, to discover the elusive North-West Passage; a route around the North American continent. They returned unsuccessful but with mineral samples, presented to Queen Elizabeth I.


Towards the end of the 18th century conflicting mining interests arose, particularly from the increased demand for iron and coal created by the Industrial Revolution. Powerful outside interests began to look towards the largely untapped coal and iron reserves in the Forest of Dean, they saw that it was reserved solely to the Free Miners and they looked for a way in. The Freeminers' Mine Law Court that had successfully regulated Freemining for centuries, but became bogged down with disputes, embroiled in the increasing pressure to allow outside interests into the operation and ownership of mines. Towards the end in 1777 the Mine Law Court records kept at the Speech House, were stolen; without records, the Court could no longer function properly and ceased to operate, despite demands by most miners that it should continue.

The Crown had seen an opportunity and wanted to rationalise the system to suit all interests. Deep coal and iron reserves could not be mined without substantial investment from wealthy investors. Industrial interests from outside the Forest of Dean, particularly the Prothero and Crawshay families from Bristol and industrialised South Wales, wishing to exploit the district, creating larger and deeper collieries than had ever been dug in the Forest of Dean before. The existence of the Freeminers' privileges could not be denied, but they meant outside interests were excluded.

A Royal Commission was appointed in 1831 to inquire into the nature of the mineral interests and freemining customs of the Forest of Dean, five reports followed, culminating in the passing of the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838. This hybrid Act (a Public Act with a local effect) confirmed the Freeminers' exclusive right to the minerals of the Forest of Dean; the Act made very few changes to the customs, but one very important change was that a Freeminer would now be allowed to sell his gale to a non Freeminer; this effectively broke the exclusivity of the system. The Act otherwise clarified the rules of working, placing the customs with little alteration into Parliamentary statute. The Dean Forest Mines Act 1838, is the basis for Freemining today. The Schedules to the 1838 Act give strict rules for working gales within the Hundred of St Briavels; Freemining is still administered by the Deputy Gaveller, whose office is now at the Forestry Commission offices, in Bank House, Coleford. The role of Deputy Gaveller was recently held for 15 years by chartered mining engineer John Harvey MBE, who retired at the end of March 2011. The role is now filled by Daniel Howell and his assistant; Freeminer James Britton.


To become registered as a Freeminer the 1838 Dean Forest Mines Act stipulates that a person must be; a male born and living within the Hundred of St Briavels, over the age of 21 years and having worked for a year and a day in a mine within the Hundred of St Briavels. A 'Hundred' was an Anglo-Saxon subdivision of a County, with its own court. The Hundred of St Briavels is a Royal Manor parts of which still belong to the Crown and the parts which remain publicly owned are now managed by the Forestry Commission, through DEFRA. Today the boundary for the Hundred of St. Briavels is formed by the statutory Forest of Dean and each parish touching the Forest boundary.

Once a Freeminer is registered by the Deputy Gaveller, they can claim a gale (if it's not already being worked). Once the gale has been granted, the Freeminer becomes the owner of that underground area and can work the minerals defined within it.


During the process of coal Nationalisation begun in 1938, the Forest of Dean was exempted due to its unique form of ownership and history. The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 gave specific exemption for gales to allow this unique local privilege to continue intact. Some large colliery gales were subsequently compulsorily purchased from the galees by the National Coal Board (NCB) and held by them under the Freemining system. A royalty continued to be paid to the Freeminers by the NCB, as a share of the minerals extracted until the last of the NCB Deep Gales finally closed in 1965.

There are thought to be just around 100 Freeminers living today, although no record of Freeminer deaths is kept. There are six small collieries still operating, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and some small stone quarries within the statutory Forest. Freemining has a long and proud history, most Forest families can tell a mining tale or two and will proudly claim a Freemining ancestor or relative. Freemining physically shaped the Forest of Dean and created an independent people; it continues to be an important part of Forest of Dean culture and what makes the area so special. To find out more visit www.forestfreeminers.org

Ochre Mining

Clearwell Caves are amongst the earliest and last ochre mines in the British Isles. Ochre has been mined here for more than 5000 years (since the Stone Age) we have early tools on display that have been dated to at least 4,500 years old. Ochre pigment is a soft deposit intermingled with harder crystalline iron ore and limestone. Today small amounts are still mined here by Jonathan Wright, who is now the last Freeminer working ochre in the Forest of Dean.

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Until the 1930’s Forest of Dean mines were internationally known for good quality, rich pigments, particularly shades of red and purple. Purple ochre is a particularly unusual natural earth pigment, similar colours are usually only available in synthetic forms. The mines at Clearwell were particularly well known for the quality and their range of ochre colours. Although the main reserves of the historical colours (above water level) have been taken, Jonathan still finds the remaining yellow, brown, red and purple ochre. The ochre is mined using tools early miners would recognise. Once on the surface, the ochre is milled, washed and dried, before being sold.

Prices: yellow, brown, red and purple ochres.

  • 15ml £10.00
  • 60ml £35.00
  • 120ml £60.00
  • 250ml £120.00

P&P is added at cost.

Due to natural variations with natural ochre, we are unable to ensure specific colours can be repeated. We therefore recommend a visit to our shop to buy sufficient to complete the work in hand, if a specific colour is required.

Samples of ochre

Ochre colours vary from pocket to pocket in the rock, this means that we do not produce swatches for the pigments. Choose from the range available in the mine shop, or telephone to discuss your requirements. We can supply lumps of pure unprocessed ochre, at similar cost, if required.

The use of natural ochres requires no chemical processing. Ochres are harmless to living things and will eventually return to where they originated – the Earth, with no adverse effects.

Ochre can be mixed with any artist’s medium, whether oil, water based or acrylic, it is recognised as being one of the most light fast and permanent of pigments.

We have several documents related to our ochre available here for download:

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