4,500+ YEARS OF MINING HISTORY IN AN AMAZING CAVE SYSTEM
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 and 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 now President of the Royal Forest of Dean Freeminers Association https://www.forestfreeminers.org/ and continues production of ochre pigments for artists. 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. At Clearwell Caves 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 iron ore mining finished in 1945. Clearwell Caves still produces ochre today, making them an important part of the Forest of Dean's continuing story.
Once you have explored 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 they are 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 an important part of the Wye Valley SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and of European importance. See https://clearwellcaves.com/explore-the-caverns/
GEOLOGY AROUND CLEARWELL CAVES
The Forest of Dean forms a natural basin shape, with carboniferous limestone (riddled with caves) forming the higher edges, with steep cliffs or hills. Here at Clearwell you stand on limestone forming the rim of the basin. In the middle of the basin there is a large valley, forming the central part of the Forest of Dean and holding the shales and sandstones of the coal seams, that make the Coal Measures.
FILM AND TV
Over the years location finders have chosen the Caves as a dramatic backdrop for their productions. We enjoyed hosting early productions like The Jensen Code ( ATV-1973), The Changes (BBC-1974), Blakes Seven - Ep 4 Horizon (BBC-1979). There have been many productions since, including Dr Who - The Christmas Invasion (2005), The Satan Pit (2006), Fires of Pompeii (2008), Time of the Angels (2010). Look out for more recent productions like Willow (2022) and The Winter King (2023).
FOREST OF DEAN FREE MINING
“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.
Freemining is a very 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 claims an area known as a gale and can work it for iron ore, coal, stone and associated minerals. See https://www.forestfreeminers.org/ for more details of this custom. Freemining 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 that shows coal gales. Specific gales are granted to Freeminers on request and each gale specifies the mineral to be worked and area it covers.
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 Hundred Years War with France (1337-1453).
Freeminers have continued to use their skills on behalf of the Crown fighting in the last two world wars and working on engineering projects up to the present day.
There are many references to medieval Free Miners, who were instrumental amongst many things, in recapturing Berwick upon Tweed several times from the 13thC-14thC, as it passed between Scottish and English hands. Tradition tells us that it was for their services, particularly during the 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.
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 practice 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 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 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.
FREE MINING SAILORS!
In 1577 a dozen Free Miners were requested to go 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 (thought to contain gold), presented to Queen Elizabeth I.
Towards the end of the 18th century conflicting mining interests arose, particularly from the increased demand nationally 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 Freeminers and they looked for a way in. The Freeminers' Mine Law Court had successfully regulated Freemining for many centuries, but became bogged down with disputes, embroiled with increasing pressure to allow outside interests to become partners or operate and own Forest of Dean mines. Towards the end in 1777 the Mine Law Court records kept in a locked box at the Speech House, were stolen. Without records, the Court could no longer function properly and ceased to operate, despite demands 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 would 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, wished to create larger and deeper collieries than had ever been dug in the Forest of Dean before. The existence of the Freeminers' custom meant outside interests were excluded, the custom was enforced by the Mine Law Court, so it was seen as a major obstacle. After a series of formal Inquiries by the Crown, the custom of Freemining was placed into statute, so the Mine Law Court became replaced by the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838, under which Freemining operates today. Under this new law a Freeminer could sell a mine to a non Freeminer, which until then had been forbidden by the Mine Law Court.
A Royal Commission was appointed in 1831 to inquire into the nature of 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 Act confirms the Freeminers' exclusive right to the minerals of the Forest of Dean, it made very few changes to the custom, with one exception; that a Freeminer could now sell a gale to a non Freeminer - breaking the absolute exclusivity of the system. The Act placed this ancient custom into modern law. The 1841 Schedules to the 1838 Act give strict rules for working gales within the Hundred of St Briavels. Freemining continues to be administered by the Deputy Gaveller, whose office is now in the Forestry Commission offices, Bank House, Coleford. Daniel Howell MIMinE, the current Deputy Gaveller, is the grandson of a previous Deputy Gaveller Albert Howell MBE.
TO BECOME A FREEMINER
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
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.
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 synthetic. The mines at Clearwell were particularly well known for the quality and range of ochre colours. Although the main reserves of the historical colours have been taken, Jonathan still produces 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 inevitable variations with natural ochre, we are unable to ensure specific colours can be repeated. We recommend a visit to our shop to choose a pigment if a specific colour is required.
Samples of ochre
Ochre colours often vary from pocket to pocket in the rock, this means that we do not produce colour swatches for the pigments. The ochre is brought through the cave system from deep underground and processed on the surface in our ochre room to become a pure pigment ready for use. Choose from the range available in the mine shop, or telephone to discuss your requirements. We can also supply lumps of pure unprocessed ochre.
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 mixes well into any artist’s medium, whether oil, water based or acrylic. Ochre is known to be one of the most light fast and permanent of pigments.