4,500+ YEARS OF MINING HISTORY IN AN AMAZING CAVE SYSTEM
For many thousands of years ochre and iron ore has been mined at Clearwell Caves. You can still meet Freeminers here. For over a thousand years, Freeminers have held the ancient Forest of Dean birth-right that exclusively entitles them to mine for iron ore, coal and stone.
Clearwell Caves are a working mining museum, where you see caverns that were worked by iron miners over many centuries. Displays throughout the caverns tell the miners' story from the Stone Age up to the present day. Iron ore from the Caves has made tools, weapons and machinery over the centuries, but iron ore also occurs as ochre pigment used over the centuries to make artists' paints. Jonathan still mines the red, yellow, purple and brown ochre found here.. The iron mines are an important part of the long Forest of Dean story.
Today there are ten caverns, connected by winding tunnels, with displays throughout, making a fascinating world to visit. There are also regular trips beyond the show caves to explore deeper areas; these caving trips are frequently added to this website on our events page. The Clearwell Caves system consists of six interconnected iron mines (Clearwell, Old Ham, Lambsquay, Old Bow, Oak Pit and New Dun) in total the mines cover 230 acres, with a vast number of caverns and passageways, many of which are open and originally descended to almost 600ft or 180m depth. When large scale mining stopped after 1945, the pumps were withdrawn and the water level rose and today we can only go down to the natural water table at around 400ft or 120m depth. Small scale extraction of ochre pigment still takes place to supply artists. Information is available in the Cave's shop or on our website https://clearwellcaves.com/about-us/#ochresection
Over the years many species of bat have used the cave system. Miners considered bats to be a good omen, because they indicate the air is fresh wherever they hang. The number of bats using the system has considerably increased over more recent years, as farmers have become more aware of damage done to wildlife through extensive use of pesticides. The Clearwell Caves mine system has become the most important hibernation roost for Lesser Horseshoe bats in the UK. The mines were designated a SSSI in 1998 because of its exceptionally large population of bats; it is now a major part of the Wye Valley SAC (Special Area of Conservation). The system is host to most bats from October to March, mainly rare Lesser Horseshoe bats, but also the even rarer Greater Horseshoe bat. Natterers bat, Long Eared bat, Daubenton's bat, Brandt's bat, Myotis bat have all been counted. Horseshoe bats normally hang individually and are easy to count, but a similar number of other bats are thought to use the Caves, but to avoid disturbance and harm, they are hard to spot on a visual count. Although the bat group normally count around a thousand Lesser Horseshoe bats each year, they believe that at least two thousand bats use the Clearwell Cave system each year.
Until recently, the Caves were operated by father and son team, Ray and Jonathan Wright. Ray began opening the Caves to the public in 1968 and remained involved until he passed away in 2015, aged 85. Ray was secretary to the Royal Forest of Dean Freeminers' Association for over 30 years, he was one of four Forest of Dean Verderers, he had been chairman of the Wyedean Tourism Association during the 1980's. Jonathan registered as a Freeminer in 1981 and has been Secretary to the Royal Forest of Dean Freeminers Association for many years. Jonathan and his artist wife Heather, continue to operate the Caves today.
Clearwell Caves are a tribute to Ray's original vision and are the result of his and Jonathan's knowledge of Forest of Dean, it's history and culture. Jonathan and Heather feel passionately that the ancient iron mines should be enjoyed by future generations.
GEOLOGY AROUND CLEARWELL CAVES
The Forest of Dean sits upon a syncline of Carboniferous rocks more than 300 million years old forming a natural basin, with Devonian Old Red Sandstone beneath. In the centre of the Forest of Dean basin are Carboniferous shales and sandstones with coal seams, belonging to the Coal Measures. Beneath this are older, iron-ore-bearing Carboniferous limestones, which crop out around the rim of the basin, often forming steep cliffs.
During the folding of the rock strata that formed the basin, the western side of the Forest of Dean was tilted less steeply than the sometimes almost vertical eastern side. The difference of geological structure between each side of the basin, meant East and West Dean had different approaches to mining.
Forest of Dean iron-ore mines are part of ancient natural cave systems that began developing mainly within a bed of Carboniferous Gully Oolitic limestone, (known locally as the Crease Limestone) shortly after the rock formed, some 330 million years ago. Later, about 225 million years ago at the start of the Late Triassic Epoch, the surface of the area became a hot desert, totally unlike our modern landscape both in climate and appearance. Occasionally, torrential rain storms, far heavier and more prolonged than anything that we experience today, dissolved iron minerals from the arid land surface and coal measures that had formed over the limestone. Massive floods of acidic, iron-rich water then entered the older cave systems, where iron-ore minerals were deposited as the water was neutralised by contact with the limestone.
Millions of years later, at about the same time that the Alps were forming elsewhere in Europe, the whole of the Forest of Dean area was uplifted again. The ancestors of major rivers, the Wye in the west and the Severn in the east, and their tributaries, eroded deep valleys through the rocks of the basin, cutting through the old cave systems, exposing the iron-ores that most of them now contained.
The modern road running just outside Clearwell Caves entrance, follows the now-dry valley of a former tributary to the river Wye, which probably fed underground streams until the end of the cold climatic phase associated with the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago.
The original source of iron mineralisation still mystifies geologists as the remaining strata above the limestone contains relatively little iron mineralisation compared to the vast quantity that became deposited into the cave systems that eventually became iron mines.
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 an ancient mining custom practised 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. There is archaeological evidence to show that iron working in the Forest began well before the Roman occupation of this country. By Norman times, Forest of Dean iron ore had become vital to England’s economy. The Forest of Dean became the most prominent iron producing district in the British Isles, and the Forest miner became privileged. It was during this time that the exclusive and ancient Freemining customs become documented. Freeminers have the right to work the minerals in the Forest of Dean - coal, iron ore, stone and associated minerals (even mining for gold at the turn of the 20thC). Freeminers may work anywhere throughout the Hundred of St Briavels (except under graveyards, churches, gardens and orchards). The Freeminers' claim is known as a gale. There are hundreds of gales throughout the Forest of Dean and Hundred of St Briavels, but new ones can be created, by the Deputy Gaveller. The official register of Free Miners is kept by the Deputy Gaveller, the Crown officer responsible for the administration of Free Mining customs and the collection of mineral royalties. The photograph above shows past Deputy Gaveller, Albert Howells, in his office at Coleford, inspecting a map book showing coal gales. Specific gales are granted to Free Miners at their request and each gale clearly defines the mineral and area that can be worked. A Free Miner can work a gale anywhere in the Hundred of St Briavels for Iron Ore, Stone and Coal and any associated minerals. The only restriction being that they must not work under church yards, gardens or orchards.
Archaeological evidence has revealed that working for ochre pigments began in the Forest of Dean before 4,500 years ago and that iron and coal working here was already extensive by Roman times. When the Roman Empire eventual extended into the Forest of Dean after AD 79, the local miners may have remained free from direct Imperial control (perhaps as coloni or vilici) on condition they supply the Roman Empire with their produce; this has been suggested as the origin of the Free Mining system.
By Norman times, Dean iron ore was an important part of the national economy; the Forest of Dean had become one of the most prominent iron producing districts in the British Isles. Freeminer's skills were also identified as a great military asset by Medieval Kings, who often required their services in England, Scotland, Wales and France.
The miners were protected by the King becoming known as the ‘King’s Miners’ or the ‘King’s pyoneers’, they became a privileged group; through their Mine Law Court, they regulated their Free Mining customs, under supervision of the King's Gaveller, who in turn appointed Deputy Gavellers, to collect royalties and administer the day to day operation of the mining customs.
The earliest known copy of the Dean Miners' Laws and Privileges (also known as the Book of Dennis) is from 1612 but this copy contains references hinting at much earlier origins. The document contains 41 laws and privileges for the winning of Myne (iron ore) and Sea Cole (coal). The laws outline rights of access and the method for defining a claim, known as a gale. The King's Gaveller collected royalties in cash or kind, and regulated the court 'that is called Myne Lawe,' allowing the Dean Miners to be largely self governing. The exact date by which these privileges were operating is not known but it is recorded in 1244 that Dean Free Miners already had the exclusive right to mine in the Forest of Dean.
*From August 2010, 'male' has been interpreted to mean 'male and female' by the current Gaveller of the Forest of Dean (a role that is a Crown appointment, currently vested in the Forestry Commissioners as a body) when they made a decision to accept an application from Mrs Elaine Morman, who became the first ever female Free Miner to be registered; other female applications are being considered.
There are many references to medieval Free Miners, who had been 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.
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 who was Regent of England while Henry was abroad and also 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 service in France.
At the end of the 18th century, all the Mine Law Court records (including any charters and other ancient documents) were stolen and not all of them were 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 it having been translated from Latin or early French.
No actual charter is known to exist today.
Amongst other places, Free Miners were frequently requested to fight in France and fought 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 were used to undermine fortifications, creating 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 Free Miners. 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 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 Free Miner's Mine Law Court that had successfully regulated Free Mining 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 had decided 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 industrialised South Wales, were hoping to exploit the district, creating larger and deeper collieries than had ever been dug in the Forest of Dean before. The existence of the Free Miners' privileges could not be denied and 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 Free Miners' 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 Free Miner would now be allowed to sell his gale to a non Free Miner; this had broken 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 is the basis for Free Mining today. The Schedules to the 1838 Act give strict rules for working gales within the Hundred of St Briavels; Free Mining 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; Free Miner James Britton.
TO BECOME A FREE MINER
To become registered as a Free Miner, a person must be born and living within the Hundred of St Briavels, be over the age of 21 years and to have worked for a year and a day in a mine within the Hundred. (Although its origins are obscure, a Hundred was an Anglo-Saxon subdivision of a County, with its own court; it has been suggested that it was an area where the medieval king could demand the services of a hundred fighting men - in the case of the St Briavels Hundred, this would have been services of skilled miners). Today the area covered by the Hundred of St. Briavels consists of the statutory Forest of Dean and each parish touching the Forest boundary.
Once a Free Miner is registered by the Deputy Gaveller, they can claim up to three gales from the Crown (if not already being worked) and may make applications for any gale that may become vacant. Once granted the gale, the Free Miner becomes the owner in fee simple of that underground area and can work the minerals defined within it; the galee can also dispose of the gale to another person, not necessarily another Free Miner. Originally the King had the right to put in his own man to work with the Free Miner and share the profit of the mine. Since 1838, in lieu of the right to put in the King's Man (the fifth man) a share of the mineral produced from the gale is agreed at the outset and the royalty becomes payable to the Crown for each ton of mineral raised. If the gale is not worked, a token 'dead rent' or minimum composition is still payable for continued ownership. The dead rent is equivalent to an agreed minimum tonnage output. If no royalty or dead rent is paid for the gale, it can become forfeited to the Crown; to be applied for and re-granted to other Free Miners. Once a mine is working again no dead rent is paid until the tonnage royalty exceeds the value of dead rent paid when the gale was idle.
FREE MINING TODAY
During the process of coal Nationalisation begun in 1938, the Forest of Dean became 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 Free Mining system. A royalty continued to be paid to the Free Miners 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 around 150 Free Miners living today, although no record of Freeminer deaths is kept. There are six small collieries still operating, one iron mine (Clearwell Caves) and eight small stone quarries within the statutory Forest. Free Mining has a long and proud history, most Forest families can tell a mining tale or two and will proudly claim a Free Mining ancestor or relative. Free mining 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 is thought to have been mined here for more than 7000 years (since the Middle Stone Age) although we have early tools on display dated to 4,500 years ago. Ochre pigment is found as a soft pure deposit intermingled with harder crystalline iron ore; today small amounts are still mined by Jonathan Wright, who is 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 an 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 range of ochre colours. Although the main reserves of the historical colours (above water level) have been taken, Jonathan still mines yellow, orange, brown, red and purple ochre, in small quantities. The ochre is still mined using tools medieval miners would have recognised, taken from between 60-90m underground, from where it is carried out through the cave system. Once on the surface, the ochre is milled and washed.
Prices: yellow, brown, red and purple ochres.
- 15ml £10.00
- 60ml £30.00
- 120ml £50.00
- 250ml £80.00
VAT @20% included, P&P is to be added at cost.
Due to natural variations that occur with ochre, we are unable to ensure specific colours can be produced or repeated. We therefore recommend a visit to our shop to buy sufficient to complete the work in hand, if a consistent colour is required.
Samples of ochre
Ochre colours vary from pocket to pocket, we maintain the variety and uniqueness of colour from each natural pocket where possible. This means that we cannot produce swatches for the pigments. Choose from the range available in the mine shop, or telephone to discuss your requirements. We can supply sample lumps of unprocessed ochre, at similar cost, if required.
The use of natural ochres is ecologically sound, 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, and is widely recognised as being one of the most light fast and permanent of pigments.