A Ramble in the Forest of Dean

 

Hough at the present time, railways in the neighbourhood have recently connected this important district with other parts of the kingdom, it is but little known to artistic and other travellers, notwithstanding the scenes of beauty and objects of interest within its borders. In one direction the river Wye murmurs amid rocks and woods; on the other the noble Severn is seen from many points over high hills covered with forest trees.

Here and there are churches of Norman and Middle Age architecture, in which are tombs and other curious memorials. Crosses, richly carved, are to be met with in the churchyards; and in some of the villages the May-poles, the stocks and whipping-posts, and other relics of past times, are still to be found. In the ancient castle of St. Briaval’s, which, with the church of the same name, stands on a picturesque point on the margin of the forest, the old “dog-wheel,” made to be moved by the “turn-spit ” dog, which was two or three centuries ago in such general use, is still to be seen.

For miles the ground is covered with oaks of various growths, in which are specimens of fat deer, which would have gladdened the sight of the hermit of Copmanhurst. Here the charcoal burners pursue their work, and lodge in huts formed of rough timber and turf, of the same shape, and quite as primitive as those used by the Britons at the time of the landing of Julius Cesar.

Some of these huts, with gipsy-like cooking apparatus in front, and sun-burnt women and children lounging about, backed by massive silver grey branches and thick foliage, form rare pictures. On both the Severn and the Wye the corracle, a light boat of wicker-work, covered, which can be easily removed from place to place, of exactly the same shape as that in use by the ancient Britons, is still in fashion amongst the fishermen.

In all directions are traces of the Roman occupation of this neighbourhood. On the hills are the remains of encampments, and in other parts roads on which the original pavement is still visible, although it is far more than a thousand years since it was placed there by the great conquerors and civilisers. Here and there the traveller will meet with rough unhewn stones, which probably have a far greater antiquity.

Besides these objects of interest, the Forest of Dean is rich in large stores of coal, iron, and other valuable minerals. Near Cinderford a great space is crowded with collieries of various descriptions, some of such small extent that the “horse-gin,” and even hand-labour, serves to raise the coal; others are, however, fitted with steam machinery and all the aids of modern science.

Although this part of the forest has a smoked and withered appearance, it is not without striking features. In the day time it is a busy scene of industry, and at night — the lights of long ranges of coke ovens, the blazing and roaring of blast furnaces, contrast with the stillness of the surrounding country. In other parts, in the midst of woods, on commons, and in other situations, the iron ore miners may be seen no less actively at work; and there are others engaged in quarrying the materials necessary for fusing the iron ore, and in digging stone of a varied and valuable description.

In all directions the geologist, the naturalist, antiquary, and artist will find ample materials for observation. Nor are the dwellers of the forest less worthy of notice. The miners, both of coal and iron, are a far more stalwart and intelligent class than those in the counties (if we except the lead miners of the Alston Moor district) of Northumberland, Durham, and Staffordshire; and this may in some measure be accounted for by the independent manner in which the workmen engage in their business.

According to the laws of this forest, any one born within its liberties is entitled to work the coal, &c, to a certain extent, on the payment to the Government of a tithe of all the minerals raised. In most instances two, three, four, or more Foresters select a portion of ground to which no one has already laid claim, and on giving due notice to the persons appointed, open a mine or “gale” as it is called. The men are thus to a great extent their own masters, and acquire a degree of independence which those who are engaged in large numbers do not often possess.

There are also courts and other arrangements peculiar to the neighbourhood. In the centre of the forest is a building of comparatively recent date, called the “Speech-house,” in which the chief parts of the disputes of the miners and other business is settled. This court is probably of as great antiquity as the Saxon times. Its labours have, however, been much decreased during the last few years, owing to the arrangement of certain causes of difference by a Government commission, appointed for that purpose.

Before this time numbers of the Foresters had sunk “gales,” and for the want of proper registration one party’s right interfered with another. Mines had also in many instances been sunk in situations which interfered with the proper cultivation of the oaks intended for the public use. In order to prevent this, the land directly appropriated for this purpose was clearly defined; and those who had claims were settled with according to the money value, or else by the exchange of mining ground placed in some more suitable position.

The working of the miners is superintended, on the part of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, by officers called “Gavellers,” who are well acquainted with mining and surveying, who preserve a record of the ore, &c., won, and perform other important duties. Guided by these functionaries we come in some parts upon strange looking places, called “Scowles:” these consist of rocks of the most fantastic shapes, which form chambers and passages open to the surface. So singular are they, that they assume in some instances the appearance of chapels, with pulpits, and other architectural forms.

The scowles are spots from which the iron ore has been taken, so far back that no tradition of its date remains. In order the better to understand the nature of these excavations, it may be worth while to mention, that the iron-stone of this district is found in layers of uncertain form and extent, with masses of other material between; and that the reason of those portions of rock being left is because they are of no use to the miner.

It is so long since the busy hands which laboured here have gone to dust, that the stones have become covered with thick mosses and other plants, and great trees have grown which are now decayed with age, presenting a scene so wild, that it is not wonderful that the more ignorant of the people look upon the scowles with a sort of mysterious dread.

The iron ore is wrought in various ways. Sometimes a hole is dug in the side of a hill covered with trees, ferns, &c, and the bright red earth, thickly impregnated with metal, foils strongly with the bright greenery which surrounds.

Other excavations descend either at an acute angle or perpendicularly into the earth. In most instances the iron-stone is brought from the place of working, with much labour, on the backs of boys; this, however, is cheerfully borne; and it is worth while to listen to the quaint forms of speech, which smack of Shakespere’s days. Nor has the old style of hospitality gone out of fashion in these parts; for, in the course of wandering, we called at no house, of either the rich or the poor, without seeing the best cyder and other more substantial materials brought forth to regale us.

The examination of the exteriors of the mines created a natural desire to explore some of the interiors. A party was soon formed for this purpose, who were properly arrayed in the flannel jackets, glazed hats, &c, worn by the miners. Other important, and to us unintelligible, preparations were carried forward at the inn at Coleford.

Two men were loaded with small casks of ale, and a variety of drinking vessels, lights of various kinds were stored, a number of small sticks with clay attached to one end, and other matters were properly packed. In due course of time, the entrance of the mine was reached, and those unaccustomed to awkward descents were somewhat startled by the nature of the shaft, which was very narrow, and seemed to descend perpendicularly.

On holding the light into the pit, it seemed a deep darkness, but on a more careful inspection, slight projections were visible on each side. Although the arrangement was more suited to bears, than to human travellers, the bottom of the shaft was safely reached, when a cave of considerable size was found, and there our men of experience proceeded to light candles for each person; these they stuck in the clay fixed to the sticks already mentioned. We then saw, that from this part of the mine there were openings of various sizes, which seemed to lead in different directions. Much to our surprise, one of the smallest of these holes, which was barely three feet and a-half high, was chosen as the means of further progress.

Into this, by the help of both hands and feet, we managed to enter; the use of the wood and clay candlesticks was now evident, for all limbs being engaged, it was necessary to hold this instrument between the teeth. This narrow passage descended at a gradient so steep, that by means of the rotten soil of shingle we slid down in a bent posture at a rapid rate; being advised, however, to be careful not to let our heads strike the roof, for sometimes only by a slight contact, a ton or more of the shelving top falls with a dull heavy sound, burying those beneath. For long, the way ran through passages of different height and breadth, sometimes descending in the same manner as that just mentioned, and in other parts rising as suddenly, and as difficult to pass through as the cunning avenues in the Pyramids of Egypt.

Except to the “Gaveller,” and his attendants, this exercise was trying, and it was satisfactory to find the way widen, and at last, far in the bowels of the earth, to discern our party, hot and tired, in an excavation of immense size — so large that all our candles failed to light the vast mass of darkness above.

With hands and faces of the colour of those of the Red Indians, we accommodated ourselves as well as possible amongst the broken rocks; fancying, doubtless, that we presented a picture which Salvator Rosa would have been glad to have had the opportunity of painting.

While enjoying the refreshment which had been so happily provided, we had time to view the wonders of the cave. As the eye became accustomed to the dim light; mass after mass of the rocks stood out in all the “dusky splendour of Rembrandt.” In deep shadows there appeared dark beyond dark, leading the imagination to endless workings, and suggesting the notion that the mine was interminable.

This part of the mine, which must have required hundreds of hands for many years to empty it of the masses of iron stone which was once here lodged, is so old that no one can tell when the works were carried forward; but bronze Roman tools, and other ancient implements, have from time to time been discovered.

These and other speculations, called up by the sombre appearance of this interior were interrupted by our forest attendants, who, doubtless, enlivened by the good ale from Coleford, were chanting the favourite provincial ditty:

For we are the jovial foresters,
Our trade is getting coal;
You never knew a forester
But was a hearty soul.

This led to conversation on the risks of the mines, the accidents by explosions, deficiency of machinery, the falling of roofs (very common in this district, and which might by proper care be avoided), and other dangers. We heard of sad processions, which were sometimes seen winding through the forest paths, of wounded and dead miners, borne on hurdles by torchlight, accompanied by comrades and relations from the scene of accident to their homes; and it is gratifying to find that the same noble spirit which induced young George Stephenson, the engineer, to venture into a burning coal-pit in another district — a good deed, which is not uncommon in both the Northern and Midland counties — has always been strongly displayed in the Forest of Dean.

It would be no easy matter, even by the aid of candle-light, for those not accustomed to the mines to unravel the burrows which are visible, some far up towards the roof, or to find their way to the outward air. “True,” said Mr. Gaveller, “persons have been lost in those places, and no doubt perished with hunger.

A few years since, a geologist, who had undertaken an adventure similar to ours, discovered a ‘lode ‘ of a very scarce and valuable description of mineral, which had not before been noticed. Afraid that if he showed any attention to it in the presence of witnesses, that others might step in and deprive him of a portion of his profits, he therefore craftily took careful notice of the spot, and, afterwards selecting a suitable time, without either mentioning his intention to his wife or any other person, he proceeded to the mine in order to obtain a sample of the treasure. Having entered the mine, and travelled for some distance, as he thought, in the right direction, he became bewildered, and eventually was altogether lost. At length the candles he had taken with him burnt out, and he was left in darkness and despair. His cries, for upwards of two days, failed to reach any ear. Meanwhile, search was made throughout the district, and at length a party of miners, quite by chance, came upon the track of the geologist, and delivered him, severely bruised and more dead than alive, from his difficulty.”

Without, however, dwelling on other mishaps of a similar description, we move on, after having carefully surveyed this cavern and noticed the passages which lead in all directions — most of them of a small size, but others forming avenues like the naves of Norman cathedrals. These, from the equality of the roadway, would seem to have been used as subterranean ways for the carriage of the ore from the workings on each side.

Along one of these we wandered for a long distance, and were surprised to hear distant voices, and soon, in the darkness, a solitary light became visible, and then we noticed a party of miners coming along this usually quiet and solitary path after their day’s hard work. A friendly meeting took place, the casks were again broached, and after some agreeable fraternising with this party, we each proceeded on our way.

For miles these excavations extend, but without presenting features very different from those mentioned. After much clambering and crawling through narrow passages, we once more, by a different opening, got again above-ground; the moonbeams lighted up the tree-branches and moorland, making the progress home satisfactory; and, well tired, we remained for the night at our old-fashioned inn, dreaming of ancient Romans superintending the working of iron and coal in grim pits, and of Saxons, Danes, and others, who have delved in this forest, and aided in the distribution of its minerals to the world.

Although, as we have shown, portions of the forest have been cleared of their most valuable contents, still all that has been removed is but a trifle in comparison with the immense quantities which remain, and which increased facilities for transit will add to the national wealth.

B.


Cover: Valerie Ganz – Coal Miners

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