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The Forest of Dean by H. G. Nicholls

These excavations abound on every side of the Forest


"There

are," writes Mr. Wyrrall, in his valuable MS. on the ancient iron-works of the Forest, dated in the year 1780, "deep in the earth vast caverns scooped out by men's hands, and large as the aisles of churches; and on its surface are extensive labyrinths, worked among the rocks, and now long since overgrown with woods; which whosoever traces them must see with astonishment, and incline to think them to have been the work of armies rather than of private labourers. They certainly were the toil of many centuries, and this perhaps before they thought of searching in the bowels of the earth for their ore--whither, however, they at length naturally pursued the veins, as they found them to be exhausted near the surface." Such were the remains, as they existed in his day, of the original iron-mines of this locality; and except where modern operations have obliterated them, such they continue to the present time. Beyond the inference of remote antiquity, which we naturally draw from the fact of their presenting no trace of the use of any kind of machinery, or of gunpowder, or the display of any mining skill, we may cite the unanimous opinion of the neighbourhood, that they owe their origin to the predecessors of that peculiar order of operatives known as "the free miners of the Forest of Dean;" a view which is confirmed by the authentic history of the district. But the numerous Roman relics found deeply buried in the prodigious accumulations of iron cinders, once so abundant here as
to have formed an important part of the materials supplied to the furnaces of the Forest, afford proof that the iron-mines were in existence as early as the commencement of the Christian era; so that the openings we now see are the results of many centuries of mining operations, with which their extent, number, and size perfectly accord.

[Picture: The Devil's Chapel]

These mines present the appearance either of spacious caves, as on the Doward Hill, or at the Scowles near Bream, or they consist of precipitous and irregularly shaped passages, left by the removal of the ore or mineral earth wherever it was found, and which was followed in some instances for many hundreds of yards, openings being made to the surface wherever the course of the mine permitted, thus securing an efficient ventilation, so that although they have been so long deserted the air in them is perfectly good. They are also quite dry, owing probably to their being drained by the new workings adjacent to them, and descending to a far greater depth. In the first instance they were no doubt excavated as deep as the water permitted, that is, to about 100 feet, or in dry seasons even lower, as is in fact proved by the water-marks left in some of them. Occasionally they are found adorned with beautiful incrustations of the purest white, formed by springs of carbonate of lime, originating in the rocky walls of limestone around. Sometimes, after proceeding a considerable distance, they suddenly open out into spacious vaults fifteen feet in width, the site probably of some valuable "pocket" or "churn" of ore; and then again, where the supply was less abundant, narrowing into a width hardly sufficient to admit the human body. Occasionally the passage divides and unites again, or abruptly stops, turning off at a sharp angle, or changing its level, where rude steps cut in the rock show the mode by which the old miners ascended or descended; whilst sometimes the rounds of ladders have been found, semi-carbonized by age. These excavations abound on every side of the Forest, wherever the iron makes its appearance, giving the name of "Meand" or mine to such places. Of the deeper workings, one of the most extensive occurs on the Lining Wood Hill above Mitcheldean, and is well worth exploring.


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