By: Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett
Recorded for BBC Radio Gloucestershire:
Visiting the Forest of Dean for many people, means either forest walks, some cycling, bird watching or generally enjoying the areas of outstanding natural beauty.
However, deep underground in among the sandstone rocks are seams of coal which were laid down long before the last ice age. During the boom years of, the Industrial Revolution, the 19th and early 20th century this fossil fuel was needed to power the country. Thousands of Foresters, went underground to work in the harshest of conditions to dig out the coal.
Today, very little remains of the numerous collieries and transport systems that had developed in the Forest around 200 years ago. So, to discover more of the Forest’s industrial past I visited Robin Morgan, a free miner, who’s still digging out tons of coal from seams deep down in the Hopewell colliery. Robin, in his spare time has developed an old mine, laid paths, put in hand rails to comply with safety regulations, so that visitors can go underground to see the mining heritage and hear about the way of life of those involved in the coal industry.
Wearing a miner’s hat with a lamp on the front, I followed Robin into the cave. It took a while for my eyes to get used to the dark. As we walked down the paths and into the mine proper, Robin told me that in the early days we would have used candles to light our way. As we needed both our hands we would have had a candle holder called a Nellie, held between our teeth! (Thank goodness for batteries these days!). Fortunately there’s no explosive gas in the Forest pits, so naked flames weren’t a danger. Robin showed me the layers of rock and a seam of coal and explained how it was formed around 300 million years ago. I saw an area that a man would have had to lain on his side and holding a pick in both hands hack away to get the lumps of black coal.
In the early days, boys would have learnt to become colliers starting by dragging coal tubs out of the mines crawling on their hands and knees. The rock would have made their knees raw and the ropes would have dug into the shoulders and caused deep wounds.
Robin showed me some horse shoes that had been found in the mine and told me that a miner’s act in the middle of the 1800’s prohibited women from hauling coal in pits and gradually ponies took over the work. I heard about the ponies and how well they were cared for, becoming very close to the keepers that looked after them. Some of the ponies that worked in the deep mines, lived underground permanently, but at Hopewell they had outdoor stables, now hidden by the undergrowth. Horse drawn tram roads were built to Lydney docks and Bullo Pill so that the coal could be taken down to the river and across to Gloucester and Cheltenham.
Finally, we came out of the blackness of the mine at the far end. Walking out into the bright sunshine we were surrounded by lush green undergrowth. The scars on the landscape of all the mine workings now mostly disappeared. I’d had a fascinating insight into the industrial era of the forest over sixty years ago when ten thousand miners laboured in tunnels under the area I’d travelled over, extracting the black gold on which we had all depended.
If you want to go and visit the mine, Robin is still a full time miner but he does like to show people around. It’s a good idea to ring up and make an appointment and the phone number of the colliery is 01594 810706.
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