The triangle of wooded land that is the Forest of Dean has, beneath its surface, several fortunes in coal, iron, ochres and stone.
It is not surprising, then, to discover that people have been interested in that underground wealth for many, many centuries. Early Iron Age and Bronze Age man scratched and delved as best they could with primitive tools to harvest iron-rich lumps of mineral ore on or near the surface of the forest floor. There is an historical link along the length of a 4,000 year time line from those early, almost Neanderthal, days right up to modern times.
The Romans, with improved technologies and access to a larger (if, perhaps, forced) labour market, were able to dig deeper and further into the ground in search of Lead and Iron.
It was during the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307) that the birth of FreeMining occurred. The King needed help to subdue the inhabitants of Berwick upon Tweed. Men from the Forest of Dean, skilled at tunnelling, were used by the King to undermine the foundations of Berwick Castle, resulting in its subsequent successful capture. As a reward, the King granted all the mining men of the Forest the right to mine for Coal, Minerals and Stone in the Forest.
Of course, there were strict qualifications for such a potential bonanza. It was a birthright - you had to be born in the area of the Forest known as the Hundred of Saint Briavel's. The Freeminer had to know what he was doing - there was a qualification of having already worked "for a year and a day" in a coal or iron mine or in a stone quarry in the Forest. You had to be mature and a local man - 21 years old or over and living within the Forest.
If you met all those qualifications you could apply to the Gaveller (This is the title for the 'officer of the freemines' of the Forest of Dean, who still regulates freemining within the Forest of Dean.)for a "gale". A 'Gale' is where the Freeminer thinks he will find what he is looking for - in effect a three dimensional block of underground land in which he can dig and extractwhat he has said he thinks is there. He is not allowed to dig outside his own 'gale' and no one else is allowed to penetrate into the gale granted to him and explore or dig in it. So, as a by-product of not being allowed to trespass on someone else's gale all freeminers have access to the maps and other paperwork defining all the gales in the Forest.
To maintain the validity of the claim to a gale the freeminer must start working his newly granted gale within five years and for each year after that he must work there for at least one day. All coal, minerals and stone extracted are subject to a 'royalty' which the Gaveller collects on behalf of the Crown.
Having access to maps of existing mines, coupled with local knowledge of who has been successful in their operations and with a fund of folklore to call upon as well as personal experience greatly help in the search for the mineral wealth locked underground.
The easiest way to access coal, iron or ochre is often with a 'drift mine' whereby the freeminer digs a tunnel into a hillside. Sometimes the slope is slightly upwards to produce a natural water-draining effect and also to assist, harnessing the effects of gravity, in running the full waggons of coal down out of the mine. The heavy full tubs of coal can then be used as a 'counter weight' to pull up empty tubs to the coal-face. Often, however, a shaft has to be dug vertically until a commercially viable seam of coal is reached.
When, hopefully, a good seam of coal has been found then the freeminer is compelled to follow the seam. In the same way that the surface of the Forest has been crumpled by sideways geological forces to narrow steeply sided valleys so, too, have the seams underground been warped and twisted - sometimes with giant rips in the layer of coal so that a once money-making seam can disappear without a trace. The freeminer's art relies heavily on gauging where a disappeared seam can be intersected and resolutely following the ups, downs and sideways shiftings of the seam.
One of the most lucrative, and rarest, commodities to be extracted from the Forest underground is Ochre - a concentration of colourful minerals in small quantities in thin veins deep underground. Ochres (brown, purple, red and yellow) have long been prized as colorants and, more recently, as additives for mixing with plastics and resins. Worth their weight in gold, when added to the appropriate base the colourants are sold to decorators, the restoration trade, artists and the plastics industry.
Nowadays the number of freemines (coal, iron, stone and ochre) can be counted on the fingers of two hands. In the past there were literally hundreds of them and the output was reckoned in hundreds of thousands of tons per year. Today, for example, local House Coal is produced from a freemine or two and there are a couple of half-museum half-working mines open to the public as tourist attractions (for example, Clearwell Caves & Hopewell Colliery)but, in the main, the extraction industry in the Forest is a thing of the past.