One of the best ways to understand history is to see it for yourself – and that’s exactly the case with Clearwell Caves, near Coleford in the Forest of Dean.
Its nine caverns depict what life would have been like for the iron ore miners of 19th and 20th century, with artefacts and displays around the ancient underground system giving us a great insight.
We visited last month as part of our stay in the area in association with Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Tourism.
We arrived when the caves opened at 10am on a sunny but showery March Saturday morning. Arriving so early meant the place was quiet and that we could explore at our own pace, without the crowds at other times of the year. The caves are known for their themed Christmas and Easter trails and celebrations, but unsurprisingly these can get crowded. For a first visit, it was good to be able to explore at our own pace.
It takes around 45 minutes to an hour to explore the underground caves, which you are able to do at your own pace. If you are planning on visiting with children, then it’s worth being aware that the caves are not suitable for buggies and as you would imagine in a cave, the floor can be uneven and slippery at times.
Our journey began with a short exhibition area with a display of mining artefacts from across the centuries and information about its history.
We discovered that Clearwell Caves are part of an extensive natural underground cave system that became partially filled with iron ore 180,000,000 years ago. People have been mining at Clearwell for more than 4,000 years, and although the mine is no longer worked on a full-time basis, it does produce ore for experimental furnaces, educational samples and ochres for artists’ paints.
Although the caverns are impressive in themselves, we loved that the various exhibits around the cave really brought their history to life, telling us more about the conditions facing the men, women and children who worked underground.
One plaque tells us that young children would have to carry a ‘Billy’, a wooden box filled with 60-70lbs (30kgs) of ore, strapped to their backs. There was a replica weight for visitors to lift. Little Miss E, aged 7, and Little Man O, 5½, both struggled with it, and although they already know that in “the olden days” some children worked in mines, this really brought it home to them just how hard a task it would have been.
Elsewhere, we saw mining boots, lamps and steel buckets used in mining, and the tracks and trucks the women and children would have pushed around, until the law was changed in 1842 stopping women and children under 10 from working underground.
The underground lake is eerily beautiful, with projections of carboniferous fish, which would have lived in the caves 345,000,000 years ago, swimming around in the water.
A skeleton painted on the wall made us wonder if it was ancient cave art, but it turns out it was painted by a group of students having a Halloween party in the 1960s.
Toddler Boy I, who has just turned three, loved the musical instrument made out of an old scrap air receiver for pneumatic drills and spent quite a while playing with this and listening to the sounds echoing around the chamber.
The depiction of the “widow makers” – pneumatic drills used from 1915 onwards and so called because the dust they created lead to miners developing severe and fatal breathing conditions – gave some idea of how loud life underground would have been, not to mention a stark reminder of what the risks the workers took.
With our exploration of the caves complete, we headed to the outdoor play area, which has a tree swing, a tunnel and a play steam train. The park is in need of a bit of upkeep, but it kept my three entertained for half an hour.
It’s more of a half-day attraction, than a whole day one. There’s a café serving hot and cold snacks if you did want to stay for lunch. We headed back to where we were staying, the beautiful Foxes Reach Cottage, for our lunch, before heading to Wye Valley Butterfly Zoo and aMazing Hedge Puzzle for the afternoon.
If you’re visiting Clearwell Caves over the Easter holidays, then check out their Easter egg hunt. The attraction is also famous for their underground Christmas experience, with the caves lit up in festive décor, and children able to meet Father Christmas. Halloween sees spooky children’s events; while storytelling sessions are held throughout the year. See the website for details.
Clearwell Caves Ancient Iron Mines, Near Coleford, Royal Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, GL16 8JR. www.clearwellcaves.com
Entrance costs as of April 2017 are adults £7; children 4-16 £5; concessions £6; under 4s free; family 2+2 £22; 2+3 £25
Thanks to Clearwell Caves and Wye Dean Tourism for hosting our visit.
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