Clearwell Caves are natural caverns which for thousands of years have been exploited for their minerals. Iron ore was first mined there at least 4,000 years ago, and ochre possibly as much as 7,000 years ago. Today, you can descend 100 feet into the nine caverns formed 180 million years ago - where you are greeted by weirdly shaped rocks, narrow passageways and broad expanses - which featured in the most recent series of Dr Who. You can learn how the Romans used the caves as a major source of iron. Even today, ochre (iron oxide) is still extracted by hand 200 feet below you, to make gorgeous yellow, purple, brown and red pigments which are available to buy in the gift shop. You can see the ochre being milled and washed in the processing room and, most days, watch a blacksmith working iron.
Children were often used in the mines. At the entrance is a lump of iron similar to what a Victorian child was expected to carry through narrow tunnels for most of his 10-hour working day, six days a week. The nine-year-old in our group could barely lift it. Further into the caverns, you can try on a "Billy", the open box strapped to children's backs to carry the ore. The open side, parallel with your back, shows that the youngsters had to crawl if the ore was not to fall out. In addition, gravel was placed between the box and their backs to make them go faster. This revelation made our children decide that school was not so bad after all. You can also see a "Nelly", the miners' light, a ball of clay with a candle stuck in the top and a stick projecting from the side which was held in the mouth.
For centuries, the right to mine in the Forest of Dean has been the preserve of the Free Miners: men, over 21, born in the Hundreds of St Briavel - an area a little larger than today's forest. They must have worked a year and a day in a forest mine and paid their fee (about 12p in modern money) for a "gale" - a mining concession. Only two Free Miners still mine iron in the forest, Ray Wright and his son Jonathan, who own and run the caves. There is plenty of geological information, samples and history, particularly from the 19th century.
A café serves cakes, tea and coffee, soup, jacket potatoes and sandwiches.
Wheelchair accessible (with two strong helpers). Braille guidebook and deep-level trips available for the blind.
Open daily 10am-5pm until 31 October, 1-24 December for Christmas spectacular, then from February half-term. Adults £4.50; concessions £4; children aged 5-16 £2.80; under-fives free. Family tickets (two adults and two children) £12.90. Deep-level adventures are also offered.
How to get there
Clearwell Caves (01594 832535; clearwellcaves.com), near Coleford, Gloucestershire GL16 8JR.
By car: 1.5 miles south of Coleford. Plenty of parking. By bus: Alight from number 31 between Gloucester and Coleford, or the number 722 from Lydney to Coleford at Milk Way, around 15 minutes' walk from caves.Reuse content