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Haunted Mines in the Forest of Dean

The Forest of Dean is a place I've posted about time and time again, with so much folklore and mystery in the area I am always discovering new places and tales.

Free mining is an important and unique part of Forest culture. The title of Free Miner can only be granted to men (and women since 2010) born within the Hundred of St Briavels, giving them exclusive rights to mine for iron or coal independently within the Forest jurisdiction. St Briavels Castle used to be the centre of law and administration in the Forest and it still stands today, encircled by the village and with the Forest Horn symbol on the roof still intact. This law is recorded as being in existence in 1244 but is known to be much older, ancient even. In later centuries large groups of Freeminers worked together in cooperatives to build substantial mines and extract iron ore in larger quantities but in 1835 the law was changed to allow Freeminers (or Freemers) to sell their mines – known in the Forest as “gales” - to outside interests. Predictably with advancements in coal extraction and iron smelting technology just a few very large corporate collieries and furnaces dominated the trade by the late 1800s.

Although some independent Freeminers still plied a trade selling sacks of their own coal into the 20th century their age had ended and most of their old mines abandoned. With the closure of birthing facilities within the Forest no more Freeminers are being born and there are only just over a hundred or so of them left. Literally hundreds of abandoned pits and rough shafts lie across the Forest of Dean with nature reclaiming them so completely that most people would never see them. Some of these hidden shafts are very deep and quite capable of swallowing up an unwary walker! This actually explains why one or two of the mines were abandoned...

Natural caves and caverns already existed under the Forest of Dean, and sometimes a shaft being dug out would actually break through into a cavern – with the unfortunate man or men at the bottom falling through into the darkness below. It is said that sometimes the cavern was so deep that the miner was considered lost forever, the shaft abandoned and considered a tomb. Other times the freemers were able to safely connect their shafts with the caverns and take advantage of the natural feature to go down deeper than ever before, sometimes miles down. I've been told of old mines like this that are on farm properties that go deep down into caverns for miles, so deep there is sometimes no air, and iron pyrite (Fool's Gold) is in the walls in stunning cube formations.

The incredibly deep dimensions of the caverns of the Forest have given rise to the legend of the “Owld Mons”, as they are known in the Forest. Although tales of the Kobold that dwells in mines is a common European folklore feature, and even crossed over to America in the form of the Tommyknockers, the Owld Mon of the Forest has unique features and is firmly believed in by many Foresters today. In Wales he is known as the Bwca. There are compelling stories to support it's existence too.

Around ten years ago a film crew entered a cave on private land in the Forest to film scenes for a potholing (spelunking for American readers) documentary. They became completely lost inside the caverns and were in fear for their lives, the air was getting thinner and nobody could hear their calls for help. The team heard then saw a curious little man watching them, described as a Gollum like figure, and as he moved away they followed him. He would pause and wait for them as they scrambled through tight gaps and crawled up the natural walls, then move on, silent, never responding to any of their calls. Eventually they smelt fresh air and recognised areas they'd previously been through, and as natural light shone in they knew they were safe. The little man had vanished. They described him as a very short, very skinny man with a completely black face. Whether this was his skin tone or the result of crawling through coal mines is anyone's guess. It's interesting to note here that in The Lord of the Rings book Tolkien actually described Gollum as having dark, almost black skin.

A lady who lives in the Forest of Dean told me of a strange event on her land many years ago. The previous owner of the land, which includes a now filled in free mine working, told her that her great grandfather found a “delicate little man” lying apparently dead at the entrance of the mine. He had black skin but “pointed” European features. He set off to the nearest town to fetch a constable and told his wife to watch the corpse, She was horrified by the thing and closed the curtains, avoiding looking at it at all, and by the time the authorities arrived the next day – the Owld Mon was gone. She said she was told that they saw evidence that he had been dragged back into the mine.

Talk of the Owld Men or Bwca around the Forest of Dean is hushed and secretive, as if Foresters are actually trying to protect them rather than for fear of being ridiculed. It was always a point of pride that no miner was ever left down a shaft so the tales of men hurtling hundreds of feet down through caverns and being left there might explain the secrecy at least in part. I have personally explored around a couple of lost mine workings in the Forest and felt an eerie atmosphere the whole time. Most of the entrances and holes are potentially lethal and even a caver would struggle to crawl back out of some of them, so I haven't gone inside yet, but I'm working on a trip down one with a local guide. If you ever visit the Forest of Dean and are walking through it's beautiful green cathedrals – don't veer too far off the track – and watch your footing...

Old brick chimney on a long abandoned iron ore mine

One of the old mine entrances - or even a natural cave

Another opening in the mines

A huge chasm still open in the mines area, if you fell in that with nobody around you'd be in some trouble

Hundreds of these openings still lay hidden in the forest

Animal skull found lying down in the pit of the mines ruin

A mockup of a Kobold, the typical mine dwelling entity of Europe and of America, not dissimilar to our Owld Mons or Bwca

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