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Forest of Dean National Mapping Programme project

The Forest of Dean is an expanse of mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland, a former medieval Royal hunting forest, lying to the West of the River Severn in Gloucestershire. There is evidence of coal and iron ore mining dating back to at least the Roman period, and a long history of woodland management and exploitation. This is an area recognised as underrepresented in terms of known archaeological sites. The aerial photographic survey was undertaken in partnership with Gloucestershire County Council.

Aerial view of Lea Bailey Woods.
Aerial view of Lea Bailey Woods in the Forest of Dean captured on 07-NOV-2003 (NMR 23322/02) © Historic England

New discoveries

The survey used a range of aerial photographs from the 1940s onwards which show the felling and replanting of trees across the forest through time. Each felled area provides a window on any archaeological sites otherwise hidden by the trees. The discovery of a possible prehistoric enclosure in a clearing visible on a photograph taken in 1946 illustrates this. This site has not been visible due to replanting on all subsequent photographs.

Black and white vertical aerial photograph showing an earthwork enclosure in the clearing between stands of plantation
Close-up from RAF vertical photograph flown on 30-DEC-1946 showing a probable prehistoric enclosure near Upper Soudley now covered in dense woodland (RAF/CPE/UK/1913 4029) Historic England RAF photography.

Industrial history of the Forest of Dean

The Forest of Dean has traditionally been an area of extensive industrial activity and the initial phase of the project concentrated on a form of iron ore extraction unique to the Forest. These iron ore quarries are known within the forest as scowles and are thought to be semi-natural cavities in the limestone outcrops, within which secondary deposits of iron ore were formed as a result of surface run-off from the adjacent iron-rich sandstone. Surface iron mining is believed to have been practised in some of the quarries from the Roman period or earlier, through the medieval and into the post-medieval period. Charcoal was used as a fuel in the iron making process and the areas where charcoal was made have been seen as both earthworks and cropmarks.

Colour photograph showing a surveyor amongst a number of overgrown rocks
Scowles being surveyed by Gloucestershire County Council Archaeology Service for the Scowles and Associated Iron Industry Survey. © Gloucestershire County Council

Coal and iron ore mining

Other industrial remains recorded included iron works, coal mining, stone quarrying and the network of tramways and railways that served some of these concerns. Both coal and ironstone mining have a long history in the area with traces of mining from at least the Roman period to the present day. Earlier mining sites are shallow pits exploiting deposits of coal and iron close to the surface.

Later post-medieval mines were deeper and more extensive, making use of advances in mining techniques.

Black and white vertical aerial photo showing extensive areas of mining with ancillary structures such as tramways and roads
The extensive remains of mining near Cinderford with spoil tips and tramways associated with individual adjacent mines photographed by the RAF on 02-APR-1946. With the exception of the surviving freemining enterprises, mining has ceased in the Forest and most traces (such as spoil heaps and buildings) of former mining activities have been removed or landscaped (RAF106G/UK/1355/7145) Historic England RAF photography

The Freeminers of the Forest of Dean

The Forest of Dean was a medieval Royal Hunting forest governed by a number of laws and rights. Originally the rights to mine in the Forest were reserved to those born within the hundred of St Briavels, and those exercising their rights became known as Free Miners. They could operate anywhere within the Forest, paying a duty on all minerals that they won from their 'gales' (the area a miner worked), with any disputes referred to the mine law court. Their workings have always been small and when they became flooded they were abandoned in favour of a new mine. The industrial revolution saw an intensification in coal mining by larger companies, but these have long since ceased to be viable and have closed. The rights of the Free Miner still remain today to be taken up by eligible residents of the Forest.

Black and white photo showing a miner with his hard hat and light standing by the waggon track with another in background
Modern-day Free Miners working in the Forest of Dean, 1993. (BB93/08474) © Crown copyright. HE

Darkhill Ironworks

Blast furnaces were introduced to Britain from the continent, and the first blast furnaces near Dean were in operation during the late 16th century, burning locally produced charcoal to smelt the Forest iron ore deposits. In 1709 Abraham Darby, working at Coalbrookdale (Shropshire), successfully smelted iron in a furnace fired by coke instead of charcoal, leading to the opening of several iron works in the Forest. Parkend, Cinderford and Lydbrook became the main centres of ironworking, but the Darkhill Ironworks, though ruined, is the only one from this period to survive.

Colour aerial photo showing the outline of the stone walls of several buildings on series of terraces surrounded by woodland
Darkhill Ironworks photographed on 28-MAY-1997. ¬†Closed by 1874, and partly destroyed by the building of an embankment of the Severn and Wye Railway, the remainder of the site fell into disrepair (NMR15614/11) © Crown copyright. HE

The key findings form the project can be found in the project report:

The Forest of Dean Mapping Project, Gloucestershire: A report for the National Mapping Programme

The Forest of Dean Mapping Project, Gloucestershire: A report for the National Mapping Programme

Published 1 August 2006

NMP report from the Forest of Dean Mapping Project

The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project, please contact the Historic England Archive.

For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Remote Sensing Team please contact us via email using the link below.

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