14 – China Bottom

We are now in the Oakwood Valley, this part of it also being known as China Bottom. In this clearing was the site of a large iron mine, called the China Engine mine. When the word engine appears after the name of a mine it means that the mine had a steam engine to provide power for raising ore or coal and pumping water from the mine. These engines were usually beam engines of the type used in Cornish tin mines, as seen on the TV series Poldark.

Brian Johns described the area in “Forest Folk Poems by Marina Lambert Illustrations and stories by W. B. Johns”:

“The Forest of Dean was riddled with old mine workings that were not safely fenced off: old fizzlies with their entrances still open waiting for the roof timbers to rot, quarries long since abandoned and old iron ore workings, locally known as caves, were all part of my childhood playground”.
The old deep mine shafts were enclosed with high brick walls, the big one in China Bottom had a wall higher that the others and had a few elderberry bushes growing out of the lime mortar at the top. Local people used to throw rubbish over the top as there was no local refuse collection. … There it was, a hole large enough for us youngsters to stick our heads through and shout down into the shaft. It was great fun to hear your voice echo and re-echo against the shaft and lose itself in the depths”.

Up the valley to the left is Trow Green, the stream from there being channelled through stone troughs to prevent it from finding its way in to the mine workings. Water from nearby Noxon Pond had similar treatment.

Back on our route, some distance along the track and on the left hand side, are the rather untidy remains of a small freemine, in this case a coal mine. All that can be easily seen of the remains are some large vertical timbers of the loading bank. A photo of the mine from 1986 appears in “The Secret Forest of Dean” by Fay Godwim (pg 41) This mine is a good indicator of the geological make up of this part of the Forest. The iron ore workings are to the right of the track and the coal workings to the left.

A photo of a Freemine in Oakwood Bottom
The Freemine in Oakwood Bottom mentioned above, note the thickness of the coal seam is around three feet (1m). The photo was taken on 28 August 1979. © G Davis.

Another indicator of the differing geological strata is that the soil and rocks to the right are distinctly red in colour whereas to the left they are a more natural grey and black.

The coal mines here followed the coal seam down into the ground at about 30°. Such mines are known as drift mines and are worked by freeminers. Further into the Forest it is only possible to mine coal using vertical shafts and deep shafts are required to reach the coal measures.

Iron ore was only mined at the outer edges of the Forest, in the limestone areas. The iron ore petered out as the miners went deeper, which is just as well as ground water is even encountered at shallow depths.

The coal and iron ore needed to be transported out of the valley to enable it to be sold. Usually this would mean to Parkend for the iron ore, where there was a furnace, or further to Lydney Harbour for the coal where it could be shipped up or down the River Severn.

At first this was done using pack animals but in the mid 1800’s a horse-drawn tramroad or plateway was laid with this branch being opened by James & Greenham in 1855. As we progress along the valley look out for small flat stones about a foot square. The stones were laid in pairs about 3ft 6in apart and iron rails were held down using the holes you see in the tops of the stones.

Aphoto showing stone sleepers on the Oakwood tramway
Stone sleepers on the Oakwood tramway, the distance between the fixing holes is about 32 inches (82 cm). – the photo was taken a mile further down the valley.

Further on, in the woods on the hillside to the left, are the remains of large mine named the Princess Louise mine. It was sunk in the coal measures but in search of iron ore. Its shaft was approximately 20 feet (6 metres) in diameter and 600 feet (180 metres) deep but never reached the iron ore measures. Princess Louise was the 6th child of Queen Victoria and was born in 1848.

Also in this valley is an ancient well, named Holly Well but now well hidden in the undergrowth

A photo of Holly Well
Holly Well in Noxon Park