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Forestofdean Map

Whilst in most of the country the mineral rights belong to the landowner, the Forest of Dean is an exception. Here there has been a tradition of Freemining going back centuries.

Tradition has it that the rights were first granted by Edward I as a reward to the miners for their part in recapturing Berwick upon Tweed in the 13th and 14th centuries. However it was not until the Dean Forest (Mines) Act of 1838 that these rights were enshrined in law. The act states that:

All male persons born or hereafter to be born and abiding within the said Hundred of St Briavels, of the age of twenty one years and upwards, who shall have worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine within the said Hundred of St Briavels, shall be deemed and taken to be Free Miners.

There is now no maternity unit in the Hundred of St Briavels, which probably explains why this area has one of the highest rates of home births. Incidentally, since 2010 women have been allowed to be male for the purposes of this act.

Hopewell Colliery is one of only a handful of working collieries, and is the only one open to the public. It is less well known than Clearwell Caves, a nearby iron ore mine, and has had a bit of a chequered history as a tourist attraction. When I visited I was the only person there and had a personal guided tour; shame really as it deserves to be better known. For opening times, etc., please see the official site detailed below.

The thing I found most fascinating was the different methods the miners had used to support the roof depending on the type of soil or rock they were digging through. This is mining as a craft skill, not the brute force of the later industrial mines.

If M&S or Waitrose sold coal, it would be "Hand-mined craft coal from the Royal Forest of Dean". Unfortunately for the Free Miners there is no call for up-market coal.

There is a small museum and a shop on site, together with a tearoom. The working part of the mine is at the top end of the car park and is not, of course, open to the public, but you may be lucky and see some of the above ground operations.