Perrygrove lies on the edge of the Royal Forest of Dean, which was a Royal Forest since at least the time of King Canute. Beneath it lie 14 separate coal seams and, around the borders, deposits of iron ore. A geological section can be seen here. For over two thousand years the Forest has been exploited for its timber and mineral wealth. Evidence of its long history lies all around you.
We are within the Hundred of St. Briavel (pronounced “Brevel”). A Hundred is an old administrative area. Since ‘tyme out of mynde’ the inhabitants of the Hundred have regarded themselves as having the sole right to mine for minerals in the Forest. They called themselves Freeminers. Traditionally a particular area worked by a Freeminer was called a Gale and the miners regulated themselves in a court held at the Speech House, which is now a hotel.
In the industrial revolution there were conflicts between the Freeminers and so-called foreigners who sought to introduce new methods and capital into the Forest’s mines. In 1838, the Dean Forest Mines Act provided that a Freeminer had to be male, born and abiding within the Hundred, aged 21 or over, and he had to have worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine within the Hundred. It appointed a Commission to ascertain the boundaries of the existing Gales and in 1841 the Commission set down Regulations for their working, made Awards of boundaries to collieries and iron mines, and placed markers called Gale Stones to identify those boundaries
At Perrygrove we have 2 Gale Stones, which are now rare survivals. One is clearly numbered M15 and you can see it beside a path near Rookwood station. It helps to position the boundaries of the Oak Iron Pit. The 115 feet (35 metre) shaft of this mine which exploited iron ore was sunk near the site of our station at Oakiron, and is shown on the plans which are kept by the Deputy Gaveller, traditionally the King or Queen’s agent empowered to grant Gales and collect galeages (rents). We named Oakiron station after the Oak Iron Pit.
The freemining tradition is still kept alive (probably against the wishes of government – see this link) and some free mines still use narrow gauge railway tracks – for example at the Phoenix Mine. There are other old freemine sites where rusty rails can be found half-buried in the grass, and the occasional derelict wagon still lingers in forest glades. But in most cases the old industrial sites in the Dean now provide habitat for wildlife. The capped shaft and spoil heaps of the Oak Iron Pit are overgrown by native species. The principal woodland is the ancient Perrygrove Wood which includes the small group of trees we call Foxy Hollow. This woodland has probably been here for over 2,000 years. It exists because the ground had been so broken up by old workings that it could not be farmed. In 1849 workmen uncovered three globular earthen jars in ‘an oak copse called Perry Grove’. The jars contained ‘upwards of 3,000 coins, all plated denarii, billon and third brass ranging from Valerianus (AD 253-260) to Probus (1)’ – also described elsewhere as from Gallienus (Ad 260-268) to Claudius II (AD 268-270). We do not know what happened to the coins… we certainly do not have them! This wood is home to many woodland flowers and animals, whilst the underground galleries of the surrounding iron mines provide shelter for an important colony of bats.
We are trying to play our part in preserving the historical and natural fabric of this special place by planting many new trees and managing the ancient woodland under the supervision of the local authority. We did not fell a single mature tree when building the railway- which is why it winds so curvaceously through the woods – and the operation of the trains does not appear to disturb the wild life. Indeed we have noted a growing presence of numerous species in the 17 years we have lived here.
Written 2003, revised 2010