Mendip's famous centuries-old lead mines

Today we think of the Mendips as the mecca of thousands of holidaymakers who come to see its famous Cheddar Gorge, the caves of Cheddar

Today we think of the Mendips as the mecca of thousands of holidaymakers who come to see its famous Cheddar Gorge, the caves of Cheddar and Wookey, and the beauty of Burrington Combe with its Rock of Ages. For hundreds of years, however, Mendip was the mecca of miners, and its highlight the mineral wealth to be extracted from its hills.Today there survive but fragments that suggest the Forest of Mendip in which the Saxon kings hunted. The southern slopes of Mendip are more famous for their strawberries than for their yield of wild boar to the huntsman.Hill farmers, after much struggle, have had some success in a battle with Mendip. They have sent the plough searing across the upland and largely wiped out the pockmarked eyesore acres left by the miners.But here and there, as at Charterhouse, Priddy, and around Shipham, the 'gruffy-ground', as it was called, survives. Although wild flowers in great variety blossom on it, and heaps of soil and stone turned over by the miners have become cushiony seas for picnickers, it remains land with an unnatural look - land that even now seems in turmoil, and an impressive monument to the immense energies of men in the long ago.We know for certain that men were mining the Mendip over 200 years BC, and continued down the years to the 20th century.Many finds have helped to piece together the story of mining on Mendip. Some were made by accident, such as when ploughmen turned over the fields. Others have been unearthed by the painstaking work of archaeologists.Sometimes Nature has helped in a remarkable way, as in the great floods of July 1968 in the Mendip country. When the subterranean world of Mendip, with its vast network of caves and water courses, was burst open by the immense volume of water pounding through it, one of the major incidents was a flood that poured down Velvet Bottom at Charterhouse, sweeping away the road and racing on to bring destruction in Cheddar Gorge.When sightseers gathered at the spot where the road suddenly ended in a precipice they found that, in sweeping away the road's foundations to a depth of many feet, the flood had exposed what could be described as a rubbish dump of the mining area from centuries earlier. For days, even weeks, people were scratching around the spot and taking away pieces of Romano-British pottery and other items.When Dr Arthur Bulleid noticed the unusually moulded surface of a field near Glastonbury, it was not of lead miners he was thinking, but of the possibility of there being a lake village site such as had been discovered in Switzerland.His hunch was right. He had discovered a lake village site, one that yielded a great number of interesting finds dating a civilisation existing there at least 200 years BC. Its people were probably contemporary with tribes living at Weston's Worlebury camp, who left remains of pottery similar to that unearthed at the lake village.The lake dwellers of Glastonbury also left behind lead weights used for fishing nets - and the lead was that of Mendip!When the Romans landed it was not with the object of civilising the natives, showing them how to look less like savages, passing on a new hairstyle or two, arts and crafts, and the rest. While they may have incidentally wielded certain civilising influences, they were here chiefly for what they could get. Rome wanted its invaders to show a profit on their expedition, and a quick return at that.It is considered that the tribesfolk who clung to the hill forts such as Worlebury were conquered by the Claudian invasion about the year 47 AD, when the armies under Vespasian marched up from the south subduing all the hill forts on the way.A pig of Roman lead found at Wookey in the time of Henry VIII was dated AD 49, only two years after the supposed time of the suppression of hill-fort folk. The inscription on it proclaimed it to be the property of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, holder of the Tribuncian power for the ninth time, Imperator for the 16th time.This pig of lead was turned up by ploughing near Wookey Hole. In 1822 a farmer named Stephens during ploughing brought to light three more pigs of Roman lead at Charterhouse, the weights being between 100 lbs and 200 lbs.Good businessman that he was, Mr Stephens promptly sent them to a Cheddar plumber who melted them down!In 1853 a 'countryman in ploughing' on the Blagdon side of Charterhouse also found a pig of lead. This was sent to Messrs Williams' patent shotworks at Bristol. When archaeologists heard about the find they got in touch with the shotworks and were relieved to learn that the pig had been preserved. It weighs 163 lbs and is now in the British Museum. The inscription marks it as the property of Britannicus, son of Augustus, son of Claudius. Britannicus, presumably, was the son of Claudius, who was born in AD 42 and was murdered.Four more pigs of Roman lead dating from Vespasian's reign (AD 69-79) were found in a field at Rookery Farm, Green Ore, not so many years ago, and may be seen in Wells Museum.It was not until early in the 19th century that Sir Richard Colt Hoare and the clergyman antiquarian, the Rev John Skinner discovered the position of the Roman lead mines at Charterhouse. Hoare had been tracing the routes of ancient roads. One of these led him from Old Sarum in Wiltshire to Charterhouse and on along the top of the Mendips down through Shipham and on to the Bristol Channel at the mouth of the Axe.At Charterhouse the unusual appearance of the ground invited investigation, and they discovered the remains of a considerable settlement that must have been the centre of the lead mining industry."A considerable tract of ground was covered with squares, circles, and other irregularities," wrote Hoare. "In digging, we turned up, beneath the blackest soil I ever saw, abundance of pottery, from the fine Samian to the coarsest species, iron nails, glass, iron. The natives informed us that on Charterhouse green numerous little coins of the lower empire had been dug up and thrown away as useless mites.The exploration of Charterhouse was continued by Skinner, who found great quantities of Roman remains, such as fragments of pottery, flues and roofing tiles. He seems to have been a most casual archaeologist, and took no notes or measurements of where the finds were actually made. No full list was made of the relics found, and they have all since vanished.We know nothing of how the Romans worked the Charterhouse lead mines, but they undoubtedly used slave labour. I A Richmond in his book Roman Britain says that one of the Roman pigs of lead found at Charterhouse was countermarked by the Second Legion, suggesting that there were soldiers in charge of convict labour. Perhaps some of the Roman soldiers who took part in the storming of Worlebury stayed on in the district as the garrison in charge of the lead mines at Charterhouse.J W Gough, in his excellent The Mines of Mendip, a revised edition of which was published by David and Charles in 1967, says that by far the greater part of the knowledge of the Roman settlement at Charterhouse came from discoveries made in the 1860s and '70s, when a firm was systematically excavating refuse left by the former day workers and extracting lead from it.The earliest reference to these finds concerned a field that was on the coarse grass on which neither sheep nor cattle could live."It was significantly called Town Field, no doubt from the foundations of buildings found in parts of it," Gough comments. He goes on to say that besides miscellaneous articles, some stone-built furnaces were unearthed. Three or four feet down there were also two or three well-made drains which could have been used to carry off sewage from houses. The centre of the Roman mining station was evidently in the upper part of the shallow valley, known as Blackmoor, running past Charterhouse on the north and east. For some distance a small stream trickles down the valley and in this the Romans, as did others afterwards, used to wash their ore, running water being scarce on Mendip top."The Town Field is north-west of the Blackmoor Valley, and beyond this were the Rains Batch fields where Skinner dug, where the dwellings of miners may well have been. Foundations of stone buildings were found."Mr E T Bucknell, of Weston, who made a valuable historical and scientific survey of the Mendip Hills, recorded that an aged labourer who had been employed at the leadworks had told him that the workmen used to put the Roman vases and pots they found on the top of a wall as targets to throw stones at!* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on April 29, 1972


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