‘I’m stuck. I’m 200 feet underground. Rock is pressing on me from all sides. The only light is from my head torch and the one thing I’m most concerned about is the burgeoning wedgie I can feel happening.’
I thought to myself calmly. I inched my head to one side to the other to look at my broad shoulders wedged at the rock sides almost at the exit ‘rabbit hole’ that I spent metres scrambling through.
I was down in the iron ore caves under the Forest of the Dean called Clearwell Caves that’s easily accessible from the main roads surrounding the area.
An hour earlier, we were kitted up in overalls, a helmet and I brought along the macho persona of a miner at the site office. It worked. A little girl rushed ahead of her family and cutely asked if I had just been mining. Awww.
But we #DeanWyeBloggers were on our way to explore 200 feet underground of rock to find out just how exactly this thousands of year old rock in these excellent caves has brought trade and stimulus to the Forest of the Dean region. We were completely ready for our journey into the centre of the Earth.
It must have been a challenge for families and the individuals to be going down into the pitch black and work in difficult conditions. And that’s what we were going to experience too.
But I brought another challenge for myself. Being deaf, I’m normally reliant on lip-reading in good, clear and bright conditions to compliment the voices I hear through my hearing aid and cochlear implant. However, on this adventure activity in the Forest of the Dean, I couldn’t be that reliant in the dark mines. I had to use the power of my sight and touch to my sheer will. I mean, I can’t exactly go down tumbling a crevasse, never to be seen again, right? You readers would be devastated not to see my handsome face for sure.
Never mind, the thought never crossed my mind. I was truly excited. Perhaps it’s in the genes with my Dad caving, potholing and climbing mountains on a standard weekend when he was younger.
Some people would have a problem with claustrophobia or the dark. But neither bothered me. Just get me down there! I was truly ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
Expertly led by Jonathan Wright, owner of the Clearwell Caves, he picked out one of the many entrances of the caves from the surface that we would be going under.
Just mind that dead mouse on the way in, but remember, when you climb in, there’s a ladder that you can go down into, but there’s only two rungs…
This is what adventure is all about. Always expect the unexpected.
I opted to go first, eager to get exploring. Jumping down from the rungs with my legs contorted, I felt a huge rip in my waterproof trousers. Oops, they ain’t waterproof anymore! But the overalls would keep me covered, little did anyone realise.
Immediately, the world was dark and we scrambled into the first cave opening where Jonathan gave us his overview speech of the caves. But beware, when you do go under this time of year, be careful not to disturb the bats that are hibernating for the winter. Any slight of disturbance will confuse them so we have to pass by them slowly. I was fascinated. As a bat surveyor, many moons ago, I was intrigued to know that many bats use these caves as a source of shelter and it was wholly interesting to learn about them. But not to linger too long, we passed by them slowly, not to wake them up.
The darkness was pervading. It creeped into every crook and nanny that you simply had to rely on hearing the instructions given to us. For me, it was simple. Jonathan was extremely deaf aware and made sure I understood all instructions. After all, how couldn’t he stop me from shooting off first, cackling into the night?!
Over the next two hours, as we delved deeper and deeper into the mysterious Clearwell Caves, we learnt all about the mining of ochre and iron ore that has been mined by Freeminers, who have an ancient birth-right that exclusively allows them to mine for iron ore, coal and stone throughout the Royal Forest of the Dean area. What was even more impressive that you can hear the miners’ story from the Stone Age up to the present day in Clearwell Caves, which has produced tools, weapons, machinery and much geekly – war paint.
Yes, war paint.
Gleefully, Tom of My Travel Mission slathered on ochre on my face to make me look fearsome as ever. I think he’s done a good job, right?
It was all such good fun, and if anything, there were many times I had to realise that we were in fact 200ft underground as I just kept forgetting. It was almost rather like navigating the obstacle course that is my bedroom! (Warning: you will get lost in my bedroom).
I had IMMENSE fun. Ghost stories were told in the dark with our headlamps off (try waving your hand in front of your eyes – you won’t see a thing!), we navigated rock bridges with drops to the sides, we got down and dirty with mining practices, we imagined what life would have been like working here (as a 6ft3 person, I have huge respect to miners – I constantly had to bend over a lot!), we observed 350 million old rock that used to be at the bottom of a sea bed and also, excitedly, we had to scramble through holes just big enough to fit us.
So I thought.
That brings us back to the beginning.
I was stuck.
Stuck as a hog roast on a spit.
But I didn’t panic. I laughed to myself looking like a jack in a box with my head peeking out of a hole, unable to move forward. So what did I do?
I shuffled backwards into a space where I just had enough room to thrust forward my arms in front of me to make my sturdy lithe body (if I do say so myself) straight as possible to shuffle out until my arms where clear to pull myself out. Check out this video of me doing so.
— My Travel Mission (@MyTravelMission) March 11, 2017
Before long, as the saying goes, time underground goes quickly. We had to leave. I wanted to explore further. I loved getting my sweat on, feeling the surprising humidity of the caves below, exploring the hidden secrets of the Clearwell Caves underneath the Forest of the Dean.
Could I have been a miner in a previous life, I thought to myself as I scrambled out back onto the surface of the Earth?
Oh, I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure. I totally look the part.
I just want to say a huge big thank you to Clearwell Caves for giving me the bestest caving experience and for being completely deaf-aware. You can find out more about them and discover your taste for caving adventure in one of the best spots of the UK here:
Can’t wait until the next instalment of my Forest of the Dean/Wye adventures in the UK? Why not follow this hashtag – #DeanWyeBloggers on any social media channel and discover what we actually got up.
This article has been produced as part of a blogging series in partnership with the DeanWye Tourism Board.