Clearwell: Be a cave dweller
Stars and Stripes June 20, 2007
CLEARWELL — Adventurous types and those who don’t mind getting a little dirty might appreciate what’s found beneath the Clearwell Caves museum.
After all, where else can one go 400 feet below ground and crawl and slide on their belly or backside through cramped tunnels and thin slits in caves?
The museum, outside Coleford near the Wales border, is the main entry point to more than 20 miles of underground passageways. It also offers two exploratory caving activities — one tailored to the novice (semi-level caving) and another for the more extreme (deep-level caving).
Visitors wearing their Sunday best can choose to just roam around a “show mine,” a large, open cavern that has a self-guided tour on the area’s 4,500-year mining history.
“You get a really good feel of what the mine is like,” said Jonathan Wright, who runs the museum with his father, Ray. Both still mine the caves for ocher, a clay-earth pigment used to make paint.
Jonathan Wright recently donned his miner overalls, helmet and headlamp — the same equipment given to those who participate in a caving activity — to guide a tour.
It quickly got down to the nitty-gritty, with tight obstacles and only a few inches of wiggle room. Feet and elbows were used to push the body through small tunnels, while a downward-angled opening in a cavern wall was tackled feet first.
Ghosts and claustrophobiaOne of the tunnels opened up to an area that was pitch-black, except for a few streams of incandescent light from the headlamps.
The eerie darkness prompted the soft-spoken miner to chat about ghost sightings within the caves. Such incidents include packets of energy, filmed by a paranormal society, shooting across the caves; visitors meeting a mysterious, bearded miner holding a candle; and a woman who took a photograph with a ghostly impression of a person on it, Wright said.
“She was a paranormal researcher, and she couldn’t explain it. She was totally mystified by it,” he said of the woman’s discovery last year.
If claustrophobia — not ghosts — terrifies you, he assured that the caves are a good place to overcome those fears.
He recalled many a visitor who said they were claustrophobic, but came out of the caves a changed person.
Lost in the darknessIn addition to daring visitors, combat medics from the Royal Army use the confusing, tough terrain of the dark caves for team-building training, Wright said.
And it’s because of the cave’s labyrinth of tunnels that people can easily become lost, especially when their flashlight unexpectedly dies. About 10 years ago, he helped rescue a group of teenagers who broke into one of the cave’s entrances and became disoriented in the darkness.
“We found them crying and really frightened to death. They really thought they were going to die,” he said.
About 15 years ago, Ray Wright recalled, he had to retrieve a man who went “potholing,” or caving, alone.
When the man, who was married, was found, he begged his rescuer not to release his name to the press because he was on vacation with his mistress.
“There’s all sorts of unforeseen hazards that could come before you if you go potholing on your own,” he said smiling. “I don’t recommend it.”
There have been safety improvements to the cave’s entrances since the incidents, both said.
Location: Clearwell Caves are south of Coleford inside the Royal Forest of Dean. From Coleford town center, follow the B4228 road to St. Briavels and Chepstow. After about one mile, turn right to Clearwell village (right after the Lambsquay Hotel). There is a car park on the left.
What to do: Adventurous caving activities as well as educational tours on mining.
Cost: Self-guided tour is 5 pounds for adults and 3 pounds for children 5 to 16 years old. The two-hour semi-level caving activity is 8 pounds; the three-hour, deep-level caving activity is 15 pounds. Minimum charges for groups apply to both activities.