Andrew Swift discovers the forgotten ruins of our industrial past in the Forest of Dean.
As you’ll know if you’ve followed my walks in The Bristol Magazine, I’m always fond of a good ruin, so, when Dave Hamilton turned up in town to talk about his new guidebook, Wild Ruins, I made sure to buy a ticket.
The talk – like the book – covered the whole of Britain, but I was especially keen to find out about ruins close to home. Although I was familiar with some of those he mentioned, there were several which I made a mental note to check out sometime. It was when Dave got onto his top ten favourite ruins, however, that I really sat up. Not only was his number one ruin within an hour’s drive of Bristol; I’d never so much as heard of it, despite having walked near it on several occasions.
As photographs of it flashed up on the screen, and he recounted in loving detail its similarities to Mayan temples he’d visited a couple of years earlier, I resolved, as soon as possible, to go and see it for myself.
This month’s walk is the result, and, although only about a mile and half long, a visit to the site of Dark Hill Ironworks in the Forest of Dean is one likely to linger in the memory when more strenuous excursions are long forgotten. It is not just the scale and layout of the ruins that is so compelling; it is also the feeling that a hostile wildwood was cleared to build them, and, now that they have fallen silent, is encroaching once again, its sinister tendrils slowly engulfing the stonework. One indicator of how untamed the encircling forest really is can be found in the tracks of wild boar you will almost certainly come across as you wander the site. You almost have the sense that you stray into the trackless scrub around the site at your peril.
Spectacle and sublimity aside, the Dark Hill Ironworks is an internationally important industrial site. In 1818 a Scotsman called David Mushet established an experimental furnace here, and gradually the ironworks grew up around it. He retired in 1845, leaving them in the hands of three sons, who soon fell out, and the business was eventually sold. His eldest son, Robert, however, set up an experimental steelworks nearby, and, having discovered a method of mass-producing steel not beset by previous quality issues, opened the much larger Titanic Steelworks to the west of the old ironworks. Although he took out 54 patents on his work, he allowed the all-important patent for steel production to lapse. At which point one of his rivals, Henry Bessemer, stepped in, not only producing steel using Mushet’s process, but calling it the Bessemer Process, the name by which it is still known today. So, while Bessemer’s name lives on through association with one of the most significant breakthroughs of the industrial age, Mushet’s is virtually forgotten.
● To get to Dark Hill, head west along the M48, over the Severn Bridge, and turn right along the A48. After passing through Chepstow, turn left along the B4228. Carry on along this road, and, three miles after St Briavels, when you come to Sling, bear right (following a sign for Sling, Ellwood and Parkend). After two-thirds of a mile, just past a crossroads, turn left into Dark Hill car park (SO588086).
● Having parked the car, walk away from the road and turn right along a gravel track. Once the Severn & Wye Railway line from Parkend to Coleford, this is now a popular cycle track. It leads past a monument in the form of railway lines pointing heavenward, recalling the production of the first steel railway lines here in 1857. The ruins of the ironworks can be seen in the background. Carry on and, as the track starts to climb, gravel gives way to tarmac. Just before the path meets the road, turn sharp left up a rough path past a large rock.
● This path follows the course of a dramway – a narrow-gauge railway on which horses hauled trucks filled with coal and iron ore. Some of the stone sleepers which carried the rails can still be seen. After passing the back of the ironworks, the path passes between boulders intended to impede vehicles. Just past them, bear left when the path forks, follow it downhill to an open space – cleared to improve the habitat for butterflies – and, as you bear left to follow another path downhill, look to your left to see the sealed-off entrance to a drift mine, one of many such mines still to be found in the Forest of Dean.
● Carry on downhill, bearing right when the path forks and you will see a large pond below you on the right. After passing the fenced-off ruins of the ironworks on your left, bear left alongside the fence and follow an overgrown path for a closer look at the ruins. Bear left uphill at the end, and left at the top to rejoin the path behind the ironworks you walked along earlier. After passing the boulders, bear right when the path forks.
● This leads to a house called Marefold, built in 1780. Carry on along a lane for 80m before turning left towards a white building. If you look over to your left as you walk towards it you will see all that remains of the steelworks. They closed in 1874, but the buildings remained largely intact, albeit roofless, until the 1960s, when many were apparently bulldozed to provide hardcore for the Severn Bridge. Carry on past the white building – now Steel Works Cottage but once the office for the steelworks – and after negotiating a narrow path, turn left along the old railway line to return to the car park.
For a longer day out, a visit to Dark Hill Ironworks could be combined with a walk round the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail (sadly no longer with the giant’s chair), three miles north east at Speech House Road.
For more information: www.forestofdean-sculpture.org.uk