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The history of Warren Farm part 2: from Roman mines to Medieval hunts

We continue our journey through Warren Farm’s history with a look at some Roman remains and the buildings left by the miners who followed them.

As we mentioned in our previous blog post (History of Warren Farm part 1), the land we farm and much of the surrounding landscape have a long mining history that goes back to the Iron Age. After the Romans invaded, they took up the baton, focusing on the extraction of lead for everything from cosmetics to water pipes. 

The Romans favoured open-cast mining, digging deep and wide into the landscape to obtain galena, or lead ore. Interestingly, a by-product of their mining process was silver, but they were far more interested in the lead. 

From our farm, you can look across a series of valleys, known locally as The Rakes, where much of the opencast mining took place. If you walk through the area, enough traces remain for you to get a real feel for what it would have been like when the Romans were at work, gouging holes about 400m long and up to 6m deep. Some of these ‘valleys’ remain, making it a remarkable landscape to explore. 

History of Warren Farm part 2: The Rakes
Traces remain for you to get a real feel for what it would have been like when the Romans were at work, gouging holes about 400m long and up to 6m deep

To the northeast is Blackmoor Nature Reserve, where further lead mining remains can be seen, including evidence of miners who followed the Romans.

While Roman lead mining eventually declined as they ran out of galena, a wave of Cornish tin miners arrived in the late 18th century and resumed mining in the area.

At the time, Cornish tin mining was in decline, so Cornish miners were travelling all over the world in search of work. The Mendips, with their slag heaps left by the Romans, presented an excellent opportunity. 

The Cornish miners had new technology that enabled them to reprocess the Roman spoil heaps to extract more lead from the Romans’ waste. Their magic ingredient was coal, which enabled them to heat the rocks up to a much higher temperature than had been available to the Romans.

History of Warren Farm part 2: Blackmoor Nature reserve.
Blackmoor nature reserve. Image: Nick

Kilns built by the Cornish miners can still be seen today. One of these is at the top of our valley in the Blackmoor Nature reserve, and you can still see the series of tunnels running from the side of the kiln, which served as exhaust pipes carrying smoke. Lead particles would settle in these tunnels and needed to be cleared out regularly.

The mine owners used to fetch children from the orphanages in Cheddar to do the grim and grimy job of scraping the lead from the sides of the tunnel while the kiln was still active. If you want to see these tunnels for yourself, pick up details of our Blackmoor Nature Reserve guided walk from our honesty shop.

This area, from Charterhouse to Priddy was known as the Mendip Lead Mines, and it includes the remains of the smelters, windmills and slag heaps that were used until the 19th Century.

As for Roman remains, the open-cast mines are just one of many traces in our landscape. We also have a Roman town and a Roman fort on the farm – but they are less visible, so you need to know what you’re looking at to be able to spot them. More obvious are the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, which sits on land adjacent to our farm.

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The Charterhouse area, some of which is on our land, is named after the large monastery that once stood there. In the 13th and 14th centuries, much of the surrounding land was controlled by the church – the records show they were grazing up to 40,000 sheep across this area, not for food, but for wool production.

The remains of the long-forgotten monastery are now hidden under a house, but to explore a living example of Medieval history, visit the King John’s Hunting Lodge Museum in Axbridge. It is a stunning 15th-century merchant’s house that Kate’s grandfather helped to restore. Its name recalls the days when people came to the area to hunt boar and deer.

History of Warren Farm part 2: King John’s Hunting Lodge Museum in Axbridge
King John’s Hunting Lodge Museum in Axbridge

Next month: the wartime history of Warren Farm.

Want to know more?

Our farm history tours, which run on peak times such as bank holidays and school holidays, bring you up close to the history of the land we farm. James will take you by tractor and trailer to see swallets, Roman remains, our mysterious cave, and much more, journeying from the area’s prehistory right up to the present day. To get a taste of some of the other historical sights you’ll see, stay tuned for part three of this blog series, coming soon!

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