The history that’s lying underneath our feet

Published on: 02 May 2016

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WHERE might you find the best preserved Victorian coal mine in the UK? Not, it seems, in South Wales or Yorkshire but on our doorstep in South Gloucestershire.
The buildings at Brandy Bottom, a stone’s throw from the new estate being built at Lyde Green, might be ruined but they still provide a rare example of the surface layout of a 19th century steam-driven colliery.
You’ve probably seen the chimney  from the Avon Ring Road  but you can be forgiven for not realising what lies around and beneath it. Less than a decade ago, even those walkers, cyclists and riders on the cycle path nearby could not see what was there - it was all covered in vegetation up to 10ft high.
Now volunteers have uncovered the remains and  are determined not only to preserve them but to make sure more people in the area can get involved in learning what they represent about our area’s heritage.
Avon Industrial Buildings Trust is leading the work. It leases the site from Ibstock Brick and has been successful in securing grants to enable professional masons to carry out restoration.
“Our short term objective is to stabilise the buildings,” explained Hamish Orr-Ewing, of AIBT. “We need to stop further decay. Our biggest enemy is the weather; the buildings are susceptible to rain and frost damage.”
This spring, contractors CWS Landscaping – funded by a grant from Historic England - are using salvaged stone from Pucklechurch and replica bricks specially made by Ibstock to  rebuild, patch, repoint or cap various walls to stop the rain getting in.
Over time, the trust hopes to recreate some of the buildings and perhaps even rebuild a working steam engine at the site.
Its volunteers work closely with others, such as the South Gloucestershire Mines Research Group and Kingswood Museum to piece together the story of the mine and the part it played in the development of east Bristol.
“We have a range of talents and experience and we have built up our skills while working on the conservation project so far,” said Hamish, a retired civil engineer.
“The work has revealed lots of finds that give us clues to what was happening here in the 19th century.”
The discoveries emerging from under coal dust and spoil  include everything from bottles and boots to structural relics. While a lot of scrap metal was removed from the site in the 1960s, there are some tantalising glimpses of its heyday.
Detective work using old Ordnance Survey maps and photographs has helped the volunteers understand more about the colliery, while members of the mines research group with caving experience have carried out further investigations.
Members give illustrated talks to local groups and are keen to involve local schools in the industrial archaeology and history that is literally under their feet.
The first shaft at Brandy Bottom was sunk 180 years ago, when it was known as Lord Radnor’s Pit. In the early days, much of the work was done by young children, whose small size enabled them to get along the narrow passages, where they would pull heavy tubs of coal along using chains. The practice was outlawed, said Hamish, not because of concern about youngsters working 14 hours a day in the dark and the wet but because of prurient Victorian worries about what might be going on down in the mines.
Coal hauled up at Brandy Bottom was loaded on to wagons, initially on the Dramway, a horse and gravity railway that delivered it to barges on the river Avon for industrial use in Bristol and other cities. By the middle of the century, this had been replaced by steam driven trains on the new broad gauge railway.
The buildings on the southern part of the site date from this period, and include the chimney,  heapstead, Cornish engine house, vertical engine house and old boiler house.
Those on the northern side -  the horizontal engine house, heapstead and remains of the fan structure - were built after businessman Handel Cossham, who sunk Parkfield colliery in 1851, took on the lease of Brandy Bottom 20 years later, sinking a second shaft.
By connecting the two pits underground, he was able to use Brandy Bottom – which he renamed Parkfield South - for both coal hoisting and pumping from the combined workings.
Brandy Bottom is known to have worked four seams of coal: the Hard Seam 512 ft below the surface; the Top Seam at 608 ft; the Hollybush at 638 ft 6 in; and the Great Seam at 674 ft 6 in. It was one of a series of mines from Cromhall in the north to Radstock in the south.
But the opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886 spelled the beginning of the end for the colliery, and others in the Bristol and Somerset coal field. They could not compete with the cheaper fuel that was now available from South Wales, and Cossham’s mining interests were put up for sale in 1900.
Coal hoisting at Brandy Bottom appears to have ceased some time between 1903 and 1915. The site was sold in 1937. At some point it became the property of the brick company, but lay unused for most of the 20th century, mainly because there was no road access and most of the surrounding land was in agricultural use.  
It was this “accident of history’ that meant the colliery footprint at Brandy Bottom remained intact, whereas mines in more populous areas were modernised and  later rased and turned into industrial sites. The mine was declared a scheduled Ancient Monument in 2001.
You can visit the site, off the Mangotsfield to Coxgrove cycle track, when the working parties are taking place, or you can find out more by visiting the Avon Industrial Buildings Trust website, www.aibt.org
WORKING PARTY DATES
Wed May 4
Sat May 14
Wed May 25
Sat June 4
Wed June 15
Sat June 25
TIMELINE
1830 Dramway opened
1836-7 Shaft sunk at  Lord Radnor’s Pit which later became Brandy Bottom
1844 – Broad gauge railway and steam-driven trains replaced part of Dramway
1851 – Handel Cossham sank Parkfield colliery shaft
1871 – Handel Cossham took over lease of Brandy Bottom, sunk new shaft and linked the pits underground, using BB (renamed Parkfield South) for coal hoisting and pumping
1886 – Severn Tunnel opened, giving Bristol and other industrial centres access to  cheaper S Wales coal
1890 – Handel Cossham’s death
1900 – Brandy Bottom pit sold at auction
1923 – Pumping at BB thought to have ceased, about 20 years after coal hoisting stopped
1936 – Parkfield pit closed  
1937 – Brandy Bottom site sold
1980 – Avon Industrial Buildings Trust formed
2001 – Brandy Bottom declared an Ancient Monument
2008 – site clearance and restoration began

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