Hunting for ochre

I’ve joined a lovely new group, a geology group and today we went to north Somerset to look for the remains of an important and interesting industry, ochre mining. No doubt ochre has been exploited for thousands of years, and in the Winford area where we were there are seams of yellow and red ochre; the yellow is a hydrated iron hydroxide known as limonite, the red is from iron. It was used as a dye and colouring agent going back to the earliest human activity when people decorated their caves and no doubt themselves with the colours.

I will write more about ochre itself another time, but I’m still buzzing from the exciting day. After getting lost I met the rest of the group at a farm where the kind owners had allowed us to access their land to look at the geology of what was beneath. We had been warned to wear clothes which didn’t matter getting stained; most of the others are proper walkers with proper gear and waterproof trousers, etc, I just had old jeans and sturdy boots. It became a lovely day and I was soon shedding my coat.

We walked out of the farmyard and up the road then into a wooded area and walked up to the Winford Redding Pits in Redhouse House Quarry. Beneath our feet the mud was a brilliant reddy-burnt orange colour and the geologists were soon explaining all about it… I’m afraid I was too excited thinking about ancient people decorating themselves – If I’d still been a child I would have been putting red warrior stripes across my cheeks!

We saw abandoned millstones – the ochre rock was ground as in other milling, except the wheels were not laid flat but upright, side by side. The yellow ochre had to be ground first as it could easily be contaminated by the purple of the red ochre. At first the ochre could just be dug from the ground, but it became necessary to begin to mine seems.

We came across more abandoned evidence of the old industry, a huge metal boiler, rusty iron plates disintegrating into the ground beneath, old metal pipes, a sunken water tank, a huge spoil heap on top of a hill (why on top of a hill? It seemed extraordinary!) It was fascinating, inspiring, and also just a really nice day out with nice people… what is more, there was loads of lichen!

Lichen and  moss friend


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