There! Across the pool, behind the trees, surely a trick of the light – a movement. A woodcock rockets softly from a cleft in the bank above the swamp; two golden oak leaves drift down through trees. Rooks fall silent. Something opens, unfolding itself as if standing upright. There is a man in the woods. Chawtermaster Peake straightens himself, removes his bowler, takes out a handkerchief, blows his nose, wipes his eyes and whiskers. He has emerged from the darkness underground and, looking directly into the sun, he’s blinded to me and the world as I see it. He opens his pocketwatch for the time: seven and twenty minutes past two o’clock in the afternoon of the winter of 1827. However unlikely it may be for us both to appear at the same time in the same place yet separated by 190 years, this apparition and I are bound by two things: blood and coal.
Here in the Short Woods, east of the Wrekin in Shropshire, a Chawtermaster (chartermaster) is like a tenant farmer, except that the land he rents is a hole in the ground. This hole is called Peake’s Wood Pit and it leads below to where colliers pick at a black seam in a lightless tunnel, one of a dozen small mining ventures in these woods of the three hundred or more scratching at the edges of the Coalbrookdale coalfield. Peake has been to check on the workers he employs. I wonder how they’re faring down there.
From the 1820s, the local press has been complaining of ‘slavery’ in these coal mines, children chained to tubs of coal and fed on gin and scalded bread to keep them keen. In 1842, the parliamentary Mines Report will shock the country with stories of children, five-year-olds working twelve-hour shifts for tuppence a day; girls and pregnant women whipped for slacking; boys and young men disfigured by the exertions of work and terrible injuries and deaths down there in the darkness. I want to believe Chawtermaster Peake is a fair man and not some monster presiding over subterranean atrocities, because I think his daughter or niece is my great-grandmother and so, however distantly, we are family. But I wonder if family respectability was bought with coal and I wonder if that carries a curse through the generations.
When I was a youth, I scrambled down an adit (the sloping tunnel of a drift mine) and had to wriggle under rocks of a roof collapse into an abandoned gallery. It felt like a crypt: its darkness tangible with the taste of rock dust bitter with memory – not just of those who worked and maybe died there but of the stone itself – a memory of the deep, deep past. It was not hard to imagine working a seam of coal two feet high and the ever-present risks of being crushed or succumbing to the damp. Blackdamp is carbon dioxide; undetectable, except that it chokes the songs out of canaries and drowns as surely as water. Firedamp is methane and can explode where it collects. Some time ago, firedamp ignited in an abandoned Short Woods pit and flames issued through holes in the ground as if from the gates of Hell. It burned on and off for years; ‘damn kids’ were blamed.
The years that separate me from Chawtermaster Peake are recorded in the tree rings of Short Woods oaks, now glowing like a cold furnace of winter sunlight. But the story of coal here is a more ancient one. In the nearby Roman city of Viraconium (now Wroxeter) the underfloor heating was produced by burning coal from this part of the Coalbrookdale coalfield where it outcrops or lies close to the surface. That was two thousand years ago, but before the Romans, people collected lumps of iron ore from the ground to smelt in charcoal-fired furnaces and manufactured the Iron Age. The first record for mineral extraction in this coalfield was in 1250, a right granted by Buildwas Abbey, not just for coal but also ironstone. In the Short Woods there’s a spring oozing from a circle of birches where the ground is bare and the clay covered in rust: a bloody stain bearing testament to a coming revolution.
Lying beneath much of what is now Telford, the Coalbrookdale coalfield stretches nine miles from Linley near Broseley in the south-west to Lillishall in the north-east and is no more than three miles wide. It is described by the Shropshire Mining and Caving Club as ‘a 20-metre-layer of Productive Coal Measures, on which Upper Coal Measures were deposited, in a series of folds, fractured by faults in a south-west-north-east orientation and divided by the Symon fault into an exposed western section [where the Short Woods are] – and a much deeper eastern section.’
The geological survey map for this area (SJ60) is a psychedelic swirl of colours representing one of the most complex geologies in the country. A muddy oak-gold colour shows the position of the rock under the Short Woods; the geological map describes it as ‘middle coal measures of dominantly grey mudstones with many workable coals and ironstones, sandstones and fireclays.’ Adjoining coalfield rock are later coal measures, 65 to 230 feet-thick of cream sandstones below, fireclays above and workable coals in the upper part in bedded mudstones. These coal measures were laid down in the tropical swamp forests of the Carboniferous period that began 354 million years ago and ended 64 million years later in catastrophic climate change. For 290 million years, the fossilised remains of the great forests of the Carboniferous lay dormant, sandwiched between the eroded dust of mountains, floating and folding in their journey over the surface of the Earth. Although the map appears to fix this seething chaos into permanence, I am reminded that cataclysmic events are not confined to aeons ago. It was a flood of Biblical proportions in the Pleistocene era, a mere blink of the geological eye, that allowed humans to get our mitts on coal and iron. Without that, we may not be standing now on the brink of another great change called the Anthropocene.
As the Ice Age began to thaw, about 15,000 years ago, melting glaciers from Wales and Northern England drained into a great lake geologists call Lake Lapworth that covered much of what is now north Shropshire and Cheshire. The River Severn originally flowed north from the glacial west. However, blocked from its northerly route to the sea at Chester, and pouring into the overflowing bathtub of Lake Lapworth, it eventually burst through the soft rocks at the northern end of Wenlock Edge, carving a ravine that drained the lake and sent the Severn southwards. This violent gouging of limestones, shales and coal measures of the Coalbrookdale coalfield created the Severn Gorge, exposing coal, iron ore, fireclay and limestone deposits, all of which – including the blood and bone of labour I am related to – became the raw materials for the Industrial Revolution.
The business of making iron in the Severn Gorge around Coalbrookdale had been fairly intense since medieval times when it was under monastic control. Through the abracadabra of geology that conjured all the necessary materials into one place, together with an insatiable human desire to control nature, this remote little valley became, quite literally, a crucible for industrial innovation and the modern world.
In 1709, the Coalbrookdale ironmaster Abraham Derby invented a way of smelting iron using coke instead of coal. Until then iron had been smelted in charcoal-powered furnaces, but the loss of British woodland had become dangerously unsustainable. Similar to the way in which wood is burned to produce charcoal, coal is burned to produce coke, a carbonised fuel that is lighter and can be heated to a much higher temperature. Derby was able to increase the size and productivity of blast furnaces making cast iron, and the Industrial Revolution exploded.
Coalbrookdale by Night was painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg in 1801, a century after Abraham Derby’s coke innovation and when the Severn Gorge was aflame with furnaces and foundries. The scene is of furnaces near the Iron Bridge, open coke hearths of fire and smoke, cottages, a smithy, a joinery, an engine house, carthorses, a few ghostly people and strange iron forms like toppled monuments – it looks like ground zero of a disaster. This is a Romantic vision of Hell and yet there is a savage beauty to the fires of the aptly named Bedlam furnace flaring into the moonlit sky. I like to think the inferno is stoked by coke made from coal that was mauled out of a hole in the Short Woods by Peake, my collier ancestor. I like to think there is something heroic about this, but I fear it’s a grim story of the exploitation of poverty for wealth and power, the hubris of Imperial ambition and, more lastingly, of the war against nature. I wonder what Chawtermaster Peake thought about the stuff he was hewing from the earth – what it was made of and how it got there – because I find it hard to get my head around coal.
I stand in the woods on such a winter’s day and check my phone for the time: 14.27. Low sunlight slants through the grey trunks of alder trees to spotlight an emerald pool covered in duckweed and framed with sedges and horsetails. This stretch of swamp woodland along the lower edge of the Short Woods feels strange and foreboding; dead trees sinking into a bottomless black ooze seeping from the ground, a stink of decay. There is a mood here: a quiet, almost reverent melancholy, withdrawn from the world, something uncanny that I find eerily attractive. I pick a horsetail about 18 inches long from the mud; it’s a jointed hollow stem ringed with whorls of simple filaments thin as daddy-longlegs. It may be a coarse, slight thing, a weedy green note in a greying world that breaks as I put it in my pocket, but the horsetail has a profound significance here. It is one of the few living survivors of the Carboniferous; it is the stuff that dreams, and coal, are made of.
Equisetum sylvaticum, the wood horsetail, snake grass or scouring rush is a ‘living fossil’ in that it belongs to a group of plants recorded from fossils that once grew in the coal forests of the Carboniferous. Imagine 300 million years ago, plants like this grew 100 feet tall and were still dwarfed by tree ferns and club mosses towering above them. The coal forests grew on flat land flooded by rivers, like the Amazon rainforest today, but their environment and inhabitants were very different. Many of the old pictorial representations of the coal forest borrow from the ‘dismal swamp’ idea of interpreters, who compared it to the wet woodlands of their own experience but with an absence of seasonal flowers, a dominance of ‘primitive’ plants, populated by slithering, cold-blooded things and creepy crawlies. Although there were no flowering plants and the amphibians such as crocodiles had yet to evolve into reptiles, mammals and birds, the dominant animals were gloriously diverse, dizzyingly brilliant and huge insects.
Coal forests were massive, global ecosystems and responsible for pumping oxygen levels in the atmosphere up to 35 percent, the highest in geological history. Today, oxygen is just 21 percent. Insects are restricted in size by the amount of oxygen they can breathe through holes in their exoskeletons, and so, although a dragonfly emerging from this pool in the Short Woods is identical to one 300 million years ago, the Meganeura, giant dragonflies of the coal forest with a wingspan of 25 inches, are extinct. These vast levels of oxygen are one half of the coal forest equation; the other is the carbon laid down in the peat formed by decaying vegetation. In the endless green tropical summer of the Carboniferous, the photosynthesis of the coal forest split carbon dioxide into its component parts: oxygen and carbon. The oxygen was released into the atmosphere and the carbon locked in the peat.
‘Coal’ is the silent forest, the answer to the question: ‘If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?’ first asked by philosopher George Berkeley in 1710, a year after Abraham Derby’s coke-instead-of-coal invention. Coal is an answer to the possibility of unperceived existence. How can we perceive this challenge from the Enlightenment? How do we respond to the life of a forest that existed before we even evolved? We set fire to it, that’s what we do.
What dies in the coal forest falls into the water: horsetails, tree ferns, dragonflies and crocodiles rot under the surface of the swamp where a lack of oxygen creates layers of peat. The biological decomposition by microbes is a process that turns what is largely wood, resistant to decay because of its lignin content, into organic carbon. Tightly packed in layers, the peat becomes part of the geological process and compressed and heated into coal; different carbon concentrations make different kinds of coal – anthracite, bituminous and lignite. Although geological processes have distributed coal measures around the world, they are finite and do not occur much later than the Carboniferous period. Recent research finds that a fungus – an Agariomycete like fly agaric – evolved at the end of the Carboniferous with an enzyme capable of degrading lignin. This may be a clue as to why there’s an end to coal.
In later periods, dead forests produced carbon dioxide instead of coal. Towards the end of the Carboniferous there was a period of climate change. The effect on the coal forest ecosystems was cataclysmic. Many species became extinct. Whole forests vanished. Does this sound horribly familiar? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, geologically speaking.
Peake’s Wood Pit is lost from the map. Many of the big pits in the Coalbrookdale coalfield were nationalised and we know what happened to the coal industry; none survives. The last Short Woods mine closed in 1970, but, despite fierce local opposition, much of the surrounding land was opencast to scrape up the last remnants of coal. To me, this had the feeling of a lobotomy, as if the memory of the land itself had been surgically removed. Many suspect that, like other opencast sites, it will be developed for housing. Telford prides itself on being the Birthplace of Industry, which is not really true, but not the Birthplace of Global Warming, which is not really fair.
As I stand in the wood there is movement through the trees: a group of fallow deer, their backs black as coal, disappear like ghosts into the dusk. I hear the clash of antlers as bucks fight beneath oaks on the old mine workings; badgers wake in their sunken yards; woodcock turn their oilcan faces to the ferns. Chawtermaster Peake replaces his bowler, turns towards the dark cleft and before the two oak leaves that the bird dislodged touch the ground, he steps into shadow and is swallowed up.
This essay is taken Cornerstones (Little Toller, July 2018), a new anthology of subterranean writing, from contributors including John Burnside, Tim Dee, Sara Maitland, Alan Garner, Sarah Wheeler and Esther Woolfson, edited by Mark Smalley.
The photograph featured in this essay is by Maria Nunzia @ Varvera.
Paul Evans is a nature writer and senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is best known as a contributor of Country Diaries for The Guardian and as a writer and presenter of natural history documentaries, radio poems and docu-dramas on BBC Radio 4. His books include Herbaceous, Field Notes from the Edge and How To See Nature. He lives in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, with his family.