The ochre that put the vibrancy in our Golden Valley
Like many other old industrial sites scattered throughout our region, the Golden Valley at Wick, cut through by the River Boyd, is now a local nature reserve.
It all seems very peaceful now but 200 years ago this was a veritable hive of activity with an iron works and paper mill, both based on water power, and based in the valley.
More than 100 years later, and with the industrial revolution in full swing, a dam was thrown across the river to provide power for an iron rolling mill.
Carolyn Williams, who grew up in the area and used to play there as a child, has now written a booklet about Wick's industrial heritage.
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She has discovered that the original iron works, the Wick Iron Company, was owned and operated by Richard Hayes, who lived with his family at nearby Wick Court.
It was while iron was being mined here that deposits of yellow ochre were discovered.
It was a Mr Phipps who decided to exploit this mineral by setting up a processing works on the site, using water power to grind the rocks and a coal fired furnace to heat a drying kiln. The business was sold on and, by late Victorian times, Burgess and Co. were trading as Golden Valley Colours.
The site was renamed the Golden Valley Works but whether this due to the colour of the ochre or because of the golden hue of the valley's autumn tinted elms, we will probably never know. A later sales catalogue describes the company as manufacturers of "Ochres, Oxides, Venetian, Turkey and Indian Reds; Fine Colours, Paints and Varnishes".
In 1901, chemist Dr Charles Beavis joined the firm, later becoming, along with his brother Rowland, a director of the company. When Charles died his son took over the business.
The family's fine Edwardian mansion – Naishcombe House which still stands today – was later used as offices by the company.
"Apart from ores," says Carolyn, "there were many other important minerals to be found on the 30-acre site. There were extensive beds of Fuller's Earth, which were used in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products, Potters clay and limestone, used for building.
"There was even a coal seam within the original mine buildings."
The company, which employed 400 local people, also owned farms, mines, quarries and mills.
The primitive workings saw the ores being hewn out by hand and then loaded on to small trucks which were hauled out of the mine by horses. From their own stables on the site, the horses were walked to the mines each morning.
A light railway, worked by gravity, took the ore from the mine to the mill where it was tipped into storage bins and graded by size and quality.
The little stone drum house around which the cables travelled, has now been beautifully restored.
"Raven's Rock provided a fantastic centre to the valley," says Carolyn.
"A natural beauty spot, it was known locally as Cleaves.
"It's mentioned in Jane Austin's Northanger Abbey where the characters, while staying in Bath, take a coach to visit the site.
"In later years Mrs Nichols who lived in the small cottage at the side of the Packhorse Bridge, was always happy to sell teas from her home."
In later years the employees, many of whom lived in cottages near the works, would take time off to swim in the large lake which was created behind the dam.
This was unfortunately lost during the horrendous floods of 1968 and, as Carolyn points out, it's now hard to see that there was ever a lake there at all. By the 1930s the works, which had a large warehouse, was capable of producing 100-150 tonnes of finished product each week.
One of the more impressive pieces of machinery was a ball mill, a huge iron cylinder part filled with large iron balls which, as the machine rotated, crushed the ore inside until it was the size of walnuts.
The ores were then passed through wet grinding mills and levitating mills where they were further crushed and reduced in size.
They then went under heavy iron rollers before being passed into large settling tanks.
"In the 1970s," says Carolyn, "the local press said that signs of the Civil War had been found by children playing in the Golden Valley.
"They were, in fact, the remains of the balls from the ball mill."
Such are the perils of industrial archaeology.
When the settling tanks were full they would be opened and the thick pulp dropped on to the drying room floors below.
This was then continuously turned and raked by hand before being dried in kilns heated by large coal-fired boilers. Originally powered by water, the drive shafts for the works machinery later utilised a 200-horse power turbine.
Modernisation, which arrived in the 1950s, meant even more fine dust flying about the works than ever.
Thank goodness then that showers were introduced but, even so, the dust often enveloped the village, staining curtains a permanent red hue.
As many as 180 colours were mixed and graded on site – everything from bright canary yellow to Turkish reds and deepest purples.
A sales catalogue mentions the colours blue, brown, black, yellow, green, red, pink and purple.
The colours were mixed using linseed oil, turpentine and water.
A red oxide called ruddle was used by farmers to mark their sheep.
With the waste from the various processes running directly into the River Boyd, the waters were often deeply coloured.
People using their products were paint, varnish and enamel makers, linoleum and floor cloth manufacturers, tarpaulin makers, paper makers and stainers, painters, railway companies, ship builders and carriage builders.
Its most famous use, however, has been to colour the asphalt laid on The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace.
At one time the Wick ochre works had its own cooper, who made wooden storage barrels, and its own blacksmith, who dealt with all the necessary iron work.
In fact Carolyn's father worked as a smith here, helping to construct a chimney in the 1950s. In 1952 the works was ravaged by a fierce fire which destroyed many buildings.
This was followed by the invention of synthetic colours which led to a fall off in sales of the natural products.
The works finally closed down in 1971 and a few years later the owners, English China Clay (now Cemex) decided that the derelict buildings had to be cleared away.
Since 2005, the Golden Valley site has been a nature reserve, cared for by a "Friends" group of local people.
The River Ran Red – a History of the Golden Valley, Wick by Carolyn Williams, costs £6.50 (plus £1.50 postage). It is available from the author on 0117 937 2609 or from Mr Young on 0117 937 3404. It can also be obtained at Wick, Marshfield, Pucklechurch and Longwell Green post offices, Pucklechurch newsagents and Kingswood Heritage Centre.