The following article and images were kindly contributed by Chris Hassall and republished with the permission of the BIDEFORD BUZZ where the article was originally printed in Dec 2011. The article offers a wonderfully concise piece of personal research based in a genuine interest in local social and natural history and some great photos. Many thanks Chris.
More About Bideford Black...
Most people will know that “Bideford Black” is derived from a sort of coal deposit that was once mined around Bideford and used to make a protective black paint for coating ships' bottoms. It can safely be assumed that the terms Biddiblack and Filliblack (as in Filliblack Way) are derived from this Bideford product being used as a filler for caulking seams as well as a paint. Details of the uses and processes involved can be read in books from Bideford Library, but I propose to outline a little of what can still be seen of the places where Bideford Black used to be mined.
Most of the Torridge landscape is underlain by contorted strata of mixed sandstone and shale beds, all of which run in an approximately east-west orientation. Amongst these rock strata are a few bands of carbon rich shales and coal, which also used to be known as culm, and it is these that were mined, first for fuel and later to produce the famous Bideford Black paint, which gave rise to the curious name of the “Paint Mines”.
Mary Anne Adit before closure (Chris Hassall 2010)
Looking at maps and street plans, one can see names such as Mines Road and Pit Lane which would appear to have connections with the mining industry, yet they seem quite unconnected with each other, one being east of East the Water and the other on the hill to the west of the town centre. Then a couple of years ago when ground works for a new housing development called Harlseywood were being excavated off Abbotsham Road, opposite the end of Moreton Park Road, vast quantities of black shale were dug up, indicating that the culm beds were coming to the surface here as well. Finally, walking along the beach at the base of Abbotsham Clffs, (taking due heed of the risk of falling boulders) there is a point where a band of coal appears in the bottom of the cliff face. This is not easy to locate, being masked by undergrowth and loose soil and gravel, nor is it good coal for burning, and certainly not worth the long walk with a wheelbarrow to help yourself !
Mary Anne Adit after closure (Chris Hassall 2011)
If you take a ruler and join up these places on the map, you find they are on an approximate straight line which, if continued eastwards, passes close to Hiscott where at Somers, in another little valley running down to the river Taw, there are old quarries that also used to dig coal. It seems a safe assumption that the culm seams ran straight from Abbotsham Cliffs to Somers, being hidden under higher ground to the east of East the Water and having been eroded away by the formation of the Torridge valley alongside which Bideford grew up.
Mary Anne Adit interior (Chris Hassall 2011)
I don't know of any existing signs of the pits that Pit Lane is named after (although historian Peter Christie may well know better), but there are old photographs that show a mineral railway or conveyor emerging from the cliffs above Ethelwyn Brown Close, which used to be railway goods yard in the past, and it is said that an adit (horizontal mine shaft) followed the culm seam through the hill from there to the mines at the end of Mines Road.
It is at Mines Road, the eastern end beyond Manteo Way, that the recent (before and after World War Two) mining operations took place. Here there were several adits giving access to different seams of culm at varying levels in the side of the deep little valley through Cleave Wood, as well as vertical shafts opening from the meadows beside the road. The seams had picturesque names like “Paint Seam” and “No.1 and No.2 Mary Ann Seams”. The last of the adits was closed off to prevent access only last year, with a concrete block wall leaving a small space guarded by a metal grille to allow bats to fly in to hibernate over winter. Badgers have taken over the mining operation now and are active in the side of the valley and the old spoil heaps, busily digging their own tunnels and “ovens” (Henry Williamson's name for their living chambers). However a builder has planning permission to develop the site, and heavy machinery has been “landscaping” much of the area so that soon this last remnant of Bideford's mining heritage will be lost.
Chapel Park lane, 7 months later (Chris Hassall 2011)
The names of Pit Lane, Mines Road and Fillablack Road may soon be all that is left to remind us."
Chris Hassall 09/11/2011