Forest Of Dean, Gloucestershire
PUBLISHED: 23:14 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013
Chris Poole finds mystery, history, magic and myth in the region that inspired Tolkien.
"Welcome to the Forest of Dean" proclaims the sign. This comes as something of a surprise as you cross the border between Herefordshire and Gloucestershire near Little Marcle. With Ledbury and the Malverns to your left, rolling farmland and Marcle Ridge to your right and May Hill on the skyline ahead there is no forest to be seen. But "The Queen of Forests" stretches from Dymock in the north, beloved of poets in the early 20th century and famed for its spring outbreak of daffodils galore, to the restored port of Lydney on the Severn. And as you venture further into the forest itself it is easy to fall under its spell - 30,000 acres where mystery, folklore, magic, myth and tradition abound.
To understand its significance you need to go beyond its present-day administrative centre, Coleford, to its ancient capital, St Briavels (pronounced Brevels). The castle here was once King John's hunting lodge and from here the Forest of Dean was governed, the law was administered and justice was delivered. Today, the castle is kept and preserved by English Heritage and operated as a most unusual Youth Hostel. Holly Pulham, of YHA, who is writing an up-to-date guide to the castle, highlights its unique characteristics: "St Briavels has evolved and has been in use more or less constantly since the 12th century. In its time it has been many things including, as recently as the 19th century, a Debtors' Prison."
When the 1217 version of Magna Carta goes on display in Hereford Cathedral this summer, comparison with that of 1215 will reveal some missing text. Along the way between King John in 1215 and the re-write on show in Hereford, as Rosalind Caird, Librarian at Hereford Cathedral explains: "...seven clauses relating to forest law were hived off to become a separate Charter of the Forests". This charter gave special rights to those living in the Royal Forests. These regulations were overseen by The Verderers. They exist today with their court, albeit with a nominal rather than a judicial role. The Forest of Dean's four Verderers still hold court at The Speech House between Coleford and Cinderford. Visitors to the Speech House Hotel will find themselves dining in the courtroom, its benches and panels intact. Just across the road they will find a monument describing this place as the centre of the Royal Forest of Dean.
For some, who are born within that sub-division of the Shire known as the St Briavels Hundred, ancient rights exist today. Some foresters (known, curiously, as sheep badgers) still have the right to graze sheep in the forest; their flocks on the roadside are a common sight - and minor hazard for motorists. Another is the right to mine the forest's minerals - freemining. There is no longer a maternity hospital within the hundred of St Briavels so these rights are in danger of being consigned to history. Undaunted, there is a movement by those keen to preserve the traditions to have Gloucester Maternity Hospital designated as being within the hundred thus enabling ancient rights to be preserved.
Being born in the Forest of Dean evidently didn't appeal to one of its most famous sons. Playwright and novelist Dennis Potter, born near Coleford and son of a Verderer, made his livelihood elsewhere. Another Potter - a boy known as Harry - might or might not have come into being here. His creator, J K Rowling, lived in the Forest of Dean. Only she will know whether her time spent here in any way contributed to Harry's creation. But other famous literature clearly was inspired by the forest. J R R Tolkien helped to excavate Roman remains near Lydney. There are several sites where Roman opencast mining has left strange and mysterious landscapes. They are now enchanted woodlands with labyrinths of tunnels, grottos and tracks overgrown with mosses and ferns and many say that they were the inspiration for Tolkien's fables. The scowles, as these features are known, are there for all to see and wonder at just south of Coleford at the Puzzlewood.
No self-respecting forest would be without its ghosts, phantoms and hobgoblins. The Forest of Dean is no exception. St Briavels has the standard range of spirits - a lady in grey, baby crying in the night, man in suit of armour, etc. But the village of Littledean near Cinderford is credited as being the forest's most haunted village with, apparently, ghostly events in most of its older houses. In her book Ghosts of the Forest of Dean Sue Law introduces the Forest as a place with a unique character where: "as evening draws into night, the mysterious Forest takes over and in hushed voices Foresters tell tales of strange happenings and uncanny places." A very few have been privileged to see a "White Forest Ghost" - one of the rare white stags, fallow deer whose unfortunate colouring leaves them somewhat wanting in the camouflage department. It's easy to imagine the wraith-like quality that these creatures must have when observed in their forest habitat.
This ancient forest has survived man's predations. The story is told in the impressive galleries of the Dean Heritage Centre created from a water-powered mill at Soudley on the eastern edge of the forest. Thanks to the foresight and skills of the Forestry Commission this land, once plundered for its timber to build ships and its minerals for our furnaces, is protected and flourishes as a national treasure. As Phil Morton, District Forester at the Forestry Commission puts it: "We work with a community that lives in this forest and is truly committed to it and to its traditions."
There are probably 20 million trees here. Conservation and preservation allow wildlife to return. Acorn-munching wild boar are now back bringing, it must be said, some controversy. Welcomed by many, those who have had their gardens ravaged by the beasts feel, understandably, less kindly towards them. But there is now no danger that the "Queen of Forests" will again fall prey to man's best efforts at destroying our planet. It will be here, with all of its magic and folklore, for the enjoyment of many generations to come.