Forest of Dean

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The view north towards Ross-on-Wye from Symonds Yat Rock

The Forest of Dean is the distinctive western part of Gloucestershire, forming a roughly triangular plateau bounded by the River Wye to the west and north-west, Herefordshire to the north, the River Severn to the south, and the City of Gloucester to the east. It is a place with a wealth of history all of its own.

The area is characterised by more than 43 square miles of mixed woodland; one of the surviving ancient woodlands in Britain. A large area was reserved for royal hunting before 1066, and remained the largest crown forest in England after New Forest.

Although the name is used loosely to refer to the part of Gloucestershire between the Severn and Wye, the Forest of Dean proper has covered a much smaller area since mediæval times. In 1327 it was defined to cover only the royal demesne and parts of parishes within the Hundred of St Briavels,[1] and after 1668 comprised the royal demesne only. The Forest proper is within the civil parishes of West Dean, Lydbrook, Cinderford, Ruspidge, and Drybrook, together with a strip of land in the parish of English Bicknor.[2]

Traditionally the main sources of work have been forestry – including charcoal production - iron working and coal mining. Archaeological studies have dated the earliest use of coal to Roman times for domestic heating and industrial processes such as the preparation of iron ore.[3]


The Forest of Dean is formed of a raised basin of palaeozoic rocks folded in the Variscan Orogeny, similar to the South Wales coalfield to the west. Underlain by great thicknesses of the Old Red Sandstone, the basin is filled with Carboniferous limestones, sandstones and coal measures, all of which have contributed to the industrial history of the region.



The area was inhabited in Mesolithic times,[4] and there are also remains of later megalithic monuments, including the Longstone[5] near Staunton and the Broadstone[6] at Wibdon, Stroat. Barrows have been identified at Tidenham and Blakeney. Bronze Age field systems have been identified at Welshbury Hill near Littledean, and there are Iron Age hill forts at Symonds Yat and Welshbury. There is archaeological evidence of early trading by sea, probably through Lydney. Before Roman times, the area may have been occupied by the British Dobunni tribe, although few of their coins have been found in the area and control may have been contested with the neighbouring Silures.[7]

The Romans

The area was occupied by the Romans around AD 50. They were attracted by its natural resources which included iron ore, ochre and charcoal. The coal mining industry was probably established on a small scale in Roman times.[8] The area was governed from the Roman town of Ariconium at Weston under Penyard near Ross-on-Wye, and a road was built from there to a river crossing at Newnham on Severn and port at Lydney. The "Dean Road", still visible at Soudley, is believed to be a mediæval rebuilding of the Roman road, and would have been an important route to transport iron ore and finished metal products. During Roman times there were Roman villas at Blakeney, Woolaston and elsewhere.

Towards the end of the Roman period, around the year 370, a major Roman temple complex dedicated to the god Nodens was completed at Lydney. The central parts of the woodlands in the forest are believed to have been protected for hunting since Roman times.[9]

The Middle Ages

St. Briavels Castle

The area's history is obscure for several centuries after Roman period during the Ages, although at different times it may have been part of the Welsh kingdoms of Gwent and Ergyng, and the Beachley and Lancaut peninsulas east of the Lower Wye remained in Welsh control at least until the 8th century.[7] Around 790 King Offa of Mercia built his dyke high above the Wye, to mark the boundary with the Welsh kingdoms and the Forest of Dean came definitively under English control, and within the Diocese of Hereford.

The core of the forest was used by the late Anglo-Saxon kings, and after 1066 the Normans, as their personal hunting ground. The area was kept stocked with deer and wild boar and became important for timber, charcoal, iron ore and limestone. Its name originates from this time, probably derived from the 'dene', or valley, near Mitcheldean, areas known as Dene Magna (large) and Dene Parva (small). The Manor of Dean was the Forest's administrative centre in the late-11th century.

The St Briavels Hundred was established in the 12th century, at the same time as many Norman laws concerning the Forest of Dean were put in place. St Briavels Castle became the Forest's administrative and judicial centre. Verderers were appointed to act for the king and protect his royal rights, and local people were given some common rights. Flaxley Abbey was built and given rights and privileges.

In 1296, miners from the Hundred of St Briavels supported King Edward I at the siege of Berwick-on-Tweed by undermining the town's defences in the first step of his campaign to seize Scotland from John Balliol. In gratitude, the King granted free mining rights within the forest to the miners and their descendants; the rights continue to the present day. Miners at that time were mainly involved in iron mining although the presence of coal was well known and limited amounts had been recovered in Roman times. Coal was not used for iron making with the methods of smelting then in use. Later the freeminer rights were used mainly for coal mining.[2] The activities of the miners were regulated by the Court of Mine Law.[8]

The 16th - 18th centuries

Speech House

The forest was used exclusively as a royal hunting ground by the Tudor kings, and subsequently a source of food for the royal court. Its rich deposits of iron ore led to its becoming a major source of iron. Timber was particularly fine and was regarded as the best source for building ships.

The Speech House, between Coleford and Cinderford, was built in 1682 to host the Court of Mine Law and "Court of the Speech", a parliament for the Verderers and Free Miners managing the forest, game, and mineral resources.[10] The Gaveller and his deputy were responsible for leasing gales - areas allocated for mining - on behalf of the Crown.[8] The Speech House has been used as an inn and hotel since the 19th century.

During the 18th century, squatters established roughly-built hamlets around the fringes of the Crown forest demesne. By about 1800, these settlements were well established at Berry Hill and Parkend.

The Forest of Dean, with its huge iron ore reserves and ready supply of timber, had been of national importance in the production of iron, using charcoal, for hundreds of years.[11] Despite the abundance of coal, it was not used to produce coke for smelting and local ironmasters were reluctant to invest in new technology, but in the last decade of the 18th century coke-fired furnaces at Cinderford, Whitecliff and Parkend Ironworks were built almost simultaneously.[12]

The Dean Forest Riots

In 1808 Parliament passed the Dean Forest (Timber) Act, which included the provision to enclose 11,000 acres of woodland. Between 1814 and 1816 all 11,000 acres were accordingly enclosed.

There were bread riots in 1795 and in 1801. Ordinary Foresters were already poverty stricken, and their plight had grown worse. They were denied access to the enclosed areas and unable to hunt or remove timber. In particular, they lost their ancient grazing and mining rights.

Unrest was growing, and Warren James emerged as a populist leader of riots against the enclosures. Attempts to resolve the matter peaceably failed, and on 8 June 1831, James, leading more than 100 Foresters, demolished the enclosure at Park Hill, between Parkend and Bream. Around 50 unarmed Crown Officers were powerless to intervene. On the Friday, a party of 50 soldiers arrived from Monmouth, but by now the number of Foresters had grown to around 2000 and the soldiers returned to barracks. On Sunday a squadron of heavily armed soldiers arrived from Doncaster and the day after, another 180 infantrymen from Plymouth. The Foresters' resistance crumbled and most of those arrested elected to rebuild the enclosures, rather than be charged with rioting. James was sentenced to death but his sentence was later commuted to transportation. He was sent to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in October 1831, only to be pardoned five years later, although he never returned home.[13]

Conservatives were disliked in the Forest of Dean and on the polling day of 1874 in the market town of Cinderford there was a riot in which the Conservative party headquarters and nearby houses were ransacked and damaged.

'Who killed the bears?'

On 26 April 1889, four Frenchmen and their two bears were making their way to Ruardean, having performed in Cinderford. They were attacked by an angry mob, enraged by claims that the bears had killed a child and injured a woman. The bears were killed and the Frenchmen badly beaten.

It soon became clear that the bears had not attacked anyone. Police proceedings followed and a week later 13 colliers and labourers appeared before magistrates at Littledean, charged with ill-treating and killing the bears and assaulting the Frenchmen. All but two were found guilty on one or more charges, with another convicted a week later. A total of £85 was paid in fines - a huge sum in those days. A subscription was also launched which generously compensated the Frenchmen.

The phrase 'Who killed the bears?' became a taunt for many years, directed particularly towards the people of Ruardean - despite the fact that all those convicted were from Cinderford.[14]

A fictionalized version of the incident was used by Dennis Potter for his TV play A Beast With Two Backs.

Industrial development in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Robert Forester Mushet (1811-1891)

Exploitation of the Forest of Dean Coalfield developed rapidly in the early-19th century with increased demand from local ironworks, and when some of the earliest tramroads in the UK were built here to transport coal to local ports the area was transformed by the growth of mining and the production of iron and steel.

In 1818/9 David Mushet built Darkhill Ironworks, where he experimented with iron and steel making. In 1845, his youngest son, Robert Forester Mushet, took over its management. He perfected the Bessemer Process by solving the quality problems which beset the process.[15] In a second key advance in metallurgy he invented Mushet steel (R.M.S.) in 1868.[16] It was the first true tool steel[16] and the first air-hardening steel.[17] It revolutionised the design of machine tools and the progress of industrial metalworking, and was the forerunner of High speed steel. The remains of Darkhill are preserved as an Industrial Archaeological Site of International Importance and are open to the public.[18]

Cinderford was laid out as a planned town in the mid-19th century, but the characteristic form of settlement remained the sprawling hamlets of haphazardly placed cottages. Characteristics shared with other British coalfields, such as a devotion to sport, the central role of miners' clubs, and the formation of brass bands, created a distinct community identity.[2]

In the later-19th and early-20th centuries the Forest was a complex industrial region with deep coal mines, iron mines, iron and tinplate works, foundries, quarries and stone-dressing works, wood distillation works producing chemicals, a network of railways, and numerous tramroads. The tradition of independence in the area resulted in a great number of smaller and not necessarily economically successful mines. In 1904 the Gaveller oversaw a period of amalgamation of collieries which allowed deeper mines to be sunk. During the early-20th century, annual output from the coalfield rarely fell below 1 million tons.[8]

Changes since the mid-20th century

Part of the pithead at Hopewell Colliery museum

In 1945 half of the male working population worked in the coal industry but after the Second First World Warncreased pumping costs and other factors made the coalfield less economic. The last commercial iron mine closed in 1946 followed in 1965 by the closure of the last large colliery, Northern United.[8][19] There are still small private mines in operation, worked by freeminers and Hopewell Colliery is open to the public.

With the decline of the mines, the area has undergone a period of significant change, ameliorated to some extent by a shift to high technology, with companies establishing themselves in the area, attracted by grants and a willing workforce.

Many mines have now disappeared into the forest and the area is characterised by picturesque scenery punctuated by remnants of the industrial age and small towns. A number of industrial areas remain but the focus has been to capitalise on the scenery and to create jobs from tourist attractions and the leisure sector. Significant numbers of residents work outside the area, commuting to Gloucester, Bristol and Cardiff.


If born within the hundred of St Briavels, one is classed as a true Forester. The classification bestows a unique right for (traditionally) males over the age of 21 who have worked in a mine for a year and a day — they can register[20] to be a freeminer.[21] The ancient rights were put on the statute books in the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838. Residents of the hundred over 18 can graze sheep in the Forest in accordance with an agreement between the Forestry Commission and the Commoners Association.

In October 2010 a woman won the right to be classified as a Freeminer. Elaine Morman, an employee at Clearwell Caves in the Forest, who had worked as a miner of ochre for a number of years, raised a claim of sexual discrimination against the Forestry Commission. After Mark Harper MP raised the matter in the House of Commons, the Forestry Commission reversed its position and agreed to register her.[22][23]


The Lake at Mallards Pike

The forest is composed of deciduous and evergreen trees. Predominant is oak, both pedunculate and sessile. Beech is common and sweet chestnut has grown here for many centuries. The forest is home to foxgloves and other wild flowers. Conifers include some Weymouth Pine from 1781, Norway spruce, Douglas fir and larch. The deer are predominantly fallow deer and have been present since the Second World War and number around 300 (there were no deer from about 1855 when they were removed in accordance with an Act of Parliament. A number of fallow deer in the central area are melanistic. Small numbers of roe deer and muntjac deer have spread in from the east.

The Forest is home to wild boar; the exact number is unknown but exceeds a hundred. They were illegally re-introduced to the Forest in 2006. A population in the Ross-on-Wye area on the northern edge of the forest escaped from a wild boar farm around 1999 and are believed to be of pure Eastern European origin; in a second introduction, a domestic herd was dumped near Staunton in 2004, but are not pure bred wild boar —attempts to locate the source of the illegal dumps have been unsuccessful. The boar can now be found in many parts of the Forest.

Locally there are mixed feelings about the presence of boar.[24] Problems have included ploughing up gardens and picnic areas, attacking dogs and panicking horses, road traffic accidents, and ripping open rubbish bags. The local authority undertook a public consultation and have recommended to the Verderers that control is necessary.

The Forest of Dean is known for its birds; pied flycatchers, redstarts, wood warblers and hawfinches can be seen at RSPB Nagshead. The mixed forest supports Britain's best concentration of goshawks and a viewing site at New Fancy is manned during February and March. Peregrine falcons can be seen from the viewpoint at Symonds Yat rock. Mandarin ducks, which nest in the trees, and Reed warblers can be seen at Cannop Ponds and Cannop Brook, running from the ponds through Parkend, is famed for its Dippers.

Butterflies of note are the small pearl-bordered fritillary, wood white and the white admiral or Limenitis camilla. Gorsty Knoll is famed for its glow-worms and Woorgreen's lake for its dragonflies.

Towns and villages

The list below includes towns and villages within or adjoining the historic Forest.

Places of interest

In the media

  • Heavy metal band Black Sabbath rented Clearwell Castle to write and record their fifth album, Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath in 1973. The band rehearsed in the castle dungeon for inspiration.
  • Many TV and film projects have been filmed at Clearwell Caves, including the 2005 Christmas special of Doctor Who.
  • Scenes from the 2007 film Outlaw were filmed in Coleford.
  • The novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows contains a chapter that is set in the Forest of Dean. It also appears in the first of two films of the same name.
  • The autobiography of war veteran Colin Hall Dropped In It includes a chapter on his struggle to provide for a new wife and son in the undeveloped Forest of Dean in the late 1940s.[32]
  • The BBC and ITV (TV network)|ITV have filmed television series in and around the forest. The early 1980s science-fiction drama Blake's 7 used several locations; an episode of the Russell T Davies revival of Doctor Who has also filmed in the area. More recently, scenes from the BBC drama series Merlin were shot in the Forest. In the first series of ITV sci-fi thriller Primeval, the forest features prominently as several prehistoric creatures escape into the world through an anomaly deep in the forest and it is also where the wife of main character Nick Cutter had disappeared into.
  • The BBC nature programme Springwatch filmed the wild boar in 2009.
  • Parts of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven (1978) take place, and were filmed, in the Forest of Dean, as do the childhood scenes from his The Singing Detective. His autobiographical play Blue Remembered Hills is set in the Forest of Dean. In his last work, Cold Lazarus, the main character's childhood in the Forest of Dean is alluded to.
  • In July 2014, scenes from the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens were filmed in Puzzlewood. [33]

Outside links


  1. Map showing boundary of the Hundred of St Briavels
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Forest of Dean
  3. Hoyle, John (November 2008). "The Forest of Dean Gloucestershire Archaeological Survey Stage 1". Archaeology Service, Gloucester County Council. Retrieved 22 February 2011. 
  5. Longstone
  6. Broadstone
  7. 7.0 7.1 Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Ray Howell (eds.), Gwent In Prehistory and Early History: The Gwent County History Vol.1, 2004, ISBN 0-7083-1826-6
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Mining and the Forest of Dean
  9. Bryan Walters, The Archaeology and History of Ancient Dean and the Wye Valley, 1992, ISBN 0-946328-42-0
  10. Nicholls, Henry George (1858). The Forest of Dean: An Historical and Descriptive Account. J. Murray; digital version by Google Books. 
  11. Forest Web, Charcoal Burning
  12. The Whitecliff Ironworks in the Forest of Dean, Part one, page 19
  14. All information taken from 'Who Killed The Bears?', by Leonard Clark. Published by Forest of Dean Newspapers Ltd, 1981.
  15. Ralph Anstis, Man of Iron-Man of Steel, page 140
  16. 16.0 16.1 Robert Mushet,, retrieved 2009-05-27 
  17. Stoughton 1908, pp. 408–409,
  18. Book; 'Man of Iron - Man of Steel', Ralph Anstis
  19. Friends of the Forest
  20. No Person a Free Miner who is not registered
  21. Who shall be deemed Free Miners
  22. The Guardian, "Woman wins right to hold 'free miner' title", 6 October 2010
  23. BBC News, "Woman wins right to be Forest of Dean freeminer", 8 October 2010
  24. Wild Boar in Britain: Public and Wild Boar Confrontations
  31. Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust nature reserve
  32. Hall, Colin (2010). Dropped In It. Kindle ebooks at Amazon. 
  33. "Letter confirms Star Wars Forest of Dean filming". BBC News (Gloucester). 2 November 2014.