The Forest of Dean Today

By Webb, Keith | Contemporary Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

The Forest of Dean Today

Webb, Keith, Contemporary Review

The Forest plateau is bounded by the lower reaches of the Severn to the east and by the Wye on the west. Mammoths and Hippos roamed the Wye Valley before the dawn of known history. It is now the haunt of canoeists. It was an area very much cut off from time until the coming of the Severn Road Bridge and the motorways. Today we define the area as being within the M4, M5, M50 and A40 box. 'Twixt Severn and Wye' is a more attractive description for an area of outstanding natural beauty. The English Tourist Board claims that the Forest of Dean is the best kept secret since the Second World War, but it will not be for much longer as the outside world's standards, pressures and practices are imposed.

The road signs in the Forest are the same as everywhere else. They are large to enable motorists to read them while they drive ever faster. In the Forest this does not take into account four thousand sheep, many on the roads, that roam freely by 'right'. The amount of damage a sheep can do to the average family saloon car is incredible. It doesn't do the sheep much good either although the 'Ship-badgers' (sheep owners) are quick to claim compensation for their loss.

Imagine driving through a scene of spreading oaks that were planted for England's (including Nelson's) navy standing majestically either side of the road when you come upon new traffic lights and street lights that have been installed in the middle of such inspiring scenery. There may be no other vehicles on the road but the lights might be set at red. It gives you the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of the universe, as you sit there waiting for them to change. Then you notice an ancient standing stone by the roadside. It is partly hidden by the grey box that controls the traffic lights and it is robbed of any prestige and awe by being dwarfed by the road signs. Who ever put 'The Long Stone' there did not have the advantage of a JCB digger to stand it up on end. On one night of the year it is said to bleed ff you prick it with a pin. What we have done makes you want to weep.

When I first saw the ruins at Dark Hill I literally fell for the place. Standing on the disused railway embankment I saw before me the massive shoulders of a stone bastion amidst the trees rising above a sea of bracken. What was it? Was it an Inca temple from which live sacrifices were thrown? But this was not South America or some other distant place that civilisation had forgotten, or was it? I felt very much as any explorer must feel when they first set eyes on the unknown. The bracken became denser as I pushed my way through shoulder high fronds to get to these imposing stone walls and buttresses. That is when I fell. Unsuspectingly I had walked into a deep gully that had been cut through the soft peat-like soil by a small stream running through the site. Shaken, but not hurt, I climbed out and lay there getting my breath back while looking up at the green canopy of bracken that had closed in above me.

I made enquiries to discover what I had stumbled upon. I was told, 'That's Mushet's place' - as though that would explain everything. Over the following years I took every opportunity to return to the Forest. Walking in the Dean's woods healed many emotional wounds and renewed my spirits. The people you met said what they meant and meant what they said. Each time, I left the Forest with more and more reluctance until one day I did not need to leave it again. Like many 'foreigners' [anyone not born in the forest is a foreigner!] I took the opportunity to live amongst the people I had come to love and respect. The property we bought has stone blocks of a dramroad (tramroad - the forerunner of railways) running along its southern boundary. Beyond, there lay impressive ruins of stone walls, terraces, buttresses, flights of steps and beautiful brick radial-patterned floors which have since been protected from frost by a covering of soil. The extensive ruins were clear for all to see because the undergrowth had been cut back by working parties. …

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