Where would the Forest of Dean’s literary heritage be without its female authors? Imagine the Forest without the writing of Winifred Foley, Joyce Latham or Maggie Clutterbuck – to name just a few. Women writers are woven into the fabric of Forest literary culture, and have been since the beginning.
In the nineteenth century, it was the poems of Catherine Drew, detailing the unique history, economy, politics and personality of the Forest at the start of the 1840s. Later that century would come Ada M Trotter, S M Crawley-Boevey, Flora Klickmann. Like their male counterparts, Forest literature’s women writers vary in their economic circumstances as much as they do in the genres they write and the stories they tell. Crawley-Boevey, at Flaxley-Abbey was a member of the local landed gentry. Her Dene Forest Sketches span the centuries and the classes. Winfred Foley has had and continues to have a major impact as a chronicler of the sometimes-cruel circumstances of working-class life in the first half of the twentieth century – in particular the lot of women. Her stories and autobiography are rooted in and of the Forest, but too she tells of her life and the lives of women beyond the Forest, in particular in London. And Forest literature’s women have an international reach too. Ada M Trotter, daughter of a local mine owner left the Forest as a young woman for Canada and later America. A successful journalist she travelled back and forth across the Atlantic well into her eighties. Whilst in America she wrote her two novels set in the Forest, full of description of the Forest landscape, the people, and a level of fascinating specialist detail about mining. The topics of her journalism spanned the globe. And today the Forest’s female authors from Maggie Clutterbuck to Sarah Franklin – and many more – continue to build a body of Forest literature that is unmistakably of this distinctive and well-loved place, the Forest of Dean, and that continues to reach out beyond the Severn and Wye connecting to places, characters and stories from around the world. Happy International Women’s Day.
It's World Book Day and if you happen to be snowed in (as some of us could be over the nest few days here in the Forest) what could be better than settling down with a good book? Whatever your taste there's probably a book set in the Forest, about the Forest, or written by a Forest of Dean author that will be just right for you. Books can take us inside other people's heads, let us experience the past or possible future, take us on an adventure, make us think, make us feel. And they can spin tall tales to keep us entertained, drawing us around the fire.
Once upon a time....on one such snowy day, a log time ago, a group of travellers were trapped in The Speech House (lucky them!). The snow really set, and they were there for a week.
"The snow fell faster than ever, and we had to give up all thoughts of setting forward journey"
So the travellers - a doctor, a clergyman, the grey-coated man, the commercial man, and a lawyer - end up pass the time by each telling story each evening after dinner:
"We sat once more round the blazing log-fire of the old Court-Room, our minds in genial contentment with ourselves, the snow, and the whole wide world around us"
The stories tumble out each evening, The Drunkard's Vow, The Suicide's Wakening, The Voice from the Tomb, The Lost Letter-Bag, and The Blue Lady of Minsterley. These tall tales take them beyond the walls of The Speech House, beyond the wintery scene to a village in Spring, an old country house, an Autumn hill side. Until finally, on their last night, it's the turn of the Landlord. And when he comes to his spooky tale, his is set in the very place itself: The Ghost of the Speech House!
"As I was shaking and sweating with fright, something fetches me a spikish dig in the back"
By the end of the week the snow has melted, and somewhat regretfully, the travellers are on their way taking with them fond memories of their week in, "the dear, the romantic old Speech-House.
This fascinating and entertaining old book, written by Dr. Charles F Grindrod of Malvern, and published in 1886, is just one of the fabulous range of books that make up our rich Forest of Dean literary heritage. Whether its tall tales written in the 19th century, poems from the present day, or dystopian novels set in a future-Forest, there's a Forest book for you this (snowy) World Book Day.
Check out our growing book list here for suggestions - and once you've read one let us know what you think and we'll share your thoughts here. Happy World Book Day!
With so much fascinating history in the Forest, have you ever thought about writing your own historical short story or novel? The highly acclaimed local author Andrew Taylor will be talking about his approach to writing historical fiction on Friday 23rd March at Coleford's Baptist Chapel. The event is being put on jointly by Reading the Forest and Forest of Dean Local History Society. Andrew has a distinguished and award-winning career as a writer of detective crime fiction but has more recently turned to historical fiction. Still very much with crime and mystery at their heart his novels such as The American Boy are set more than a hundred years earlier than, for example, the Lydmouth series, whilst 2017's The Ashes of London was set in the 1660's. And in his latest novel, The Fire Court, Andrew returns again to the period as London begins to rebuild after the Great Fire.
Andrew will be talking about how he approaches historical fiction writing. So whether you just want a fascinating and entertaining evening's conversation - or perhaps pick up expert tips for your own writing project - come along! Tickets cost £2 (free for FoDLHS members).
This event is supported by University of Gloucestershire, Foresters' Forest, and Forest of Dean Local History Society.
Coleford Festival of Words celebrates its 10th year, and its marking it with a its annual competition for writers. Reading the Forest is especially pleased to once again be supporting the young writers category. The competition is open NOW with a closing date of 13th May. The theme is 'Ten' and entries should be no longer than 1,000 words. Details of how to enter below...
Join BBC Radio Gloucestershire's Jo Durrant in conversation with Sarah Franklin the author of Shelter an acclaimed first novel set in the wartime Forest of Dean.
Friday 23rd March 1.10pm-2pm
The Library, The Main Place, Coleford
Sarah Franklin's first novel, Shelter, was published in 2017 (available in paperback this summer). The idea for Shelter began when the Conservative government announced that they were going to sell off some of Britain’s forests, including the Forest of Dean, where Sarah grew up.
‘The concept that my formative landscape could be sold off randomly was just unfathomable.
I wrote about it for The Guardian and realised that this, maybe, was the book I needed to write.
I didn’t want to knock out an angry contemporary polemic, so I started to think about other times in history when this centuries-old forest might have come under threat.’
Sarah turned to the Second World War, when the Forest served the national purpose as a sanctuary and a timber resource. Italian prisoners were brought to work in the Forest and the newly-formed Women’s Timber Corps had its training HQ in the Forest of Dean, bringing hundreds of young women into the Forest to learn how to manage Britain’s timber stocks.
Against this background people were thrust into an alien environment, sometimes against their will, and from this the characters in Shelter were born. The story of loss, identity and new beginnings - centred on the experiences of the independent, wilful Connie - are told against the turmoil of the changing forest.
Sarah is senior lecturer in publishing at Oxford Brookes University, promoter of literary events and judge for the Costa Book Awards.
Jo Durrant has interviewed authors at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and around Gloucestershire. She recently interviewed Andrew Taylor. Jo is familiar with the tradition of Forest authors from her work on BBC Radio Gloucestershire's programme on Leonard Clark and more recently, Winifred Foley. She is currently researching and recording a series that illustrates the influence of women’s writing from the Forest of Dean over the last century.
Humphrey Phelps’ 1993 book A Forest Christmas is a fascinating, heart-warming compendium of reminiscence, poems, stories, fact, fiction and pictures reflecting Christmas in the Forest of Dean. The book features the memories of well-known local personalities such as Cinderford stalwart Elsie Olivey (co-founder of the Dean Heritage Museum); ex-newspaperman and then reverend to Ruardean Cliff Davies; and freeminer Eric Warren as well as many more. The work of local authors such as F. W. Harvey, Winifred Foley, Leonard Clark and Harry Beddington, Ralph Anstis and many others feature too. In this extract from the book Harry Beddington (in a poem that first appeared in his own book Forest Humour) fondly extolls the virtues of the Forest's brass and silver bands traditions at Christmas:
It’s allus bin the practice ‘ere
Amongst the photographs in the book several show seasonal snow-bound Forest scenes. Newspaper clippings date as far back as the nineteenth century. This one from the early twentieth century reminds us of a much loved Forest business.
If you're ever struggling to get into the Christmas spirit this is the book for you - within minutes of delving into its covers you'll be humming carols and glowing with festive cheer and good will to all! For anyone interested in the Forest, Humphrey Phelps is a great story teller, historian and researcher - for all seasons of the year.
We’re celebrating this year’s National Poetry Day with Forest of Dean poets and poems in voice. Rather than reading the Forest we’ve got recordings of poets speaking, expressing the very essence of The Forest. #SpeakingtheForest will see videos and audio released throughout the day (Thursday 28th) on Twitter @readingthefod and on Facebook /readingtheforest
National Poetry Day began in 1994 with the aim of celebrating excellence in poetry and increasing the audience for it. BBC local radio, poets, community groups and schools up and down the country get involved every year.
The Forest has a great tradition of poetry with its earliest mention in poetic print appearing to be Michael Drayton’s epic Poly-Olbion that sets out to describe the landscape and history of England and Wales - including the Forest:
Here (The queen of forests all, that west of Severne lie);
Her broad and bushy top Deane holdeth up so high,
The lesser are not seen, she is so tall and large.
And standing in such state upon the winding marge.
To more recent times and significant local poets include F W Harvey whose work became known around the UK in part due to his MANY BBC radio broadcasts. His young protégé Leonard Clark would go on to publish many books of his own poems, as well becoming a specialist in poetry for young people. He surely would have appreciated the aims of National Poetry Day! Both writers feature in our digital celebration, as well as the work of more contemporary Forest poets: two firm local favourites Maggie Clutterbuck and Keith Morgan, as well as rising star Stewart Carswell. So if you’ve not done so already, sign up to Twitter or Facebook to enjoy a day of #SpeakingtheForest.
This Saturday (9th September) All Saints Church Viney Hill celebrates the village’s connection to a remarkable, larger than life character: Xavier ‘Gypsy’ Petulengro. Author, showman, broadcaster and mail order businessman, Petulengro was a widely known and loved personality in the inter-war and post-war years – so much so that up to 1,500 people from the Forest and across the UK attended his funeral at All Saints in 1957. As well as his many other interests and enterprises he was a prolific author, writing memoirs, fiction, and several books on Gypsy traditions, food and remedies. As part of the fantastic Heritage Open Days programme across the Forest of Dean, Reading the Forest is putting on an exhibition exploring his life, works, influence, and his Forest connections. We’re particularly interested in meeting anyone who remembers his visits to the Forest, his close friends Mr & Mrs Vine who lived opposite the church, and his funeral.
The event is free, and runs from 12noon until 6pm.
The exhibition is being put on with the support of University of Gloucestershire, The Foresters’ Forest, All Saints Church, and Heritage Open Days.
"The world was alive out here, the scent of bud and blossom in every breath a stark contrast to the thus of bombs into sandbanks, or worse, the iron smell of blood and the screams when a shell hit a target.
This was a place where you could start again."
The Forest of Dean and its familiar woodland is central to Sarah Franklin’s debut novel, Shelter. The Second World War provides the context for this lovely, well written story of the coming together of an Italian prisoner of war and a ‘Lumbergill’ seeking refuge from the Coventry blitz. These characters are, in their different ways both refugees, and like so many before they are taken into the bosom of a Forest family. They become part of the collective effort to fell the great oaks and woods of the Dean to support the war effort. Sarah Franklin, with an insight born of her own Forest heritage, captures the sanctuary that the woods offered and the mixture of emotions generated when swathes of great oaks were felled.
The understanding of Foresters’ ways, their sheep, mines and dialect and the geography of the Forest are perfectly captured in this well researched book. For anyone familiar with the Forest the landmarks are well known; Parkend Memorial Hall and the Forestry Training School feature as part of the books landscape. The war time resilience, stoicism and compassion of the family at the heart of the book rings true. Their portrayal undermines the false representation of Foresters as traditionally being antagonistic to ‘vurriners’. Foresters may have been wary of exploitative capitalists but they were always willing to give ‘shelter’, as the name of the book implies, to those seeking refuge and the dispossessed.
Connie, the central character, represents someone traumatised by the war. She is given the opportunity to make a new start and occupy a role that had traditionally been the prerogative of men. The training and experience of women employed in Forestry described in the book has a factual basis, researched by the author at Dean Heritage Centre. The unmarried Connie bears a child, an event that her surrogate family embrace - with less condemnation than was probable in the 1940s - but the author gives the Forest family a generosity that makes this believable. The ‘old Foresters’ in the book ring true and Amos, a sheep badger who supresses his emotions and appears to have a higher regard for his sheep and dog than people, is superbly realised and familiar. This is not a simple love story; Connie is restless and struggles with the comfort of her refuge in the Forest and has an ambition to ‘live the dream’, so the reader is never quite sure of a happy ending.
The Italian participation in this story is built around the PoW camp at Wynols Hill. The legacy of the Italian presence in the Forest has been arguably more lasting than that of the American occupation. The wartime experience helped forged a bond that saw many Italians remain or return after the war and make names such as ‘Marangon’ as familiar as Smith or Virgo. This well written debut novel may draw the reader less familiar with the Forest to visit or investigate the impact of the war on the area. Sadly, the one memorable physical legacy of the camp – the Marconi monument – was a victim of Council short-sightedness and demolished in the 1970’s. The trees have thankfully recovered from the ravages of war.
However, Forest heritage is built on stories not monuments, and this story of love, identity and finding happiness will appeal to a local audience and contribute to our idea of ourselves and our past.
Shelter by Sarah Franklin, published by Zaffre, available from 27 July, 2017.
Sunday (9th July) saw the culmination of this year's fantastic Coleford Festival of Words. After a week of readings, talks, and performance in Coleford, the festival decamped for its final day to Hopewell Colliery Museum for a celebration marking 800yrs of the Forest Charter. The day included a historical 'street' theatre performance lead by festival instigator Roger Drury telling the story of the Forest of Dean from Roman times to the prsent day. There was music, exhibition, stands, and art as well as tours underground. Speeches came from people involved in the HOOF and FOOF campaigns, including one Peer, and one of Her Majesty's Verderers! The event was opened by no less than the one Lord Lieutenant. A stand out moment was the performance of Vorest Miner by Hawks class of Lydbrook Primary School.
Reading the Forest were very pleased to be asked to take part in the festival - as well as simply enjoying the many of the events!
Amongst many highlights of the previous week, the fantastic Hollie McNish performing to a full house at Coleford Baptist Church stood out. Another has to be the first Forest performance by the fabulous Project Adorno of their mixed media live show Dennis Potter in the Present Tense.
And the festival was not just established writers - it included a writing competition to spot new talent. Winner of the Reading the Forest sponsored youth category was 13 yr old Izzy for this fabulous piece in response to call for entires on the theme of 'reading'.
Read Izzy's entry here:
A browned envelope lay on the table. Part of me knew what it was, so I don’t really know why I looked. But part of me was longing, optimistically hopeful that I was mistaken in its purpose. I sat down in front of it, and neatly sliced it open with my letter opener. It just seemed the most respectful thing to do. Two other parts were now peeking out, crumpled at the edges but still formal. Gently, I pulled on the corners. Out flew a letter, neatly addressed to Mother and I; the remaining, a picture of him. Out that came too, and rested silently on the table. It was certain. No more pretending, hoping. An ocean-full of tears swam in my eyes, but only one fell; one in a hundred; him.
I didn’t read all of the letter. There was no point. I could see the first paragraph or so from its folded position on the table, enough to know. I pushed it to one side, unable to bear to look at it any longer, its black, heartless writing, and neatly pressed edges. Instead, I looked at the picture - a brilliant photograph of him and his steed. A beautiful chestnut mare - I knew from his letters. A worthy horse for him. His face was cheerful, his uniform smart and new. It was like he knew, but, like me, didn’t want to. Around him, other men were busying themselves with chores - cleaning stables, brushing horses and polishing guns - their moustached faces contrasting perfectly with his clean-shaven one. His face, round, smiling, loving.
I walked unsteadily to my room, the little box room on the side of his. Carefully I placed his photograph on top of a shelf beside my bed. Next, I tore off a sheet of my precious writing paper - it was worth it for him - I proceeded to, in my neatest writing, write seven words and fold the paper to stand next to his picture. His last words to me before he’d gone - ‘stay strong, and hope will find you’.
Then I unceremoniously collapsed onto my bed and wept. The reality had reached me. My father. Dead. He seemed to watch me from his perch, and comfort me. He would always be there for me.
My father. In heaven, guarding me.