The achievements and contributions of women authors to the literary culture of the Forest of Dean is considerable. From the earliest writers of Forest literature such as Cinderford poet Catherine Drew, to twentieth-century writers such as Winifred Foley, and Joyce Latham, and then contemporary authors such as Maggie Clutterbuck, Tiffany Murray, and Sarah Franklin; women writers have told the stories of the people and places of the Forest. For some of them their achievements were doubly impressive, writing and getting published against the challenges of an education cut short, and a tough working-class life that often meant doing paid work alongside domestic expectations of their role as wife and mother.
Their work is varied in its form and subject matter, from plain poetry to expressive verse, from crafted memoir to short stories and literary novels. Catherine Drew, writing in the first half of the nineteenth-century could be a little moralistic, warning young women against being led astray by too-foppish men, or the moral corruption in wait for them if they were tempted to leave the Forest for London. But the subject of her longest poem was nothing less than a history of the Forest. In The Forest of Dean in Times Past, Contrasted with the Present she neatly sums up Forest history before coming up to her present day. hers was a time of unprecedented change with outside capital flooding into the Forest bringing railroads (horse drawn industrial tram roads) and taking mining (on the whole) from artisan craft work carried out by freeminers, to deep pits with the miners working for the colliery owners. This did though bring employment, new schools and new churches. Catherine Drew detailed it all a remarkable achievement for a woman who says herself, had only nine days of formal schooling.
In the first part of the following century a young Winifred Mason was a voracious reader and developing writer at school, taken under the wing of a her teacher, Miss Hale. But for Winifred too her education ended all too soon, in her case at the age of fourteen for a life ‘in service’. It would be easy to see Catherine, Winifred, and Joyce (put off taking up a place at grammar school partly by the costs of the uniform) as victims with little agency to change their situation, but very far from it! If Winifred at that point could not choose to stay at school, or at first the type of work she would do, she would choose were. It was she who decided to head for London, and with domestic workers in demand it was she who regularly decided to change who she worked for and where. And all the while she continued to write, sending her work to the BBC, responding to what she heard on the radio, and – far earlier than is remembered – appearing occasionally on air, reading her work. Winifred Foley the author was not the creation of Woman’s Hour: she was an author, ready made by her own creative efforts that needed a final helping hand to published literary success.
The Forest’s female authors have added their rich voices and stories to the literature of the Forest of Dean, bringing a variety of points of view, and variety of experiences. As much as they detail life in the Forest it’s worth remembering that they also describe the world beyond it too: in Foley’s A Child in the Forest we read about her time on London and other places too; Sybella Crawley-Bovey, at the end of the nineteenth-century, looked to the Forest of the past and detailed its connections to the world beyond, from the wealth of sugar plantations and the slave trade, to immigrant families from the Netherlands. And in contemporary times, Sarah Franklin’s Shelter, details a time when the Forest was a place of Italian POWs and former city-dwelling women relocated to the Forest to work in the Timber Corps.
March 8th 2020 is International Women’s Day, and the call this year is to “challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, […] and celebrate women's achievements”. Let’s all do that for the wealth of Forest literature written by women in the past, today and into the future.
At night places take on a different personality. The busy sounds of daytime activity are replaced by the stranger sounds of night. And as daylight gives way to darkness we can lean more easily towards interior thoughts, reflections, and questions less often asked during the daytime. Daytime reason slips into nigh-time visions. What then for a writer, visiting the Forest at night? What reflections, what intersections of personal and place histories, emerge? In a wonderfully sound-rich feature for BBC Radio 4, Bristol-based writer Zakiya Mckenzie visits the Forest of Dean at night and reflects on the experience, her memories of Jamaica, and her response to the true tragic story of an African slave-boy in the Forest. Zakiya was appointed as one of two writers in residence by Forestry England in 2019 to mark its centenary, and she chose to spend much of her time in, thinking and writing about, the Forest. You can read her Forest of Dean-inspired writing here. In this programme, Night Vision, Zakiya visits the Forest again, this time at night. Meeting Reading the Forest's Roger Deeks at Lydney station she travels to Littledean to hear about the Pyrke family, and an awful event in the eighteenth-century that, local tradition says, continue to reverberate through the hours of darkness to this very day. As she travels into the Forest she also links to its rich literature, in particular through the voices of Winifred Foley and Dennis Potter as they too talk about the relationship between past & present - something hard to ignore in a forest haunted by the remnants of its past, whether that's during the day...or at night. You can listen to Zakiya's programme on BBC Sounds here.
Cinderford author Harry Beddington became a much loved commentator on Forest life through his pieces in the local newspaper, and his books Forest of Dean Humour (1961) and Forest Acorns (1963) – both books coming together in Forest Humour (1977). He reached an even wider audience with appearances on television and radio, and with his contribution to the vinyl album Forest Talk (1981). He was a talented artist, performer and poet, and now research is beginning to reveal that Harry was a talented playwright too. His first ever publication was actually a play, Footing the Bill, in 1946 for the Village Drama Society. The one-act farce, all in Forest dialect, won first prize at the Gloucestershire Music and Drama Festival finals at Cheltenham Town Hall in 1944. The play was put on by Cinderford’s MINTEC Players (so called after the Mining & Technical College) with Harry and his wife Mildred making up two of the four cast. The play was described at the time in the Dean Forest Mercury as, ‘true native comedy at its best’, and Mr Leo Baker, the county drama adviser (who had already seen the play in the qualifying rounds) said that:
‘when he saw it at Cinderford he could not understand much of it, but the audience rocked in their seats all the time. If the Cheltenham audience were mystified by “thee bist” or wondered what a “butty” was they also were convulsed and gave the players the biggest applause of the evening’
It’s said by Harry’s family that he got involved in the local drama scene (as producer, actor, and then playwright) because of his wife Mildred’s love of acting. She’d become involved in amateur drama with the Bilson W.I. and appeared in their production of No Servants in 1939 (a one-act play by Gertrude E. Jennings). The play was performed at the Forest of Dean W.I. Drama Festival held at the Miners Welfare Hall in Cinderford, and was described by adjudicator Miss Isabel Chisman of Bath as, ‘good entertainment; very slick; very light,’ but, ‘not a good choice for the festivals’. Mitcheldean W.I.’s performance of Many Ways was awarded best play at that competition. This was all part of what was a lively local drama scene.
Mary Kelly in Devon had founded the Village Drama Society in 1918 and it quickly grew into a movement that encouraged groups to set up in other areas, with Mary regularly a guest speaker at Women’s Institutes around the country. There was clearly interest in Gloucestershire with the society’s annual general meetings reported in some detail in the Gloucester Journal as early as 1922, with its president (the author and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) reminding those attending that they should value, rather than criticise, the local dialects in their performers. The British Drama League too had been formed in 1919 its aim being to support the rebuilding of British theatre after the war, and by its second year it was making links with Britain’s Women’s Institutes and judging their drama competitions. The Forest was no exception to this rural drama renaissance, and in 1937 was part of Gloucestershire’s Village Drama Festival supported by the Rural Community Council, with events at Longhope and Lydbrook. At Lydbrook teams competing included those from Cinderford (the Deancroft Players, and Cinderford Dramatic Society) and Berry Hill. In 1944 Harry’s comedy, Footing the Bill, was just one of many competing across the Forest for a place in the finals with the qualifying round at Cinderford’s East Dean Grammar School featuring teams from Ruardean and Mitcheldean. As far as Cinderford was concerned the Dean Forest Mercury ascribed much of the revival in drama to Mr Aveston of the grammar school.
Following the success of Footing the Bill and it’s publication, Harry went on to write several more plays, as well as producing and performing. In 1950, to much acclaim, he appeared in (as well as co-producing) MINTEC Players’ production of Eden Phillpotts’ Devonshire Cream, Harry taking the role of Billy Blee:
‘This was a fine part with many pithy lines and Mr Beddington played it with obvious assurance and enjoyment, whether he was taking centre stage ridiculing women folk or lawyers or being pushed to one side protesting by his employer, Elias Widecombe’
Only a month later, in December, his own next comedy play, Talking Turkey, described as a ‘topical comedy,’ was on at The Miners Hall in Cinderford. Put on by the Bilson W.I. drama group Harry took the part of the spiv . More plays were to come. Limbo, in 1959, was a thriller in three acts inspired by a Littledean Hall ghost story, performed by the MINTEC Players at East Dean Grammar School. Another play of the period, Homespun, drew on Harry’s own experience during World War Two working in local civil defence. The play, that features a great deal of Forest dialect, is set amongst a Forest Homeguard unit. Harry’s family remember him telling them that he sent the script to the BBC but it was turned down. Not long afterwards Dad’s Army appeared on TV and Harry often wondered if his play had inspired it’s commissioning.
Harry was a prolific writer, who had a real passion for writing for the stage. Certainly his wife Mildred and her friends in the W.I. seem to have been an inspiration, but also the connection he had with schools through his job in local government education administration. Harry’s plays were embedded in the rich local amateur drama scene, and drew for their themes on his own experiences, as well as the rich culture, people, and history in the Forest.
Research into all aspects of Harry’s work continues and we hope to be able to share a great deal more soon. In the meantime, the seventy fifth anniversary of that prize-winning performance of Footing the Bill is being marked with a revival performance on July 21st 2019 – more details here.
 Dean Forest Mercury (1944) Hit of the evening but…, Dean Forest Mercury, 5th May, p5f.
 Dean Forest Mercury (1944) Drama Festival: Cinderford Teams Compete, Dean Forest Mercury, 21st April, p5e.
 The Citizen (1939) Forest Drama Festival: Mitcheldean Win Shield: Record Audience, The Citizen, 10th March, p11c.
 Wallis, M. (2004) Kelly, Mary Elfreda. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [online] Avialable at: https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-69833?rskey=gn7Wr1&result=1 [Accessed July 9th 2019]
 Gloucester Journal (1922) A Merrier England: Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and Village Drama, Gloucester Journal, 16th December, p2e.
 British Drama League (1944) Twentyfive Years of the British Drama League MCMXIX-MCMXLIV (Facsimile of booklet produced to commemorate twenty-fifth anniversary, 1944) [online] Available at: http://www.allenglandtheatrefestival.co.uk/index_htm_files/hist25.pdf [Accessed 9th July 2019]
 Gloucester Journal (1937) Forest Drama Festival, Gloucester Journal, 6th March, p17d.
 Gloucester Journal (1944) Drama Festival in Dean Forest: Mining School Gain Highest Marks, Gloucester Journal, p8c.
 Dean, H (1950) Heather Dean’s Column: Devonshire Cream, Gloucester Journal, 25th November, p6b.
 The Citizen (1950) Bilson: Record Turn-out, The Citizen, 19th December, p2b.
The first adjustment to make at a conference on forests and forestry, is to remind yourself that when delegates talk about, ‘the forest,’ they don’t mean your forest, ‘The Forest’ – The Forest of Dean – they’re instead taking about an abstract forest, all forests. Perhaps it’s why professional forestry people call where we live ‘the Dean’, but if you live here long enough to feel this is home (and you're not involved in forestry) you’ll know that we live in the Forest. Anyway, adjustment made, what a truly fascinating and inspiring event this was: Evolving the Forest 19th-21st June, three days of talks, presentations, performances and workshops at the beautiful Dartington Hall near Totnes in Devon. Forestry professionals, ecologists, artists and academics from around the world exploring our relationships to trees, woodlands, and wood, and how this is evolving, and may have to evolve further in the face of global climate change and species extinction.
The event opened with the brilliant Fiona Stafford, professor of English at Oxford University, delivering a whistle stop tour of art and literature’s portrayal of trees from the seventeenth century onwards, and how this has impacted on our wider culture. Fiona ended her keynote talk with pictures of individual trees significant to her – trees as almost part of the family.
Day two’s keynote was a contrast with Professor Kathy Willis talking on the theme of natural capital and measuring the financial value of the natural world. An uncomfortable notion for some, certainly one that might be contested, but that aside Professor Willis demonstrated some incredibly innovative research techniques drawing on the latest technology and thinking, for example, who knew that there’s the same fractal ratio to all of our favourite landscape views?
With three strands of talks across the event it was only really possible to get a flavour of the over-all conference, so here are just a few of the highlights.
Camilla Allen talked about the forester St Barbe Baker and the organisation he founded called The Men of the Trees. She focused on their creation of tree cathedrals in the landscape. Professor Adrian Newton’s energetic and thoroughly engaging presentation shared his research into ecological tipping points and forest ecosystem collapse. In essence, everything looks fine until all of sudden it’s not. This was a warning against complacency.
Equally thought provoking were presentations by artists and poets. Naomi Hart took us into the tropical forest of Tasmania through soundscape, drawings and a poetic analysis of her own artistic practice. Poet and educator Mandy Haggith explained how every letter of the Gaelic alphabet is based on a tree name. She creates poetry with forestry workers exploring their relationship to trees. Friday took a distinctly ‘woo-woo’ turn, as the first speaker of the day described it himself. Simon Leadbeater presented a convincing argument for a level of tree sentience, backed by the latest scientific research that shows how trees communicate, cooperate and respond to their environment. The self-confessed ‘woo-woo’ (how his wife, a scientist, describes it) moment came when he explained how some researchers claim that trees have spoken to them. Whilst this may be difficult to swallow – as he himself admitted – these ideas do suggest that perhaps we could adopt a radically more sympathetic attitude to the natural world.
Amongst this huge variety of ideas I was thrilled to be able to talk about the literary heritage of the Forest of Dean, and what it tells us about our relationship to our forest. I started with an admission that across two hundred years of Forest writing, it’s not so much about the trees! Rather than landscape or natural environment being always to the fore, Forest literature describes a distinctive place, a lived landscape consisting of social networks. It is writing about people, work, places and histories, and humour. That’s not to say that there’s not a deep love of environment and nature often evident. And of course trees and nature do actually feature – from the poems of Catherine Drew to the novels of Dennis Potter and the auto-biography and verse of Leonard Clark. In explaining how strong our sense of custodianship and care has always been for a free and open F/forest I presented images from the 2011 Hands Off Our Forest demonstration at Speech House and showed how this was in part simply a continuation of a radical Forest tradition in defence of the Forest.
After three days of warm conversations and sharing ideas, it’s good to be back in the Forest, safe in the knowledge that just a few more people now know about our fantastic literary heritage and distinctive identity.
It's 130 years since the notorious 'killing of the bears' - an incident that has reverberated down the years as one of the indicative stories of the Forest of Dean. Reading the Forest is marking this grizzly anniversary by exploring the fictions, histories, poems and films that have drawn on those gruesome events - 130yrs of bear stories. Join us on the exact anniversary, the 26th April, at The Malt Shovel for the Un-bear-able Pub Quiz - an evening of local history and bear themed questions to test your trivia knowledge. On Saturday 27th April we're at Ruardean Memorial Hall for an exhibition, screenings, talk and discussion. Amongst the display will be original documents from the trial, and examples of the poetry and prose inspired by the events. Amongst the film clips being shown will be the BBC feature from 1964, whilst the talk, 1'30 years later: Bear facts, Bear stories and Bearing history’, will be focusing on how the story has been used and abused down the years. The day will be rounded off with a local panel discussion chaired by BBC Gloucestershire's Kate Clark and hopefully lots of lively debate from everyone at the event.
Friday 26th April: The Unbearable Pub Quiz
The Malt Shovel, Ruardean, GL179TW.
£1 per-person to join the quiz, proceeds to animal charity World Animal Protection. Maximum team size 6 people.
Saturday 27th April: Bear Stories
Ruardean Memorial Hall, Ruardean, GL179UP
(donations accepted to animal charityWorld Animal Protection)
Exhibition opens 12noon, screenings from 12.30, talk at 2pm, panel discussion & open forum from 3.15.
Jean Mohr’s photographs for his 1967 book with John Berger, A Fortunate Man, drew nearly three hundred people to the Assembly Rooms at the heart of St Briavels in an exhibition over the 30th and 31st of March. Twenty of Mohr’s original photographic prints for the book were on display for the first time in the UK on loan from the photographic archive at the Musee de l’Elysee in Switzerland. The St Briavels show was the culmination of month-long project that saw a new generation of photographers inspired by to Mohr’s work to take their own photographs reflecting life in the Forest of Dean today.
The first part of the exhibition opened at University of Gloucestershire’s Hardwick Gallery in Cheltenham with an expert panel and invited guests discussing the photographs and asking what subjects might reflect the reality of the Forest today. Students form the University’s Documentary Photography course then spent two days with a range of groups in the Forest taking pictures for display alongside Mohr’s. The whole exhibition then moved to St Briavels were Mohr had worked with Berger, following the work of local GP Dr John Eskell and his patients. Opening the exhibition, Dame Janet Trotter remarked on the power of the Mohr’s pictures, and reflected on her own career journey working in both the health service and academia, and on the changes in the NHS since Eskell’s time. Also at the opening were Ivy Gunter and Brychan Gretton whose portraits featured in the book. Over the next two days people from near and far visited to see Mohr’s photographs and those taken by the students.
Brychan Gretton holding his original portrait, a gift sent from Switzerland by Jean Mohr
Millie Wasley wife of the late Garnet Wasley who features in the photograph
Some of the twenty Mohr prints on show at St Briavels
This March sees a unique photography exhibition come to Gloucestershire, as for the first time in the UK a selection of Jean Mohr's iconic photographs for the book A Fortunate Man (1967) go on show. The pictures are a loan from the Mohr archive at the Musee de l'Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland to the University of Gloucestershire. The result of several years work by Reading the Forest, twenty of the original black & white prints made by Mohr himself will be shown first at the University's Hardwick Gallery in Cheltenham, then in special weekend-long show at St Briavels in the Forest of Dean. The photographs were taken by Jean Mohr when he spent several weeks following St Briavels GP Dr John Eskell as he made his rounds and held surgery.
The book was a collaboration between Mohr as photographer, and the renowned art critic, author and broadcaster John Berger as writer. A Fortunate Man would become one of the definitive studies of what it means to be a GP, the doctor'-patient relationship, and the role of the GP in the community, and even today remains recommended reading for trainee general practitioners. Whilst the majority of the pictures on loan are the ones that appear in the book, also in the exhibition will be pictures showing Berger & Mohr themselves at work on the book, observing Dr Eskell and making notes. The exhibition focuses on the photographic aspect of the book, and is all the more poignant with Swiss photographer Mohr having passed away in November. This show follows on from last summer’s Reading the Forest weekend of exhibition, discussions and film screenings at St Briavels that marked fifty years of A Fortunate Man, with much of the focus being on Berger and Dr Eskell himself. Whilst this new exhibition seeks to address the balance, visitors will get another chance to see some of the material from last year's show, explaining the background to the book, its authors, Dr Eskell, and the Forest of Dean in the 1960s.
And bringing the relevance of Mohr's work right up to date, a group of University of Gloucestershire photography degree students will be following in his footsteps as they go on assignment in the Forest of Dean. Inspired by Mohr they will be spending two days in the Forest, hosted by a number of local organisations, photographing people at work and play to create a portrait of the Forest community today. This new work will then go on show alongside Mohr's in a fitting dialogue between a master of documentary photography and the next generation of photographers.
The Cheltenham show runs from Tuesday March 12th until Thursday 28th (10am- 4pm, weekdays only) at The Hardwick Gallery. On Saturday 30th (11am-4pm) and Sunday 31st (10am-4pm) the show will be at St Briavels Assembly Rooms. Entry at both venues is free of charge. The exhibition is a partnership between Reading the Forest and University of Gloucestershire, Musee de l'Elysee, St Briavels Parish Council, the Janet Trotter Trust.
Doug McLean opened The Forest Bookshop in the 1970s and it quickly became one of the cultural hubs of the Forest. Even more importantly Doug was soon publishing local authors - many of whom became close friends. In what is sure to be a fascinating and entertaining illustrated talk at Newnham Community Library, Doug will be recalling over 40 years in Forest publishing. From books to recordings and readings Doug worked with some of the best loved Forest authors, such as Winifred Folwey, F.W. Harvey, Joyce Latham and Harry Beddington. Join Doug to hear all about them, on Thursday 17th January at the Armoury Hall Newnham, 7.30pm start - free admission.
The Forest of Dean now boasts two breathtaking pieces of public art celebrating its rich literary heritage. The second of two giant murals was officially launched on Saturday (3rd November 2018) with a breakfast celebration at Coleford's community cafe, Sixteen, with friends and relatives of the late writers, fans and local dignitaries in attendance. The Coleford mural, on the side of the former Help Me Through the World pub shows three Forest of Dean writers. Dennis Potter and Joyce Latham both grew up in near-by Berry Hill (a stone's throw from the town), whilst Gloucestershire poet F W Harvey lived the latter part of his life at Yorkley, a few miles down the road. All three wrote work about the Forest. Will Harvey tapped into the dialect and stories of the area in many of his poems, and in his war-time broadcasts for BBC Radio, reflecting the character and humour of the Forest. Joyce Latham wrote about her time growing up, detailing some of the challenges faced by working class women at the time. Her poems too touch on many aspects of life and landscape in the Forest of Dean with great warmth and often humour. Dennis Potter became a major figure in television and film. Some of his very earliest work for television, in the form of documentary, were about the Forest, and as he turned to writing television drama several of his most significant splays and serials involved the Forest. Filming on location in the Forest of Dean would often involve local people as extras, and on more than one occasion featured the music of his beloved Berry Hill Band.
Whilst the Coleford mural reflects Forest authors with strong West Dean connections, its sister-mural in Cinderford - opposite community art venue Artspace - depicts three writers with strong associations with East Dean. Leonard Clark grew up in Cindeford and wrote extensively about the Forest in his memoirs and in his poetry. Humourist, poet and playwright Harry Beddington was similarly born in Cinderford and later lived only a few doors up from Clark's former childhood home. Winifred Foley knew the town well as a child growing up in near-by Brierley. Again, for these three writers too, the people and places of the Forest were a vital source of stories, settings, and characters, and they are part of a writing tradition in the Forest dating back to the first years of the nineteenth century - and continues to this day.
The murals are the work of local artist Tom Cousins who worked withReading the Forest on the initial design, then consulted widely with local residents and businesses, taking particular note of people who overlook the murals. "The support for the murals has been really good'" said Tom, "with lots of positive comments even whilst I was still working on them".
With Halloween approaching, the nights getting darker, what more atmospheric place could there be to get a spooky chill than the Forest of Dean? A slight quickening of your step walking down the lane - a slight start at the cough of sheep or the high pitched scream of a fox? There's some great Forest ghost stories too, Harry Beddington's poem The Mon in White for one. And with spooky connections to real historical events there's the haunted houses described by Sue Law in her Ghosts of the Forest of Dean (1982). But many of the best ghost stories turn out to be not quite what they first seem - though scary all the same! The ghost in The Landlord's Story, in Charles Grindrod's Tales In the Speech House, turns out to be....well that would be spoiling it! So, in William S Wickenden's A Rum Story from his A Queer Book (1850), is it really the Devil himself that popped up in Awre church? Here's a clue and a question - is this the earliest English literary mention of a Jack O'Lantern?? Enjoy...