"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.
Fifty years ago a remarkable book was published that explored the life of a country GP and his relationship with his patients. That book was A Fortunate. Written by the acclaimed artist, critic, novelist and broadcaster John Berger, with photographs by Jean Mohr, the book would, for years to come, become recommended reading for trainee doctors. The book was about a real GP living and practising in the Forest of Dean. On Friday July 7th Reading the Forest’s Jason Griffiths and Roger Deeks will be delving into the book and the real lives behind it: the authors, the doctor, and the Forest community where the story unfolds. With lots of opportunity for questions and discussion, the project will also be looking ahead to a bigger event in 2018 and seeking people's recollections of the making of this book, the village, and it's doctor. On the night there will also be copies of the book available for loan to anyone who would like to read this fascinating book and write a short review for the Reading the Forest website. The talk is part of The Coleford Festival of Words and takes place at Coleford Baptist Hall. Tickets cost £3 on the door, or £2 booked in advance (via Eventbrite, Coleford Library or Coleford Tourist Information).
Coleford Festival of Words 2017 programme of events is now available. Time to book your tickets!
This year's Coleford Festival of Words has a real blockbuster feel about it. As well as high profile stars - poet Hollie McNish, comedian, actor and writer Miles Jupp, best selling crime writer M R Hall - there's a wealth of workshops, writing competitions, and locally focused talks and celebrations. Project Adorno bring their thought provoking and entertaining show Dennis Potter in the Present Tense, and the festival marks the 50th anniversary of John Berger's book A Fortunate Man about a St Briavels doctor. And to round it all off a celebration at Hopewell Colliery marking the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter. Lots to see, hear and do - find out more online via Coleford Hub or pick up a flier from your local library.
When reporter Sarah Daily heard about a mammoth tooth found at Cannop Ponds she knew she was on to a story. Imagine her surprise when she discovered that far from being an ancient fossil it was actually a modern Indian elephant tooth! How did it get there? Never having a zoo or safari park, surely, there wouldn't ever have been an elephant in the Forest of Dean...would there? After an appeal on social media Coleford poet Keith Morgan was one of the people stepping forward with an answer. As Sarah's article in this week's Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Review explains, travelling circuses would often come through the Forest of Dean. A photograph on the fascinating SunGreen website shows a local landlord offering one such visiting elephant a beer to drink. It seems this could well have been the very same elephant described to Keith years later, immortalised his poem Ivor and the Elephant.
A local competition has been launched for new writing as part of this year's Coleford Festival of Words. Celebrating its 6th year the theme for this year's festival is reading and will feature appearances from some very well known writers and poets, as well films, talks, and performances. The competition is open to all and includes a youth category - which we here at Reading the Forest are very pleased to be supporting! The theme is "I'm reading..." and pieces can be anything up to 1,000 words long, poetry or prose. A selection of entries as well as the winners will also be published in an anthology. Details of the competition and how to enter...
Stewart Carswell is an emerging talent in the world of poetry. His poems follow in the footsteps of Leonard Clark, F.W. Harvey and other past and present poets whose work reflect the landscape of the Forest of Dean. He has a deep appreciation of trees, the rivers and Forest spaces. The most powerful dimension of his work lies in how these settings are the back drop to the emotional experience of identity and 'love, loss and loyalty'.
Flowers on the Plump
Momentum keeps us travelling
towards each other
but another cut bunch of flowers
warns us to ease off, reduce speed now.
When I arrive with a rose,
will you be waiting or waning?
If I don't arrive,
didn't you see the signs?
At the garage at Brierley,
someone will stop to buy flowers
We look forward to Stewart reading his poems in the Forest before too long.
The popular An evening of... events comes to the Severn-side village of Newnham this month. An evening of...Keith Morgan and Maggie Clutterbuck, sees two of the Forest's most popular writers joining forces for an evening of insight and entertainment as they read extracts from their work, talk about their influences, and discuss the role of the Forest of Dean in their writing. Best known for his two collections of poetry, The 'azards o' Chimuck Szwippin' (1978), and Albert's Dree Wi'ker (1985), Kieth Morgan has in the past performed his work alongside fellow Forest writers Harry Beddington, Winfred Foley and Joyce Latham. He also corresponded with renowned Cinderford poet Leonard Clark. Maggie Clutterbuck's published poetry collections include Digging Deep (2014), and she has written two successful published novels, Journey to Worlds End (2004) and Caught on Tape (2012), both of which are in part set in the Forest.
The event is being organised by Reading the Forest in partnership with Newnham Community Library, and with the support of the University of Gloucestershire. Entry is free. Book your free ticket in advance to guarantee a seat here, or by contacting the library on 01594 516296
BBC Radio Gloucestershire have been following in the footsteps of Cinderford poet Leonard Clark. On Faye Hatcher's programme, reporter Jo Durrant sets off in the company of Reading the Forest's Roger Deeks to explore Clark's childhood haunts from his home in Cinderford down to the riverside village of Newnham-on-Severn. You can hear part one here, with part two going out this Sunday (26th Feb) between 9am-12noon, and then avialble on BBC iPlayer.