Hi there - I’m a new volunteer with Reading the Forest. I got in touch with the project leaders recently, as I was looking for somewhere to focus my creative energy as well as offering my time. The project particularly interested me as an opportunity to learn more about the area I live in, it’s unique history and the people it has inspired to put their experiences in writing.
When I was asked what interests me during my introductory phone call, I mentioned that I felt drawn to write, but that I needed a push from someone to tell me what to write about. So when I was asked to contribute a reflective piece on “discovering that the Forest has a rich literary heritage” to be used in this blog, I immediately realised be careful what you wish for, particularly if your last attempt at creative writing was over thirty years ago in your early teens and entitled “the Turnip Man”!
So, time for a closer look at the website. I was really impressed at the diverse range of published books and also delighted and encouraged to see so many accomplished female contributors, past and present. Having lived in the Forest as an “incomer” for just over eight years I’m quite ashamed it’s taken me so long to find this out. As an area of such breathtaking beauty and cultural and historical heritage, it should have come as no surprise that people have found themselves moved to share their experiences, by way of factual accounts of Forest history, autobiography or poetic verse and so much more besides. It’s all here on the website for you to look at and to stimulate further enquiry. Most of all, I realise this really must be something that Foresters are proud of and I’m so glad I found it.
Having explored the website a little, I’m left with a sense of keen curiosity to learn more about the writers and how the Forest has shaped their lives. I look forward to reading some historical pieces and maybe find a novel that makes me wonder which part of the Forest has inspired it. I have an initial highlight I’d like to share, a couple of verses from “Secret Places”, which is a poem by Joyce Latham. I will hold these words close as I walk in the Forest, in the hope of stumbling on such secret places of my own:
I know of secret places where the willows bend,
And little whispering streams play hide-and-seek;
Where minnows dart
And dragonflies swoop from the sky,
But no-one else knows, only I.
I know of secret places where the bluebells sway,
And timid deer hide deep within the shade;
Where thrushes sing
And honeysuckle climbs up high,
But no-one else knows, only I.
'Secret Places' from Poems of a Forester (1991) by Joyce Latham
The simple pleasures of a drink at the local - a chance to meet friends and socialise - are for now tantalisingly out of reach as pubs remain closed under the current ‘lockdown’ restrictions. Whether its beer, cider, a glass of wine, or a lemonade, the difference between a drink at home and a drink in a favourite pub must can be keenly felt by many at the moment: because the pub is much more than just a place to get a drink. At the heart of many towns and villages it is meeting place, music venue, the home for darts, skittles, pool and quoits teams, a place to eat, and in some cases too a bed for the night for visitors.
The central role pubs play in our community has been highlighted recently as many became hubs for food distribution and other services during this pandemic. Unsurprising then that the pub has been an inspiration for many writers over the years, including our own Forest authors and poets too. “Zat wi’ all yer butties, W’en all yer work be done”, wrote poet Keith Morgan in ‘Zupper at the Local’ (in Albert’s Dree Wi’ker, 1985) highlighting the role of the pub as a place of companionship and leisure at the end of a working day. In another masterful work of dialect poetry Keith turned to the specific pleasures of a drink, in ‘There Byunt Nothin’ Like Good Ale’ (in The ‘azards o’ Chimuck Szwippin', 1978). Aware too of the dangers of too much, or the wrong choice of drink, in his poem ‘Guzzlin’ Stuennem’, he featured the legendary local cider that was, according to Keith, “A filthy evil brew” (also in Albert’s Dree Wi’ker, 1985). When things get back to normal, keep an eye out for the next opportunity to hear Keith performing his poetry.
Many years before Kieth Morgan took up his pen, poet F. W. Harvey (known as the Gloucestershire Laureate) was a well-known pub regular in and around Yorkley after he moved there in the 1920s. Harvey wrote the lines “Sing a merry bottle-song; Let the tankards clink!”, in his poem ‘Song for My Sons’, and in his poetic tirade ‘A Curse’ (both poems from In Pillowell Woods and Other Poems, 1926), he listed all the damnations he wished visited on a local landowner who wouldn’t allow a pub on his estate. As Harvey biographer Anthony Boden puts it (in F. W. Harvey Soldier, Poet, 1998) “Will Harvey, deprived of his beer, knew no mercy!” According to Brian Waters (in The Forest of Dean, 1951), so popular was Harvey in the Forest that one of his poems once hung on the wall inside the The Jovial Colliers pub in Lydbrook. Though that poem is no longer there, lines from present-day local author and poet Maggie Clutterbuck are painted on a wall inside Parkend’s Fountain Inn.
For Harvey, like many other Forest authors, the pub was a place to socialise but also a place to pick up stories, sometimes versions of the same stories appearing in several different local writers’ work. The pub has also been a place for writers to practice and develop material in front of an audience before eventually being published. For poet Joyce Latham it was doing a turn in pubs, clubs and at ‘smoking parties’ that allowed her to develop her talent as a poet and story-teller before her poems were printed in the local newspapers, and later in a series of popular books. Joyce herself is remembered in the West Dean Writers Mural painted by artist Tom Cousins on the outside of the former Masons Arms (also known as Help Me Through the World) pub in Coleford. It was only as the mural was being unveiled that Joyce’s family pointed out that she used to work in that very pub.
The role of the pub, and especially the social club, as a venue for local talent was one of the many themes explored by Dennis Potter in his book The Changing Forest (1962), something he returned to in his television drama serial The Singing Detective (1986) featuring scenes filmed at Berry Hill Club. It was a pub too, The Angel Inn in Coleford, that publisher and Forest Bookshop owner Doug McLean chose as venue for the recording of local writers for the 1981 album Forest Talk. The record features Forest writers Winifred Foley, Harry Beddington, and Keith Morgan, as well as local singer-songwriter Dick Bryce, and it is claimed that if you listen carefully you can even hear the pub’s toilet being flushed in the background.
They quickly realised the importance of the pub to the residents of Parkend, writing in the book that “we had bought more than just a building”, and that “Along with the pub came a large ‘family’ of regulars, all of whom shared a very special affection for, and dedication to the Fountain Inn.” Alan and Michelle carried out a major refurbishment of the pub, reinstating visitor accommodation and introducing food, and also filled the bar with artefacts from Parkend’s industrial past. Though they admit that the number of artefacts on display have been ‘thinned’ during their most recent renovation, plenty remain in the pub to give an insight into the history of the village. The interior also boasts an impressive mural by Tom Cousins depicting Parkend’s Warren James, the leader of the 1831 anti-enclosure riots in the Forest of Dean.
As the book details, Alan and Michelle’s alterations to the pub are only the latest in a long history of developments to the building as it evolved from its 1834 origins as a small beer house, through its expansion and redevelopment in the 1840s (including the addition of its notable bay window) as owners responded to growing clientele of local industrial workers and visiting commercial travellers in the nineteenth century. The book is amply illustrated with drawings and photographs depicting the building’s architectural evolution, but it is far more than a simple account of the pub as a building.
This fine book tells the history of the Fountain Inn through the fascinating stories of the individuals and families who have run, and at times owned, the pub over the years. Amongst these was the remarkable Eliza Burgham. Married to the son of Redbrook Brewery owner Thomas Burgham, when her husband Henry died in 1869 she inherited the brewery. Alan and Michelle explain how Eliza not only took on the running of the business (unexpected for a woman at the time) but also expanded the number of pubs the brewery owned, including the purchase of the Fountain in 1872. They note that soon after taking it over Eliza’s company was referring to ownership of The Fountain ‘Hotel’ in Parkend and it was still known as such until the mid-1930s when it reverted to being the Fountain Inn.
As well as the history of the building and its owners, what makes this concise 64 page book such an impressive and rewarding one to read is the broader social, economic and legislative background that Alan and Michelle have included as context for their history of the pub and the people connected to it. Picking out just one example, they explain how the counter bar was not a common feature in early beer houses but was adopted after the 1820s as public houses sought to mimic the appeal of the elegant gin houses popular at the time. This same influence saw the introduction of “ornate mirrors, etched glass, polished brass fittings and lavishly tiled surfaces”. As well as these national developments All Hands to the Pumps, also provides a great introduction to the history of Parkend; the changing fortunes of the iron works; the coming, departure and eventually return of the railway; and the School of Forestry, all providing valuable context for the history of the pub. As Richard Daniels MBE notes in his foreword to the book it “contributes to the wealth of history books written about the Forest of Dean”, delivering more than simply a history of the Fountain Inn alone raising “awareness of the important position our local pubs hold within the area’s heritage landscape”. Alan and Michelle’s understanding of the evolution of the public house, its role in the community, and its need to respond as a business to the changing needs of its customers suggests the Fountain Inn is in safe hands and will remain at the heart of Parkend for many years to come.
The present restriction to trading may sadly though see some pubs cease trading for good, once much-loved local institutions and businesses simply unable to survive. Unprecedented in modern times as the current pandemic is, the normal ebb and flow of pubs’ fortunes have seen many come and go over the years. On further investigation it sometimes easy to think that almost every old building in the Forest was at one time a brew house, public house or inn at some point in its past. For a truly encyclopaedic record of just that, see Heather Hurley’s 2004 book The Pubs of the Royal Forest of Dean. The book is no less than an attempt to give an account of every pub there has ever been in the Forest. Chapter One, ‘Inns, Taverns & Beer Houses’ provides an introduction to the topic nationally as well as locally, whilst Chapter Two ‘Brewers, Cider Makers & Wine Merchants’ details many of the local drinks makers in the Forest and the wider region. The remainder of this 300 plus page book is a geographical tour of the Forest of Dean, complete with maps, locating all its past and present drinking establishments. The book is packed with black and white photographs of contemporary pubs (too many of which have sadly closed down since the book's 2004 publication), current pubs in their past, and many once thriving pubs now long since converted to homes or in some cases simply demolished. This book is also rich in reproductions of old advertisements, directory listings, and auction posters for the sale of pubs. A tour de force of research the book also includes relevant extracts from several works of Forest literature, including Dennis Potter’s The Changing Forest (1962), and Winifred Foley’s A Child in the Forest (1974), whilst Keith Morgan’s poem on the pleasures of ale (mentioned above) is reproduced in full. Heather also includes several contemporaneous newspaper excerpts of relevant local news stories, including drink-induced crime, so perhaps it is no surprise that ‘the bears’ story makes an appearance in the section on Ruardean pubs.
Sad though it may be to see pictures of many once-fine buildings such as The Feathers in Lydney, The Bridge Inn at Cinderford, or The George in Mitcheldean that have now gone forever, this engaging book also details the rich history of the many fine Forest pubs that continue to thrive to this day.
If you’re able to track down a copy (Cinderford library hold a reference copy), the booklet Forest of Dean and Ross-On-Wye Pubs: A Critical Guide (1981), is evidence of how much our expectations of pubs, in particular the food on offer, have developed in recent years. The book marvels at the fact that The Saracen’s Head at Symonds Yat offered a lunchtime menu featuring not only steak pie and soup but also “a litany of other delicacies, such as Ravioli, Prawn Cocktail and Smoked Mackerel”. The book’s author, Jon Hurley, also noted with some annoyance each establishment that hosted a Space Invaders machine. The time-capsule nature of this fascinating ‘pub critic’ booklet is reinforced by the list of once pervasive drinks brands such as ‘Worthington E’, and ‘Double Diamond’.
As touched on in All Hands to the Pumps, the Forest has a rich history of beer brewing and cider making itself, and it is this history that Steve Pritchard and John Saunders* detail in their book A Drink in the Forest (2010). Reading their book, we discover that there were once breweries in villages such as Blakeney and Ruardean, in Coleford, and in Cinderford too (in more recent times the home of the Hawthorn Brewery, and then Freeminer Brewery). 1868 saw the establishment of a significant brewery operation at Mitcheldean by local man Thomas Wintle. A large building was erected and, as the authors note “the brewery was a success”. It continued as an independent company until 1930 when it was taken over by a Cheltenham brewery operating it until 1937. Afterwards the building was taken over by Rank Xerox.
As well as the makers of beer and cider the book also details some of the wine and spirit merchants, and the many mineral water and soft drink manufacturers once based in and around the Forest. Again, this is another wonderfully illustrated book, and amongst the colour photographs are pictures of enamel advertisements, including one in blue and white for Royal Forest of Dean Mineral Waters “Manufactured at The Olde Speche House” [sic]. Within the book’s 112 pages is the history of a once vibrant and varied local drinks industry, and whilst most of the companies listed have long ceased trading, the book could perhaps be seen as a history merely of the first phase of what is now a resurgent local scene for drinks makers. The successful Severn Cider, based at Awre, is now just one amongst many Forest cider makers for example, such as McCrindle’s cider, and Jolters Press. And though the Freeminer Brewery is sadly no longer operating, successful local beer makers in the Forest today include Longhope’s Hillside Brewery, and the Bespoke Brewing Company based in part of the very former buildings of the Mitcheldean Brewery.
As many of us patiently await the safe reopening of our local pubs, it’s no good pretending these fine books about Forest pubs, their landlords and landladies, brewers, and drinks merchants; and Forest poets odes to the pleasures (and perils) of a sociable drink are any substitute. But they might, just, offer a small diversion whilst we bide our time until re-opening time.
*John followed up with his another, even more detailed account, in 2012 with Breweries of the Forest of Dean, Monmouth and Ross-on-Wye.
VE day brought joy, immense relief and, in the period that followed, a desire for change. Social commentators such as Dennis Potter for example, observed that the Forest of Dean was transformed by the Second World War:
"The atmosphere of confidence and something approaching trust was inescapable, and provides a great contrast to the more comfortable atmosphere today: the war had been won, our government was in, and they were starting to build houses again, beginning with lines of white boxed prefabs at the near-by village of Broadwell."
Though Potter was himself too young at the time many older Forest writers had been actively involved during the War. Harry Beddington for example was responsible for coordinating civil defence from the Belle Vue Centre building in Cinderford, and F.W. Harvey commanded a unit of the Home Guard. The impact of the War can be found in many books written afterwards and the period continues to be a source of fascination for readers, researchers and historians. The impact of American GI’s, and Italian and German Prisoners of War were perhaps the most exotic aspect of the War locally and left a lasting legacy for many Forest families. Rumours of the dumping of US military supplies and munitions in mines – the Forest was a huge ammunition dump – persist in popular memory (despite little historical evidence having yet been found).
Forest and Gloucestershire popular histories on the period include:
The Forest of Dean in Wartime ( by Humphrey Phelps
On the Home Front: Growing up in Wartime England (1998) by Ann Stalcup
Home Front Dean - DAG - John Putley and Alf Webb.
Gloucestershire Airfields in the Second World War (2005) by David Berryman.
Gloucestershire at War 1939-1945 (1979) by Derek Archer.
Inside the Wire the POW camps and Hostels of Gloucestershire 1939-1945 (2014) by Ian MC Hollingsbee.
Meet at the Schools: A History of Education in Bream (2007) by Ian Hendy.
The story of Italian prisoners in the Forest is told by Laura Porciani in From El Alamein to Marconi (2011) based on the memories and artefacts kept by her father. Laura now manages a vibrant Facebook page about Camp 61 at Broadwell that attracts Italian and British followers. Sarah Franklin recently served up a memorable novel - Shelter (2017) - based on a local family, an Italian PoW and a Lumberjill in the Forest of Dean.
Bill Tandy in his biography A Doctor in the Forest (1978), recounts many of his wartime experiences, including examining captured Luftwaffe crew and nearly being bayoneted by the Home Guard and more. There are many memoirs that reference the War, but it is the sole focus of the book Wartime Memories from Newnham (1986) edited by Hugh Lynch-Blosse. This book includes a chapter on the famous test pilot Jim Cordes of Newnham who actually flew Goering on a pre-war flight. Lynch-Blosse obliquely and understatedly mentions his part in the Great Escape, he was one of the many people in the Forest who built on the escaping tradition of FW Harvey from World War One. Others were Kenneth Lockwood a Colditz inmate living at Broadoak and Jock Hamilton- Baille a Colditz inmate living at Beachley.* Other memoirs include Old Memories (1986) by Margery Burch another Doug McLean publication, that addresses the wartime visit of two Jewish children refugees from persecution in Germany. The other Forest memoirists, Winifred Foley, Joyce Latham, and several less well-known figures, always mention the War as an important and sometimes life changing event. Seventy-five years later we remember VE day, whilst living through another life changing moment in history. Strangely, World War Two will be remembered for opening up the Forest, Covid-19 will be remembered for closing it down.
*Information courtesy of volunteer David Price of Newnham.
We're asking some of our Reading the Forest friends for their top five favourite books - no reason really, though they could make for some inspirational ideas if you're wondering what to read next! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter as over the next couple of weeks we share their top fives. Join the conversation and add your top five reads too, on Facebook or here in the comments box. We're starting with the top five from none other than local award-winning author Andrew Taylor...
Andrew Taylor's Top 5 Books
Dennis Potter - The Changing Forest (1962)
"I find this short book sums up so much of the Forest for me. Potter had an insider’s understanding of it, bred into him, together with an outsider’s perspective and a talent for writing. I’ve read the book several times over the last forty years and always found something new to admire and enjoy. Meanwhile, the Forest is constantly changing, as it should…"
Guiseppe di Lampedusa - The Leopard (1958)
"This is a wonderfully evocative historical novel set in nineteenth-century Sicily, when the fragmentary states that made up Italy were on the verge of unification. The central character is a magnificent middle-aged prince who slowly and reluctantly realises that he has to come to terms with the changing world around him."
Ronald Blythe - Akenfield (1969)
"In the 1960s, Blythe compiled a sort of oral survey of the inhabitants of two Suffolk villages. Here are people of all ages and backgrounds. They describe their lives, their aspirations, their memories and their fears. Blythe keeps his overt editorial presence to a minimum. Once again, it’s a book about a changing world. (Hmm, I sense a theme here.)
Samuel Pepys - The Diary (written 1660-69)
"At present I’m writing a series set in Restoration in England, and Samuel Pepys is making my job much easier than it otherwise would have been. Once you acclimatise to the archaic English, it’s as if you are directly inside the head of a medium-ranking civil servant on the make who confides everything to his diary - from his bowel movements to affairs of state. It’s endlessly fascinating because he puts up no barriers. But beware: the Diary as a whole runs to 1.25 million words."
Patricia Highsmith - The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)
This crime novel - far darker than the film versions - had quite an impact on me: I read it as I was on the verge of writing my first novel, so I’m sentimentally attached to it. Highsmith showed me that your protagonist could turn out to be a murderer, that crime novels could be about committing crimes as much as solving them.
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