A hidden gem of unspoiled beauty that has some major flaws
I am lucky enough to live in a very beautiful little enclave in the west of England called the Forest of Dean. Once one of the official hunting grounds of Tudor kings and built upon a heritage of mining and industry, it is an area synonymous with ancient woodland, spectacular views, stunning lakes and rivers, and an abundance of flora and fauna.
Sadly, it is also one of the most socially deprived wards in the UK.
And it is falsely rumoured to be a hotbed of incest and ignorance. Well, they’re only half right.
Where is it?
Nestled against the Welsh border as it is, as close to Wales you can get without actually being good at rugby or having a penchant for rarebit (cheese on toast to you and me), it is not the tourist haven it could be and its towns are tired, dilapidated and devoid of any real character.
It is easily accessed from the M4 and the M5 yet it is still a place that makes you kind of feel that you are lost before you actually find it. Tucked away up minor A roads, and with no real center to say you’ve arrived, it’s easy to miss.
As I said, the towns are tired and unwelcoming, so much so that if you stopped there, you might just turn around and go home for fear of your life — it’s a bit like Deliverance — without seeing what you came for, the mile upon mile of unspoiled coniferous forests and ancient deciduous woodland.
If you stumble into one of the many small picturesque villages you can find ensconced in hidden valleys, clinging to the banks of the wide majestic River Severn or the meandering, gentle River Wye, or buried in amongst vast coniferous forests, you cannot fail to be charmed. Quaint miners’ cottages cluster around a tiny village centre, usually sporting a pub and a church with many of them having the same sort of charm as the picture-postcard Cotswold villages people associate with Gloucestershire, but just like they have let themselves go a little bit.
In the last few years, the Forest’s abundance of remote and natural locations has enticed a few film companies here because, although it is easily accessible from the M4, it has a feeling of remoteness and of being cut off from the rest of the world, which is difficult in such a tiny, cramped island.
But that feeling of remoteness is not just a feeling, it is part of our identity. Long has the Forest seemingly been cut off from the rest of the world. This is because it has always been fairly difficult to access, with only two main roads in and out, and it is not really on the way to anywhere else unless you want to sneak over the border to Wales. But in that case, you’d probably use the motorway.
The Forest has a reputation for being a quiet little deprived backwater full of toothless hicks. And it is. But it is so much more than that. As someone who has lived away for a number of years, I can vouch for the pull it has on you when it has wormed its way into your heart.
I used to live in Spain, in the South where it’s hot all the time, relentlessly, all year, without fail. If it rains, it pours down, stops, and is sunny again. To many, this sounds like heaven, but I felt a yearning for green, in all its glorious shades. I yearned to be surrounded by it, immersed in it, and cossetted by it.
I was pulled back here by the strings of my heart which are tethered to the roots of the trees by strong, invisible, and unbreakable bonds. I was pulled back to the Forest despite the many flaws that it has.
A flawed Forest
The first of these flaws is its towns. The town where I was born, one of the principal towns of the area is a complete shit hole. I can say that because it’s my home town. If you say it, we’ll be fighting on the green.
Years of bad planning and unsympathetic development have seen the heart and heritage ripped out of the town. So many historic buildings were torn down in the 50s and 60s and replaced by modern concrete eyesores, a ghastly parade of dull and bland shops is the main feature at the center of the town.
With all the movie interest we have had in the last few years, I am surprised that we haven’t had a post-apocalyptic drama filmed here — the set designers would be laughing; they’d have so little to do. And they’d have a whole hoard of extras that don’t need makeup to make them look like lost souls wandering a barren wasteland. It’s no wonder people call it the monkey tump.
The other main feature of the town is a triangle with 4 sides which does nothing to dispel the perception that all Foresters are thickos.
This brings me to the other main problem: the people themselves. The majority of the people who live here come from families that have been here since the towns sprouted up during the early part of the Victorian era.
Originally, it was a collection of smallholders and their tiny hovels, eking out a meagre existence on the side of a steep hill. That was until industry, borne out of the wealth of coal that lies beneath the ancient forests, arrived in the 18th Century. Coal mines sprouted up, or down, everywhere, attracting an influx of Welsh and Yorkshire miners looking for work, feeding the new steel forges.
As industry boomed in the 19th century, the landscape was crisscrossed with a network of railways to ship the coal and steel out and on to the rest of the country, feeding the industrial revolution.
But this obviously didn’t last. In the mid 20th century, the last of the mines closed and with it, the prosperity of the town settled down into the embers of its own fire and died. And with it, the livelihoods of many of the families in the area disappeared too.
The key issue
Due to the fact that most of the families that settled here were working class, and making a living here was a struggle, even at the best of times, the collective aspiration of the people stretches to nothing more than existing.
The forest people are known for being down to earth, suspicious of anyone and everyone who isn’t local, and only having aspirations to survive, and nothing more.
Ambition is generally frowned upon here as if it is wrong to want or expect more from life, and, having taught in 3 of the local schools here, that attitude is still engrained in the psyche of people who are Foresters, born and bred. It’s not that they don’t have the potential — it’s like they won’t allow themselves to dream.
I remember a conversation with one 16 year old I was teaching as she approached the end of her school career. She was bright, and she did fairly well in her exams.
‘Do you think you’ll stay around the Forest when you leave school?’ I asked
She screwed up her face, obviously affronted by my offensive question. ‘No way. Stay around here, it’s a dump. There’s nothing to do, no jobs. No way.’
‘Great, I said. ‘Where do you think you’ll go?’
‘As far as I can’, she said, ‘probably, like, Gloucester or something.’
Gloucester is 14 miles away!
This sums up the lack of aspiration that the locals have. Don’t get me wrong, some people have done well for themselves, and some people have moved away but this lack of aspiration is the predominant attitude. And it’s sad.
What about the future?
The good news is that it seems to be changing. There is the hint of a more positive future.
As the old members of the town council die off, they who feared change the most, we are seeing little changes that hint at a better future.
One part of the tourist industry that is doing really well here is mountain biking. The forest is a haven for mountain bikers, from serious downhillers to families wanting a peaceful pootle through the woods. When the railway system was dismantled, the tracks, pathways, and embankments remained, which make excellent gentle cycleways. There is a specialist mountain bike centre that attracts huge crowds all year round, from paid professionals to dads who still think they’re 18.
Like I said, the Forest is a perfect film location and TV shows such as Merlin and It’s The End of The Fucking World have been filmed here, as well as blockbuster films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows among others. You’d think that fame would herald the arrival of flocks of tourists. But it hasn’t. Not just yet.
We also get our fair share of media exposure about the abundance of wildlife that resides in our woods. Spring Watch has even filmed from the forest, focusing on the wild boar that were reintroduced to the forest back in 1999. They’re doing really well, and they are a lovely addition, but they are quite divisive. They have thrived here, which has led to more encounters with humans and dogs, and there isn’t a patch of grass in the forest that doesn’t show signs of their voracious digging.
We have deer in abundance: Fallow, Roe, and the gorgeous and elusive little Muntjac. Beavers have been reintroduced, as have Pine Martins and Highland cattle. There’s even talk of wolves.
The best way for the Forest to emerge from its impoverished history and mindset is to embrace tourism. It truly is a spectacular place to visit. But at the moment, people visit the forest despite the state of the towns and the people they encounter therein.
The Forest is also a haven for a variety of birds, from the mighty Buzzard, and the beautiful Kingfisher to the awe-inspiring Peregrine Falcon. With our wetlands and nature reserves, the birdwatchers have a field day with so much to see.
But to fully embrace tourism and encourage those tourists who flock to the Cotswolds to come a bit further west for some rugged rather than staged beauty, they need to sort the towns out. If we had a few tea rooms, cafes, decent hotels, and gift shops, we could easily compete with our middle-class cousins like Bourton on the water or Burford.
They need to continue showcasing the history and heritage too; not just the industrial history but our literary history too. Dennis Potter, the playwright was a Forester and there are a few published Forest authors and a vibrant creative community of writers, poets, musicians, and artists.
There is so much that the Forest has to offer, but most people arrive in the local towns and run away for fear of being mugged or infected with apathy.
We can’t change the people right away; over time though, if the Forest was the vibrant tourist trap that it could be, our children might, just might, aspire to break the shackles of the downtrodden, working-class mentality and reach a little higher.
A hidden gem that won’t stay hidden forever
So, if you are ever in this part of the world, forget the biscuit tin Cotswolds, which are always packed with tourists and paint an unrealistic view of modern Britain, and come a bit further West. Drive until you feel that you are lost, and you are probably here.
Come and see what we have, but for now, keep to the roads, the villages, and the woods, they’re the best bits, and you may even fall in love.
Just stay out of the towns. It’s for the best.