Friends of the Forest

A Short History of the Forest of Dean District

More Than 2000 Years Ago 

Situated as a wedge of England bordering Wales, with the Rivers Severn and Wye forming most of its eastern and western boundaries, and the Malvern Hills the boundary to the north, the 203 sq miles (52000 hectares) of land that is the present Forest of Dean District has origins that are lost in the mists of time.  It is a complicated land.  Most of its geology has its origins in the Carboniferous Period some 300 million years ago.  The remains of plants fossilised to become coal, and those of creatures, which swam in the waters that often covered the land, became limestone.  At the same time, compounds of iron became mixed with the limestone to form ironstone. During the same period some of the sandstone seen today was also formed, adding to earlier deposits from the Devonian Period.  Later, clays settled during the Triassic and more modern Periods to became the District’s fossil laden “mudstones” and boulder clays. 

There is archaeological evidence that humans have occupied the land for several thousand years, from the Mesolithic Period to the present day.  Initially it would appear to have been a pretty inhospitable area with dense bracken and scrub forest on the higher land contrasting with extensive bog and mire at lower levels, particularly near the rivers.   Some parts of the land were at first used for hunting and fishing, but slash and burn clearing of some higher ground areas starting in the Neolithic Period led to the pattern of life changing, leading eventually to the introduction of early agriculture, with the growing of cereals and domestication of food animals.

Pollen analysis has provided evidence of this early agriculture, and what appear to be late Bronze Age field systems have been found at the un-enclosed settlement at Welshbury Hill near Littledean.  As well as this, flint tools and flakes a number of fine bronze axes and other Bronze Age artefacts have also been found in the District.  It seems likely these artefacts were imported rather than produced locally, which means that they may have been traded for local goods.

Whether, in comparison with the Bronze Age, the Iron Age gave rise to periods of significant unrest in the District is uncertain, but there is evidence that the inhabitants, by then Celts, constructed several hill fort earthworks.  Quite well preserved examples of these are Welshbury Camp near Flaxley and the promontory hill fort near Symonds Yat. 

While it seems possible that it was for ochre that mining was first started in the District, it was The Iron Age that marked the start of significant mining.  From then until the early 18th Century iron was produced from a combination of iron ore, limestone and charcoal, smelted in “bloomery” furnaces. At the Scowles near Coleford there are the remains of iron ore mines that were worked from the Iron Age up to Anglo-Saxon times, and from then until the present day limestone quarrying has also been carried out in the District, initially for iron making but later for both building and farming.

Less Than 2000 Years Ago

The Romano-British inhabitants made extensive use of the District and its materials for the production of iron.  Near Lydney, evidence has been found of a range of mine workings, buildings and other facilities associated with industrial scale operations, and it is known there was a port from which these materials and other products from the District were exported.  Essential to the growth of iron smelting was the need for an abundance of trees from which to make charcoal, and linked with timber husbandry, charcoal burning was a major industry in and around the afforested areas of the District from the Iron Age up to the late 18th Century.

From the evidence of pottery, coins, temple sites, roads, and river crossings, some Roman-British inhabitants of the District must have possessed significant wealth, and while villas are known near Coleford, Lydney and Woolaston, much more remains to be discovered of their and other inhabitants’ domestic dwellings and social lifestyles.  This lack of knowledge continues into the post Roman period and not until King Offa in the late 8th century is the District really identified again in the historical record.  A King of Mercia, he is best remembered for Offa’s Dyke, an extensive earthwork that can still be seen running along or near to the western edge of the District parallel with the River Wye.  Why it was built is still debated, but one view is that it was to protect against animal rustling by the kingdom’s western neighbours.

Evidence of early post Roman Period Christianity remains similarly vague.  By the early 7th Century pagan West Saxons held the east side of the River Severn, but the land west still remained under the Welsh (Britons).  The Venerable Bede described that at Aust the Welsh Bishops met with St Augustine to confer on religious unification at the start of the 7th Century, but it was nearly the 8th Century before the West Saxon rulers converted to Christianity, and the land west of the Severn eventually came under the control of the diocese of Hereford.  The extent to which this influenced the normal people is uncertain.  Prior to the Norman Conquest there were no real towns in the District or any major religious establishments.  As early as the late 7th Century there were small houses and chapels, such as those at Upleadon, Deerhurst, Tidenham, and at what is now Minsterworth, but it was only in the late Saxon and following Norman periods that manorial churches superseded them as did larger monastic establishments. 

Throughout most of the 9th, 10th and early 11th Centuries Vikings and Danes occupied and conducted raids up the River Severn. During King Alfred’s reign it is said that a Danish host fell upon the Forest of Dean but the men of Hereford and Gloucester put them to flight.  Despite this unrest, by the Norman Conquest the late Saxon Kings had established civil government of the area.  With it, a system of eight Hundreds had been established, as had manors, and tithing.

The land being called a “forest” is not due to the millions of trees that are present in it; but because it and all that was in it was taken first by the late Saxon and then the Norman Kings for use as their own personal hunting ground.  The equivalent given for other nobles to hunt in was a “chase”.


Less Than 1000 Years Ago 

Following the Norman Conquest the Kings and their retinues brought considerable changes with them to the District’s inhabitants.  The Domesday Book, in which William I had the extent and wealth of his kingdom recorded, noted that at that time, in the late 11th Century, about half of what is now the Forest of Dean District was part of Herefordshire; a Hundred called Bromsash.  The rest was made up of seven smaller area Hundreds, the two largest of these being Botloe and Westbury. 

There is no mention of the Hundred of St Briavels in the Domesday Book because it was not established until the 12th Century, at the same time as many of the Norman laws concerning the Forest of Dean were put in place.  The new dynasty of monarchs recognised the strategic importance of the district and the natural defence that the two rivers provided on its eastern and western boundaries.  To put their mark on it, the Normans initially built a number of motte and bailey castles at places such as Westbury-on-Severn and Littledean, but soon they moved on to fortifications made of stone as part of their defence of the “Marcher Lands”. Examples of them can still be seen at places such as Chepstow, Clearwell, Goodrich, and St Briavels.

For the people of the district Norman forest law was much harsher than it had been under the Saxons.  They lost what little land they had, and any enclosure or taking of game was dealt with very harshly.  Many a Forester met their death being thrown from St Briavels Castle to dangle on its gibbet.  Nevertheless by the 13th Century Verderers had been appointed to act for the king and protect his royal rights, and Common Law had given them some rights.  Included in these, during set periods each year, were the right of pannage (for pig feeding), couchage/pasture (for grazing of animals), and estover (underwood and pollarded branches for fuel and/or repairing fences).  The Verderers Court exists to the present day, as, for some residents, do the rights of Common.  

For hunting, the district was kept well stocked with deer and wild boar, but as in previous times, the whole district became increasingly important to the Norman and later medieval rulers for its industrial use; its trees for timber and charcoal production, and the charcoal together with iron ore and limestone for iron making. There seems little doubt that it was for the benefit of increased revenue from these industrial activities that the later Norman sovereigns, up to and including Henry II, expanded the forest’s boundaries rather than solely for a desire to have improved field sport. 

The industrial potential of the district as wealth earner was also recognised by the Church, and in particular the Cistercian inhabitants of Flaxley Abbey. Over the years following its founding in 1150, several of the medieval kings stayed at Flaxley, and whether this is the reason the abbey benefited so well is uncertain.  However, they do appear to have had the ear of a number of them to the extent that although Henry I granted the Gloucester Abbey the venison tithes of the Forest of Dean, Henry II granted Flaxley Abbey the tithe of chestnuts, two ironwork forges (one mobile and the other stationary), and the right to fell two “dry and leafless” oak trees each week.  Subsequent monarchs granted further rights and privileges to the Abbey, despite a number of instances where the Abbey seems to have exceeded its rights and permissions.

A key to Flaxley Abbey’s good fortune may have been that monarchs became increasingly reliant upon the supply of Forest of Dean district for iron. In strategic economic terms it was vital that this supply continued, controlled by royal charter, and expanded to meet the national demand for items such as horseshoes, nails, arms, and agricultural equipment.

This use of the district and its inhabitants for the benefit of the king had an interesting twist at the Siege of Berwick-on-Tweed by Edward I, when miners from the “Hundred of St Briavels” were used as sappers to undermine its defences.  As a result of their endeavours, the English King granted free mining rights within the forest to them and their descendants.  Those “Free Miners Rights” continue to the present day.  Miners at that time were mainly involved in iron mining.  Although the presence of coal deposits in the district was well known and limited mounts of it had been recovered in Roman times, it was not practicable to use it for iron making with the methods of smelting then in use, and this situation continued until the industrial revolution.  Compared with charcoal, coal was considered a dirty and inferior fuel. 

At their zenith under Henry II, the afforested areas of the district declined over subsequent generations due to a combination of felling and conversion to pasture.  Some of this was allowed by royal approval, some by purchase, and some arose by encroachment.  Eventually, this shrinkage was curtailed, and what are now the afforested areas of the district are not dissimilar from those that the early Plantagenets would have known.  Nevertheless, in the intervening years there have been times when even its very existence as an afforested area has been severely threatened. 

The events following the Reformation, and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, were key periods when there was again major strain on the future sustainability of the district’s afforested areas.  High quality timber was available in Queen Elizabeth’s reign when reputedly Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake came to Awre to select timber for their ships.  However, increased demand for shipbuilding and charcoal conversion meant that tree felling exceeded natural regeneration and the forest progressively started to shrink.  By the 1630s, with the improved methods of smelting that were then available and larger ships requiring more and more oak to build them, even the short-term future for the district as an afforested area looked grim.  Linked to the shortage of timber, only a handful of the charcoal fed iron forges within the district remained in operation.  As if that was not bad enough, in 1638, the whole forest complete with its contents of mines, forges and quarries was made the subject of a grant to Sir John Wintour complete with a de-afforestation licence arranged to clear the remaining 18000 acres (7500 hectares) of forest reported at the time to contain 105,577 trees, made up of 70,971 oaks, and the rest, largely beech. 

Probably the only thing that saved the trees and the district’s other features was the Civil War, and the subsequent actions of the Parliament to preserve what remained, reinstate protective enclosure, and void Wintour’s licence.  Although Wintour regained some aspects of his grant with the Restoration, by which time only 25,929 oaks and 4,204 beeches remained, a commission of the day declared them “as good timber as any in the world”.  Wintour was ordered to reserve 11335 tonnes of it for the Navy, but he flagrantly violated the order and in 1668 another Parliamentary Act was passed ordering preservation of the timber and the restriction of deer in the forest to 800 head.

The Wintour episode is only one example of the manoeuvrings and scandal that have affected the district over the years, but slowly, despite these, it has recovered.  Now, in terms of significant numbers, the oldest trees in the Forest of Dean are the Napoleonic Oaks that were planted in response to the demand for Navy timber at the beginning of the 18th Century. Today the Statutory Forest of the District alone contains an estimated 2 million Oaks.  These, together with coniferous and other deciduous trees constitute an afforested area covering nearly 40 square miles (100 sq. km), 35 square miles (90 sq. km) of which, together with other areas outside the statutory forest known as “waste”, has been under the control of the Forestry Commission and its precursors since 1897.  In 1938 there was formal recognition of the landscape as a public amenity when 27,000 acres (11000 hectares) of the district’s afforested area were made England’s first National Forest Park. 

Strange though it may seem, the most important historical events which ensured that a major part of the District remains afforested to this day were probably the industrial revolution and its introduction of modern iron smelting methods using coal instead of charcoal, followed by the use of iron/steel hulled ships.  The demand for iron/steel of a more uniform type was “fuelled” by an increasing use of coal/coke based processes.  With this, the use of use of charcoal (already in short supply) dwindled rapidly to virtually nothing, but the demand for coal and iron meant that the 19th Century saw a very different approach to mining being adopted compared with what had gone before. 

Until the middle of the 19th Century, most of the people who lived in the District never went very far from it, and there was considerable rivalry between different communities within it, often relating to such things as ownership of sheep and the exercising of other “rights”.  Even a youth courting a girl from the next village was sometimes not condoned.  The expansion of coal mining and other related activities in the 19th and early 20th Century saw significant numbers of “incomers”.  The law, which even prior to this had sometimes been quite difficult to maintain, became even more under strain with the attitudes displayed by some of the existing population and “incomers” to one another.  There are many magistrate court records of drunkenness and fighting having occurred, and it is probably no coincidence that as a reaction to all this, many non-conformist chapels were established.        

Free miners had had no need to destroy the overhead growth of the forest to win firstly their iron and secondly their coal from the ground, and even quarrying for limestone had only a limited impact on the landscape.  All this was to change with the much larger scale operations of the collieries, other mines and quarries that were established in the 19th Century. A major industrial infrastructure was established in the district, the greatest impact of which was experienced in and around the afforested area.  It resulted in railway permanent ways, viaducts and cuttings being constructed, larger drift and deep pits and quarries being created, new roads and tracks, and streams being diverted and dammed.  In their wake, these massive upturns in industrial activity left unavoidable waste in the form of spoil heaps, dirt, and sometimes even contaminated watercourses and aquifers.

However, so long as it was given time to recover, the District always seems to have exhibited considerable resilience at resisting manmade incursions up to the present day.  In historical terms the age of coal was short lived, some 150 years.  The last commercial iron mine in the District closed in 1946 and this was followed in 1965 by the closure of the last large colliery.  All that remains is some stone quarrying, and the small band of Free Miners.  As a consequence, today most of the more unwelcome features of the age of coal have either been removed, or have mellowed to the stage where many have become havens for wildlife, adding in their own way, support to the well-being of the biodiversity of the District.

During both the 20th Century’s World Wars, and particularly during the World War 2, major areas of the District were taken over by the Military.  Large camps and training facilities were established for both British and American forces.  Now, but for a few lone remains, even their presence and the activities they engaged in are things unknown to most people.

Today, the majority of the land of the District is still used for forestry and agriculture, as it has been for thousands of years, albeit the methods by which these two ancient pursuits are practiced have changed a lot particularly over the last century, and are likely to change even more in the 21st Century.  In the 40 years since the last commercial coal mine closed many other diverse ways of wealth generation have arisen in the District.  However, built upon its history and heritage and the landscapes, environment and culture of the Forest of Dean District have been moulded with time, an evolutionary process that has made it unique.  The danger is that faced with the amoebic like spread of urbanisation, unless it an be adequately protected from the Sir John Wintours of the 21st Century - the short term gain developers, many if not all of the features that make it unique will be lost forever.  Rather than a fate destined to leave nothing more than series of records and finds in an archaeological store or museum, the District must be allowed to continue to evolve in a sustainable manner.  This is reason that the Friends of the Forest organisation has been formed.  Acting as a lobbying group, its objective is to gain formal Area of Outstanding Beauty designation for the District from Her Majesty’s Government, and the statutory protection under English planning law that is couched in the designation.

In his book The Forest of Dean, local author Humphrey Phelps wrote “For centuries, under the Crown, the Forest proper has been safe in its entirety, and its character, rights, privileges, and customs, but its heritage is in jeopardy.”  He wrote those words in 1982.  Since then the threat to the District has grown greater every day.

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