A Trip to the Forest of Dean

Hannah attended a training session in the Forest of Dean, one of the surviving ancient woodlands of England

Recently, Hannah travelled to the Forest of Dean for a training session. It was only a flying visit, but this post gives a little taste of the area.

The Forest of Dean is an area of woodland in the west of Gloucestershire—one of the surviving ancient woodlands of England. The Forest was originally part of a hunting reserve demarcated in 1066, and was England’s second largest crown forest throughout the later Middle Ages. The Forest is now around 43 square miles of mixed woodland, and gives its name to a local government district and a parliamentary constituency (both of which comprise larger areas than the historic Forest of Dean itself).

Evidence of early sea trading and Iron Age forts has been found in the area

The area is rich in both prehistory and history. Megalithic monuments were discovered in the area, including the Longstone at St Briavels (sadly destroyed in 1875) and the Wibdon Broad Stone in Stroat (which may have been placed during a stone-throwing competition between the Devil and Jack o’ Kent, or so the stories say). Archaeological evidence of Bronze Age field systems, early sea trading and Iron Age hill forts has also been found in the area.

The medieval and post-medieval history of the area reveals a lot about the history of the English landscape, of the relationship between the ancient forests and the crown, of how this intersects with the aristocratic pursuit of hunting, and of the impact of this on the rest of the population. The story of the Dean Forest Riots, for instance, gives an insight into the devastating effects of enclosure on foresters’ traditional way of life—as well as the ways iron and coal miners tried to resist the exploitation that came with the Industrial Revolution.

Forest of Dean
Photo: Angel Ganev via Creative Commons

If I’d been staying in the area a little longer, I would’ve been interested in visiting the ‘dark tourism’ museum at Littledean Jail, near Cinderford. This museum is housed in a former prison (built in the late eighteenth century), which was considered a ‘revolutionary’ house of correction in its day. Nowadays, Littledean Jail houses a museum of crime and police memorabilia, as well as a bizarre array of truly disturbing artefacts—including (according to their website) ‘instruments of punishment and torture through the ages’, ‘freaks of nature, oddities and curiosities’, a ‘Gypsy caravan’ and ‘Princess Diana’s letters’. They also hold regular paranormal investigations. Perhaps I’ll return to visit the Jail and it’ll be the subject of a later post.

The tale of the bears of Ruardean

The Forest of Dean also boasts some fabulous folklore, legends and tall tales. One of the darker stories about the area is the tale of the bears of Ruardean. The story goes that, in 1889, a group of Frenchmen arrived in Cinderford with two Russian (performing) bears. Supposedly, a popular myth at the time was that performing bears were fed on the flesh of children, so it was only a matter of time before the travellers and their animals were implicated in the death of a local child. An angry mob formed, and two of the Frenchmen were chased and beaten. The bears were killed. Residents of nearby Ruardean witnessed the attack and rushed to the performers’ aid, before sheltering the men and tending to their wounds. The attackers were fined, but the legal proceedings erroneously referred to them as residents of Ruardean instead of Cinderford, leading to a long-standing animosity between villages (characterized by the taunt of ‘Who killed the bears?’, which apparently still stings to this day).

But back to my visit…

Deanwood 2

The training session was held at Deanwood Holidays, a caravan and camping site near the village of Yorkley. The holiday park only opened in 2013, so it has a fresh and clean feel to it. It also boasts an impressive number of facilities for both holiday-makers and other groups.

Deanwood 3

The campsite has hard standing pitches for caravans and motorhomes, as well as grass camping pitches over two fields. There is a heated shower block, and a washing-up room (with access to a washing machine, tumble dryer and freezer). The site also has a sports hall and the Deanwood Indoor Play Barn (complete with bouncy castle, space hopper
race track and pedal tractors).

Deanwood 4

Our group had hired one of Deanwood’s function rooms, with accommodation in the bunk house style dormitories. As there were no other bookings that weekend, we had exclusive use of the (large) kitchens and dormitories. These facilities are ideal for an informal meeting followed by a communal meal with socializing afterwards—which is exactly what happened. The kitchens are also equipped to commercial standards, so I presume more formal catering for larger groups would not be a problem.

Deanwood 5

Deanwood is bit of an unusual venue—in a good way. The grass camping pitches are in gently sloping fields looking out over the peaceful landscape of the Forest of Dean—apparently you can see as far as the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons—and surrounded by woodland paths. On the other hand, the barn itself is huge, new and shiny. On a first visit, it’s quite easy to get lost between the kitchen, meeting rooms and dormitories. It’s really a place of two halves.

Deanwood 6

Perhaps this says more about the sort of films I watch than Deanwood itself, but I can’t help but feel that this would be exactly the sort of place a hardened band of zombie apocalypse survivors would barricade themselves into. There’s something about the labyrinthine, industrial kitchens and bunkhouses coupled with the picturesque rural seclusion that feels a bit 28 Days Later (and I don’t mean the good guys). I floated this idea to my colleagues, but they claimed I simply have an overactive imagination. Still, immersive zombie apocalypse experiences are popular at the moment, and you could run an amazing game at Deanwood…