Smiles and scowles: Puzzles in the Forest

Ten by twenty miles of secluded, hilly country; ancient woods of oak and fern; and among them small coal mines, small market towns, villages and farms. We were content to be a race apart, made up mostly of families who had lived in the Forest for generations, sharing the same handful of surnames, and speaking a dialect quite distinct from any other. Few people visited the Forest of Dean. They thought us primitive, and looked down on us. I remember one visitor expressing pity for an elderly crippled man in our village, who’d never been outside the Forest. Looking slowly round, the old man said, ‘Doosn’t thee fret for I, me booy; I bain’t tired o’ round ‘ere yet.’ The Forest was that sort of place. As my father once said, ‘Nobody wants to come ‘ere if they can ‘elp it; but once they do settle down, you’d atter shoot ’em to get ’em to muv.’

Winnifred Foley’s description of the Forest of Dean in the 1920s, from Full Hearts and Empty Bellies

Near the southern end of the modern border between Wales and England on the side of the latter the sea-seeking River Wye and the Severn Estuary provide the aquatic outline for a curious wedge of land. This wedge is about the size of the Republic of Singapore. In another iteration of history, it might, perhaps, have been claimed as an independent nation. Instead, it has been captured by Gloucestershire, as a protrusion from the western edge of the wiggly parallelogram that bounds the rest of that county. But enough with geometry and onto geology.

The rock that underlies the wedge of land is a ‘syncline’ in form. A cross-section would show the strata to be like an airless stack of thick shallow bowls. The topmost bowl in the pile is made of Carboniferous Limestone and is itself filled with Upper Coal Measures. Switching to a top-down view, geological maps depict a large area of land in the middle of the wedge where the surface rock is Upper Coal Measures, with a ring around this of surface Carboniferous Limestone (and further rings beyond).

The land with Upper Coal Measures immediately beneath the soil loosely coincides with the extent of a relatively large area of ancient woodland known as the Forest of Dean – or, to locals, just ‘the Forest’. This is within the bounds of a former royal hunting preserve, which was established around the time of the Norman conquest of Britain in the eleventh century. The make-up of the woody species that grow there today has been markedly shaped by the whims of modern forestry, and much of the tree cover comprises large stands of non-native conifers. Yet, the area remains an important place for wildlife.

The Forest is also a place that is rich in human history. According to John Sheraton and Ron Goodman, in Exploring Historic Dean, the shallow minerals “have been economically important since Roman times,” with the ground “yielding iron ore, coal, and building stone, as well as limestone for burning.” Since the decline of extractive industries in the years that followed the Second World War (the last major colliery closed in 1965), the type of social upheaval that inevitably follows an overhaul of employment patterns has been taking place.

For all of this, the area has attracted the interest of comparatively few writers. Perhaps the Forest is not quite beautiful enough. Perhaps, despite such place names as Coalway (a village sited on an ancient route for moving charcoal) and Cinderford (a town honouring a waste product of old iron-workings), its long industrial history is not sufficiently overt in the contemporary landscape. Or perhaps the sight of sheep not confined to fields but roaming under a dense woodland canopy is too far a stretch for bucolic ideals.

One local wordsmith who did get to grips with the Forest was Dennis Potter. (‘Get to grips’ is an unfortunate expression for me to have used in his case, as Potter suffered from a form of arthritis so debilitating that, at times, he was only able to write by strapping a pen to his hand. I intend no humour from the phrase here.) The Changing Forest, his richly painted and largely sympathetic social portrait of the area, was published in the early 1960s.

As well as being a keen observer of social change, Potter was as sharp as a shard of glass. The catalogue of witticisms that have lived long beyond his breathing days includes the following entry:

I did not fully understand the dread term ‘terminal illness’ until I saw Heathrow for myself.

And also this one:

The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they’ve been in.

In introducing the place, in The Changing Forest, Potter wrote:

I know of few more fascinating areas, and, entering the Forest of Dean by whichever route you choose, you can soon sense that you are in a self-absorbed community where the inter-relation of landscape, work and the different generations demands more than the usual flickering attention.

This echoes the sentiments expressed by Winnifred Foley, another talented local writer, in the quotation that I presented at the beginning of this piece. She was relating her memories of the people of the Forest in the 1920s, where a distinct culture thrived like the trees that grew around them and where the bonds of community were as strong as the iron yielded by the underlying soil. The pillars of social life included male-voice choirs, women’s societies, and rugby clubs and other sports teams.

I feel lucky that my life has overlapped with people who grew up in that era. I remember, for instance, a conversation from my childhood that took place when I was on a walk in the Forest with my uncle. We were passing through a poetically named hamlet called The Pludds and got talking to a man who was painting his garden gate. He told us how he had also recently needed to change his front door. But this was no ‘fix and flip’. Such was the length of time that the man had lived there, he had paid more for the replacement entranceway than he had to originally purchase the house.

Of course, change flows as inevitably as a hoarse voice comes from cheering on a local rugby club. And Potter, describing the area four decades after Foley’s recollections, already feared the weakening of human communities and the homogenizing steamroller of modernity. In the years since, there has, inevitably, been further erosion and flattening.

Considering the issue more generally, and writing before both Potter and Foley, GK Chesterton made a characteristically biting attack on “the brute force of modernity” in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, his debut novel, which was published in 1904. The story, to quote the blurb, is set “in a future of stultifying dullness.” In one of the early passages, an official from the British Government, speaking to the President of a quashed Nicaragua, says: “We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilisation, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples.” In response, the Nicaraguan comments: “When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people.”

While dwarfed as a social issue by deliberate attempts to suppress cultures, and other forms of human injustice and inequality that are driven by twisted ideologies, the loss of ‘cultures within cultures’ under the steamroller is important nevertheless. As in the broader living world, diversity matters all the way down the scale of granularity.

Happily, while the once-concentrated essence of the Forest’s human communities is dissipating, residents are characterized by a persisting conviviality, and by a warmth – to friends and strangers alike – that has a sincerity which I have rarely experienced elsewhere in Britain. There remains, too, a pride for the local distinctness that survives in the post-insular era. In Britain, I have only encountered a comparable sense of pride among people from Sheppey. (Unlike the Forest, that place is not just a social island but a physical one too.)

I offer the above introduction to the Forest in part to demonstrate how the destiny of human communities can relate directly to the nature of the minerals beneath their feet. There is another layer to this story, though, which is the fate of non-human communities, and the landscape, after extraction ceases. For just as there are nature reserves in the Forest that protect habitats which escaped the negative impacts of coal-mining practices (such as Laymoor Quag), there are those that evidence the possibility for life to rebound. Woorgreens, for instance, comprises a mixture of ponds, marshes, and heathland habitat on the site of former open-cast mine workings, while the flora at Stenders Quarry includes several early-successional species that thrive on shallow limestone soils.

A track running through the heathland of Woorgreens

Wild nature and human history are even more intimately commingled at a place called Puzzle Wood. Forming the northern part of Great Lambsquay Wood, which is a satellite to the west of the main tree-covered area of the Forest, this minor tourist attraction has long fascinated me. It is a place of lush ancient growth and remarkable topography, where outcrops of Carboniferous Limestone (the top bowl in the stack: the one holding the Upper Coal Measures) include warped cliff faces, narrow gorges, and hidden hollows. Visitors can follow a network of paths, crossing rickety-looking bridges and holding handrails with beetle-bored galleries (see the header image). A pamphlet for the attraction, called the Wizard’s Guide, proclaims it to be “the world’s most magical wood.”

Despite growing up in the area, it was only in the most recent spring that I made my first visit. I was anticipating the sensation of walking through a primaeval place – based on a photo of the woodland that I had seen – and I was going in search of a moment of enchantment. I was thus ignoring the advice of Patrick Curry, who has argued that enchantment is not something that one can hope to summon at will. While that may well be true, I do not think that this particular test of the hypothesis was a fair one: circumstances were conspiring against my efforts even before I got there.

I learned the day before my trip, in Exploring Historic Dean, that the limestone outcrops, while predominantly natural in character, had been shaped in part by “mining activities over many hundreds of years,” as evidenced by “the presence of pick marks, drill holes, and spoil heaps.” The principal target of the mining was the pockets and veins of iron ore in the limestone. The resulting modified outcrops are known as scowles.

Then, the day itself arrived. On our approach to the entrance gate (I was visiting the wood with my wife), I spotted a receptacle for returned pencils that looked like the head of a stormtrooper. I smiled at this but really should have paid more attention to the sign.

The grin might still have been lingering on my face when we reached the ticket office, for the lady there greeted me with a beam of her own. The warmth of the reception felt genuine. She advised us to expect our visit to “take about an hour.”

The use of the word ‘take’ struck me as odd. Waiting in a queue at the bank took time. Processing a task at work took time. But ancient woodlands, I thought, only gave. And, in any case, I had no plans to check a clock while inside.

On entering the tree-covered landscape, I soon felt that I was in a sacred place, and a whispered hi from another visitor told me that I was not alone in thinking that the sanctity demanded respect. At the same time, I sensed once more that my efforts to find enchantment were set to be thwarted. The topography was indeed remarkable and the ancient growth lush, but traffic noise from a nearby road – dirty and whining – penetrated the woodland’s edge and cut through the birdsong.

A couple of sections of the paths through Puzzle Wood

At various points early in my wander I was reminded on printed signs to learn more about a particular feature by using the special app. I encountered a few items of thoughtlessly discarded litter. And a pain began to pulse naggingly in my left knee.

After this, it got even worse. I will only report the facts and leave you to choose, in reacting to them, the place on the scale of misanthropy where you feel most comfortable to sit.

A fellow visitor – a man in his thirties – was climbing one of the trees. His purpose became clear when he instructed a woman who was with him to take his photo. For the shot, he adopted a position with arms raised, suggesting that he had conquered something. As Dennis Potter once observed, “everything we do has consequences.” In this case, the results were this: large patches of slow-growing moss were torn away by the man’s trainers from the branch that was his platform; and, with a desire to ensure a safe descent for himself, several smaller branches were ripped off the tree. Back on the path, he looked satisfied with his efforts.

Vandalism for the sake of being photographed

Then I spotted another couple, a man and a woman in their twenties who were marching towards us. The man led the pair and asked, in a booming and brash tone: “Where was the Star Wars filmed? Do you know where they filmed the Star Wars?”

A memory lurking deep in my mind’s topography was dislodged, and I realized why the receptacle for returned pencils near the ticket office was the head of a stormtrooper. Someone had told me, some years before, that a part of one of the more recent Star Wars films was set in Puzzle Wood, but I had clearly not found this to be a sufficiently important nugget of knowledge to keep it easily accessible.

My wife tried to be helpful: “Have you looked on the Puzzle Wood website?”

“Well, there’s a picture on there,” the man replied with obvious disappointment (he knew that he was not about to get his answer), “but it’s in front of some tree and they all look the same here.”

A comment escaped through my lips before I could seal them: “That’s the problem with this wood. Too many bloody trees.”

The couple did not appear to detect my sarcasm, for the man nodded in agreement and his partner added her own vocal support for my conjecture. They wasted little time in resuming their bounding course through the wood, in the direction of someone else from whom they could demand information.

I began to process the man’s comment about how the trees all looked “the same.” I cannot even begin to estimate the number of woodlands that I have walked through in my life, but the figure is a large one and I am sure that I have never visited a place where each tree has more individual personality than they do in Puzzle Wood. Owing to the underlying topography and a long period without disturbance from forestry interests, the trunks, branches, and exposed roots have grown into staggeringly peculiar and diverse forms. As such, it is no surprise that a rumour persists about JRR Tolkien having found inspiration for his Middle-earth woods in this place. The story is certainly believable – it is the sort of rumour that deserves to be true from internal merit alone – but Tolkien scholar Michael Flowers has made the rather annoying observation that there is not a shred of supporting evidence.

At this point, I gave up on my own quest for enchantment and did what I often do when in a place of astounding natural beauty: I focused in on the smaller things. These included opposite-leaved golden saxifrage (this plant loves damp shade and has curious petal-lacking flowers), wood sorrel (an ancient woodland indicator whose flowers and leaves fold up at night), and various ferns and mosses.

Hart’s-tongue fern: Unfurling fronds (top) and a mature frond (bottom)
Wood sorrel growing alongside feathery moss, with ferns and ivy behind

Then, I became aware of the sweet and potent smell of wild garlic, the birds’ singing grew louder, and I lost all sense of time’s passage. Wild nature never fails to lift me, if I can escape the evidence of human disregard for her beauty.

As I neared the woodland’s exit, my eye was drawn to a short spike of milky-white flowers that poked up through a sprawling patch of ivy. I had not seen anything like this plant before. There was no hint of green in the above-ground parts, which indicated a lack of chlorophyll and suggested to me a parasitic mode of life. I could sense that the plant was, in some way, drawing sustenance from the ivy below. Nature had revealed another of her manifold mysteries to me. The experience was exhilarating, and it had, for a brief moment, taken me out of myself. (Later, I looked up the plant in a wild-flower guide and found the name ‘ivy broomrape’.)

Ivy broomrape flower-spike among ivy

I would not describe my experience as one of deep enchantment, but there was certainly much more to it than a typical encounter with another being. In this, I knew that the unexpectedness was crucial, and I had to concede that Patrick Curry was most probably correct.

Read ‘Smiles and scowles: Puzzles in the Forest’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog.

References

Chesterton GK (1996) The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions.

Curry P (2019) Enchantment: Wonder in Modern Life. Edinburgh, UK: Floris Books.

Flowers M (2014) In Tolkien’s genuine footsteps. The Tolkien Society Blog, 11 August. Available at: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/blog/2014/08/in-tolkiens-genuine-footsteps/ (accessed July 2021).

Foley W (2009) Full Hearts and Empty Bellies. Jouve, France: Hachette Digital.

Potter D (1962) The Changing Forest: Life in the Forest of Dean Today. London, UK: Secker & Warburg.

Sheraton J and Goodman R (2009) Exploring Historic Dean. Ross-on-Wye, UK: Fineleaf Editions.