Forest of Dean

This article is about the historic Forest. For the local authority, which covers a wider area, see Forest of Dean District.
The view north towards Ross-on-Wye from Symonds Yat Rock, a popular tourist destination in the Forest

The Forest of Dean is a geographical, historical and cultural region in the western part of the county of Gloucestershire, England. It forms a roughly triangular plateau bounded by the River Wye to the west and north-west, Herefordshire to the north, the River Severn to the south, and the City of Gloucester to the east.

The area is characterised by more than 110 square kilometres (42.5 sq mi) of mixed woodland, one of the surviving ancient woodlands in England. A large area was reserved for royal hunting before 1066, and remained as the second largest crown forest in England, the largest being New Forest. Although the name is used loosely to refer to the part of Gloucestershire between the Severn and Wye, the Forest of Dean proper has covered a much smaller area since medieval times. In 1327 it was defined to cover only the royal demesne and parts of parishes within the hundred of St Briavels,[1] and after 1668 comprised the royal demesne only. The Forest proper is within the civil parishes of West Dean, Lydbrook, Cinderford, Ruspidge, and Drybrook, together with a strip of land in the parish of English Bicknor.[2]

Traditionally the main sources of work have been forestry – including charcoal production - iron working and coal mining. Archaeological studies have dated the earliest use of coal to Roman times for domestic heating and industrial processes such as the preparation of iron ore.[3]

The area gives its name to the local government district, Forest of Dean, and a parliamentary constituency, both of which cover wider areas than the historic Forest. The administrative centre of the local authority is Coleford, one of the main towns in the historic Forest area, together with Cinderford and Lydney.


The Forest of Dean is formed of a raised basin of palaeozoic rocks folded in the Variscan Orogeny, similar to the South Wales coalfield to the west. Underlain by great thicknesses of the Old Red Sandstone, the basin is filled with Carboniferous limestones, sandstones and coal measures, all of which have contributed to the industrial history of the region. Its highest point is Ruardean Hill (290m).


The origins of the name remains an area of debate. The prevalence of Welsh place names in the area, suggests a possible corruption of Din (hill-fort). However, similar or identical elements from Old English exist throughout England.[4]

Giraldus Cambrensis, writing in the twelfth century, refers to the area as Danubia which may translate as "land of Danes" following the Viking settlements in that era. It is possible that an original name Dene developed from this.[5]



The area was inhabited in Mesolithic times,[6] and there are also remains of later megalithic monuments, including the Longstone[7] near Staunton and the Broadstone[8] at Wibdon, Stroat. Barrows have been identified at Tidenham and Blakeney. Bronze Age field systems have been identified at Welshbury Hill near Littledean, and there are Iron Age hill forts at Symonds Yat and Welshbury. There is archaeological evidence of early trading by sea, probably through Lydney. Before Roman times, the area may have been occupied by the British Dobunni tribe, although few of their coins have been found in the area and control may have been contested with the neighbouring Silures.[9]

The Romans

The area was occupied by the Romans around 50 AD. They were attracted by its natural resources which included iron ore, ochre and charcoal. The coal mining industry was probably established on a small scale in Roman times.[10] The area was governed from the Roman town of Ariconium at Weston under Penyard near Ross-on-Wye, and a road was built from there to a river crossing at Newnham on Severn and port at Lydney. The "Dean Road", still visible at Soudley, is believed to be a mediaeval rebuilding of the Roman road, and would have been an important route to transport iron ore and finished metal products. During Roman times there were Roman villas at Blakeney, Woolaston and elsewhere, and towards the end of the Roman period, around the year 370, a major Roman temple complex dedicated to the god Nodens was completed at Lydney. The central parts of the woodlands in the forest are believed to have been protected for hunting since Roman times.[11]

The medieval period

The area's history is obscure for several centuries after Roman period during the so-called Dark Ages, although at different times it may have been part of the Welsh kingdoms of Gwent and Ergyng, and the Beachley and Lancaut peninsulas east of the Lower Wye remained in Welsh control at least until the 8th century.[9] Around 790 the Saxon King Offa of Mercia built his dyke high above the Wye, to mark the boundary with the Welsh. The Forest of Dean then came under the control of the diocese of Hereford. Throughout the next few centuries Vikings conducted raids up the Severn, but by the 11th century the kingdom of Wessex had established civil government.[2] The core of the forest was used by the late Anglo Saxon kings, and after 1066 the Normans, as their personal hunting ground. The area was kept stocked with deer and wild boar and became important for timber, charcoal, iron ore and limestone.

The Hundred of St Briavels was established in the 12th century, at the same time as many Norman laws concerning the Forest of Dean were put in place. St Briavels Castle became the Forest's administrative and judicial centre. Verderers were appointed to act for the king and protect his royal rights, and local people were given some common rights. Flaxley Abbey was built and given rights and privileges. In 1296, miners from the Hundred of St Briavels supported King Edward I at the siege of Berwick-on-Tweed in the Scottish Wars of Independence by undermining the then Scottish town's defences in the first step of his campaign to seize Scotland from John Balliol. As a result, the king granted free mining rights within the forest to the miners and their descendants; the rights continue to the present day. Miners at that time were mainly involved in iron mining although the presence of coal was well known and limited amounts had been recovered in Roman times. Coal was not used for iron making with the methods of smelting then in use. Later the freeminer rights were used mainly for coal mining.[2] The activities of the miners were regulated by the Court of Mine Law.[10]

During the Tudor dynasty

The forest was used exclusively as a royal hunting ground by the Tudor kings, and subsequently a source of food for the royal court. Its rich deposits of iron ore led to its becoming a major source of iron. Timber was particularly fine and was regarded as the best source for building ships.

Attempt at disafforestation and the Western Rising

As a result of King Charles I's decision to rule without Parliament, he sought to raise finances through grants of Royal forest lands. 3,000 acres of the Forest of Dean was disafforested in the 1620s, causing riots in 1631-2, part of enclosure riots across the South West commonly known as the Western Rising. In 1639, 22,000 acres were disafforested, with 4,000 going to manorial lords and freeholders in compensation. 18,000 acres were to go to the Crown, and be sold on to Sir John Winter. Riots ensued in 1641.[12] Winter's claim to the lands was voided by Parliament in March 1642, in part because he had failed to pay. His assets were sequestrated for supporting the Crown during the Civil War. The Protectorate tried to enclose a third of the forest in 1657, leaving two thirds to the Commoners. Although a relatively generous settlement, it caused resistance in April and May 1659, when fences of new enclosures were broken and cattle brought in to graze. Royalists including Edward Massey attempted to bring the discontented to the side of Charles II.[13]

After the restoration, Sir John Winter successfully reasserted his right to the Forest of Dean. However, in 1668 forest law was reestablished by Act of Parliament. in 1672, the King's ironworks were closed, to reduce pressure on the forest from mining.[14]

The 17th - 18th centuries

The Speech House, between Coleford and Cinderford, was built in 1682 to host the Court of Mine Law and "Court of the Speech", a sort of parliament for the Verderers and Free Miners managing the forest, game, and mineral resources.[15] The Gaveller and his deputy were responsible for leasing gales - areas allocated for mining - on behalf of the Crown.[10] The Speech House has been used as an inn and hotel since the 19th century.

During the 18th century, squatters established roughly-built hamlets around the fringes of the Crown forest demesne. By about 1800, these settlements were well established at Berry Hill and Parkend.

The Forest of Dean, with its huge iron ore reserves and ready supply of timber, had been of national importance in the production of iron, using charcoal, for hundreds of years.[16] Despite the abundance of coal, it was not used to produce coke for smelting and local ironmasters were reluctant to invest in new technology, but in the last decade of the 18th century coke-fired furnaces at Cinderford, Whitecliff and Parkend Ironworks were built almost simultaneously.[17]

The Dean Forest Riots

Main article: Warren James

In 1808 Parliament passed the Dean Forest (Timber) Act, which included the provision to enclose 11,000 acres (4,452 ha) of woodland. Between 1814 and 1816 all 11,000 acres (4,452 ha) were enclosed.

There were bread riots in 1795 and in 1801. Ordinary Foresters were already poverty stricken, and their plight had grown worse. They were denied access to the enclosed areas and unable to hunt or remove timber. In particular, they lost their ancient grazing and mining rights.

Unrest was growing, and Warren James emerged as a populist leader of riots against the enclosures. Attempts to resolve the matter peaceably failed, and on 8 June 1831, James, leading more than 100 Foresters, demolished the enclosure at Park Hill, between Parkend and Bream. Around 50 unarmed Crown Officers were powerless to intervene. On the Friday, a party of 50 soldiers arrived from Monmouth, but by now the number of Foresters had grown to around 2000 and the soldiers returned to barracks. On Sunday a squadron of heavily armed soldiers arrived from Doncaster and the day after, another 180 infantrymen from Plymouth. The Foresters’ resistance crumbled and most of those arrested elected to rebuild the enclosures, rather than be charged with rioting. James was sentenced to death but his sentence was later commuted to transportation. He was sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in October 1831, only to be pardoned five years later, although he never returned home.[18]

Conservatives were disliked in the Forest of Dean and on the polling day of 1874 in the market town of Cinderford there was a riot in which the Conservative party headquarters and nearby houses were ransacked and damaged.

'Who killed the bears?'

On 26 April 1889, four Frenchmen and their two bears were making their way to Ruardean, having performed in Cinderford. They were attacked by an angry mob, enraged by claims that the bears had killed a child and injured a woman. The bears were killed and the Frenchmen badly beaten.

It soon became clear that the bears had not attacked anyone. Police proceedings followed and a week later 13 colliers and labourers appeared before magistrates at Littledean, charged with ill-treating and killing the bears and assaulting the Frenchmen. All but two were found guilty on one or more charges, with another convicted a week later. A total of £85 was paid in fines - a huge sum in those days. A subscription was also launched which generously compensated the Frenchmen.

The term 'Who killed the bears?' existed for many years as an insult, directed particularly towards the people of Ruardean - despite the fact that all those convicted were from Cinderford.[19]

A fictionalized version of the incident was used by Dennis Potter for his TV play A Beast With Two Backs.

Industrial development in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Robert Forester Mushet (1811-1891), steel industry pioneer

Exploitation of the Forest of Dean Coalfield developed rapidly in the early-19th century with increased demand from local ironworks, and when some of the earliest tramroads in the UK were built here to transport coal to local ports the area was transformed by the growth of mining and the production of iron and steel.

In 1818/9 David Mushet built Darkhill Ironworks, where he experimented with iron and steel making. In 1845, his youngest son, Robert Forester Mushet, took over its management. He perfected the Bessemer Process by solving the quality problems which beset the process.[20] In a second key advance in metallurgy he invented Mushet steel (R.M.S.) in 1868.[21] It was the first true tool steel[21] and the first air-hardening steel.[22] It revolutionised the design of machine tools and the progress of industrial metalworking, and was the forerunner of High speed steel. The remains of Darkhill are preserved as an Industrial Archaeological Site of International Importance and are open to the public.[23]

Cinderford was laid out as a planned town in the mid-19th century, but the characteristic form of settlement remained the sprawling hamlets of haphazardly placed cottages. Characteristics shared with other British coalfields, such as a devotion to sport, the central role of miners' clubs, and the formation of brass bands, created a distinct community identity.[2]

In the later-19th and early-20th centuries the Forest was a complex industrial region with deep coal mines, iron mines, iron and tinplate works, foundries, quarries and stone-dressing works, wood distillation works producing chemicals, a network of railways, and numerous tramroads. The tradition of independence in the area resulted in a great number of smaller and not necessarily economically successful mines. In 1904 the Gaveller oversaw a period of amalgamation of collieries which allowed deeper mines to be sunk. During the early-20th century, annual output from the coalfield rarely fell below 1 million tons.[10]

Changes since the mid-20th century

Part of the pithead structure at Hopewell Colliery museum.

In 1945 half of the male working population worked in the coal industry but after the Second World War increased pumping costs and other factors made the coalfield less economic. The last commercial iron mine closed in 1946 followed in 1965 by the closure of the last large colliery, Northern United.[10][24] There are still small private mines in operation, worked by freeminers and Hopewell Colliery is open to the public.

With the decline of the mines, the area has undergone a period of significant change, ameliorated to some extent by a shift to high technology, with companies establishing themselves in the area, attracted by grants and a willing workforce.

Many mines have now disappeared into the forest and the area is characterised by picturesque scenery punctuated by remnants of the industrial age and small towns. There remains a number of industrial areas but the focus has been to capitalise on the scenery and to create jobs from tourist attractions and the leisure sector. Significant numbers of residents work outside the area, commuting to Gloucester, Bristol and Cardiff.


If born within the hundred of St Briavels, an ancient administrative area covering most of what is now considered the Forest of Dean, one is classed as a true Forester. The classification bestows a unique right for (traditionally) males over the age of 21 who have worked in a mine for a year and a day — they can register[25] to be a freeminer.[26] The ancient rights were put on the statute books in the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838, the only public act to affect private individuals. Residents of the hundred over 18 can graze sheep in the Forest in accordance with an agreement between the Forestry Commission and the Commoners Association.

In October 2010 a woman won the right to be classified as a Freeminer. Elaine Morman, an employee at Clearwell Caves in the Forest, who had worked as a miner of ochre for a number of years, raised a claim of sexual discrimination against the Forestry Commission. After Mark Harper MP raised the matter in the House of Commons, the Forestry Commission reversed its position and agreed to register her.[27][28]


The Lake at Mallards Pike frozen during winter.

The forest is composed of deciduous and evergreen trees. Predominant is oak, both pedunculate and sessile. Beech is common and sweet chestnut has grown here for many centuries. The forest is home to foxgloves and other wild flowers. Conifers include some Weymouth Pine from 1781, Norway spruce, Douglas fir and larch. The deer are predominantly fallow deer and have been present since the second world war and number around 300 (there were no deer from about 1855 when they were removed in accordance with an Act of Parliament). A number of fallow deer in the central area are melanistic. Small numbers of roe deer and muntjac deer have spread in from the east.

The Forest is home to wild boar; the exact number is unknown but exceeds a hundred. They were illegally re-introduced to the Forest in 2006. A population in the Ross-on-Wye area on the northern edge of the forest escaped from a wild boar farm around 1999 and are believed to be of pure Eastern European origin; in a second introduction, a domestic herd was dumped near Staunton in 2004, but are not pure bred wild boar —attempts to locate the source of the illegal dumps have been unsuccessful. The boar can now be found in many parts of the Forest.

Locally there are mixed feelings about the presence of boar.[29] Problems have included ploughing up gardens and picnic areas, attacking dogs and panicking horses, road traffic accidents, and ripping open rubbish bags. The local authority undertook a public consultation and have recommended to the Verderers that control is necessary. Under its international obligations the UK government is obliged to consider the reintroduction of species made extinct through the activities of man, the wild boar included.

The Forest of Dean is known for its birds; pied flycatchers, redstarts, wood warblers and hawfinches can be seen at RSPB Nagshead. The mixed forest supports Britain's best concentration of goshawks and a viewing site at New Fancy is manned during February and March. Peregrine falcons can be seen from the viewpoint at Symonds Yat rock. Mandarin ducks, which nest in the trees, and Reed warblers can be seen at Cannop Ponds and Cannop Brook, running from the ponds through Parkend, is famed for its Dippers.

Butterflies of note are the small pearl-bordered fritillary, wood white and the white admiral or Limenitis camilla. Gorsty Knoll is famed for its glow-worms and Woorgreen's lake for its dragonflies.

Famous inhabitants

Towns and villages

The list below includes towns and villages within or adjoining the historic Forest; it does not include settlements which are located outside that area but which are within the larger District Council area.

Places of interest

In the media

See also


  1. Map showing boundary of the Hundred of St Briavels
  2. 1 2 3 4 British History:Forest of Dean
  3. Hoyle, John (November 2008). "The Forest of Dean Gloucestershire Archaeological Survey Stage 1". Archaeology Service, Gloucester County Council. Retrieved 22 February 2011.
  4. Johnston M.A., B.D., Rev. James B. (1915). The place-names of England and Wales.
  5. Shore, JW. "Settlements on the Welsh Border".
  7. Longstone
  8. Broadstone
  9. 1 2 Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Ray Howell (eds.), Gwent In Prehistory and Early History: The Gwent County History Vol.1, 2004, ISBN 0-7083-1826-6
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 Mining and the Forest of Dean
  11. Bryan Walters, The Archaeology and History of Ancient Dean and the Wye Valley, 1992, ISBN 0-946328-42-0
  12. Buchanan Sharp (1980), In contempt of all authority, Berkeley: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-03681-6, 0520036816 p140-42
  13. Sharp, p163
  14. Sharp, p164
  15. Nicholls, Henry George (1858). The Forest of Dean: An Historical and Descriptive Account. J. Murray; digital version by Google Books.
  16. Forest Web, Charcoal Burning
  17. The Whitecliff Ironworks in the Forest of Dean, Part one, page 19
  19. All information taken from 'Who Killed The Bears?', by Leonard Clark. Published by Forest of Dean Newspapers Ltd, 1981.
  20. Ralph Anstis, Man of Iron-Man of Steel, page 140
  21. 1 2 Robert Mushet, retrieved 2009-05-27
  22. Stoughton 1908, pp. 408–409,
  23. Book; 'Man of Iron - Man of Steel', Ralph Anstis
  24. Friends of the Forest
  25. No Person a Free Miner who is not registered
  26. Who shall be deemed Free Miners
  27. The Guardian, "Woman wins right to hold 'free miner' title", 6 October 2010
  28. BBC News, "Woman wins right to be Forest of Dean freeminer", 8 October 2010
  29. Wild Boar in Britain: Public and Wild Boar Confrontations
  30. "STEVE JAMES SAYS: Barnes was brave to stand up to the All Blacks". South Wales Argus. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  31. "EMF Bassist Zac Foley Dead At Age 31". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  32. Hudson, John. "Obituary: Winifred Foley". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  33. BIOGRAPHICAL INDEX OF FORMER FELLOWS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH 1783 – 2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  34. "F.W. Harvey, 'The Laureate of Gloucestershire' during WW1 remembered". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  35. Langdon, Julia. "Edna Healey obituary". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  36. Grace's Guide
  37. "The Herbert Howells Trust". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  38. "Steve James: never mind the Ashes, Wales v England in the Six Nations is bigger - just don't ask me to pick a side". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  39. Phelps, Humphrey (2013-11-13). The Forest Of Dean. Amberley Publishing Limited. ISBN 9781445625799.
  40. "Joe Meek (1929-1967)". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  41. "Forest of Dean mural to David and Robert Mushet". BBC News. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  42. "David & Robert Mushet - Men of Iron and Steel". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  43. Limb, Sue. "Obituary: Valerie Grosvenor Myer". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  44. "Coleford Tourist Information and Travel Guide". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  45. "JK Rowling's portrayal of 'snobby' villagers is not based on us, say West Country residents". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  46. Johannes Urzidil: Chronology. Retrieved 22 January 2013
  47. "Dick Whittington: the true story". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  48. "Sir Jimmy Young honoured by Gloucestershire university". BBC News. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  55. Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust nature reserve
  56. Hall, Colin (2010). Dropped In It. Kindle ebooks at Amazon. ASIN B0047O2F0S.
  57. Vidal, John (3 January 2011). "Forest of Dean protesters fight big woodland selloff". The Guardian. London.
  58. "Letter confirms Star Wars Forest of Dean filming". BBC News. Gloucester. 2 November 2014.

External links

Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Forest of Dean.

Coordinates: 51°47′N 2°32′W / 51.79°N 2.54°W / 51.79; -2.54

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