On a misty morning in autumn, the hush broken only by the cry of a buzzard above a canopy of golden beech leaves, it’s hard to imagine a more tranquil place than the Forest of Dean.
At this time of year, these rolling woodlands light up like a furnace, making it one of Britain’s most spectacular places to visit for autumn colour. Oakwoods turn yellow and russet. Stands of larches, Britain’s only deciduous conifer, turn a diaphanous pale gold; crimson rowans and scarlet cherry trees weave their way through bright patches of yellow field maples and giant golden chestnuts.
Amid this glowing tapestry of colour, wildlife teems. Goshawks wheel above oak woods, eyeing squirrels gathering acorns. Crossbills feed on larch cones in autumn. Wild boar forage among fallen chestnuts; the forest sustains Britain’s largest population at 400-plus, descended from animals escaped from a nearby boar farm a decade or so ago. Then there are bats: Europe’s biggest concentration of greater and lesser horseshoes. With all this thriving wildlife, it’s hard to grasp how transformed these woods are. For unlikely as it now seems, this was one of the great crucibles of the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the best way to arrive at the Forest of Dean is via the Wye Valley. The road winds northwards thorough steeply wooded slopes and riverside villages to the Dean’s northern bastion, Symonds Yat Rock. This limestone outcrop soars above the looping Wye, 500ft below. Southwards and eastwards from the rock lies one of the great ancient forests, 42 square miles of mixed woodland.
The village of Symonds Yat marks the point where the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley meet, and for many visitors they are twin attractions. But they are not identical twins – far from it. The Wye Valley is all Alpine grace. It’s a place of light and space, of soft green hillsides folding down to a glittering seam of water, and of distant slopes veiled in blue.
The Forest of Dean is also a place of light; but there are always shadows, too. It’s like a huge rambling cathedral where light leans in brilliant shafts, shimmers in dappled pools and dances in bright motes. It is a landscape of mystery, shaped by our ancestors in enigmatic ways, leaving only ruined remnants to hint at the brutal, brave, epic human enterprise that shaped it. Decoding the landscape is endlessly fascinating: what was here? What lives were lived? Who made their fortune and who died trying? Yet what you see on the surface is only half the story of an extraordinary landscape, for below it lies a labyrinthine crypt: a great, mostly abandoned hive of tunnels bored by brave men over centuries… men earning a living by wrenching out iron ore and coal to feed the thriving new furnaces and factories. As late as the 1920s, one million tons of coal a year were dug from the Dean – the last deep coal mine closed in 1965 – and even now six smaller working pits remain.
A forest born, and reborn
Somehow we expect our ancient forests to be immune from change. “We have this notion a forest is forever, but it isn’t,” says Kevin Stannard, the Forest of Dean’s deputy surveyor. “The Forest of Dean is a brilliant example of a landscape that has changed and evolved out of man’s decisions – political decisions.”
One thousand years ago, the Dean was a royal hunting forest, and it’s still owned by the crown. But from the 17th century, the mineral extraction that began with the Romans – or before – really took off. The area became a kind of West Country Klondike. Ambitious men came to exploit the area’s precious minerals – especially coal and iron ore. The crown benefited in lucrative levies.
The resulting near free-for-all almost wiped out the forest forever. By 1676, barely a tree was left standing: much had been felled to make charcoal for smelting iron. (The Dean may be an ancient forest, but its oldest trees date back ‘only’ 300 years or so.) Legislation at last protected the trees of the Dean and a programme of replanting began. A second wave of planting around 1830 bequeathed the Machen oaks – named after the forest’s deputy surveyor Edward Machen – that now populate swathes of woodland such as that at Nagshead. They were meant to provide the Admiralty with timber for wooden ships but in the end were never needed, because metal hulled vessels superseded them. The oaks were packed together in numbers to encourage tall, straight growth – not unlike later conifer plantations. Then the weaker trees were thinned out. So even the tall oaks you see in the Dean now are shaped by man.
Meanwhile, the advance of industry continued into the 20th century. When Britain emerged, depleted and exhausted, from the Second World War, the Forestry Commission – now custodians of the forest – began a new wave of plantings, mostly huge tracts of fast-growing conifers such as larch, Norway spruce and Douglas fir.
This history gives the woodlands of the Forest of Dean their huge variety. Each has its own distinct atmosphere and ecology. There are dark scented blankets of conifers; airy oakwoods; shady pockets of yew, moss and mushrooms; vaulted beechwoods.
The change continues. In 2012, around 150 hectares of larches were clear-felled, leaving bare hillsides. This is the Forestry Commission’s attempt to fight a disease that threatens the whole larch population: Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus-like pathogen. The hope is to contain it by creating a buffer zone; but more may have to go. “This is probably the beginning of the end of larch in the Forest of Dean,” says Kevin. “It all depends on what is going to happen next year.” Sudden oak death is another problem. “We have areas of oak that are just dying off. While we will continue to plant oak, we have to diversify.”
The solution may be in new plantings that once more change the face of the forest. Kevin’s team is looking at hickory, and the spectacular tulip tree, a tall, straight species that bears a cascade of creamy blossoms in spring.
Like countless foresters before him, Kevin is harnessing the healing powers of nature for which there is abundant evidence in these woodlands. At Dark Hill Ironworks, for example, birches whisper softly in the breeze where a foundry once hummed and clattered, their golden autumn leaves like showers of sparks. Even at New Fancy View – where visitors climb a low hillock, rising above the canopy to admire a sea of dappled green, burnished gold and burnt orange rolling away on all sides, broken only by the glimpse of distant Cinderford, like some Italian hill village – even here, they are standing on a giant heap of spoil from the colliery, hidden among scrub a stone’s throw to the north. Yet here is also one of the best places to see goshawks hunting among the treetops. If these rare birds can make a home here, isn’t that testimony to the recuperative powers of nature, with enlightened management from humans?
When it’s time for our picnic, my children find, half hidden beneath a shard of bark, a square iron nut. It probably once pinned rails to sleepers on the line that once lay a few feet away. It’s a satisfying size, filling the palm, and a pleasant weight; my seven-year-old treasures it every bit as much as her precious goshawk feather, larch cones and scarlet cherry leaf. And that, in its way, sums up the uniqueness – and greatness – of the Forest of Dean.