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Tag Archives: Gloucestershire

  • Secret Forest of Dean by Mark Turner

    A native of the Welsh border town of Monmouth, I was from an early age aware of the Forest of Dean. Although situated predominantly in the neighbouring English county of Gloucestershire, the forested area spreads into Wales just beyond Staunton village. Undeterred by the county boundary, it creeps on down the slopes towards my childhood home on Monmouth’s Hadnock Road, beside the River Wye. I was no more than six or seven years of age when my parents would take me walking on summer days up through the dense woods towards a hilltop clearing near Staunton. This provided a splendid panorama that my father would proclaim to be ‘the finest view in England’. My mother would then produce sandwiches and a flask of coffee from a wicker basket and we’d enjoy a simple but satisfying picnic. On more than one such occasion we caught sight of a deer wandering nearby and it was common to hear the mewing calls of buzzards circling high above. These were happy days indeed.

    The Long Stone, Staunton. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    A few years later I took to exploring a little deeper into the Forest. Together with a school-friend who, like me, paid scant regard to personal safety, I clambered over and around Staunton’s impressive Buckstone and Suckstone boulders, and then went on to edge precariously over disused railway bridges that crossed the River Wye. On one memorable occasion my chum and I decided to explore the damp and musty interior of a long-disused railway tunnel on the course of the Wye Valley Railway, but retreated hastily on finding the darkness virtually impenetrable. Still later, as a teenager, I was taken into a Forest coal mine near Coleford – this activity reinforcing my impression of the Forest as a somewhat dark and mysterious landscape, full of secret places.

    Within a few years I left Monmouth and its neighbouring Forest area, later settling in the picturesque North Cotswolds, on the other side of Gloucestershire. I never lost my love of the Forest, though, and often returned to explore unfamiliar parts of the district. By this time I’d begun writing books about the county and its folklore, discovering the Forest to be a rich source of material. As a schoolboy I’d occasionally overheard yarns about bears being killed in the Forest, and stories of ghosts and apparitions were far from uncommon. In more recent years numerous people have reported seeing big cats, such as leopards and panthers, in the Forest – some of these sightings being particularly credible. Within the past twenty years, too, a significant wild boar population has colonised the Forest, following escapes and illegal releases.

    Roman Temple remains at Lydney Park. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    Subsequently finding that of the many outsiders who knew of the Forest’s existence, few knew much about the place, I decided to set about writing a book on the district. My intention was to produce an accessible history of the Forest of Dean, focussing especially on all the kinds of secret places that had fascinated me since childhood. In the course of my research and exploration of the wooded areas I encountered wild boar on several occasions, although not at close quarters. Apparently there are now around 1,000 of these animals roaming the woods and there is talk of them having to be culled. The big cats are much more elusive, although one doesn’t have to search hard to find someone who claims to have seen one. Indeed, a trusted personal friend of mine saw what he believed to be a panther or leopard on the edge of the Forest a few years ago. On reporting the incident to the local police he was met with shrugged shoulders and an assurance that his was one of many similar reports.  As for bear-killings, however, research revealed that the stories were indeed true – relating to an incident of 1889, when two muzzled and chained performing bears were killed at Ruardean by a mob from Cinderford. Fines followed, as did endless taunts of ‘who killed the bears?’

    The former Lea Bailey Gold Mine, Mitcheldean. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    Included among the many lesser-known places described in Secret Forest of Dean are visible reminders of the many different peoples who have occupied the Forest through the centuries. There are Bronze Age standing stones, Iron Age hillforts and numerous signs of the Roman occupation – each of these sites possessing an air of mystery and secrecy. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Forest’s natural resources were being exploited on a grand scale, with coal and iron mines springing up all over the place. Mining was arduous and dangerous work, however, and loss of life was not uncommon. Several memorials to those who died can be seen in the Forest, although these are not always easy to locate.  Secret Forest of Dean will prove useful in this respect, too, describing and pinpointing these monuments. A rail network was created to service these industries, with tramways and railway lines criss-crossing the Forest and running down to the River Severn and River Wye.

    Dilke Railway Bridge, Cinderford. (Secret Forest of Dean, Amberley Publishing)

    Eventually, of course, the coal and minerals became exhausted and one by one the mines closed. The last of the big pits closed in the mid-1960s, almost all of the railways, too, closing over a similar period. Today there is little obvious evidence of these industries, although poignant and curious relics are there to be found by enthusiasts. A number of these old bridges, tunnels and former lines – which are described in Secret Forest of Dean – evoke a real sense of nostalgia and wistfulness. Fortunately, many of the Forest’s former railway track-beds and industrial sites have been imaginatively used to create cycle-ways, viewpoints and nature reserves. Today the district is a popular holiday destination for those wishing to explore the ancient Forest of Dean and neighbouring Wye Valley. Secret Forest of Dean is likely to appeal to holidaymakers and local residents alike. Caution is advised, though – reports of ghosts and apparitions, alien big cat sightings and ‘rampaging’ wild boar continue to circulate in what is undoubtedly a somewhat secret and mysterious part of Gloucestershire!

    Mark Turner's book Secret Forest of Dean is available for purchase now.

  • A-Z of Gloucester by Roger Smith

    I have been photographing scenes around Gloucester for more years than I care to remember – street scenes, buildings, statues and blue plaques. Several years ago I started posting articles to Facebook’s ‘Our History – Gloucester’ group. My intention was to enhance the group’s knowledge of the city, including its suburbs, churches, listed buildings and vanished landmarks; the history of these places, how their names have changed, and how they have developed into how they are today.

    Baker's clock with Father Time and figures representing Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. (A-Z of Gloucester, Amberley Publishing)

    After writing nearly 50 articles, many members of the group were asking whether I was going to turn the articles into a book. With this in mind I submitted a proposal to Amberley Publishing enquiring whether such a book would be of interest. The response was that although my proposal didn’t fit in with their current range of titles, it could fit in with their ‘A-Z of …’ series. After reading through the requirements defined in the A-Z Author Guide I considered it was well within my scope, and more importantly, I already had most of the information to produce such a book. The only proviso, apart from the word and image count, was that there should be at least one entry for every letter of the alphabet.

    The task proved relatively simple for most of the alphabet, but letters X and Z were initially problematical. Then one day a photo appeared in the Facebook group of a policeman on point duty at The Cross, the crossroads in the centre of Gloucester, with the caption that at one time this was the busiest crossroads in England. There could therefore be no better choice than to go for ‘X marks the spot’ as it had earned the sobriquet of the crossroads of England.

    That just left the letter Z. Again, a spot of inspiration came when driving back from Swindon to Gloucester one day. After descending the Cotswold escarpment on the outskirts of the city, one comes to Zoons Court roundabout. The Z problem was solved; now I just needed to research the history of the court.

    Gloucester Cathedral's tower and the cloister garden. (A-Z of Gloucester, Amberley Publishing)

    My brief was that the book should run to 20,000 words and include 100 images. The task was simplified by first producing a detailed synopsis, which stemmed from many years experience working as a technical author where a synopsis defined for the client the envisaged content of the finished document. It also avoided any later dispute where the client suggests that x, y or z should have been included.

    I was aware that there are already a large number of books about Gloucester on the market, many of them nothing more than a collection of photographs with just a single sentence caption. They leave the reader unaware as to the history or significance of what they portray. For example: how many people know that John Stafford Smith, who composed the music for the American national anthem, was born in Gloucester; or that it is the place where the oldest peal of bells in North America were cast; or that it is the place where the world’s first Sunday school was held. To make mine distinguishable from these other books, I determined that my descriptions should run to more than just a single sentence for each topic.

    As I developed my proposal I became more rigorous in what I should or should not include. Here I was guided by the book’s sub-title ‘Places, People, History’. From an initial list of over 100 topics, I selected 66 that I deemed to be of most interest.

    There were certain places that just had to be included: the docks, which was granted port status in 1580 by Queen Elizabeth I, it is the UK's most inland port, and whose old warehouses have provided ideal backgrounds for shooting scenes for many films and period television dramas. ‘The World of Beatrix Potter’ shop which replicates illustrations of the tailor's shop in Beatrix Potter’s story The Tailor of Gloucester, the actual tailor’s shop being in nearby Westgate Street. There is Baker’s Clock, the city’s most-recognisable public clock with figures representing Father Time and people from each country of the British Isles; Bull Lane, Gloucester’s narrowest street; Maverdine Passage, which conceals a medieval merchant’s house with a Georgian frontage that is reputed to be the finest example in Britain of a timber-framed town house. You also have Pinch Belly Alley, which has stones in its walls positioned to stop cattle escaping from the butchers’ quarter into Westgate Street’s upmarket merchants and Kingsholm stadium, known world-wide as the home of Gloucester Rugby, one of England’s top rugby union teams.

    Tall ships in Gloucester Docks during filming of Alice Through the Looking Glass. (A-Z of Gloucester, Amberley Publishing)

    With a history going back 1,500 years, there was plenty of scope for historic entries. You have the Cathedral, which is considered to be one of the seven most beautiful cathedrals in the world, and the only place in England outside Westminster Abbey where a king has been crowned. The New Inn, which is the most complete surviving example of a medieval courtyard inn with galleries in Britain. The Fleece Hotel, one of three major inns in Gloucester that provided lodgings for pilgrims visiting the tomb of Edward II in the cathedral.

    The choice of people to include gave plenty of options. And threw up some surprising choices: Æthelflæd, the daughter of King Alfred the Great; Sir Thomas Bell, largely unknown by most Gloucester residents but was one of the city's largest employers and one of its wealthiest citizens; Bishop Hooper, a Cistercian monk who was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake; Dick Whittington, who went to London to make his fortune, became the greatest merchant in medieval England, and was mayor of London four times; and James ‘Jemmy’ Wood who became nationally known as ‘The Gloucester Miser’, and was known as the richest commoner in His Majesty's dominions.

    Throughout the project I tried to put myself in the place of a first-time visitor to the city who didn’t have the benefit of a tourist guide. Does A-Z of Gloucester achieve this? I believe it does.

    Roger Smith's new book A-Z of Gloucester is available for purchase now.

  • Moreton-in-Marsh Through Time by Mark Turner

    When arriving at the North Cotswolds town of Moreton-in-Marsh as a fresh-faced young policeman in 1981 thoughts of producing a pictorial history of the place were probably far from my mind. Earlier, however, as a youngster raised in the Welsh border town of Monmouth, I had long been fascinated by local history, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I soon found myself thinking as much about Moreton’s historical development as its potential as a place of criminal activity. Fortunately, Moreton-in-Marsh is a low-crime area and I was able to balance the requirements of my job with my enthusiasm for local history!

    Drury's Butcher's Shop, High Street. (Moreton-in-Marsh Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    I quickly discovered that relatively little had been written about the place. A few pamphlets and essays had been compiled, certainly, but these were all well out of date, long since out of print, and difficult to obtain. Luckily, an enthusiastic local butcher had collected a few hundred old postcards of Moreton, although these were at that time being stored in the cellar of a farmhouse on the edge of town. I accessed these pictures, copied and indexed them and used them as the basis of a slide show that I then began presenting to local groups and societies. Additionally, when ‘on the beat’ in the town, I often found myself chatting with senior citizens and elderly residents – the conversations invariably turning to memories and photographs of days past. Many of these people kindly loaned or gave me old photographs of Moreton and over some years I amassed an unsurpassed local collection of historic images. To date, this collection amounts to some 1,200 old photographs. The butcher (long-deceased) would no doubt be proud!

    US Tanks, High Street Service Road. (Moreton-in-Marsh Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Inevitably, many of the photographs are of cricket and football teams, school pupils and local committees or social gatherings. Valuable though these pictures are, they do not really illustrate the town’s physical appearance. Luckily, there are numerous photographs, too, of Moreton’s streets and buildings and in many cases long-forgotten shops and business premises are shown in their heyday. I have also acquired rare and nostalgic photographs of the local railway station in the steam locomotive era, as well as nineteenth-century images of long-vanished industrial premises, such as Moreton’s rope works and former iron foundry. Particularly unusual are photographs – surreptitiously snapped by a local schoolgirl – of American tanks gathered in the High Street awaiting embarkation to France for D-Day.

    As well as giving occasional presentations of my historic pictures, I have, over the years, gone on to produce a number of books about Gloucestershire, and the Cotswolds in particular. Moreton-in-Marsh is a small town, however, and it seemed likely that my photographic collection would merely remain the basis for talks to local societies. And then I became aware of Amberley’s ‘Through Time’ series of publications and the potential at last for some of my photographs to reach a wider audience. I put forward a proposal, which was positively received, and Moreton-in-Marsh Through Time is the end result. The book, which is a beautifully-presented collection of evocative images, has been greeted with enthusiasm and is already selling well. It is likely to be of interest to local residents and visitors alike and, when walking around the town, people will find it a particularly handy guide to Moreton’s ever-changing streets and buildings. Why not get a copy and come and visit this lovely town for yourself?

    Mark Turner's new book Moreton-in-Marsh Through Time is available for purchase now.

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