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  • 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.

  • 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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