Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Cinderford, Gloucestershire

Writing the Forest, 1

The Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire’s least known part, is perhaps also the least easy to know. It is long stretches of achingly beautiful woodland – a rich mix, with notable stands of oaks and hollies, to name two of my favourite species; it is also sites of abandoned industry, from Roman ironworking to 20th-century coal-mining. It is mostly rural – even the mining was rural – but there are towns too. If the countryside is visually gorgeous, towns like Cinderford and Coleford are apparently unprepossessing, the kind of places any guidebook with gloss over, or simply pass by. Tourists are directed to the rural Dean Heritage Centre to learn about the area’s history and for refreshments too – and in normal times they’ll be nurtured well there, in both ways. The comedian Mark Steel, arriving in the Forest, asked the whereabouts of the local bookshop, usually a good place to find out more about an area that’s new to you. ‘Bookshop?’ they said. ‘You’ll have to go to Monmouth for a bookshop.’ And Monmouth is in Wales.

But there is always a but, isn’t there? There’s much of interest in these places: medieval and Victorian churches; nonconformist chapels, some repurposed, some still in devoted and devotional use; a town hall or two; other incidental pleasures. Foresters are proud of their history, and some, at least, are proud of their buildings. And of those who’ve written in and about the Forest, which is where the mural in my photograph comes in.

In 2018, an organisation called Reading the Forest commissioned two murals – this one in Cinderford and another in Coleford – from the artist Tom Cousins. Each mural bears portraits of three Forest writers. The idea of the murals was both to celebrate the local literary heritage and to encourage and inspire local young people who might have an interest in writing themselves. The three writers in the Cinderford mural, the first to be painted, all lived in the town, and all their work features the Forest in one way or another. The poet Leonard Clark (1905–81) worked as a teacher and then an inspector of schools. He wrote prolifically, and a lot of his poetry was written especially for young readers; he also edited collections of poetry for children. Quite a lot of his poetry reflects on the life of the Forest and its people, and the area also plays a key part in his autobiography. Winifred Foley (1919–2009) came to fame when her stories of her youth in the Forest were broadcast in BBC Radio’s programme, Women’s Hour. Her stories, collected in such books as A Child in the Forest and In and Out of the Forest vividly recount her young life as the daughter of a miner (who was killed in a mining accident) and her time ‘in service’, performing the expected domestic drudgery for families in London, Gloucestershire and Wales. These books still find readers and are still fresh, decades after they were published. Jack Beddington (1901–86) focused his work single-mindedly on Forest life, to the extent of writing most of it in Forest dialect. Living in Cinderford for nearly all his life, he knew the place inside out (he wrote for the local newspaper for years). If the popularity of his stories and anecdotes was limited mainly to the local area, his plays reached a wider audience, as did his radio appearances.

None of these people were world renowned celebrities. But that, in a way, is the point. Writers like Clark, Foley, and Beddington deserve commemoration on their home patch. At a time when young people in deprived areas face difficulty in finding any job, let alone one that takes them into faraway worlds, the fact that people like this, from families like theirs, could make it as writers, ought to be cause for hope – that writing can be a life, and that pride in your local area isn’t a bad thing.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

A pity Joyce Latham is missed off the list. One Forest resident, living a stone's throw from the Welsh border, compared the Foresters to hobbits. Monmouth, perhaps the most English of Welsh towns, seems to live symbiotically with the Forest. Mitcheldean church and the ruined church at Lancaut might be worth a click of your camera, if not already dealt with. You can tell, walking through the woods by the Wye, when you have crossed the invisible border: on the English side they straight away have warning signs about fallen trees and at own risk, etc.!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: Note the number 1 in the heading to this post, and stand by...