In west Gloucestershire, marked by the rivers Severn and Wye, we find the Forest of Dean, a large tract of woodland and waste land reserved for royal hunting before 1066. It remains the second largest of the principal Crown forests in England. (List of Royal Forests can be found HERE.) The forest likely got its name from a manor called “Dean,” found in the northeast corner of the forest. It is where the Forest’s administrative centre was located in the late 11th Century. The name Forest of Dean was recorded circa 1080.
In the 13th Century, the Forest of Dean extended northwards as far as Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, Newent, and Gloucester. From that time, the forest encompassed 33 Gloucestershire and Herefordshire parishes. It contained a central, uncultivated area retained for the Crown. “Revised bounds, perambulated in 1300 and accepted by the Crown in 1327, reduced the extent of the Forest to the royal demesne and 14 parishes or parts of parishes, most of them, like the demesne itself, in St. Briavels hundred. After 1668 in practice, and after 1833 officially, the Forest comprised the royal demesne only. The changes in the bounds over the centuries are described below. The royal demesne remained extraparochial until the 1840s when, villages and hamlets having grown up within it, it was formed into the civil townships (later parishes) of East Dean and West Dean and into ecclesiastical districts. After mid 20th-century changes the bulk of the former demesne land belonged in 1994 to the civil parishes of West Dean, Lydbrook, Cinderford, Ruspidge, and Drybrook.” (Forest of Dean: Introduction)
The Forest of Dean was a significant producer of oak timber, especially important to the British Royal Navy.
Lord Nelson wrote of the forest:
“The Forest of Dean contains about 23,000 acres of the finest Land in the Kingdom, which I am informed, if in high cultivation of Oak, would produce about 9200 loads of timber fit for building Ships of the Line every year; that is, the Forest would grow in full vigour 920,000 trees.
“The State of the Forest at this moment is deplorable, for if my information is true there is not 3500 Load of Timber in the whole forest fit for building and now coming forward. It is useless, I admit, to state the causes of such a want of Timber where so much could be produced, except that by knowing the faults we may be better enabled to amend ourselves.
“First, the generality of trees for these last fifty years have been allowed to stand too long. They are passed by instead of removed and thus occupy a space, which ought to have been replanted with young trees.”
(To read the entire letter, visit Woodland Heritage, which reproduced the letter. Reproduced with the kind permission of “The Mariner’s Mirror” – Journal of the Society for Nautical Research. Go HERE.)
The forests also contained beech and chestnut trees, especially near Flaxley, providing the name for the woods called the “Chestnuts.” Hazel, birch, sallow, holly, and alder could also be found. ” In 1282 various ‘lands’, or forest glades, maintained by the Crown presumably as grazing for the deer, included several with names later familiar in the Forest’s history, Kensley, Moseley, Cannop, Crump meadow, and Whitemead (later a part of Newland parish). Numerous smaller clearings called ‘trenches’ had also been made as corridors alongside roads for securing travellers against ambush or for the grazing and passage of the deer. Larger areas of waste, or ‘meends’, such as Clearwell Meend and Mitcheldean Meend, lay on the borders adjoining the manorial lands, whose inhabitants used them for commoning their animals.
“Much ancient woodland was destroyed to make charcoal for the iron industry in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the re-establishment of the woods was encouraged by a policy of inclosure begun in the 1660s and designed to produce shipbuilding timber. The policy faltered during the 18th century but in the early 19th century large new inclosures were again formed and planted almost entirely with oak. A few Weymouth pines planted before 1787 were apparently the first conifers introduced to the Forest, and conifers were widely planted in the 19th century to shelter the young oak plantations. Large plantations of pure conifer were made during the 20th century and threatened to dominate the woodlands before 1971 when a policy of keeping equal proportions of coniferous and broadleaved trees was adopted. In 1994, when the Forest was more thickly planted than for several centuries, it included isolated late 17th-century oaks, park-like areas of early 19th-century oak preserved mainly as an amenity, and large plantations of oak, beech, fir, and spruce managed for commercial purposes.” (Forest of Dean: Introduction)
According to History of the Royal Forest of Dean tells us, “The 19th century saw the major development of industry. Enterprise and innovation combined with rich natural resources brought inventions, investors and workers to the Forest from many parts of Britain. Industrialisation demanded improved communications and better transport links. In the late 19th century original tram roads were converted to railways with all the Forest towns connected to the main lines bordering the area and linking with the docks at Lydney. Lydney Harbour has recently been restored to preserve its historical importance as a key player in the industrial development of the Forest of Dean.
“As a woodland, the Forest of Dean has played an important part in the heritage of Britain especially from the 17th century when the oak timber, and indeed iron, became important for the expanding shipbuilding industry. The exploitation of the area’s timber and iron ore resources continued throughout the Civil War but in 1649 recommendations were made for the conservation and management of the Forest. This was pursued by a Commission whose long-term work was scuppered by growing demand from the Navy. It was not until the Dean Forest (Reforestation) Act 1668 that effective management commenced, albeit dogged with trouble for another 120 years. During a visit to the Forest in 1802, Lord Nelson highlighted that the ‘finest timber in the kingdom’ was in a deplorable state. Consequently 30 million acorns were planted across 11,000 acres, but the oak was redundant before half grown thanks to its rapid replacement in shipbuilding by iron and steel!
“Despite further demands during the war years, the Forest, due to careful planting and felling programme’s, has maintained much of its traditional appearance. In addition, much of the war-time felling was replanted with oak and other broad leaved mixtures. The National Forest policy of 1958 emphasised the need for timber production but highlighted the need for due regard to amenity and recreation.”
Resources and Additional Reading:
Forest of Dean: Introduction ~ pages 285 – 294 A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 5, Bledisloe Hundred, St. Briavels Hundred, the Forest of Dean. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1996. ~ Read Online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol5/pp285-294
History of the Forest of Dean by Stephen Baker