I’ve just come back from a rather lovely holiday in the Forest of Dean, the small triangle of land between the rivers Wye and Severn. As you’d expect, it’s mostly forest – pretty good forest in fact, so good for shipbuilding that it was explicitly noted as a target for the Armada. But the tranquility of the forest today belies the mass of industry beginning with Roman coal and ironworking, through to some of the earliest developments in tramroad building, steelworking and mass coal production, so that by 1945 half of the male population of the region were employed in the coal industry. The following year saw the closure of the last ironworks, and by 1965 the last of the major collieries shut.
As such, the area bears a lot of resemblance to my beloved Black Country. Despite a very different physical environment, many of the characteristics of industrial regions are shared with the Black Country, with the proto-industrial regions of the North, with the tin-mining regions of Cornwall etc. The towns in the forest are overgrown hamlets, populated when industry arrived, as compared to the older market towns of Ross or Monmouth, nearby. That means the housing and industry sprawl around the edges of the plantations, that there are large areas of reclaimed industrial land and that remains of this history can come upon you unexpectedly.
We stayed in the hamlet of Ellwood, south-east of Coleford. Driving in, it’s an unassuming place: sheep wander the roads, there’s a village school, a Methodist and a Christadelphian chapel, houses scattered rather haphazardly, all surrounded by vast, mixed forests. The clues are there though. Those chapels represent working class religion, not state-sponsored: Methodism and the various streams of unitarianism were strongly linked to working class populations. Opposite the cottage is a grassy knoll – less like that of Dallas 1963, more like a grassed over refuse heap from a colliery. And behold, the OS first revision from 1903 reveals an engine house, refuse heap and coal level disappearing into the hillside, likely to be part of either the Hopewell or Ellwoodgreen Collieries nearby. Looking at the photo above also gives you some idea of how the topography of the land can strongly suggest its previous uses.
Venture through the woods and you’ll find the ruins of a large stone structure – again, this is clearly marked on the old maps as the Darkhill Ironworks, a place of massive significance in the industrial history of this country, where David Mushet and his sons opened an experimental furnace given over more to R&D than to production, working with alloys and “Mushet Steel”. The path around this is the former Severn & Wye Railway branch to Coleford.
Aside from the obvious difference that there’s a forest in one and not in the other, there seems to me a great deal of spatial similarity between the Forest of Dean and the Black Country. Both were the site of pioneering advances in industry and technology, and whose landscapes are permanently marked by their human history as well as their natural. Compare the Black Country Landscape Characterisation with the Forest of Dean; you could get some serious meta-analysis out of there. Although the Black Country has taken on a much more urban character since industrialisation, I’d be interested to see if the same issues affect both areas now: practical ones like where and how to build housing when there’s mines everywhere underneath; societal ones like a culture of identity within the area; even economic ones – I wonder if this out-of-the-way part of Gloucestershire sees any of the economic deprivation of the built-up Black Country.