After seven years of living overseas, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I started to write a novel, it was about my roots — almost literally. The Forest of Dean is a bit like the drummer in the band; hidden behind its louder, better-known mates — like nearby Cheltenham, the Cotswolds, the Welsh Valleys — and favoured by a select, contrary few. It’s 42sq miles of ancient mixed woodland and one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, containing limestone cliffs, sweeping river views, and magical forest paths that twist and turn through moss-covered trees.
As Dennis Potter, the Forest’s most famous son, put it: “It’s a strange and beautiful place, with a people who were as warm as anywhere else, but they seemed warmer to me.” Storytellers have long seen the possibilities of this secret landscape; as well as Potter’s works, it’s credited with being the inspiration for Middle Earth in JRR Tolkien’s books, and has featured in everything from Doctor Who to Star Wars, as well the Harry Potter books.
I wanted to take my seven years of latent homesickness and bring them home, to write a novel about what it’s like to live somewhere where your world view is shuttered by the trees that surround you, while your cosmic insignificance is writ large by these same trees. But I wasn’t brave enough (yet) to write about the now, so I moved my emotions back 70 years, to the Second World War. And though I no longer live there, I took myself back to the Forest of Dean, to imagine what it would’ve been like to be so far from conflict but in so many ways, central to it.
The war saw the Forest communities expand as new people joined the ‘old growth’ — families who’d lived here for generation upon generation. Evacuees were billeted in local homes, often in stark isolation and amid the eerie calls and crackles of the woods. Camps were built for American GIs who were said to have stored the ammunition used for D-Day in disused mine shafts. There were also more enticing rumours claiming that upon departure, the same GIs had stored Harley Davidsons in the same mine shafts, planning to come back for them one day. Many a teenage boy in the subsequent years found a map of the old mines and made plans to go Harley-hunting. Land girls and the ‘lumberjills’ (members of the newly formed Women’s Timber Corps) were also trained here before setting out into the woods to cut down trees for post-Blitz rebuilding.
Perhaps most compelling, and unthinkable in today’s world, was the POW camp, Camp 61 in Wynol’s Hill, near Coleford. It’s been removed now, but was one of more than 500 set up around the country to house both Italian and, later, German POWs. In the Forest, the Italians worked alongside the lumberjills, charming them with their renditions of opera as they trimmed hedges in the autumn.
The great joy of a forest is that, despite the changes wrought upon it by war or age, it’s easy to imagine how it would’ve been to be a foreigner. To have been captured in the African desert and shipped here via rickety truck, only to end up in a land of endless evergreen, amidst a warm, shy population whose dialect was so strong there was almost no point in trying to do anything but nod and smile. To set foot inside the forest is to easily step back 70 years. Leaves like jewels drift down in greeting, floating to the floor or brushing past your face by way of hello.
It’s hard not to feel like a 1940s bride, ducking through the lychgate to a veil-full of confetti as the colours flutter and twirl all around you. The seasons’ changes mark the passing of time, as they would’ve done for POWs denied any real news or a timepiece: bluebell woods, babbling brooks, tiny little ponds for summer bathes accessed by twisting, made-up lanes and oaks whose dry, amber leaves mark the start of winter.
The Forest has been here since Saxon times and will continue to thrive far beyond my lifetime. And in the meantime, I’ll tell the stories I find among its gnarled branches, and tread carefully amidst the weight of history and the unknowable possibilities of the future.
Shelter is the debut novel of environmental campaigner and Gloucestershire native Sarah Franklin, and is published by Zaffre. RRP: £7.99.
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)