Holidaying in the FoD in the 1880s by Alan Pilbeam

Holidaying in the Forest of Dean in the 1880s

Alan Pilbeam

Meeting of 9 November 2017

The talk was based on the book A Week’s Holiday in the Forest of Dean by John Bellows. Printed in 1880 as a pocket-sized guidebook, it was reissued regularly up until the 1960s.

Whilst the Wye Tour was at its peak in 1770 when Rev Gilpin wrote his guidebook, and Cheltenham was developing major hotels in the 1820s, the Forest did not really attract tourists until around 1880. This change was due to the combination of publication of this book and the opening of the Severn Railway bridge; with the Lydney to Lydbrook line at last giving access to the Forest. Changing at Lybrook Junction you could take trains to Ross or Symonds Yat Rock; and Bellows describes four different ways to get back from Newnham to Speech House.

Bellows was a Cornishman who moved to Gloucester when he was 20 and spent a lot of time in the Forest. He carried with him a clinometer, an aneroid barometer, a tape measure and a strip of magnesium ribbon for lighting – so there are a lot of measurements, heights above sea level and descriptions of dark places like caves. He writes about our geology, plants, picnic spots, views and where to get refreshments. For guests of Speech House he suggested giving a card to the station master at Lydney and by the time you arrived at Speech House Station a pony and trap would be waiting to take you for a hot meal at the hotel.

The Forest was divided into six Walks, each with a Lodge inhabited by a Forester. Bellows suggests that visitors prearrange for the Missus to have coffee ready, plus they could use their well and picnic in the garden.

Amongst his interesting items are: the local miners can always tell where they are underground because all the coal seams slope down towards the centre of the Forest (Speech House). He writes that deer were eliminated from the Forest in the 1850s to stop poachers and that the holly trees around Speech House were planted as winter food for the deer.

He describes the walk from behind Bicknor Court over the top of Coldwell Rocks and to the View Point. He went right out to the end of every one of those rock projections along the way – with massive drops on either side - to see the view.

He was very concerned about the loss of ferns from the Forest. They were sold at Newnham Station to fuel the Victorian fad for ferneries. His appreciation of the flora included measuring the foxgloves, the tallest were at Staunton Mead (10 feet!)

Bellows visited the supposed Roman road by Blackpool Bridge, and from his knowledge of ancient roads he had seen in Italy declared it to be the real thing. After that it was marked on OS maps as a Roman road. Unfortunately, later excavation found charcoal beneath the road which dated to the 17th Century, but it is believed the road follows the line of the earlier Roman way.

Many things have changed since Bellow’s writings:

- St Briavel’s Castle was a total ruin

- The Newland Oak (the biggest in the country at the time) is now just timber. Of course, Bellows measured it – 44 feet in girth

- Spruce Ride Walk was a 2 mile grass path between 60 foot spruces; now it is a wide track with barely a spruce in sight.