I leave my car off the main road that runs through Newnham, then follow the pavement a little way down the hill. I see a sign for Station Road. My pathfinder guide confirms what I had remembered – this is the way.
Station Road is a mix of serried and eclectic houses, all of which sound the notes of cheerful idiosyncrasy frequent to this part of Gloucestershire. The road swings around to the right, and I leave it in preference for a smaller lane. Before it becomes an uneven track, I pass a stile in the hedge between two houses. A group of families are holding an event. It must be apple day, or something close. Children weave in and out of adult clusters. The fruits are dropped into an old-fashioned press, like votive comestibles to feed the fertility of a matriarchal deity. In the bustle I almost miss the path, but some of the locals marshal me with smiles to unveil the way-mark.
Out of company and with the village behind me, the path marks a familiar line across the fields towards a gate behind the hump of a hill. The field is empty except for a dog walker, who subverts the route, in a way that only local knowledge can, by skirting along the hedge. Shortly after, I become lost, which is a poor start and a poorer portent for a four-hour trudge in the autumn of daylight. Still, my general sense of direction keeps me going. I end up following the road to Littledean, on the right side of which I rediscover the path and a view over to the Cotswolds, a vista grand enough to inflate the price of local houses.
I turn sharply onto a road narrowed by the grip of high hedges. Littledean is known for its historical jail, which I have never visited. Increasingly, it’s also known for a part-excavated temple to Sabrina, the Roman goddess of the Severn – a site built in view of the river’s horseshoe meander and the sacral mysteries of its famous bore.
My road, however, leads only to the forest. At its boundary I pick up a track, managed and made by foresters and the continuing clearances of the Forestry Commission. The track trails over the crest of the hill and cuts a gentle line of descent down the far side, into the valley. Clearances mean that it’s possible to see the shape of the fissure in the land, carrying the stream at its base into the ponds at Soudley. The track becomes boggy and broken towards the bottom before it drops into a car park, and from there I pick up the beginnings of the trail ahead.
The fish ponds, my guide instructs me, were once thought to have been fashioned by the monks at Flaxley Abbey. The dark, still water looks as if it hasn’t moved or changed since the cistercian house was dissolved and absorbed by the tumultuous thrust of early modern life. In fact, they were the fancy of a nineteenth century industrialist. If the medieval atmosphere dissimulates their true origins, this is an impish inversion of the experience that lies ahead, where the historical littering of enterprising engineers has sunk into the once royal demesne of rich woodland.
The stream, wrapped by the impressive presence of Douglas firs, has been damned at several points, creating the celebrated swellings, until they culminate in the last and largest. Morgan’s pool is cut off by a road and the surroundings have been trimmed and tidied to catch the light, cultivating a picture fit for postcards.
I follow the road by the heritage centre which was once a mill, and pick up the trail by sneaking along the curb, until the path leaves the road at a bridge. The mill and the engineered elegance of the ponds announce the feats of industry that lie ahead. It isn’t long before I pass the blocked entrance to The Hale – at the time, the longest railway tunnel in the world and the route by which fruits of the earth were transported down to the docks at Bullo Pill on the Severn. Beyond, and plotted along the winding way of the stream, are foresters’ cottages, the remains of labouring life now refurbished and renovated with log-burning stoves for the comfort of holiday homes and pensioners retired into the quiet of country living. Behind them it’s just possible to spot the huts and homes that didn’t stand the test of time, and which have since relinquished life to overgrowth, moss and the sinewy fingers of ancient branches.
The once spirited business of the valley is plain enough to see: it was a forge, a mill, a mine – a resource, marshalled, managed and wrenched ruthlessly by the tempestuous spirit of an age pioneering new opportunities and pulling living standards and life expectancy up by the bootstraps.
The energy and faith in the powers of mass-producing machines, greased by the availability of capital, cut through the quiet of the old medieval hunting ground to foster a bustling hive of activity. The traces of this hustle lie everywhere, and haunt the folds and turns of the valley. Powered by the small crust of coal beneath the surface, it looks like the remains of an early prototype for an industrial economy. This was an economic model, tried and tested in similar places around the country, and which we have since exported to the world.
Bold, innovative, optimistic, transformational, rational and universal – all words which might describe the pioneering adventure. Its output would have fuelled the collective sense of a new age or a new Jerusalem, born by sweat and toil. Its apocalyptic, hard radicalism – which libertarian exponents today long to rekindle – came to expression in grand theories which parcelled up the outdated dogmas and superstitions of the past, so they might be overcome in the present.
For some this was all part of the long decline of feudalism, hierarchy and tradition, in which the flimsy intuitions of belief and the arcane speculations of metaphysics finally gave ground to scientific fact. At last the feted foundations of natural philosophy had delivered discrete units of improvement, a challenge to the historical norms of penury and poor health. Engineers built with the dauntless vision of the Romans, more people embarked on risky ventures to throw off the shackles of their class, consumers delighted in the flourishing variety of goods at affordable prices, and the population quadupled, especially in the expanding centres of urban industry. And advances in technology created the conditions in which anyone, from the upwardly mobile middle classes to women, could threaten the assumptions of the old social order. Progress was very real and heralded, in the words of one theorist, a ‘transition towards a true and final doctrine.’
In fact, many of the things about my life now were fashioned by the experiments undertaken in places like this valley. The car I drove to Newnham, the clothes I wear, the rucksack on my back and the (late) lunch it contains, the mobile phone in my pocket, the fact that I can spend a leisurely afternoon on a four-hour walk – all these and many more rest on foundations built and furnished by generations before me. A contingent view of things might even say that the soft cultural hinterland of my thoughts – including these words – is itself a luxury made possible by the advances of industrialisation.
For all that, it’s impossible to follow this long, ambling trek without noticing that the bright new spectacle, burnished by the ambition of nineteenth century endeavour, has been overrun. The forest and hillside, which had been forced into retreat, have re-asserted their place. To subsist, the marks of old industry have adapted so they might blend into the landscape. The cottages have become traditional country cottages and their heritage appropriated to lend each home character rather than utility. The valley, much like the wider forest, has become a place for leisure and tourism. Like the pools at Soudley, it has been romanticised, so that it might celebrate and glorify the forest rather than dominate it.
This small romantic movement does not charter a place for nature, but has yielded to it over time. Now that the economic weather has changed, the medieval and ancient woodland has returned. Not that it ever really went away, but the scar has started to heal, making way for an old colour and complexion. All the haunting echoes of its long history follow. The ‘true and final doctrine’ is not quite final, and perhaps a little less true. Rather, it is just a recent layer in the strata of time. Behind it, lies a history of foresters who had gradually established their presence and rights, then enclosed the meends and other areas of common land so they might fell its fine oak to support the growing size of the mighty Royal Navy. Kings had kept these early entrepreneurs at bay until the seventeenth century. Between then and the Norman Conquest the forest and its population of fallow deer and boar had been the stage for royal sport, and a home for swashbuckling nobility, like William Marshall, its archetypal knight. Behind the Normans and the Plantagenets, the area formed part of the frontier fashioned by Mercian kings, who had beaten the ‘strangers’ native to Briton into a westerly retreat where they took refuge behind a veil of Celtic magic and nostalgia for a distant Roman past.
It’s this odd counterpoint of jaded modern industry, set against the long spectre of time that makes the whole area so strange and beguiling. Cinderford, Lydney or smaller centres like Lydbrook, have all the familiar traits of the working communities which developed a century and half ago – working men’s clubs, football and rugby teams, even brass bands. But go for a short walk beyond them, and a sense of the past runs much deeper. The voice of medieval nobility, Anglo-Saxon warriors, harrowed Britons, poachers, gamekeepers, the ghosts of felons executed in the old hunting lodge at St Briavels – they all whisper through the misted atmosphere of beech and oak.
All of which begs the question: is this what ‘progress’ will look like in the future? A simple – and literal-minded answer – might say that I am looking back by more than a hundred years, and can see that while the enterprising spirit might have left this place, it has grown and spread elsewhere, delivering changes on a scale that its early pioneers would have never imagined. But is there a more final sense that, just as industry in the forest foreshadowed its expansion, its ruin will do the same? In the long run, will our clever networks and communications infrastructure, supply chains, and modernist architecture, sink into the steady entanglements of brambles and branches, and slumber alongside the otherwise exiled mischief of Titania and her retinue of woodland spirits?
Whether it’s the Norman Conquest, the nineteenth century or the twenty first, it seems to me that it only takes a short walk to see, to witness, that it is all just a moment. And therefore to inflect any moment with more importance than another, much less declare its universality, has the hallmarks of a fairly ancient conceit. I don’t want to let my car choke up with moss and shrubs, abandon my mobile phone, the warmth and comfort of my hiking clothes, and I certainly don’t want to renounce my lunch. But all of these things, like the work of the industrialists that precede me, are resources, and as the history of the valley shows, to see it only through this lens is myopic and obdurate. It’s also, in a more personal sense, depressing. How is it possible to walk through this valley, or through any part of the forest, and look at it only as a collection of materials which can be put to efficient use? The historical stakes and incentive were no doubt great: crushing poverty and curtailed existence, married to the palpable sense that some form of deliverance was at hand, would sharpen anyone’s perspective. Except the rush to engineer and improve too easily becomes indifferent to the subtle and incremental changes of the past. Time eats this hubris whole.
All of which is reflected in the fog of economic depression which hangs over the area. Like the more major and better-known centres of the industrial revolution, the mines and ironworks went into decline in the early twentieth century and have struggled to find their feet ever since. The towns and communities are still there, but they are run down, subsisting on low-skilled jobs. Imaginations shaped only by material gain fall for easy access to fast food, recreational drugs and Bargain Booze. Farming continues, as it always has, with an air of greater affluence. Tourism and council jobs have dulled the pain of economic decline, and improvements in communications have brought more professionals from nearby cities into the area. Which means it treads an uneasy balance between agriculture, the ‘social capital’ of the new middle class and the faded lustre of manufacturing.
The forest and this valley, it might be said, are an emblem for modern England. Most human life here owes itself to the innovations of the recent industrial past, but set against the wider landscape and its history, this somehow looks small, jarring, at times even ugly. And the invocation of a longer history – the medieval castles, the cathedral in the forest at Newland, Tintern Abbey and Offa’s Dyke, the faint hints of a Roman presence – is somehow reassuring. It’s reassuring, I suspect, because objectivity and enterprise fall short. The past, and its tangled web of idiosyncratic traditions, is the larger part of who we really are.
For all that, we live with the assumptions of our progressive nineteenth century forebears and are conditioned by what was once cutting edge. Over a long course of time calculation and utility have come to trump everything else. Transaction, and the sciences of measurement and production on which it depends, have superseded the institutions that ritualise the most essential characteristics of human nature, foremost the fading Church of England. We have lauded the retail politics of parliament and possession, rather than the ceremonial and cultural politics of monarchy and its ‘mystic chord of memory’. We value individual choices and self-expression rather than mutual obligation and stoicism, individuals rather than communities, liberal secular humanism rather God and tradition, stuff rather than soul.
Except this purblind horizontal outlook is visibly inadequate, aggressively at odds with the context from which it emerges, and often oblivious to just how far it derives from it. Our direction of travel – the direction of ‘modernity’ – has roots in the triumphs of parliament and whiggish parliamentarians, liberal economists, sectarian Protestantism, empirical science and scepticism. Except all these things often came to grief where they were allowed to dominate. Our seventeenth century revolt and experiment with republicanism quickly looked like a mistake and only found good sense through a tempered role for the restored monarchy. The free-trading Manchester radicals and the social problems that followed hard on the heels of their financial success were just as quickly balanced by different strains of socialism and an enhanced role for government. Meanwhile fiery evangelicals met with the beauty and mystery of high church Tractarians.
Unlike their overgrown contemporary constructions, the ponds at Soudley blend into the woodland and the past they evoke, almost as if they are fashioned from the grain of time. This care for their surroundings is as important as it is necessary, and it’s hard not to escape the conclusion that the advances of modernity might do well to discover a similar sense of place and situation, to embrace history and institutions rather than bulldoze over them. Stuff can’t ignore its soul, any more than the valley can escape its history.
At a hamlet, the path joins a country road, which I follow over a stream, by a farm, and then join a footpath along a series of fields which rise over the rounded contour of the hill and back towards a view of the Severn. By straying at the edge of more woodland, I emerge onto a lane that leads up to Oaklands Park, an eighteenth century manor house and estate, once owned by a banker and now one of many camphill communities dedicated to providing learning opportunities for those with disabilities or other special needs. The lane becomes a road which winds gently down the hill, and along the way, passes an orchard of apple trees all ripe with bright red apples, like fruit from a children’s fairy tale.
I meet the main road, then follow it up to the sign for Bullo Pill. For extra clarity, it’s way-marked by an abandoned boat tucked under the line of trees at the edge of the road. The path wanders along the backs of houses, then through a series of paddocks at the side of the river, until eventually it rejoins the main road just before a sharp incline towards St Peter’s church at the edge of Newnham.
Henry II launched his invasion of Ireland from Newnham shortly after murdering his one-time ally turned turbulent priest. For all the centuries of changes, somehow it’s not hard to imagine his armada setting sail from this point, or to feel the presence of his retinue among the tightly packed assembly of houses. Newnham is one of those villages that, you suspect, takes pride in its heritage – or perhaps it simply sees that the past needs to live in the present.