About 12,000 years ago the ice-age drew to a close. The land warmed up; plants animals and people colonised Britain. Natural woodlands covered the land, varying with climate and altitude. Here the Small-Leaved Lime was probably the most common tree in the broadleaved woodland. This was the ancestor of our modern Forest.
The first exhibit depicts the 'wildwood' and some of the animals that lived in it, including the wolf and the roe deer. The bones of local beaver and part of a wildwood oak tree are also on display. Evidence of human activity comes from King Arthur's cave near Symonds Yat where Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) people lived about 20,000 years ago.
The tiny flint tools of Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic) people have also been found near English Bicknor, Littledean, St. Briavels, and other places in the Forest. They were hunter-gatherers; although their needs were small, gradually they began to change the landscape around them.
About 5,500 years ago, new waves of people colonised Britain. These New Stone Age (Neolithic) and Bronze age (from 1500 BC) people were the first farmers. With fire and axes fields were made in the woods. As the centuries passed, more and more woodland was cleared for crops and livestock, as indicated by scatters of flint (imported to make tools and weapons) and bronze axes found throughout the district.
Cast bronze axeheads found in the Forest. They were made and used 3000 years ago.
There are Iron Age forts at Lancaut, Lydney, Chase Hill, Symonds Yat and Welshbury. It is possible that iron mining and making in Dean began before the Roman invasion in 43 AD, although the oldest remains so far discovered are of Roman date.
During iron smelting, various waste materials are produced. They form a rocky waste known as slag. Slag from a Roman furnace near English Bicknor is displayed in the museum.
The Roman iron industry needed large amounts of charcoal. Much of the woodland was probably managed as coppice to supply the wood for charcoal making. We do not know how much, if any, natural woodland remained in Dean at the end of the Roman period.
Little is known about the Forest from the departure of the Romans to the Norman conquest. The Domesday book records settlements around the edge of the district in 1086, many of these still exist as a ring of villages surrounding the central woodlands.
The Normans introduced many new customs, including Forest Law. Domesday records twenty five Royal Forests, including the Forest of Dean. The Forest belonged to the King and all the land within its boundaries - including villages, farmland, waste and woodland was governed by Forest Laws. These protected the red, roe and fallow deer, wild boar (which the Norman Kings loved to Hunt) and the trees which gave them shelter (known as verrt and venison). A complex system of officials and courts protected the Forest. In Dean, the office of Verderer survives in unbroken succession since the Middle Ages. The present day Verderers hold regular courts at the Speech House.
At its greatest extent the Forest of Dean included all the land between the Severn and Wye as far north as Gloucester, Newent and Ross. It was probably the last refuge of the wild boar encounter England. By about 1300 AD the boar was locally extinct due to excessive hunting and loss of habitat.
During the Middle Ages the Forest was exploited for its produce and lands. The King gave parts of it away to his favourites and to the Church and monasteries. Charcoal making for the Iron industry increased and livestock grazed beneath the trees, preventing regrowth. The loss of woodland cover continued as the Forest was used and abused by all. The Royal Forest exhibit tells this part of the story.
Most Royal Forests had disappeared by 1600, but as the government grew concerned about the supply of ship building timber for the Navy, new measures were taken to protect the Forest of Dean.
Beneath the surface of the Forest lay rich deposits of iron-ore, coal and stone.Iron-ore was smelted in bloomery furnaces to produce wrought iron by the direct process. During the Middle Ages the Forest became the premier iron producing district of the realm. It is during these times that the customs and privileges of the Dean Forest Free Miner arose, possibly due to the national importance of the iron trade.
The Free Miners are men born within the Hundred of St. Briavels (which is an area with similar boundaries to the Forest of dean), aged over twenty-one, who have worked a year and a day in a Free Mine. These men enjoy a monopoly of the right to mine in Dean, in return for payment of a royalty to the Crown. These rights still exist and are regulated by a Crown official called the Deputy Gaveller.
Many of the disused surface mines nowadays known as Scowle Holes may also date from around this time.
Up to the 16th century, wrought iron was made in the Forest in bloomery furnaces without melting the metal. In 1540 a local bloomery was making about eighteen tons of iron a year.
By 1600, a new method of iron making came to the Forest - the charcoal blast furnace. The scale of this new technology was large and the plant expensive.
In the blast furnace the temperature was increased by using an air blast from bellows powered by water-wheel. The higher temperature melted the iron which was tapped as a liquid from the furnace base. This made charcoal cast iron, usually known as sow or pig iron. It was high in carbon which made it hard and brittle and, as such, of limited use. Firebacks, cannon and shot. were cast directly from some furnaces. Most of the cast iron was converted to wrought iron by reheating and hammering at a forge. This produced wrought iron which could be easily worked by the blacksmith. The charcoal blast furnaces were prolific in output compared to the bloomeries. In 1649 the Lydbrook furnace ran continuously for almost a year and in that time made 720 tons of cast iron. During the seventeenth century the Forest possessed the largest concentration of furnaces and forges in Britain. Some of the Forest charcoal blast furnaces worked into the nineteenth century. One of the furnaces was built upstream from the museum and operated from 1612 to about 1650. A scale model demonstrates the layout.
One prominent Forest iron-master was Sir John Wintour of Lydney. His furnace stood close to his manor house at Whitecross. A cast iron fireback is on display. It is dated 1630, carries the Wintour crest and the initials J.W. Alongside is the only known piece of charcoal sow iron From the Forest and other material from the Wintour manor house which was destroyed during the Civil War.
After the Civil War, the Forest was administered by the Commonwealth. Trees were planted and efforts made to protect them and the natural regeneration by making enclosures with fences and banks. These efforts were much hindered by the local people who used the Forest for their stock. In 1688, following the Restoration, an Act of Parliament ordered the eviction of squatters from within the bounds of the Forest and the making of inclosures for the growing of trees. The latter were to be chiefly oak for the Navy. The old divisions of bailiwicks and woodwardships were replaced by six new administrative areas called walks.
A hammer which was used to stamp identification marks on timber for the navy.
Each walk was provided with a lodge and a keeper. Chief amongst them was the King's Lodge, known today as Speech House. Five years later all the ironworks in the Forest were demolished to protect the woodlands from their voracious appetite for charcoal.
By 1700, the year you will reach the end of the first gallery of the museum, the woodlands of the Forest had been saved.
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