Rosemary and Rue.
Recollections of a Forest of Dean Childhood
I was born in the Forest of Dean. Not the Forest of Dean of lakes and picnic sites, of car parks and barbeques. My Forest was deep and mysterious, with a sonorous wind singing endlessly in the tops of majestic beeches, stout old oaks and dark conifers. Our "sculpture" trails were more likely to lead us through the debris of some long-abandoned little freemine or quarry. Around every corner loomed a slag-heap and the men we met walking the woodland paths were not exercising the dog but were colliers, trudging wearily homewards with white eyes luminous in black faces; clothing and boots caked with grey pit-muck. I have heard it said that the colliers often sang as they went on their way home; but I have to confess that I never heard them and am constrained to wonder what they would have found to sing about.
The Forest was not always an agreeable cradle. My earliest memory is
hearing the Crump Meadow hooter blowing in the afternoon, bringing my Father off the garden to say, wearily, "Play Day again tomorrow, Mother."
That hooter dominated my childhood as "Play Days" became ever more frequent. The cold wind of depression in the 1920's was to head into the slump of the
1930's. Familiar pits like Foxes Bridge, Crump Meadow and Trafalgar were closing, throwing husbands, fathers and sons on to the scrapheap of means-tested unemployment; exchanging niggardly wages for even more niggardly dole. There was no redundancy package and no alternative employment. In a "land fit for heroes to live in". There were bitter strikes which achieved no purpose except to etch the injustice they suffered deep into our fathers' souls.
But they were still a proud people and their poverty was not to be paraded for all to see. Our mothers patched and turned already worn-out garments, fathers worked on gardens and allotments and fed the hens and the pig as best they could - even though half of it was already "in hock" to pay the feed bill. As children, we never went hungry, and we were only dimly aware of the struggle going on around us.
Thrifty mothers would feed a family on a couple of ham bones or sixpennyworth of butcher's scraps; there were rabbits to be snared throughout the winter; beef bones were free and made nourishing soup, and plums bottled or jammed during the summer's glut made a welcome addition to dry bread. And what if our clothes were darned and patched? What if our boots and shoes too, were mended until the worn and thinning leather would hold together no longer? After all, most of our friends were in the same boat, and I don't recall any feelings of acute deprivation. Of course there were feckless families then, just as there are today. But they were usually rescued from their folly by kindly neighbours rather than "mine-by-right" hand-outs.
But, just as the nasty pill was concealed from our view in a spoonful of jam, so too the Forest compensated its children for the privations of their parents' daily grind. It was our cradle and our playground, our school and our leisure-centre. We walked in the sunshine and in the rain. We climbed the friendly boughs and played. hide and seek in the waving bracken. It was the leafy stage upon which we played out the little drama, the comedy, the tragedy, of our young lives. In its turn it became house, shop, school, even castle for our imaginative games. And, best of all, it was almost on our doorstep and it was FREE.
And so we grew up, in an age when discipline was firm, but not unbearable, and moral standards were early instilled. Any transgressions from the rules laid down by our parents earned their just reward but the smacked bottom which resulted, marked more a blow to one's pride than to actual physical pain; one soon learned however, to distinguish the difference between right and wrong. Our childhood was allowed to run its natural course with no indecent hustling into the labour market such as our fathers experienced - and certainly not an unseemly hustling into a tasteless world or commercialised consumerism and an adolescence prematurely invoked such as we so sadly see today. Our present hedonistic society would have been as alien to us as gratuitous obscenity and the micro-chip and men on the moon; our pleasures were simple and appreciated all the more because they cost next to nothing.
It was an age when broken families usually resulted from the untimely death of one - or even both - parents, rather than the casting aside of marriage vows. And most of our fathers, mindful of the brevity of their own adolescence, struggled doggedly to provide their children with a better start to life than they had enjoyed. "No bwoy o' mine'll ever goo down the pit" was a vow which was made in our home and in many another Forest family.
Our two families, like most of the families of the day, were fairly extensive ones. My two brothers and I could lay claim to four grandparents, eight aunts, ten uncles and thirty-two cousins. Add to this the aunts and uncles by marriage and a few we chose as "honoraries" and it was an impressive collection. And, taking into consideration the difficulties of travel in the 1920's and 1930's there were quite a few comings and goings as various visitors arrived at the two "old homesteads".
Now we are the "older generation". The cousins are scattered throughout the land, and even across the seas. The slender threads of kinship which held the family together have stretched and weakened and many of them are unlikely to survive into the twenty-first century. "Generations pass while some trees stand ... ", the oaks of my Forest cradle still survive - well, at least some of them do. But the two families may well not survive "three oaks". Joseph's line will end with my brother; smaller families will, no doubt, bring an end eventually to John's line.
"Time goes by" we used to sing. Alas! time stays. It is we who go.