My Forest Life
When ordinary folk were granted the right to roam once-private hunting grounds, special Verderers’ Courts were set up to protect the land. Katie Jarvis met up with Bob Jenkins, the Senior Verderer in the Royal Forest of Dean.
Katie Jarvis meets Bob Jenkins, longestserving Verderer
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest. As important in its time as Magna Carta, this groundbreaking document gave back to ordinary folk the right of access to land that William the Conqueror and his successors had commandeered as their own private hunting grounds.
In places such as the Royal Forest of Dean, special Verderers’ Courts were set up: officers appointed by the Crown to protect the forest and to punish offences such as poaching and the illegal cutting down of trees.
The Forest’s Verderers are still going strong as vital guardians of this beautiful region of England – though, at their quarterly meetings, you’re more likely to find them discussing the problem of wild boar than poaching.
Senior Verderer is Bob Jenkins, born and bred in the Forest of Dean. The son of local publicans, he went on to become one of the area’s most respected businessmen – despite missing two years of schooling after a road accident. When he was seven – in 1940 – a coal lorry ran over his hip; as a result, he spent weeks in traction in Lydney Hospital, followed by months in plaster.
Nevertheless, he went on to play football and to spend two years doing National Service. When he was 21, his father lent him the money to set up his own garage at Five Acres – a business he’s still involved with 63 years later.
He’s a great community man, too. Among other involvements, he was a founder member of Gloucestershire Crimestoppers, chaired the Forest of Dean Council standards committee as an independent, and has headed up Forest branches of charities Round Table and Rotary.
Married to Norma for 63 years, they have a son, Nick, who runs the family motor business, and a daughter, Sally, who works in finance in London, along with six grandchildren.
Where do you live and why?
I live in the Forest of Dean, at Christchurch - 44 years in the same house - but I was born at Fetter Hill, in 1933, in the Royal Oak, which was knocked down about 40 years ago. My parents kept that pub; then, when I was a year old, they moved to the Royal Forest Inn at Mile End. In those days, 60 or 70 percent of occupations for the males was mining, and they worked three shifts. So in the mornings, when the pubs opened at 10.30 and closed at 2.30, there were as many in as in the evenings. Many of those miners kept sheep in their spare time to supplement their incomes, and they were known as sheep badgers.
Mining was pretty tough work but the miners didn’t think so – it was their life. I can remember a young lady in our class at Broadwell School: her father was killed at Cannop pit. There wasn’t much help for people, in those days.
What would often happen was that someone would organize a smoking concert – nothing to do with smoking! It was in a pub, where all the local artists would perform, and people bought a sixpenny ticket. That money went to any underprivileged family - in other words, the community rallied round.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Forest?
I like watching rugby at Berry Hill – we’ve got a very successful club – and I love to walk in the woods. I’ve been a Verderer for 25 years, which involves a reasonable amount of my time. As Verderers, we are legally bound by an allegiance to our Sovereign lady to work with the Forestry Commission to protect the vert and the venison. The vert means anything that grows that’s green; and the venison means wild animals. If you walked into these woods now, if you were lucky within 500 yards you could well see wild boar. The current population is about 2,000, which has multiplied from an original 12-or-so that were dumped here about 15 years ago. There’s all sorts of wildlife - fallow deer, roe deer and a very few red deer; muntjac, badgers, foxes, rabbits… You name it; it’s here in the Forest of Dean. I also love my birds. The most famous are the peregrine falcons, which are protected. They’re nesting in Symonds Yat, which is only two miles from here.
If money were no object, where would you live?
On the French Riviera! No - in truth, I’m very fortunate to live in the spot we’re in: I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But if I had money to spend on the Forest, I would encourage industry in selected places to improve the employment situation. That says it all.
Where’s the best pub in the area?
Probably the Dog & Muffler in Joyford. Pubs have changed completely: in the old days, they were beerdrinking dens - all you could buy in ours was a packet of crisps – but they’re more like restaurants now.
And the best place to eat?
The Speech House; the dining room is the Verderers’ Court. The building still belongs to the Crown; the owners lease it, and it’s currently being run exceedingly well. What would you do for a special occasion? This year is the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, which is a special occasion. The Forest of Dean has had such an interesting history. In the early 17th century it is recorded that its one-time 100,000 acres had been reduced to approximately 24,000. Mining, smelting and refining from the Iron Age and Roman times, through Saxon and Norman to Medieval, inevitably demanded large amounts of wood for charcoaling. The trees, especially oak, also played a major part in supplying the specialist hardwood timbers for warships; Lord Nelson paid a visit to the Forest of Dean.
What’s the best thing about the Forest?
... and the worst?
Too much development – commercial and residential. I mustn’t criticise planning too much because they do a good job; but it’s got to be very strictly-controlled development.
Which shop could you not live without?
Lower Lane convenience story in the filling station. I get my main shop there.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Forest?
The Forest of Dean has changed from the place not to live – because of the coal tips and the little scruffy miners’ cottages - to the place people want to live. We in the Forest of Dean believed – and I think, in a lot of cases, rightly so – that the rest of the county tended to dismiss us. We were tacked on the western side, out of the way between the Severn and the Wye, and of no importance to the rest of Gloucestershire. And that’s done a complete circle,
which is very good for the Forest.
What is a person from the Forest called?
Very simple: a Forester. There are also still free miners: to be a free miner, you have to be born in the Forest of Dean, be male, over 21, and have worked in a mine for a year and a day. That would entitle you to apply.
A lot of Forest miners were adamant that their children wouldn’t work underground because they knew how hard it was. My dad had worked as a miner but got seriously injured in a roof-fall about the time I was born, so he had to leave the pits. When I was 21, after National Service with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, I had the chance to buy Five Acres corner site with a very small garage on it. I didn’t have a bean, so my mother persuaded my dad to lend me the money. He went down to the solicitor and got an agreement drawn up. I still have it: ‘I loan my son, Robert, the sum of £2,000. Interest charged will be two percent above bank-rate; and the interest to be repaid quarterly, with the option to reduce the capital’. In default of payment, the property went to him. I’ve also got a letter written by my mother, on the instructions of my father, even though we were living in the same house. It said, ‘Dear Robert, the interest was due on Tuesday. We do not seem to have received it’. People think my father must have been a hard man, but he wasn’t; they were good people. And what a lesson that was for me, aged 21.
What would be a threecourse Forest meal?
Poached salmon; venison; and wild blackberry and apple pie.
What’s your quintessential Forest village and why?
I must say Berry Hill, which is possibly the busiest, most active village in the Forest of Dean. They have a rugby club, a church, a chapel, three pubs, a band, two old folks’ funds… and I could go on. Berry Hill is the main village; then, on the side, there’s Christchurch, Shortstanding and Joyford. When the mines closed
‘We are legally bound to protect the vert and the venison. The vert means anything that grows that’s green; the venison means the wild animals’
in 1962/3, you could have bought a cottage in Joyford for £100. Each cottage now, having been modernised, would fetch anything up to £350,000.
What’s your favourite Forest building and why?
The Speech House, without a doubt, because of its history. The building of it probably began shortly after an important act was passed in 1668 for the preservation and improvement of the Forest of Dean, but it wasn’t completed until 1680. There’s an inscription cut into the lintel of the stable door, dated 1676; and an escutcheon over the front entrance bearing the initials and crown of Charles II, with the date of 1680.
Starter homes or executive properties?
We need a controlled balance of both.
What are the four corners of the Forest?
Newland; Whitecroft; Cinderford; Symonds Yat.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Forest?
My memories of a full and happy life.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Forest?
And which book should they read?
The best books on the Forest of Dean, without any shadow of doubt, were written by Dr Cyril Hart, who was the Senior Verderer. He died in 2009, which is when I became Senior Verderer in his place.
Have you a favourite Forest walk?
Through High Meadow woods along the Wysis Way, though you do need to take a compass. You can park at the pay and display (SO564156) and exit to the south on the small track that runs alongside the B4432 for a few hundred metres before taking you deep into the forest.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Forest?
Up until the last world war, there was a miners’ demonstration in the fields at the back of the Speech House, when the whole Forest of Dean would be there. The main speaker was usually the member of parliament of the day, and there would be all sorts of pageant, circuses and entertainment.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
What greater pleasure could one have than spending 24 hours, day and night, in the middle, in the springtime, of our High Meadow woods, watching the vert and the venison.
To whom or what should there be a Forest memorial?
There should be three. The first to Dr Cyril Hart, who did more for the Forest than anybody I know. The second to Dennis Potter [the television dramatist], who was a Berry Hill boy. I knew him – he was a miner’s son, as was Cyril Hart. And the third to the greatest entrepreneur the Forest has ever seen: John H Watts. What attitude best sums up the Forest?
There’s a lot of intelligence in the Forest, and they’re hardworking, too. With whom would you most like to have a cider?
With Prince William in the Dog & Muffler. I think he’s smashing.