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?

Get in­volved.

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.

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