The Lit­er­ary Pil­grim .

Evergreen - - Contents - Daisy Drum­mond

The For­est of Dean is unique. A dis­crete part of Glouces­ter­shire to the west of the River Severn and east of the River Wye, it was once used for royal hunt­ing. Self- con­tained and in­su­lar it is home to wild boar, deer and other an­i­mals and still has a rep­u­ta­tion as a close- knit com­mu­nity honed on pri­vate coal mines. The mines are nearly all gone now but much of the pop­u­la­tion re­tains its sense of in­de­pen­dence which Winifred Fo­ley de­scribed in breath­tak­ing ac­cu­racy.

Born Winifred Ma­son in 1914 in the tiny vil­lage of Bri­er­ley, she grew up in a large fam­ily when poverty was rife in the com­mu­nity and, had it not been for kindly neigh­bours, and shop­keep­ers help­ing out with food and other pro­duce on tick, even fewer would have sur­vived the harsh re­al­i­ties of the De­pres­sion.

Winifred’s first book, A Child in the For­est ( 1974), has been com­pared to Lau­rie Lee’s Cider with Rosie based on his child­hood in the Cotswold vil­lage of Slad across the other side of the River Severn. There are, how­ever, sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences. Lee was a pro­fes­sional au­thor but Fo­ley, with­out any thought of her work ever be­com­ing well- known, de­scribed ev­ery­thing in great de­tail,

some of it raw but nat­u­ral, hon­est and honourable. For this fact alone, A Child in the For­est is an out­stand­ing de­pic­tion of liv­ing hand- to- mouth in the most prim­i­tive of con­di­tions.

Flush toi­lets were un­heard of and while the privy was tech­ni­cally avail­able to all the fam­ily, many of the men used the nearby woods in or­der to leave the women and chil­dren the priv­i­lege of “go­ing down the yard” or, if the toi­lets were com­mu­nal, “go­ing down the street”. Chil­dren were plen­ti­ful but money and jobs were not. Most men were min­ers but the pay was poor and work was not al­ways avail­able. Winifred’s fa­ther was self- ed­u­cated and, when the mine own­ers sought to re­duce wages, he spoke up. It cost him his job but while he was out of work, other min­ers helped his fam­ily with coal and food.

Girls went into ser­vice as soon as they left school, and Winifred wrote lov­ingly of a kind lady teacher who treated her to a 14th- birth­day party and a trip to the cin­ema be­fore she left. After that she found work as a maid, firstly in London where she quickly learned how to sur­vive in a dif­fer­ent world, then in Stroud and Cheltenham be­fore mov­ing back to London.

Each job is de­scribed in lan­guage which con­jures up mes­meris­ing pic­to­rial images and when her fa­ther was killed in a min­ing accident her sad­ness, sor­row and dis­be­lief comes across graph­i­cally. Although by now a mar­ried woman, the loss of a man she idolised as a child was a defin­ing mo­ment in her life.

She met her cock­ney hus­band, Syd, dur­ing an anti- Fas­cist rally in 1936, and to­gether they built a life

around their chil­dren, ini­tially in London but lat­terly in the For­est. She made many friends in London and her in­sight into the ur­ban poor, es­pe­cially the idio­syn­cratic char­ac­ters, makes truly de­light­ful read­ing although dis­con­cert­ing in many cases. Mak­ing a home was not easy and of­ten a des­per­ate strug­gle. How­ever, an of­fer of bet­ter ac­com­mo­da­tion was grate­fully ac­cepted only to find they had jumped out of the fry­ing pan into the fire, the flat only be­com­ing avail­able be­cause “her down­stairs” had driven ev­ery­one else out!

They man­aged to grin and bear it through the Sec­ond World War but as the chil­dren grew older, Winifred felt in­creas­ingly like an ex­iled Forester and when an op­por­tu­nity arose, her hus­band agreed to move to Glouces­ter­shire. His job at a sawmill came with a tied cot­tage which looked ideal from the out­side but closer in­spec­tion revealed a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture. There was no run­ning wa­ter, a bucket for a toi­let which had to be car­ried through the lounge to be emp­tied, and damp­ness shared by many ro­dents and creepy crawlies.

The long quest to turn it into a home makes com­pul­sive read­ing and in due time, at the age of 60 when her chil­dren had grown up, she sub­mit­ted some of her writ­ing to BBC Ra­dio Woman’s Hour where pro­duc­ers quickly re­alised they had some­thing un­usual and se­ri­alised it. When it came out in book form shortly af­ter­wards, how­ever, she be­came al­most a house­hold name.

The rest of her story is a com­plete hoot as she was in­vited to open fetes and speak at W. I. meet­ings, some in splen­did sur­round­ings where she felt like a square peg in a round hole. Her jot­tings are witty but thought­pro­vok­ing and the reader will en­joy The For­est Tril­ogy ( 1992), A Child in the For­est be­ing fol­lowed by No Pipedreams for Fa­ther ( 1977) and fi­nally Back to the For­est ( 1981), thus com­plet­ing a life story mir­rored by mil­lions but never

pre­vi­ously fully doc­u­mented.

Winifred Fo­ley died in 2009 leav­ing be­hind a lit­er­ary legacy for which we should all be grate­ful. It is easy to for­get the past, es­pe­cially in to­day’s so­ci­ety of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion for ev­ery­thing from en­ter­tain­ment and leisure to em­ploy­ment, fam­ily and food. We need to be reg­u­larly re­minded of how our coun­try was — to mix sev­eral metaphors — forged in a for­est of poverty and el­bow grease. Life has changed be­yond all recog­ni­tion but, thanks to A Child in the For­est, we can dis­cover and re­live the past.


www. for­est- of- dean. net The Fo­ley fam­ily at home but their ear­lier do­mes­tic con­di­tions did not look any­thing re­motely as salu­bri­ous as this.


Winifred Fo­ley knew this part of Glouces­ter­shire well, just a stone’s throw from her birth­place at Bri­er­ley in the For­est of Dean. The view is look­ing to­wards Mon­mouthshire, Here­ford­shire and Worces­ter­shire.

Winifred Fo­ley


Syd and Winifred Fo­ley in later life. Her books quickly made her fa­mous and the roy­al­ties were enough to al­low them to fi­nally set­tle at Clif­fords Mesne on the north­ern fringe of the For­est of Dean. www. for­est- of- dean. net


The fi­nal Fo­ley fam­ily home was near May Hill where, if you look care­fully in the left cen­tre back­ground, you can see a clump of trees vis­i­ble for miles which were planted for Queen Vic­to­ria’s Di­a­mond Ju­bilee.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.