The Literary Pilgrim .
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.
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.