Guest col­umn: Sarah Franklin

How a child­hood spent wan­der­ing in the For­est of Dean sent me on the trail of the wartime ‘lum­ber­jills’…

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents -

The ac­claimed de­but nov­el­ist.

DECADES AGO, IN THE first flush of sen­ti­men­tal ro­mance, I de­tailed all the ways in which my hus­band-to-be had im­proved my life. Then, I asked him what he felt I’d brought to the re­la­tion­ship. He didn’t even pause to think. ‘ Walk­ing.’

I grew up in the For­est of Dean, 204 square miles of an­cient wood­land that’s been used for in­dus­try and leisure since Saxon times. The great joy of a for­est is that if you want to get to know it, it’s go­ing to be on foot. More of­ten than not, your walks will take place across ter­rain that isn’t made for fast marches.

The wind­ing, root-strewn paths are per­fect for chil­dren. I spent hours in the for­est as a child. We wouldn’t go far; there was no need when a square foot of for­est floor would pro­vide end­less sources of cu­rios­ity. As a teenager, lib­er­ated by drivers’ li­cences as only ru­ral kids can be, my friends and I would find our­selves driv­ing back into the very for­est we now had the means to leave.

We’d make grass skirts out of ferns and wade through brooks, or climb the hill from Beechen­hurst to the ‘Gi­ant’s Chair’ made from 20 foot oak trunks. Those Forestry Com­mis­sion gates de­not­ing a car park or en­trance to a wood­land quicken my heart even now. They sig­nify peace, and ad­ven­ture, and a world of mys­tery and dis­cov­ery. This ‘ heart-shaped land’, as char­ac­ter­ized by lo­cal-born writer Den­nis Pot­ter, was at the heart of the min­ing and forestry in­dus­tries right up to World War II, where it took on a new role as a place of sanc­tu­ary for many.

I learned about the his­tory of the for­est or­gan­i­cally, on many a tramp through it. Vis­it­ing a cousin who lived in the For­est, we walked to a pub pass­ing old mi­ne­shafts where, it was ru­moured, GIs stored am­mu­ni­tion used for D-Day. Else­where in the for­est, the im­pact of in­tense foresta­tion dur­ing that time still makes it­self known in the rows of spruce all lined up and ready for felling. Dur­ing the war, tim­ber was in great de­mand. Since many men had been con­scripted, the need for wood led to the found­ing in 1942 of the Women’s Tim­ber Corps.

I was in­trigued by the phys­i­cal na­ture of the work and by the free­dom th­ese young women were blessed with. Of­ten they’d travel miles, armed only with ra­tions and dif­fer­ent coloured chalks, which they’d mark on tree trunks de­not­ing the us­age of each spec­i­men. Tim­ber work­ers fol­low­ing on would know that this tree was for a pit prop, this one for a tele­graph pole and so on. Once the trees were felled the lum­ber­jills would help to de­liver them to the rail­way dock.

Whilst re­search­ing my novel Shel­ter, which fo­cuses on a felling team con­sist­ing of a young lum­ber­jill and an Ital­ian POW, I walked many of th­ese same miles that they do in the book. I walked round the edge of the lake at Mal­lard’s Pike amongst the am­ber and ochre leaves of the set­ting sea­son, or perched on the cliffs at Sy­mond’s Yat, miles of for­est spread out be­low, and watched the pere­grine fal­cons.

I knew that even decades ago, my char­ac­ters would have ex­pe­ri­enced the same short­ness of breath, the same won­der at the beauty of this land­scape. The sea­sons, too, dic­tated the ac­tion, and to get it right I’d go out in all weathers, march­ing along mulchy paths in No­vem­ber to ob­serve the shine of leaves as they piled be­neath my feet, or seek­ing out the shade of the trees be­side the brook at Wench­ford in sum­mer. It was easy to imag­ine the young men and women who worked here 70 years ago, pre­serv­ing the woods de­spite the pres­sure on them, and leav­ing them for us to en­joy to­day.

SARAH FRANKLIN’s ac­claimed de­but novel Shel­ter is avail­able now; £8, pub­lished by Zaf­fre.

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