Guest column: Sarah Franklin
How a childhood spent wandering in the Forest of Dean sent me on the trail of the wartime ‘lumberjills’…
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.