The modern day local government district of the Forest of Dean covers a region stretching from the confluence of the Severn and Wye rivers and the Welsh border north-eastwards almost as far as Tewkesbury, although its northern inhabitants would hardly call themselves “Foresters”.
There had been a royal hunting forest in the southern part of this region before the Normans arrived. Under Norman monarchs the Forest was expanded and for a short period in the 13th century, it stretched as far as Gloucester, Newent and Ross-on-Wye. This is when we have the last record of a monarch himself actually hunting here.
After that, the bounds of the Forest proper shrank quickly as monarchs found land was more valuable to them earning rent from agriculture or used to reward loyalty. By the 17th century, the Forest in practice included only a central area just east of Coleford and has remained more or less as such ever since. Nevertheless, at 27,000 acres it is still the second largest Crown forest after the New Forest and the amount of forestry even increased towards the end of the 20th century.
More generally speaking, “Foresters” are considered to be those people living throughout the high plateau of land between the Severn and the Wye.
The peculiar status of the Forest as a wilderness not subject to the same development as other areas led to unusual legal dispositions which have to some extent survived to this day such as the right of those born in the old Hundred of St Briavels (which includes Coleford) to exploit the area’s coal resources as ‘freeminers’ (after satisfying certain conditions). There are still some small mines operating under this disposition. Another survival is the Verderers’ Court which sits periodically at the Speech House, a former royal hunting lodge to the east of Coleford (and now a hotel). The Court was founded in Norman times to administer laws relating to the preservation of game and their habitat in the Forest. Much of the Verderers’ duties were taken over by the Forestry Commission in 1927.
In 1938, The Forest of Dean became England’s first National Forest Park and is now a major public leisure resource. Every year, thousands of tourists flock here and Coleford’s location makes it an ideal centre both for walkers and those visiting tourist sites, a number of which are either in or near the town.