As with its Forest of Dean neighbour Cinderford, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what made Coleford what it is. The Forest was one of the most intensively industrialised regions of the early Industrial Revolution and has a history back to the Romans of coal and iron working, and the crossing of Thurstan’s Brook in the west of the region, on the way to the River Wye, must have seemed like a reasonable enough place to set up a settlement. It was originally just a hamlet in the parish of Newland, now a nearby village famous for its massive church, the Cathedral of the Forest; it didn’t gain the market which defines the centre of the town until 1642. This was in the early throes of the Civil War when the nearest market town, Monmouth, was under Royalist control, which didn’t sit easily with the Parliamentarian Coleford. The market was reinstated after the war ended, and a grand new market hall was built – the clock tower in the centre of the modern marketplace is the remaining section of that.
Coleford these days is a mixture of the old market town, and the sprawling development characteristic of industrial towns – as such it’s got a lot in common with towns like Bilston or Stourbridge in the Black Country, or the cotton towns of the West Riding, where geography and geology collide with human history. The town is surrounded by relics of mining – Whitecliff and Darkhill Ironworks are nearby, and are both very significant historical sites (if you’re into your industrial history), and you can hardly venture into the surrounding forests without stumbling across disused mineshafts or other remains.
Back in town, what looks initially like a glorified village with added industrial estates actually turns out to be quite a hive of charity shops – although not much else. The action all takes place surrounding the marketplace and clocktower, from which four streets radiate. On Market Place, you won’t find charity shops. You will find the Angel Hotel, possibly the oldest of numerous pubs and beerhouses that characteristed the early nineteenth-century town. There are several of note, but my favourite was the Cobblers Micropub – looks… interesting.
On High Street, there are charity shops. Sue Ryder is between Mushet Walk (named after David Mushet, the Scottish steelman linked with both Whitecliff and Darkhill) and Kaplan’s Cafe, which we belatedly discovered serves a full range of Turkish food, including tavuk şiş (the one thing I miss London for). I am so there next time.
It’s actually a bit unfair to say that there’s not much in Coleford. Once you start to dig (and if you can forget that it’s first thing on an incredibly wet morning) there are plenty of interesting buildings and sites – if you continued up the high street you’d find the Coleford Great Western Railway Museum, and the possibility of walking all the way to Parkend and the Dean Forest Railway along the former Severn & Wye Railway track, if that’s your thing.
Head South East on Newland Street and you’ll Dial-a-Ride – I think this is the first time I’ve seen one of their charity shops, but unfortunately, given the overwhelmingly smell of boiled cabbage, I might be a bit wary of others. A somewhat nondescript Cancer Research is around the corner, but Forest Aid is much better, with an array of all sorts of stuff, including an entire men’s room where the books are kept. I don’t know if that’s rampant sexism or just space utilisation… Further round, on St John’s Street is Opportunity Box, a bit of a treasure trove, and the pick of the bunch, the massive Dean Forest Hospice. We were a bit rain-drowned and bought just the one thing in Coleford – happily it was from here, and happily it was a rather pleasant mid-century style mirror. That is, one thing aside from a sausage sandwich at Kaplans.
I liked Coleford, despite the rain. It’s tiny, which means you can hack it around the charity shops in under an hour, or take it at a more leisurely pace. It has a lot more to it than meets the eye and would bear a proper explore, and I’m fully expecting to return next time I’m in this neck of the (literal) woods – if only for tavuk şiş.
Find: Coleford @ Google Maps
Get there: Buses from Gloucester, Lydney, or Chepstow – but cycling through the Forest would be much more fun.
Consume with: there’s quite the range actually, from the Tram Road chippy, to Kaplan’s, to the various alehouses – take your pick.
Visit: Even if you’re not a rail enthusiast, there’s still plenty to look at. Try the Puzzle Wood, Clearwell Caves or Hopewell Colliery for starters. If you’re the outdoors type anyway, the Forest of Dean offers loads of great walking.
Overall rating: four cabbages