The Wye valley, and the Forest of Dean that the river Wye runs past, lie on the border between Wales and England, west of Gloucester. The Olympic torch will leave Gloucester today heading westwards before veering off north to arrive at Worcester, taking in some particularly beautiful countryside on its way.
The forest of Dean is very ancient woodland with a long history of human intervention including mining for coal since Roman times, iron working, charcoal burning and, of course, forestry. As the second largest Crown forest in England after the New Forest, hunting in the forest was reserved for royalty only. Those born in the forest are known as Foresters, and have certain rights, including the right to graze sheep in the forest, the right to operate a coal mine on the land.
The forest these days is managed by the Forestry Commission, who operate an enlightened policy of providing facilities and information for visitors to the forest, and the area has become a major tourist attraction and a great place to take a family for a holiday, with large and well-managed campsites in the middle of the forest, properly maintained cycle paths throughout, and plenty of information available about the flora and fauna you can expect to see as you wander through the woods. It has long been one of my favourite places for a short break.
There are some intriguing place names such as ‘Speech House’ and ‘The Pludds’, and there’s a small area of woodland on sloping ground, which is called ‘Boys Grave’. A name like that requires explanation, and the Forestry Commission explanatory leaflet I read explains the legend and the likely derivation of the name, http://www.freewebs.com/edwardhunt/boysgrave.htm but I always found that less than satisfactory. Some years ago, the inspiration hit me and I wrote a short story around it, giving an explanation for the place name that I find much more satisfactory.
My story is collected with some of my other stuff here: http://www.bruinscave.org.uk but it’s only short so I’m reproducing the whole thing here. I hope you enjoy it.
Utha worked steadily through the middle part of the day and by mid-afternoon he had two dozen big trout in his keep net. In other circumstances he would have been enjoying himself, ankle-deep in the ice-cold melt-water and with the hot sun beating down on his tanned back and shoulders as he worked to outwit the fish. But today was different. He worked mechanically, his limbs leaden, his mind elsewhere. He was a skilled angler and steadily increased his catch, but the usual joy of the chase was missing, as was his usual companion.
He and Ioan had been friends all their lives. It wasn’t inevitable, but they were the only boys of their age who lived in the manor enclosure and so they were thrown together, and being gregarious and good-natured, both had found in the other a friend. As infants, they had played together in the dirt, and they had learned to walk together, learned to talk together, and what schooling they received they received together, by dint of the blunt refusal of Ioan to be separated from Utha for the duration of his lessons. When they reached the age of twelve, Ioan was expected to accompany his father managing the estate, while Utha was assigned tasks around the farm, but they still found plenty of time to be together and exchange notes on their experiences.
But Ioan was Ioan ap Gwlym and heir to the great estate, firstborn son of the lord, while Utha was just Utha, son of Flagga the cook, and who knows who his father might have been? The cook had been for a time employed as wet nurse for the little lordling, since his own mother had died giving birth to him, and he retained affection for her. So the boys’ friendship was tolerated. Perhaps Ioan’s father was grateful that his son need not be lonely during his long absences on business or military matters, or perhaps he recognised the bond that existed, unspoken, unnamed, between the two boys.
Now they were both fifteen years old, and deemed to be adults and entitled to join the revelry that accompanied the solstice celebration at midsummer. By tradition the lord held a banquet in the great hall and all his tenants and servants were invited. Both Utha and Ioan took their places, Ioan by the side of his father and Utha below the salt, at the far end of the long table. It was the first time either had been allowed to attend the twice-yearly feast, and the first time Utha had tasted the sweet mead that was made available in quantity. Mutton was served on great wooden platters, and once the platters were empty they were replaced with more, until the stomachs of the guests filled and bulged and everyone felt kindly towards everyone else. The great lord, dressed to impress in his furs and gold chains, left his seat at the head of the table and, accompanied by his son, worked his way down the table exchanging a few condescending words with each of his guests as he went.
It might have been the unfamiliar sensation of a full stomach, or it might have been the flagons of mead with which he had washed the mutton down, but Utha’s head was spinning a little, and he found he was not quite in control of his movements. Nevertheless he was delighted to see his friend approach in the wake of his father. And while the lord spoke to the farrier who was sitting across the table, Utha grabbed hold of Ioan’s forearm and pulled him close. He stood, but the other occupants of the bench remained sitting so he was not able to straighten up, and lost his balance, ending up clutching at Ioan with both arms. Undaunted, he spoke to his friend, spoke in a way he had never spoken before. It was his intention to whisper a few words into Ioan’s ear, but his voice was being rebellious and his few words were clearly audible above the general cacophony, at least to those nearby. Most were not paying attention, but the lord, Ioan’s father, turned away from his conversation for a moment in time to see Utha with his arms wrapped around Ioan, and to hear the words, words that should never have been spoken, would never have been spoken if Utha had not drunk so much mead, or if he had been used to its effects.
The lord said nothing, turned back to his conversation, but for a minute or two, the clenching and unclenching of his fists indicated that he was struggling to bring his temper under control. Ioan extricated himself from Utha’s clutch, red with embarrassment, spoke clearly but quietly through gritted teeth: “You’re drunk. Pull yourself together. I’ll come and find you tomorrow.” And he followed his father onwards to exchange platitudes with more of the guests.
Utha had been drunk, in the bright sunshine the next day he realised that, but not so drunk that he forgot what he’d said, or forgot that the lord had overheard. As he fished, he assumed that he would lose his life over it. He didn’t know how, or when, but he was sure he would be killed. Hope, which his natural youthful optimism had squandered, was now almost at an end. For himself he had only the hope that he might see Ioan one more time before he died. His great remaining hope was for Ioan, that he would not be made to suffer over it. He could bear anything but that, he thought.
He caught a sound coming from the wood that sloped down to the river. A horse, ridden at a brisk trot. Perhaps this was Ioan, come to find him? He turned in the water in time to see the rider emerge from the trees, but this was no slight youth but a big, thick-set man of advanced years, well over thirty, Utha thought. He waded out of the water and stood ready to meet the visitor, reasoning that running would be futile. The man, in expensive black leather jerkin, swung himself down from the horse and Utha recognised the lord’s steward. No words were exchanged. Utha knew better than to speak before he was spoken to, and the steward chose not to speak. He strode straight up to the boy and, without breaking his stride, drew a knife from a scabbard at his waist and plunged it deep into Utha’s chest, twisting it viciously before withdrawing it and then dunking it in the water to wash it clean. He stood for a moment above the crumpled body of the boy, made the sign of the cross against his chest and returned to his horse.
The value of life, unless that of a nobleman, was not high in those times, and the death of one bastard farm hand did not arouse much comment. But Utha was mourned. He was mourned by his mother in public, and by Ioan in private. It was Ioan who buried the body, right there beside the river. As far as he knew nobody saw him do it, but the place became known as Boy’s Grave. He never forgot his childhood friend, but he left no heir and the noble family line died with him. The local people quickly forgot the origin of the odd place name. The grave is no longer visible but you can find where it must have been if you look for Boys Grave on the Ordnance Survey map of the Forest of Dean.
Local historians tell the story behind the name. A thousand years have passed and the story has become altered with time. They tell of a legend about a gypsy boy who camped at the edge of the wood, went to a spring to drink and accidentally fell on his knife and died. But the less fanciful of them like to add that it seems much more likely that the name is derived from Norman French, Bois Greve, meaning Sloping Wood.
© Bruin Fisher July 2009