With a population of nearly 8,500 Coleford is technically the largest community in the Forest of Dean District in the county of Gloucestershire. The town itself, however, is relatively small with the population of the parish boosted by a number of outlying settlements, chief among which are Mile End, Broadway, Coalway and Milkwall.
As a centre for services, it throws its net even wider to villages such as Berry Hill, English Bicknor, Newland, Sling, Clearwell and Ellwood. The town centre’s compact size means the countryside is never far away and it is easy to reach by car with excellent parking and arguably the best shopping facilities in the Forest of Dean.
The Market Place is no longer the site of a regular market, but is nevertheless an invaluable space which makes Coleford the ideal location for public events. A small walk away are several car parks at Railway Drive and the 1980s Pyart Court shopping precinct.
The headquarters of the Forest of Dean District council are located here as well as the area offices of the Forestry Commission (which administers the upkeep of the Crown lands in the Forest), so Coleford can legitimately claim to be the administrative capital of the Forest. With no undue emphasis on any of the towns, however, part of the character of the Forest settlements is that they share facilities and resources.
At this point it is worth discussing what is meant by The Forest of Dean. The modern day local government district of that name covers a region stretching from the confluence of the Severn and Wye rivers and the Welsh border north-eastwards almost as far as Tewkesbury.
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.
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 well known hotel and restaurant. 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 to the Forest, 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.
The town centre sits in a gentle valley with St John Street and Bank Street climbing out to the north, and Lords Hill and High Street climbing out to the south. Gloucester Road runs north-eastwards to the valley head whilst Newland Street drops south-eastwards along the course of Thurstans Brook.
The traditional shopping area is along the roads which radiate from the market place. The closure of Coleford’s large railway yard presented a major opportunity to expand this area. This led to the speculative development of the Pyart Court shopping precinct in 1987 by local property developer Clive Bath. The design of the complex was revolutionary at the time, allowing shoppers to browse shop windows under cover.
Notwithstanding the town’s limited size and the fact he was almost doubling its retail capacity, Bath estimated Coleford could tap into a catchment area with a population of 20-22,000. Although some businesses closed in the Market Place, the overall footfall did increase and Coleford can now arguably boast the Forest’s most attractive shopping environment.
Landscaping and extensive free parking enhance access to both Pyart Court and the historic centre of the town and additional services such as doctors and vets have located there.
Talks are now under way to relocate the library and community centre to the Railway Drive area as well, further concentrating services within an easily accessible area and pulling the town’s centre of gravity further south.