The Forest of Dean is dragon country, where myth and legend play among the trees.
My novel, Lucid, explores the connection between our own dreams and nightmares, and entheogenic drugs such as ayahuasca and MDMA. The story is spread across the West Country and South Wales, with part of it taking place in a most unusual setting.
Ollie, the main character, suffers from vivid nightmares and sleep paralysis. His sister’s friend, Amanda, takes him on a day trip to Clearwell Caves to talk about it. Clearwell is one of my favorite places. It’s an ancient iron mine, deep in the forest, which has been worked in some form for 4,500 years.
Unless someone told you, you’d never know it was there. A small car park leads down to a café, and a path continues around the back to the entrance. There have been several reports of hauntings, and there’s an underground lake which reflects back a skeleton, painted by students in the 1960s. Further along, there’s a massive chamber where they hold concerts and Halloween parties, which functions as a craft market in winter.
It truly is a special place, especially at Christmas, when they decorate the caves with fake snow and turn each chamber into part of a story which you walk through.
My characters form an understanding there. As Amanda points out, it’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist when you’re underground. It’s a place for telling truths and keeping secrets.
Later, Ollie and Amanda get lost in Puzzlewood, which is another site about two minutes up the road, towards Coleford. It’s a mythical tangled forest with roots and vines crawling up from ancient scowls formed naturally when cave systems collapsed. It’s said to have provided inspiration for Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and it’s been used in countless screen productions such as Merlin and Doctor Who, as it’s just so unusual.
In Puzzlewood, Ollie comes face-to-face with a woman from his dreams. Just as we go to sleep each night and wake in Dream, dreams can wake in our world too.
I wanted to write about these places because my dad moved to Gloucester in my late teens, and I remember exploring them for the first time and later going there with friends. They are really special, and so ancient. It’s incredible to look up at the walls of Clearwell and see tiny pockmarks where thousands of hands have chipped away through the millennia, and the underground pools which provided water for the village before pipes were introduced.
Both of these places are fantastic to go to alone, as well. They allow you to leave everything above ground, or at the forest’s edge, and wander through your mind as much as the landscape.
There’s something extremely otherworldly about these places. About the entire Forest of Dean, to be honest. From Malvern, in the north, where Aleister Crowley went to college, to the medieval carcass of Tintern Abbey, rising from a riverbend in the south. It’s a part of the world you can truly get lost in.
Marion Grace Woolley is the author of several dark tales, including Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, Creeper’s Cottage, and Lucid. Born in the UK, she currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda, where she is attempting to build pianos.