Devil's Chapel: A Secret Wonderland
The Forest of Dean holds many secrets within it's green expanse, and last year I was invited to visit one of them. Scowles are strange naturally occurring pits and chasms in the ground, some of which are very deep and maze-like, and the Forest is the only place in Britain they occur. While Puzzlewood is well known to many as an area of scowles tidied up and cultivated somewhat during recent centuries, and has been the location for films including Star Wars The Force Awakens, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and a plethora of TV shows, there is another more wild, unspoilt area of these primeval features that is perhaps more mysterious.
In a stretch of woods not too far from the little town of Bream is a huge tangle of scowles which have survived thousands of years with hardly any human interference, other than attempts by the Romans to crudely mine iron ore and red ochre. Chasms and fissures yawn open in front of you, while strange cliffs display the signs of nearly two millennia of water running down their faces. Thick, lush expanses of sphagnum moss seem to coat nearly everything, and with the Hart's Tongue and other ferns sprouting everywhere this sometimes seems more like an Amazonian rainforest than an ancient English forest. Anyone who has been to Lud's Church will see some similarities here but this woodland wonderland is something else.
JRR Tolkien volunteered to help with archaeological excavations nearby at the Roman temple ruins inside the Lydney estate and while there he enjoyed exploring the scowles. This was around the time he was working on The Hobbit so this tangled otherworld was an undoubted influence on him. He also dug at Dwarf's Hill, another curious Forest place associated with the little people and where a climactic battle between Roman legionaries and the tribes of the Forest took place. We will look again at Tolkien's time here in the next article as he certainly left his mark at the temple, but here in the wilder scowles he saw something that was to become an recurring and iconic feature of his Middle Earth. A stone “doorway”, as if sealed shut by stone and marked by a gnarled tree and it's roots, lies here set into a mossy cliff. “Speak friend and enter” is what anyone seeing this mock portal would think on encountering it for the first time, but to me it is the entrance to the elven kingdom of Nargathrond as described in The Silmarillion.
Working my way through this primeval land I was eventually guided to the centre of the maze – the Devil's Chapel. Folklore abounds about this incredible natural temple and it isn't difficult to feel a real atmosphere as one descends deeper into it. Any mysterious place that puts folk on edge tends to get the “Devil's...” title in Britain and this one gets two. At the very centre of the Devil's Chapel stands the towering Devil's Pulpit! I do wonder if after the Roman's had left, the Britons of the lost kingdom of Pengwern treated this place as sacred, even though Christianity was strong by then. Perhaps even first generations of Anglo Saxons who were pagan might have made this a sacred place as the entrance has an almost ritualistic layout, guarded by a pair of megalith-like stones leaning against each other. I did see some interesting carvings on one rock face which looked too deliberate to be the ancient hacking of Roman tools, so who knows? Again – an undoubted influence on Tolkien, perhaps this was his Fangorn Forest.
The Devil's Chapel and it's surrounding scowles are home to hordes of bats, both Lesser and Greater Horseshoe, and this is a designated SSSI so if you do manage to find this lost world then please treat it with the utmost respect. Unlike it's brother Puzzlewood, this isn't a place for the elderly or young children as treacherous pits and natural shafts are everywhere, many hidden by layers of leaves and forest debris. So as things open up, perhaps you might find yourself in the Forest of Dean soon in search of it's wonders – I wish you the luck of the devil!
The Devil's Pulpit - at the heart of the Devil's Chapel
Cleft in the cliffs of the Devil's Chapel
Strange carvings in a rock within the scowles
Enter the Devil's Chapel
The sealed "doorway" that JRR Tolkien would undoubtedly been impressed by...speak friend and enter
One of the many caves within the scowles