The large expanse of greenery which coats the valley of Bedburn Beck and its tributaries in County Durham is now a popular area of recreation for locals. It is, of course, known to all as Hamsterley Forest, and though it is the largest forest in the county it is a surprisingly modern creation.
Ancient woodland it may not be, but at 2,000 hectares (that’s around 5,000 acres), this popular family venue was, rather pleasingly, created during a very bleak period in our recent social history. Until it was purchased by the Forestry Commission in 1927, the huge tract of land belonged to the Surtees family and was dedicated to agriculture and shooting; but very soon after it changed hands – in 1934 – it was utilised by the Ministry of Labour as a work camp for the unemployed (of which there were a fair few around at the time). Tracks were laid out and trees planted over an intense four year period as part of a nationwide attempt to avert any possible future timber shortages. During this brief, and very tough, time, a network of ‘Instructional Centres’ were built across the country and workmen lived on-site in wooden huts. The unemployed fellows in question were required to carry out set periods of work (typically six weeks) in return for free clothing and a little pocket money.
In the run-up to war, the unemployment situation eased and the forestry work ceased. World War II hardly brought a break in usage for Hamsterley Forest, though, as German and Italian PoWs were incarcerated there in the existing barrack blocks – which must have been quite nice for them (in the circumstances).
In time the trees matured, and today the forest is run primarily as a commercial enterprise by the Forestry Commission. On the face of it, though, it seems to exist for the recreational benefit of the general public – including a rather nice four-mile Forest Drive.