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1. The Wilderness: Private House

The origins of both the name "Wilderness" and the motto are unclear. The motto, for example, appears in different family histories, such as the Gledhills of Yorkshire, and above various buildings, such as the Coach and Horses public house in Church Lane, Oldham.

The first uses of The Wilderness are lost in time. It sits at the top of Plump Hill, 275 metres above sea level, on carboniferous limestone. An outcrop of iron ore runs through it from north to south in a narrow band.  About 2000 years ago Plump Hill was an important Iron ore mine for the Silures tribe based out of the nearby Welshbury Hill Fort. Evidence of the iron ore workings can still be found on site: the open cast workings known as Scowles, can be seen in farmer Rugmans’ field which borders our wood.

In 1018 King Canute (King of England, Denmark and Norway) designated the Royal Forest of Dean as his hunting forest. It was during this time that the royal surveyors deemed the top of Plump Hill to be outside this forest due to its old iron ore workings and lack of trees, and named it “Le Wylderne” or Wilderness.

For much of its distant history The Wilderness was part of the manor of Mitcheldean, mostly in the hands of the Baynham family, until rising debts forced them to sell in 1619 to Nicholas Roberts of Stanton Court, near Oxford. His sister, Alice, married into the Colchester family and her son, Richard, became the first of a long line of Colchesters to own the Wilderness (and Westbury Manor) when he bought it from his uncle in 1641. Source here. It appears to be his son, Duncombe, who built the first house at The Wilderness.

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Wilderness rental entries in 1650.

1. Sir Duncombe Colchester (1630-94 or 96). It is known that he had a building, called Hill House, at The Wilderness before 1672. The house probably had an L-shaped plan and parts of its walls survive in the south-eastern corner of the existing house. Duncombe  was Mayor of Gloucester, knighted in 1674, and MP for Gloucester in 1689. He married Elizabeth Maynard, daughter of Sir John Maynard, well-known anti-Catholic and 'devoted to good works'. Sources here and here.  Apparently his son Maynard, and a long illness, persuaded him to repent after a lifetime of debauchery: 

"I do, with the deepest sorrow, lament my rioting and drunkenness, my chambering and wantonness."

2. Colonel Maynard Colchester (I) (1665-1715). Trained as a lawyer, MP for Gloucestershire 1701-08, Verderer of the Forest of Dean and a noted philanthropist, he was involved in the foundation of the SPCK which is the oldest Anglican mission organisation in the world and also the third oldest publishing company in the UK (after the Cambridge and Oxford University Presses). Some sources suggest that it was this Maynard who built the first Wilderness in 1710 but this does not seem to be correct. His last years were blighted by illnesses which he bore with stoicism, relieved by working to improve his estates, possibly advised by John Evelyn, and, above all, his charitable endeavours.


3. Colonel Maynard Colchester (II) (1703-56). Maynard (I) had two sons who both predeceased him. The estate passed to his brother, Henry, and then his brother's son, another Maynard (II), a Free Miner and Verderer, in 1715. His monument in Westbury church describes him as 'vigilant, active and prudent'.

4. Maynard Colchester (III) (1731-87). Son of Maynard (II), another Free Miner and Verderer, but never married.


5. John Colchester (1741-1801). Fourth son of Maynard (II). 


6. Maynard Colchester (IV) (1785-1860). John then left it to his son Maynard (IV) in 1801 but it was administered by his widow Elizabeth (nee Elizabeth Dighton) until she died in 1827. It was Elizabeth who rebuilt The Wilderness in 1823-24 after the demolition of their Westbury Court building in 1805. The rebuilding was "on a scale which was described as 'more useful for a permanent residence' with two stories rather than three.  She added the service wing on the north west and a room to the north of the new main staircase.  Shortly afterwards a billiard room was built to the north of that room, but adding a billiard room was probably something that her son Maynard would have done." (Giles Colchester, personal communication, 2016). To the south-west an 18th century range of two storeys had become a coach house and stables by 1840.


The wrought-iron gates through which the original Wilderness was approached were given to the churchyard of Holy Trinity in Mitcheldean. Source hereMaynard (IV), known as an admirable, and liberal,  Magistrate and Verderer, 'peculiarly indifferent to notoriety and applause' died in 1860.


7. From Maynard it passed to his widowed sister Mrs Henrietta DaviesHenrietta died in 1877. Source here.


8. Then the estate passed to Maynard's great-nephew Maynard Willoughby Wemyss who became Wemyss-Colchester and then Colchester-Wemyss. This final Maynard was also Head Verderer, Justice of the Peace, awarded the CBE and for many years Chairman of Gloucestershire County Council (1908–1918).


9. However in 1887 Maynard Colchester-Wemyss sold the land with 41 acres to Helen Lucas. In 1896 the trustees of Barnwood House Hospital bought the house and grounds from a F.L. Lucas, bringing to an end this first, documented, period of The Wilderness.


Sir John Maynard possibly after John Riley, oil on canvas, feigned oval, NPG 476. CC-BC-NY-ND (3.0).

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Mrs John Colchester


Photo credit: Gloucestershire County Council.

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2. The Wilderness: Residential Institution

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1. From 1884 the Wilderness was used as a sanatorium for women from Barnwood House Hospital, the trustees of which bought the house and its grounds from F. L. Lucas in 1896.

2. After the sanatorium was closed in 1919 the East Dean and District Joint Hospital Board purchased the house for use as an isolation hospital. At some point there was a fire in the roof and half of it was destroyed and replaced, rather oddly, with a flat roof.

3. Later, until 1965, it was a geriatric hospital.


4. In 1968 the county education committee bought it for use as a residential centre for field studies which it remained until 2011. Source here.

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3. The Wilderness: Closure, Squatting, Tendering and Renovating


Philafrenzy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Keith Moseley, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The story of the closure in August 2011, the occupation by environmental activists (or "dangerous squatters"), the campaign to raise funds by pressure groups  - all are best told through the news headlines as it was very well covered at the time.

  • 2011/05/11 CABINET MEMBER DECISION REPORT: Future use of GCC’s Outdoor and Environmental Education Centres ("The Wilderness, in particular, needs substantial capital investment to ensure it can meet health and safety requirements in the future."). Gloucestershire County Council

  • 2011/05/12 Gloucestershire's outdoor education provision to change (Decision that facilities too costly to subsidise). BBC News.

  • 2011/05/19 Gloucestershire council sells outdoor education centre (Council decides to sell Wilderness and lease South Cerney to help save £45 million). BBC News.

  • 2011/05/19 Decision Notice: Future use of GCC’s Outdoor and Environmental Education Centres (Decision to sell confirmed by Chief Executive). Gloucestershire County Council

  • 2011/08/31 Children in the Wilderness (letter to editor - 'loss of such wonderful amenities'). The Forester

  • 2011/11/03 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre plans 'are legal' (Judicial review of sale plans failed). BBC News

  • 2012/01/10 Campaigners move in to Wilderness Centre in Mitcheldean (Thom Forrester's Protect the Wilderness has moved on to the site). BBC News

  • 2012/02/01 Call from the Wilderness Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre (Appeal from Protect the Wilderness: "We believe that education is the greatest source of wealth in our communities") Indymedia

  • 2012/02/16 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre appeal launched (Friends of the Wilderness want to raise £1 million in pledges by March; site currently occupied by Protect the Wilderness). BBC News

  • 2012/02/16 The good ancestors: squatters go back to land to save wilderness centre. The Guardian.

  • 2012/03/09 Campaigners 'breach court order' at Forest of Dean centre (Reclaim the Fields gathering in breach of injunction). BBC News

  • 2012/03/30 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre bid ready (Two local businessmen have pledged 6 figure sums to Friends of the Wilderness). BBC News

  • 2012/04/19 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre campaigners evicted (Campaigners removed by police after eviction order). BBC News

  • 2012/11/17 New owners take over South Cerney lake site (part of plans to save £45 million plan by selling off property). BBC News

  • 2013/01/10 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre site to be sold (actually just the Plump Hill site and approved by the Friends of The Wilderness). BBC News

  • 2013/04/03 Forest of Dean wilderness site security costing thousands (£3,000 per week on security to prevent squatters). BBC News

  • 2013/05/28 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre in handover bid (Wilderness Project asks the council to transfer the asset for free).BBC News and Project Flyer

  • 2014/04/24 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre group 'makes final bid' (Wilderness Project only raised £17,000 in pledges). Prospectus, Final Bid Document and BBC News

  • 2014/07/25 Forest of Dean Wilderness Centre bought by unnamed buyer (will be used as an educational hub). BBC News

  • 2014/07/28 Plans for The Wilderness Centre move forward (Contracts about to be exchanged with unnamed buyer). Stroud News and Journal

The most impressive aspect of the Wilderness Project Bid was the support it gained from well-known figures such as Kate Humble, Adam Henson, Baroness Jan Royall and Jonathon Porritt. Indeed Kate Humble was quoted on the Wilderness Project website (no longer active) saying:

"Every child in this country should have access to out of classroom education. The Wilderness Project is ideally situated in The Forest of Dean to provide outdoor education opportunities to school children, the wider community and groups from further afield. It is the heart of an area of pristine natural habitats, unique and fascinating geology and a proud industrial heritage. Yet it faces closure.

Without centres like this we are putting the future of our planet in the hands of a generation who have had no experience of the outdoors, have never been given the chance to witness the wonders of nature or see first hand how habitats suffer or thrive depending on how they are managed. 

The Wilderness Project is an enormously valuable resource educationally, economically and environmentally. Everything that can be done, should be done to save it."

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4. The Wilderness: Relaunch under Nature Schools

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This is what we wrote in in 2016 ......


Set in around 30 acres of beautiful woodland, meadow and pasture land right on the edge of the Royal Forest of Dean, the Wilderness centre is a recently refurbished award winning outdoor activity and residential centre offering a range of outdoor activities and indoor facilities for school and community groups, family groups and corporate clients coming from Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Worcestershire and beyond. We are also just over an hour from Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol and with flexible packages such as day or residential stays, camping and full catering facilities, self catering venue hire we are well placed to meet the needs of many groups. With its stunning location and cosy indoor accommodation for up to 54 guests the site is also ideal for weddings, celebrations and events.


The Wilderness Centre offers a perfect opportunity to take outdoor learning to another level with our high quality, residential experiences and inspiring day courses for schools, from Reception age upwards. The Wilderness Centre has a long history of providing school residentials having been run by the County Council for many years. Purchased by private owners in 2014, who are passionate about the educational benefits of outdoor learning, it has now undergone major refurbishment and can accommodate 54 guests in 2-8 bedded rooms.

Serving schools from Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Worcestershire and the Cotswolds and within easy drive of Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff, our most popular courses are 3 day/2 night stays where we combine outdoor and adventurous activities with excellent indoor facilities, including a climbing wall, comfortable bedrooms and high quality catering. Other options and durations of trip are available, including day visits, week long stays and weekends. In addition, if you bring more than 25 pupils you benefit from exclusive use of the site and amenities.

All of our school programmes are bespoke and designed in consultation with your group leaders to ensure specific outcomes and objectives are met, such as our popular Saxon days developed to support the primary curriculum. We are fully approved by A.A.L.S. and the Institute for Outdoor learning and our staff team have more than 20 years of experience of working with schools to deliver exciting and relevant outdoor experiences. We have also recently achieved the prestigious Gold standard award from the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres (AHOEC), which goes beyond just the safety of centres and measures all aspects of the centre from administration and communication, facilities, food and the quality of the learning and adventure and its educational validity.

Community Groups

Fun activity days, residential stays with a range of activities or accommodation only packages are some of the options available for youth and community groups.  We work with a wide range of charitable and community based groups and with 54 beds in the house as well as a campsite and the option of catered or self catered packages we offer real value for money in helping provide a bespoke program that meets your group’s needs and budget. 

As well as a program of outdoor activities we also have a number of meeting rooms and 29 acres of meadow and woodland at your disposal and we currently welcome not only local groups from the Forest of Dean and Gloucestershire, but also from Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Worcestershire and the Cotswolds and are within easy drive of Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff, so whether you need a meeting venue for your Scouting Group AGM, a welcome break for a group of young carers or a Girl Guide Camp for 40 guides the Wilderness Centre offers something for everyone.


The Wilderness centre has a stunning venue for your next team meeting or corporate training event, right on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. In addition to all the usual components for a corporate event, such as our 3 meeting rooms for up to 60 delegates, catering packages to suit all budgets and team building and problem solving activities, we also offer adventure activities and residential facilities so are able to offer a unique and bespoke Corporate package for your team to remember.

Our most popular Corporate package starts with a day of adventure activities and team challenges, taking teams out of their comfort zones and into the Wilderness! After completing a series of challenges and activities in which they learn to challenge themselves and work together to support each other, we head back to the house for an excellent dinner and social evening. We then provide overnight accommodation and next morning after a hearty breakfast, will set up a meeting room for you or can run indoor based training sessions such as leadership or management training, customer service training or deliver personality assessment sessions.

Our experienced facilitators and activity instructors can design a course around your business objectives and have worked with large multi-national companies as well as charities and local businesses, so make your next Corporate event a Wilderness Adventure to remember.

Private Hire

The Wilderness centre has been designed as a multi-purpose centre capable of hosting weddings, birthday parties, school trips, business meetings and anything in between and our location on the edge of the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire allows a myriad of other options to be incorporated into your visit.

However, this is not just a group accommodation venue for hire, nor just an activity centre as it has at its heart an incredibly imaginative, experienced and committed team who will always go the extra mile to provide a product tailored to your specific requirements. 

Whether you need us to throw a surprise 50th Wedding anniversary party for your grandparents, want a self catering weekend venue for a school reunion, are local and want an unforgettable Bushcraft birthday party for your 7 year old or need 2 weeks of accommodation for a school exchange programme, we are open to most types of private hire* and can help create a bespoke package to meet your needs.


The Wilderness centre offers a stunning location at the edge of the Royal Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and a truly bespoke wedding service to meet your exact needs. We do not have an off the peg wedding service, as every couple should be able to create their own day as they choose. Instead we will work with each individual couple and can offer a fully arranged, catered wedding package or simply a wedding party venue for after the ceremony.

With a wedding licence planned for next year and a premises licence in place, as well as all the local contacts for flowers, suit hire, photographers and bands we can provide you with as much or as little help as you need. With such a versatile venue we can also offer a really relaxed Wilderness feel to the wedding taking your guests out in the woods and celebrating round the campfire, or for the more formal approach the facilities in the main house allow for an intimate and sophisticated wedding event.

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5. The Wilderness: Facts and Figures

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The Wilderness, Wilderness Drive, Plump Hill, Mitcheldean, Gloucestershire GL17 0HA 

Tel 01594 542567.

Bruton Knowles Brochure

A substantial early Victorian former manor house together with office and staff block plus further outbuildings including chapel and barns set in a 32 acre site. 


1. Manor House: 992 sqm

2. Offices/ flat: 220 sqm

3. Workshops: 84 sqm

4. Saxon barn: 38 sqm

5. Barn/ eco house: 94 sqm

6. Chapel: 27 sqm


Total floor area is 1,455 sqm or 15,664 sqft. The good quality space may be counted as the Manor House and the Offices: around 1,212 sqm or 12,000 square feet.


Location: 13 miles west of Gloucester, 12 miles east of Monmouth, 8 miles south east of Ross on Wye, 12 miles north of Lydney (23 mins). It is also 23 miles from Cambridge, Gloucs (38 mins via A38 and A40).

Saxon House

An authentic step back in time, the replica Anglo-Saxon House is modelled on a traditional house of the period 410 to 1066, built sympathetically in line with traditional building design and material.


The House is ideally suited to activity visits, historically accurate and in a supreme setting. Our Saxon days can include instructor, clothing and weapons, subject to your requirements. Living the life of a Saxon will assist children in retaining the information that they learn while enjoying themselves in the process! It is an ideal means of supporting classroom learning.


However, the House is not just suited to the young… it is a perfect location for film and media, together with re-enactment groups such as Live Action Role Play. 


The Stones

Carved some 10 years ago, these stones were formed under a heritage project undertaken by a group of young adults then based at the Wilderness Centre. The project subsequently won the Heritage Lottery Fund South West Region Young People ‘Heritage Heroes’ award in 2005.


They worked with Gloucestershire County Council’s Archaeology and Youth Services departments with the aim of studying the Anglo Saxons and creating Anglo-Saxon designs, but with a contemporary feel. They undertook extensive research, visiting many sites, studying sculptures and learning to live life as an Anglo-Saxon. 


There are seven stones in total, six modelled from Portland stone as it was easy to sculpt. The seventh was carved from Forest stone obtained from the Wilderness Quarry, standing apart from the others. The stones are laid out in the shape of a constellation known as the Sculptor’s Studio. 

Eco-house – An eco-friendly cottage renovation, to serve as a public education project and staff accomodation.

Organic garden – used for food growing workshops and training and to provide produce for the kitchens.

Meadows – three estate meadows of preserved / 'unimproved' pasture used for ecology and nature study. Home to over 80 species of wild plants and designated a Key Wildlife Site.

Semi-wild wood – a 5 acre wood containing indicator plants from the ancient Forest of Dean. Used for woodland study and woodland craft courses. Designated a Key Wildlife Site.

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