LAST week’s ‘Forest View’ featured a brief biography of St Briavels Castle. This week I follow up on a modern connection of the Castle with a remarkable Forest personality who studied the mediaeval munitions industry around the castle, writes Dave Kent.
Alf Webb was Director of Archaeology and President at the Dean Archaeological Group.
Alf was ethnologist, anthropologist, archaeologist, writer, airman, soldier, sailor, engineer, archer, historian, and expert on the munitions industry of mediaeval England.
He was a pioneering polymath who roamed the world with an enquiring mind.
He was born in the east end of London, and ran away to sea at the age of 14.
During the Second World War, Alf was involved in a little-known dirty war in the Balkans. Here local partisans on both sides of the conflict fought bitter proxy battles against each other, with encouragement from the major powers.
In an air operation, Alf’s glider was shot down and he suffered the most catastrophic injuries.
He was discovered alive by friendly forces, patched up, and somehow smuggled back to England.
Back home, he had to undergo extensive hospital treatment. Half of his face had been shot off, he had massive internal injuries, and his pelvis was smashed.
Gradually he learned to walk again, and it needed a lengthy series of experimental operations to restore his rich Cockney accent.
The facial disfigurement lasted for the rest of his life.
He recorded his war time experiences in his autobiography ‘A Strange War’, in which he gave himself the pseudonym ‘Spider Smythe’.
After the war, his new career as a radio engineer took him to some of the most remote areas of the world, including the Amazon Basin, Bhutan in the Himalayas, Burma and Namibia.
His interest in the local people in these exotic areas led to him taking academic qualifications in ethnology and anthropology, which in turn led to his later interest in archaeology.
In this field, after his retirement to Lydney in the 1980s, he became perhaps the leading archaeological expert in the Forest.
During his time as Director of Archaeology, he oversaw the publication of a series of literally ground breaking publications on the Civil War in Dean, local castles, the River Severn, and deserted villages, wells and barns.
As well as his work in the Forest, he received an award in Denmark for work carriedout on 11th Century Viking warships.
The link with St Briavels Castle was his lifelong interest in archery, as a practitioner and historian.
He published some interesting studies on the arrowhead manufacturing industry in mediaeval St Briavels.
He was a modest man, living a quiet life in Bathurst Park Road, Lydney, and he never lost his Cockney accent.
He survived for 68 years after that horrific crash in Albania.
He died in 2011, after a rich life of adventure, learning and courage in the face of unimaginable hardship.