The Forestry Commission, Crown Offices, Coleford, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire Off B4228 mile north of junction with A4136 at Lower Berry Hill -signposted to campsites Map reference: S0568
21-mile trail through ancient and modern afforestation of deciduous and coniferous trees-passes mine-workings, charcoal hearth and woodpecker haunts
Illustrated trail brochure; car park; campsites; well-stocked food shop; picnic sites – eleven other nearby trails
One of the delights of being a camper or caravanner is that a long-distance footpath, a nature trail or a bridleway may be right on the doorstep of the campsite. Such is the case in the Forest of Dean, where every family on holiday at Bracelands or Christchurch site may follow at least one of the twelve forest trails.
Boxed in by the River Wye, the Welsh border and the Severn estuary, the Forest of Dean is one of the few Royal hunting forests of England to have survived the onslaught of man, his buildings and machines. It was far from being only a playground for the rich. The inhabitants were hard-working miners, shepherds and charcoal burners.
A pre-historic forest which once covered the land, fossilised into coal measures. Small mines were opened and worked for more than 500 years. They still are today, under a privilege of Free Mining granted by Edward I. Iron ore was taken from Clearwell Caves until as recently as 1945, a process which had gone on for 3000 years when the Romans were laying their roads through the Forest. Stretches of these straight routes still remain at Blakeney.
Charcoal was needed to smelt the ore and so produce iron, and at one time, every clearing in the woods would have supported a lonely charcoal burner and his beehive-like hearth. With careful searching, it is possible to locate former sites.
Another craftsman of the Forest is the stone cutter. Pennant Blue Sandstone is quarried at Bixhead, and Forest Marble, as the cut stone is called, has gone into the construction of many fine buildings, among them the Severn and Tamar bridges. Sadly, this industry has de-clined also, and the Forest of Dean is left with two major money earners – forestry and tourism.
The two are compatible, thanks to the Forestry Commission’s tight rein on 700000 visitors to the area. Every information booklet and notice reminds them of the dangers of fire and their responsibilities to the countryside.
Christchurch Forest trail starts at Christ-church campsite and ventures two-and-a-half-miles into High Meadow Woods. Many of the trees here are among the oldest in the Forest -oaks over 200 years old – while others, such as the western hemlock, were planted fairly re-cently. The most cost-effective trees are fast-growing softwoods — Norway spruce with its white timber is in demand for papermaking; and European, Japanese and hybrid larches for
boat building and fencing. Although oaks are no longer used for ships’ timbers, the trees are still planted, along with beech, to preserve the character of the Forest.
The oak is also important for the conservation of wildlife. Each tree supports an incred-ible 324 species of insects, apart from mosses and lichens and a vast bird population which lives, in turn, on the insects. Its only enemy is the grey squirrel which, in summer, devastates the bark, inflicting fatal damage to many young oaks and other broadleaves. Only slightly less damage is done by fallow deer bucks in autumn, when they rub their new antlers against immature trees and so fray the bark. In both cases, the numbers of squirrels and deer is controlled so that the damage does not get out of hand.
A harmless inhabitant of the Forest is the badger, and the trail passes a disused sett which acts like a show house, with the earth and old
bedding thrown out in heaps by each doorway. After a night falJ of rain, his distinctive footprints can be spotted on a well-worn path: broader than a Labrador’s paw with five toes and long toenails.
Where the trail invades coniferous planta-tions, the forest floor is bare except for hum-mocks of spruce needles – the nests of the brown wood ant, lichens and fungi. Where there is more light, bracken and bramble are found, and the delicious purple berries of the wortleberry.
Another forest trail of the same length is the curiously-named Boy’s Grave and Cannop Forest Trail. Here the emphasis is less on the plantations the Forestry Commission and more on the natural features of this part of the Forest, and the part man has played. The name probably derives from the Norman French meaning a sloping wood. A more colourful legend tells of the tragic death of a gypsy-boy and how he was buried by an ancient oak -which no longer remains.
A stream, rising from a spring at Black Penny Wall Well at the start of the walk, accompanies the trail for much of the way. At one point it is diverted into a small pool where water-loving plants grow – tall alders, rushes, foxgloves and hard-fern. Further on are two man-made lakes, particularly popular with picnickers and fishermen. Broad swaths of grass are kept short by the constant traffic of visitors in summer but around the lakes are masses of ferns and reeds. Cannop Ponds are stocked with coarse fish – tench, bream, perch and chub, and the Forestry Commission leases the fishing rights to Yorkley and District Angling Club. A Severn River Authority licence and a day ticket authorise newcomers.
Nearby are the Forest of Dean Stone Firms which have quarried and cut massive blocks of sandstone into building stones. This sandstone is banded by seams of coal, some too thin to be worked. The freeminers gave names to the sites they dug, ‘Breadless’, ‘No Coal’ and ‘Little’ were obviously less fruitful than others.
The Wilderness Countryside Trails are ar-ranged in three loops (two of one-and-a-half miles, the other two miles long). Each can be walked separately or together, and trace the history of the Forest and draw attention to the future and the possibility of encroachment by farming.
New Fancy Trail is for the rambler who enjoys a quiet pace along a level footpath. It
takes its name from a colliery which was closed in 1944, and at first follows a disused railway cutting.
By contrast, steam engines are very much alive in another part of the Forest. Norchard Steam Centre holds open days in summer when its mighty engines puff along four miles of track, bringing nostalgia or a new experience to their passengers.
Since the Clearwell Caves stopped mining, only visitors have been inside to see a collection of geological samples and typical mining equipment used throughout the years.
The most popular tourist attraction of the area is the sinuous, slow-running River Wye. Although it has a reputation for its record-breaking catches of salmon, very few stretches are available to the visiting angler, and most just admire it from afar. One of the most stunning views is from the 472-foot Yat Rock, which overlooks the narrow gorge of Symonds Yat. Another vantage point is from the Tudor-timbered town of Ross-on-Wye, although it becomes choked with trippers at summer weekends.
Since the Forest is bordered on one side by the Severn Estuary, the A48 is one of the best places to see the Severn Bore. Although a frequent occurrence, bores of any great size happen on about twentv-Hve Havs of the year.
Golfers can pit their wits against the tricky-parkland and mcadowland championship course of St Pierre, just over the border into Wales at Chepstow. This pleasant border town has a ruined castle overlooking a broad sweep in the Wye and a fascinating museum which catalogues the town’s former industries, salmon fishing and the wine trade.