Posted 6th Aug 2015
The Forest of Dean has a wealth of attractions to offer its visitors with acres upon acres of picturesque woodland alive with wildlife and ablaze with autumn colour at this time of year, yet a scratch beneath the surface reveals a fascinating and unexpected past that paints quite a different picture of this pretty part of Britain
Nestled in west Gloucestershire at the heart of where two rivers meet lays England’s largest oak woodland, the Forest of Dean. Hugged by the River Wye and River Severn that join at its tip and encompass its borders, ‘the Dean’, as it is so fondly referred to, stretches its branches some 27,000 acres and is one of the oldest forests left in the country, yet so many explore its famous surrounds – Hereford, Ross-on-Wye, Monmouth, Gloucester city – and never know of the awesome beauty that awaits just a stone’s throw within.
Childhood memories of mystical forests and enchanted woodlands are brought to life like never before as you explore the ancient forest, even proving a source of inspiration for Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who lived in the forest as a child. Hidden within the tangle of trees are signs of the forest’s rich and colourful history dating back thousands of years. The forest is perhaps best known for its time as a Royal Forest, used after the Norman Conquest in 1066 as a royal hunting ground for deer and wild boar whilst the crown also had exclusive rights to its timber and minerals. In the 12th Century a system of courts with officials called Verderers, who were appointed to act for the king, was set up to protect the forest and the Hundred of St Briavels was established, granting those who lived within it some common rights. Remarkably this system is still in place and there are four Verderers who continue to oversee the woodlands and open lands of the Forest of Dean each year, and ‘commoners’, more locally known as ‘foresters’ – those born and bred within the Hundred (anywhere in the forest) – who still to this day have a right to graze their sheep freely through the forest.
Perhaps surprisingly the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley were key players in the Industrial Revolution and in 1566 the first brass made in Britain was founded at Tintern in the Lower Wye Valley, marking the birth of the Industrial Revolution in this unlikely part of England. The mining industry was soon prevalent in the forest and by the 14th Century Edward I had established rights for ‘Free Miners’, a title given to coal or iron miners in the Forest of Dean. A tradition completely unique to the forest, a Free Miner was given the right by royal decree to mine anywhere in the forest providing the person was born and still lives within the Hundred of St Briavels, is over the age of 21 and has worked for a year and a day in a mine within the Hundred. This right still exists today and there are thought to be around 150 Free Miners left living in the forest.
During the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Forest of Dean became one of the major iron-producing districts in England and the once quiet area of woodland changed into one of intense industrial activity, supplying large quantities of oak for building ships and later timber, as well as charcoal and eventually paper milling, whilst thousands were believed to be working in iron mines deep underground. By the 1870s nearly 100,000 tons of iron a year were being produced in the Forest of Dean and in 1900 output of coal rose to just over one million tons with over 5,000 men employed in the forest’s abundant coal mines. Looking at the forest today it is hard to believe this was once the case as it is now a picture of tranquility having returned to its original state. The scars of its bustling mining past have almost disappeared, save for a few mines still open for the public to explore.
One such ancient iron mine is the intriguing Clearwell Caves near Coleford where there is plenty to be discovered hiding far below the forest canopy. Offering a labyrinth of passageways, caverns and dramatic rock faces set deep beneath the soil, the caves offer the perfect wet weather day out. Iron ore is believed to have been mined at Clearwell caves since Roman times and the caves have since been enlarged to form an intricate network of chambers, tunnels and large caverns, nine of which are accessible to the public. Run by father and son team, miners Ray and Jonathan Wright, who still work in the caves mining for ochre used to make pigments for paints, the caves offer the chance to explore a working mining museum before beginning the descent down into the atmospheric caverns as you follow in the footsteps of miners themselves, learning more about the tough life they once faced working in these dark and cold conditions. Listen out for sounds of a miner at work, discover fascinating artefacts and learn of life as a child miner or, for the adrenalin junkies amongst you, book to go on a tour of the deep level caves and discover more complex abandoned workings and enchanting caverns as you crawl through passageways and scramble over rocks – definitely not for the faint hearted! Once you’ve found your way above ground a reward awaits at the cosy café offering a selection of award-winning cakes, cream teas, homemade soups and light meals all to be enjoyed by a roaring log fire on a chilly afternoon.
In 1938 the Forest of Dean became England’s first National Forest Park and
there is no better place to start your journey exploring the forest itself than at the Dean Heritage Centre in Soudley. Serving as a central place to discover the forest’s unique history, the Dean Heritage Centre was set up by the local community and opened to the public in 1983. Set in five acres of scenic woodland, visitors to the centre are instantly immersed in the sights and sounds of a forest alive with activity as birds frolic on the pond and sing from the treetops, the smell of charcoal being made wafts through the trees and crisp leaves crunch underfoot as you make your way towards the centre. The museum, a former mill, houses a wealth of themed displays from early man to present day Forest of Dean life and all the people who shaped it in its five spacious galleries. Step outside and history from within is brought to life in the cosy Forester’s Cottage, a reconstructed Victorian home a forest miner and his family might once have shared, where the centre asks its visitors to help solve the mystery of the foresters life, as so little evidence remains today. As you continue your journey around the pretty cottage garden just outside notice the family of friendly ferrets. Ferrets were once used for hunting in the forest, though today the centre offers guests the unique opportunity to take them on a leisurely forest walk instead. Leaving the garden, head out on the woodland trail wandering over the bridge above the site’s famous waterfall, where fish can sometimes be seen leaping upstream, to the whimsical Very Hungry Caterpillar walk. Depicting scenes from the much-loved story by Eric Carle, brought to life by carvings created by the resident chainsaw artists, let young explorers’ imaginations run wild as they follow the larger than life story of Eric the caterpillar, crawling through his cocoon and playing amongst the party food in the woodland playground as they go. Whilst on your walk through the forest look out for the charcoal burner’s camp in the woodland where demonstrations of traditional charcoal making take place at the end of each summer. Keep exploring and you might just stumble into the Freemine, a mine dug into the side of a hill built to replicate a traditional Forest of Dean coal mine, where Free Miner re-enactors wait inside to tell their tale.
The Dean Heritage Centre is rife with wildlife, particularly at this time of year, so be sure to look out for nesting dippers and colourful kingfishers flitting over the brook, rainbow trout and roach swimming beneath the millpond and deer and wild boar roaming amongst the woodland as you explore. The Heritage Centre is an ideal base to wander off course deeper into the forest on one of the waymarked circular walks – just ask for a map in the gift shop – to discover more of this wildlife and the mature woodland where remains of tram roads that used to run through the forest hundreds of years ago can still be seen, later returning to the centre’s bright and airy café for some home-cooked food or a hot drink to warm up.
The forest is a truly fascinating place to explore on foot as it is peppered with so many gems of its hidden past. At the end of the 18th Century, roads in the forest were very poor and so coal and iron had to be moved by packhorse, which was a costly affair. Between 1809 and 1813 three tram roads were built in the Forest of Dean allowing wagons pulled by horses to be easily transported around the woodlands for the first time. Following the invention of the steam engine in 1804 these tram roads were eventually converted into railways, with a network of five railways established throughout the forest by 1883. Today very little remains of this once busy network of tram roads and railways that criss-crossed through the Forest of Dean, but a number of railway tunnels and bridges can still be discovered on foot hidden amongst the trees by those with a keen eye. Fortunately there is still opportunity for visitors to get a taste of time gone by aboard the Dean Forest Railway steam train running on the last remaining section of the Severn and Wye Railway. Travelling between Parkend and Lydney Junction, the steam train brings to life a sense of nostalgia found throughout much of the forest. As the steam whistle blows and echoes through the trees imagine how dramatically the scenery around you has changed as you chug past sleepy villages and glorious woodland once alive with industrial activity. It is well worth disembarking at Norchard to discover the Dean Forest Railway Museum, free to enter and home to fascinating memorabilia and artefacts telling the story of the Severn and Wye Railway, or step off at Parkend where a picturesque walk to the local Nags Head RSPB nature reserve awaits, whilst bikes can be hired just behind the station perfect for exploring the surrounding villages from the saddle.
Seeing the forest by rail is not the only way to capture its wonder, for the Forest of Dean offers a haven for the restless in its natural playground. From kayaking through the dramatic autumn landscape or abseiling on a daring descent at Symonds Yat Rock, ambling across treetop walkways and flying along zip wires at Go Ape to gliding through the forest on a two-wheel Segway, swinging from the tree tops at the Forest of Dean Adventure and trekking on horseback from Greenacres Stables in Lea, there are a wealth of exciting ways to see the Forest of Dean and its picturesque surrounds. And, when it’s time to relax and refuel, there’s no cosier place to rest your feet than at The Ostrich Inn in Newland. Laying on the western edge of the Forest of Dean, The Ostrich Inn is at the very heart of the village and offers the chance to ‘step back in time’ and keep things traditional as you enter, with a notice on the door politely asking its customers to turn off mobile phones to preserve the relaxed atmosphere that awaits. Dogs are also welcome at the inn, thought to date back to the 13th Century, originally constructed to house the workers who built the All Saints church opposite – known locally as the Cathedral of the Forest due to its impressive proportions. Inside the pub a spacious dining room and comfy bar lounge can be found, perfect for relaxing with a pint of local ale, enjoying a light lunch or tucking into a three-course à la carte feast. A huge fireplace is the centrepiece of the lounge where a hearty homemade dinner can be enjoyed right beside it. Choose from a range of dishes including smoked salmon and prawns on soda bread toast, rack of Welsh lamb with a cucumber and mint sauce or an indulgent three cheese tart to tuck into. A tempting list of mouth-watering puddings can be found hanging above the bar for after, with everything from a classic crumble to an elegant crème brûlée on offer, all homemade and well worth saving room for.
If you’re ready for another adventure through the forest then look no further than the fairy tale woodland of Puzzlewood in Coleford. Promising fun for all the family and a feast for the senses, big kids and small are sure to be both bewildered and enchanted as they are transported into its magical surrounds from the very first step. As you wander around the forest look out for irregular hollows, called scowles, developed over millions of years due to the erosion of limestone rocks that make this particular part of the forest so unique, and one of the reasons Puzzlewood has been chosen as a location for the likes of Dr Who, Merlin and Jack the Giant Slayer that have all been filmed here. Follow the mile of meandering pathways and steps through the wonderland of deep ravines of moss-covered rock, over wooden bridges and through the oak, beech, ash, lime and yew trees, looking out for the magic doorway, secret cave and balancing beams as you explore. Hear trees creak like opening doors high above your head, listen out for a symphony of bird song as you roam beneath the forest canopy and look out for striking fungi growing on old tree stumps all around. As you hop over the ‘dinosaur feet’ stepping stones listen for the rustling of deer and keep your eyes peeled for roaming wild boar and emerging badgers as dusk falls. As you go up and over uneven ground you won’t help but to be inspired by this woodland so magical it seems as if fairies might just pop out at any moment. Exiting the woods, come and say hello to the resident farm animals; Highland cattle, donkeys, goats, ponies, chickens and rabbits, all waiting for a fuss. On a balmy autumn day the barn is the perfect place to have a picnic, whilst inside the café offers a range of light bites and drinks, or why not visit one of the local pubs and come back later for a truly leisurely day out?
For more information about the Forest of Dean visit www.wyedeantourism.co.uk
By Natalie Crofts
Read the rest of this feature from p.116 of the September/October 2015 issue...
Images courtesy of www.wyedeantourism.co.uk, Forestry Commission, Linda Wright