Motorhome travel: Gloucestershire and the Forest of Dean
Words and photos by Felicity Martin
This trip wasn’t intended to be a pub crawl, but that’s what it turns into as we rediscover the delights of traditional country pubs. Many around Gloucestershire, especially in the Forest of Dean, have wonderful rural locations, surrounded by woods and wildlife.
My partner, Andrew, and I enjoy good chef-cooked food with warm hospitality in characterful old buildings with low beams. A bonus is that several pubs are Brit Stops, which allow both of us to sample their draft beers and ciders without having to drive until the next day.
Only one of our five nights is spent at a campsite. On other mornings we wake to the yaffle of green woodpeckers or the screech of jays. Braan’s dawn and dusk dog walks are a good time to see the wildlife.
On one occasion, Andrew sees a family of wild boar cross the path in front of him. All over the forest we notice disturbed ground where the boars have been rooting; there is quite a large and well-established population of this elusive mammal. Local advice is to keep your distance, especially with dogs, as the boars can be aggressive if they feel threatened.
Our first stop is at Newent, conveniently close to the M50. The weather is hot, so we choose a watery theme for the day.
We start with a walk around Newent Lake, situated in a leafy park where stalls and various activities are being set up. Wandering through the old churchyard to the high street, we find live music and more stalls around the Market House, a half-timbered building on wooden pillars.
Our visit has coincided with a Community and Wildlife Day and everyone seems to be out on the streets enjoying it, although we are told it’s not nearly as big as the town’s annual Onion Day. Upstairs in the Market House we browse displays of archaeological finds from the area, ranging from prehistoric axe heads to Roman coins.
Pleased with having chanced upon a vibrant and historic town as our first port of call, we then head across country to Gloucester Docks. The spacious Castlemeads car park looks ideal, but we are prevented from entering by a height barrier. However, we find weekend pay and display parking at nearby Gloucester College.
Close to the docks we meet a roving Canal and River Trust volunteer who offers us leaflets and information. He tells us that a boat trip leaves in 10 minutes from Llanthony Warehouse, now refurbished as the National Waterways Museum. We sprint there in time to buy tickets and board the dog-friendly Queen Boadicea III.
Our cruise takes us through a lifting bridge and out along the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, which was built to bypass navigationally treacherous parts of the Severn. It joins the estuary a long way downstream, below the river’s meanders, mud banks and tidal bore.
When opened in 1827 it was the largest canal in England, big enough for ocean-going ships to bring grain and other goods into and out of the city. Our captain has very entertaining patter and keeps us informed and amused throughout the 45-minute trip.
Back on dry land, we buy ice creams and wander around the Main Basin and Victoria Dock, passing decoratively painted long boats, as well as modern cruisers and yachts. Most of the old warehouses have been refurbished as apartments or bar/restaurants. Around every corner we see an artist with an easel capturing the scene in vivid colours. Gloucester Cathedral peaks over the skyline, but it’s so hot that we can’t face the city streets.
Instead, we drive downriver to Westbury Court Garden, a seventeenth century Dutch water garden in the care of the National Trust. We head up the viewing pavilion to enjoy a panorama over the gardens.
This style of garden went out of vogue when Capability Brown brought in a more naturalistic design and this garden is rare because it survived in its original form. We can see one long straight canal and another T-shaped one with duck islands, both of which are lined by clipped yew hedges.
We wander between the canals admiring rectangular beds of flowers and vegetables. Our dog, Braan, is fascinated by the carp breaking the water’s glassy surface with their gaping mouths. On the far side we explore a colourful walled garden and an old-fashioned orchard. Two enormous trees stand on the lawn: a tall tulip tree and a wide holm oak that is over 300 years old.
The tranquillity of this elegant garden has induced a wonderful sense of calm. We could walk down to the banks of the Severn from here, but we’re unlikely to see the famous bore as my research indicates that the phase of the moon is wrong for a significant tidal surge.
We stay overnight in the Forest of Dean, a place I am woefully ignorant about. Our explorations begin with an off-road ride on the Family Cycle Trail, a well-signed circuit on good tracks through woodland of oak, birch, pine and spruce.
We detour off the trail to visit New Fancy Viewpoint, named after a colliery that occupied this site. It’s one of the highest points in the forest and the view stretches over the trees in an arc, with Cinderford visible to the east and Coleford in the west. It’s hard to imagine this peaceful spot as a hive of industry, ripping the guts out of the land, but we can just make out grassed-over spoil heaps around the car park.
An unusual sculpture covers the ground in a large clearing. It is a stone-paved representation of the topography of the Forest of Dean with discs marking every colliery, iron ore mine and stone quarry. Adjacent information boards list 100 of these workings – most long closed – and show a colour map of the forest’s geology, depicting the limestone, sandstone and shale we see before us in two dimensions.
Continuing on our bikes we take another side trail, this time to visit Mallards Pike, a Forestry Commission recreation area with ponds, a café and a high-rope adventure course. We walk around the largest pond, where Braan soon discovers that swimming is good fun on such a hot day.
In the afternoon we hide from the heat at the Cyril Hart Arboretum, named after a notable Forester who was the longest-serving senior verderer of the Forest of Dean. It’s a pleasant, shady place to wander amid trees that soar up into the sky, although most are less than 100 years old. I’m amazed to find that a group of coast redwoods with enormous girths are younger than me!
Nearby I photograph a historic building – Speech House. It was built in 1682 to host the parliament of Verderers and Freeminers. It now houses an upmarket hotel, but is still the meeting place four times a year of the Verderers’ Court, which administers the laws protecting the habitat of the forest and the wildlife within it.
The next day we drive down a deep, winding valley to the Dean Heritage Centre at Soudley to learn more about these ancient customs and statutes, many originating because this was a Royal Forest for over 900 years. The visit gives us an understanding of the special nature of the Forest of Dean and its people.
A handful of small, independent mines are still worked in the forest and we head to one that is open to the public. Unfortunately we find that Hopewell Colliery doesn’t do tours on Monday and Tuesdays. However, the home-made cakes in the café look inviting so we stay for coffee and cake.
Our campsite is in a peaceful spot a little south of Coleford. It only has 10 pitches and a single rustic building with a shower, a couple of toilets and a chemical disposal point. It’s all we need to refresh ourselves and our campervan, Stella.
We walk Braan in the adjacent plantation, an astonishing place full of fenced holes. We guess from the redness of the soil and the heavy weight of stones we pick up that these were iron ore mines.
In a clearing our attention is caught by the thrumming drone of bees feasting on a large sun-drenched bramble patch. A closer look reveals that a blizzard of butterflies are sharing the nectar. We count 10 species, including three we never see in Scotland: white admiral, gatekeeper and silver-washed fritillary.
St Briavels was the ancient administrative centre of the ‘Hundred’, the historic district of Gloucestershire that comprises the forest. It is an attractive village with a castle that is now a youth hostel. We walk on the grassy ditch of the dry moat and go into the adjacent church.
A little further south, we stop at a Forestry Commission car park at Tidenham Chase and take a pleasant walk across woods and pasture to Offa’s Dyke. The earthworks and ditch are well defined here and run along a limestone escarpment above the River Wye.
Back near Coleford we head to Clearwell Caves. Our self-guided tour leads through the ‘Old Man’s Workings’, the upper part of a natural limestone cave system whose caverns were extended by ancient miners. Iron ore production has ceased here, but they still excavate red, yellow and purple ochres for sale as fine powders for mixing into paint or ceramics.
We find the tour fascinating and are entranced by projected scenes of extinct fish and crustacea, which have been found here as fossils. Looking convincingly lifelike, they are apparently swimming in the seas where this limestone was formed.
Our underground experience, as well as being deliciously cool, has been a highlight of our trip. We’ve discovered that the Forest of Dean is not just a lovely place to walk, cycle and relax, it also has hidden layers of industrial history.
Our visit seems as brief as a butterfly’s life on the wing, but we’ve felt at home everywhere, including in the picturesque pubs that have provided our sustenance.