Massively important news recently – and no I’m not, for change talking cycling, the Tour de France, the Olympics or La Vuelta (starts today) – although I could bore you silly with ALL of that – I’m talking the independent advisors report concluding that our woodlands shouldn’t be sold off.
So among other English woodlands, a reprieve for the Royal Forest of Dean! The Forest has been a place of freedom and adventure since I moved over the border from Wales when I was a nipper, so I care deeply about it remaining open and accessible to all.
When I was little, it was all about picnics and paddling in the stream at Wenchford, catching bullheads or swinging from one bank to the other on the end of a rope someone had slung over a tree branch. In those days the Forest was undeveloped as a tourist attraction. You drove there, explored and found your favourite spot for the picnic you took with you.
Speech House has always been the centre of the Royal Forest of Dean, close to where oaks were grown for the masts of Nelson’s battleships and walks from there, or along by Cannop Ponds were nice and safe. You were unlikely to get lost. The extended deep forest was a foreign place then and there were still pockets of industry and fumey heavy lorries trundling along the stone roads.
Worgreens Opencast coalmine was a huge blot on the landscape of the Forest in the late 70’s, early 80’s but it provided employment and removed the last commercial quantities of coal. Today, there are a few freeminers with home-dug gales here and there in the Cannop Valley eeking out a living – and one who’ll take the public to inspect the low, narrow tunnels hewn out of earth and rock – but but nothing massively commercial.
When the Worgreens mine was eventually closed, the land was restored. From Kensley Ridge, my landmark spot of the Forest of Dean, you could look out over a great scar of red earth sweeping to the distant treeline with a backdrop of Welsh hills.
I saw it all on my first mountainbike ride. It was the first time I’d ridden a bike of any sort since I was 13, actually. It was a heavy, hired job and it was strange and new to be pedalling on dirt paths, over tree roots, gingerly descending the hill, rattling over the old stone sleepers a long-gone tramway in Wimberry Slade. Next time out, we stoppedat Kensley Ridge again and looked at the view. The entire area had been planted with pine trees no bigger than geraniums.
A couple of weeks back, I was there again – no Forest ride is complete without checking out Kensley Ridge – and I hardly recognised it!
The entire plantation has been harvested – laid bare apart from bits and pieces of broken branches and some spindly silver birches.
It was an awesome sight. It means i’ve been mountainbiking in the Forest for an entire tree cycle!! Ive been there from planting to harvesting. 20 years!! It makes me feel even more fond of the place. Every winter, every summer, imperceptibly, those trees had been growing and the Forest changing.
It’s part of the interest, noting the changes; sometimes wondering where you are because the environment has changed so much. At the big wooden chair sculpture, high above Beechenhurst, there was once a sweeping view right down and across the Cannop Valley – a wonderful patchwork of colour in the autumn. The trees planted on the hillside have long since obscured that – but hey, it will appear again in a few years.
Back in the day, going down to Sallowvallets in the winter, there was nothing but a Bike Hire Centre and mud; thick, deep black coalminer’s mud; the kind of mud that really encouraged you to keep going and stay on the bike or you’d be up to your calves in it. There was a favourite stony downhill where you could just go for it hell for leather without fear of anyone popping out of a side path because the Forest was mostly just ours. There were no cafes or facilities but we had fantastic fun and when we finished, people and bikes were indecently plastered.
Now the forest is busy near the car parks. There are cyclists, people in wheelchairs, little people in pushchairs, toddlers playing, old people sitting and watching. They have “Facillities” – snacks, hot meals, drinkies, loos. It’s busy but I’ve no objection to people enjoying the outdoors. Who knows? One day they might venture further than the car park…
Although the mines have all closed but you can ride around and find fascinating remnants of that once-thriving industry – bridges, tunnels, overgrown halts and the names are all still there… Speculation, Trafalgar, Lightmoor, Cannop, Foxes Bridge to name a few.
So yes, public forests are life-enhancing. You can laze, cycle, walk, run, play, go adventuring , go canoeing, watch car rallying, get close to nature, (though car rallying needs a day of its own). You can watch the flora changing through the year, or if you’re feeling particularly wicked you can disappear with a friend into the deep quiet of a woodland glade and achieve the Foresters’ most famous euphemism – the fern ticket.
The forest is all there for free, the pines smell wonderful and there’s nothing quite like riding your bike over a soft duvet of pine needles through sun-dappled silent shade.
I should really be raising a glass to another 20 years of mountainbiking in the Forest of Dean. Now will someone please hurry up and re-plant Kensley Ridge!
Kensley Ridge! The holly tree which *always* has berries, by the oak.