In a tree museum

PATHFINDING 2: THE FOREST OF DEAN; Continuing a four-part series on walking in Britain, Martin Wright traverses the ancient Forest of Dean, a rare relic of unenclosed England
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The Independent Culture
That surprisingly large splodge of green on the map, where the Bristol Channel pokes up at the corner of England and Wales, is the Forest of Dean. It's a strange mix of nature and industry, and has been so for several hundred years.

There's an independence of spirit about the Dean. It's reflected in the persistence of local legal anomalies. I started my walk beside one of them: the Speech House, now a hotel, but since Canute's days the site of jurisdiction over the "Vert and the Venison" - all things which lived or grew in the Forest.

There's an arboretum alongside - to get you in the mood for trees, perhaps? It's a strange blend of banal and exotic: oak, ash and maple, under towers of huge foreign firs: the Grand Fir, the Noble, the Corsican Pine and the Serbian Spruce ("country of origin: Yugoslavia" said the faded name plate). It put me in mind of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi: "They took all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum." They weren't charging a dollar and a half here, but nor was anyone doing much tree-looking. Its main function seemed to be as exercise yard for noisy hounds and their scarcely less vocal owners. Around every corner, there seemed to be huddles of them, animatedly exchanging tips on all things dog.

But I was soon through a gate and into a different world. The barks and chatter faded away, and I found myself amongst some serious forestry: a chequerboard of spruce and pine plantations, like a mini-Finland on the Welsh border. Finnish forests would be rigorously tidy, though: here there was a welcome air of sylvan anarchy, the odd beech or birch sprinkled among the evergreens; a marshy corner of ancient, twisted oaks and surprisingly chunky holly; a tangle of fallen trees and dead stumps, a mess of bracken. Still, some of the plantations were dully uniform: like the serried ranks of Sitka spruce, dark as night beneath their leaves, highly productive, utterly dismal.

In the stillness of the winter forest lay reminders that this was once a well-worked landscape: remains of the railways which pumped coal and iron out of the Dean, remnants of complex stone structures, carefully- hewn blocks, long overgrown with moss and bramble. Up until the last century, iron smelting and coal mining combined to make this one of Britain's most industrialised regions. The last major collieries closed 30 years ago, but the scattering of small towns still wears an industrial air. Their grey and dark brown terraces would look more at home in the South Wales Valleys than the fat pastures of their Gloucestershire neighbours across the Severn. Even some of their names sound smoky: Coleford, Cinderford. Today, the economy depends on the twin, and not always harmonious, pillars of forestry and tourism. But the odd gunge of foam detergent lodged in stream bends showed that it hadn't all reverted to a rural idyll.

There's still mining, of a sort, here too. A handful of small pits are kept open by the Free Miners, who hold traditional rights to dig coal, iron and stone. These were granted by the Crown in the days of the Plantagenets, in recognition of the role of Dean miners as sappers and siege engineers in the wars against the French. The Free Miners remain a fiercely independent bunch, defending their traditions against the incursion of such tiresome modern devices as planning laws.

After a while I turned west, as the land fell away from the plateau, down towards the Cannop Valley. Here the landscape became more open, though no less man-made. Some of the spruce factories gave way to spacious swathes of managed oakwood. Wildwood it wasn't, but it hardly seemed to matter. There was a sense of light, of views opening out across the valley, whether by accident or sensitive design.

A single, majestic Scots pine, fully-grown with a rich spreading crown, stood sentinel on the lip of a steep slope sweeping down to the Cannop Ponds. It might have been placed there by some careful, patient painter, to provide a picture-skew foreground to the distant rising slopes, with their cross-hatches of oak and fir glimpsed through the trailing mist. In the spaces between the oaks were spindly birches and the odd fallen trunk. The one nearest me lay torn and twisted, like some dead dragon, rearing its head out of the undergrowth in a silence cut by the crow's caw.

Suddenly the cry was answered by a squeal from the hill behind me. A peacock, I thought, and, in a way I was right, but only in terms of plumage: it was a mountain biker, multi-coloured in jazz lycra, yellow, black, pink, ripping down the track, brakes yelping and squealing like doomed livestock, heading for a sheer tumble into the trees. For a moment I thought he'd had it: then he executed the cyclist's equivalent of a handbrake turn and was gone, in a final garish blur. What is it with these guys? They can do death-defying feats on the pedals but they can't put colours together to save their lives.

As the path flattened out on the valley floor, the clouds were being slowly, tantalisingly burnt off by the sun, teasing sheets of blue appearing through the mist. Here the oaks were being selectively felled, and a soft smell of sawdust hung in the air around the smooth slices of chopped stumps.

Timber has been cut in the Forest for over a thousand years, during most of which it was seriously over-exploited. Deer, sheep and pigs grazed by the commoners helped halt natural regeneration. Alarmed at the loss of the raw material for the Navy's ships, successive monarchs passed ineffective edicts aimed at stemming the destruction. So important was Dean timber to the Navy that the soldiers on the Spanish Armada were given orders to ravage the Forest. Attempts to enclose some areas in an effort to allow the trees to recover were fiercely resisted by the commoners, who tore down the fences and fired the plantations. Only in this century was the tide really turned - initially by the mass planting of conifers. Later, as tourism and "amenity" became the buzzwords, the emphasis swung back towards native trees.

The sun's final breakthrough came as I reached the ponds, dazzling off the weir at their southern end, sunbursts of glitter marking the stream's path through the trees. The road beyond was bordered by open oak pasture; still common land, a rare relic of an unenclosed England. Sheep cropped the verges and wandered across the tarmac, to the consternation of boy racers and bus drivers alike. A moment's observation proved the theory that sheep are utterly unfazed by car horns.

I crossed over the road into Wimberry Slade, heading back through the forest towards the Speech House. The sun was sneaking out from under a heavy cloud, its low rays doing a marvellous lighting job on the velvet- rich moss cloaking the trunk of an ancient oak. I stopped to take a photo.

"Found something interesting, have you?" said a sceptical voice behind me. He was a big chap, with a well-weathered face and a "no-nonsense" expression. "Well ... just this", I said, lamely, gesturing at the tree.

"Ah, the tree," he said. "Oak," he added, helpfully.

"Yes," I said, "I just liked the way the light was falling on the moss."

"You're not from round here, then?" he said; then wished me a good walk, whistled for his dog and strode off.

I took a few more pictures, wondering about the influence of culture and background on the way we relate to landscapes, and whether I looked silly taking snapshots of a bit of tree. Then I headed back up through the hills to the Speech House, past the vast wooden sculpture of the Giant's Chair, the forest falling away in waves behind me. !

Travel Notes: All of this walk is covered on the OS "Landranger" Map number 202, "Gloucester and the Forest of Dean". The Speech House is on the B4226 (the Coleford to Cinderford road). Throughout the Forest there are well- marked walks and cycleways - if you stick to the main tracks you'll soon find a signpost. Forest Enterprise (part of the Forestry Commission) produces a range of useful maps and leaflets. Contact: Forest Enterprise, Bank House, Bank Street, Coleford, Gloucestershire (01594-833057).

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