Walking: If you go down to the woods today: Deciding to mix art with exercise, Tony Kelly follows the Forest of Dean's sculpture trail

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The Independent Culture
THE Forest of Dean, 28,000 acres of ancient woodland sandwiched between the Wye and Severn rivers in Gloucestershire, is easily overlooked by walkers. Perhaps it is the proximity of Welsh border country with its better-known attractions, or the fact that the forest is hidden away on minor roads between two motorways, but few people seem to be aware of the forest and even fewer have been there.

Unlike many forests, Dean has a long industrial history. Its timber has been exploited for centuries, ever since being used by Henry VIII's Navy to build galleons - if the Spanish Armada had succeeded, one of its priorities was the forest's destruction. From beneath the trees came iron ore - first mined in pre-Roman times - and later coal.

The last large pit closed in 1965, but a handful of 'free miners' remain. As a reward for their help in tunnelling under Berwick-upon Tweed's city walls during a siege in 1296, Edward I granted all men born within forest boundaries the right to mine freely. However, since the local maternity hospital has recently closed, and miners must work in a pit for a year and a day to earn their 'freedom', few men have the qualifications, let alone the desire, and the tradition is likely to die out with the current generation.

King Canute declared the forest a royal hunting ground and created the office of verderer (which still exists), to protect the 'vert and venison'. There are still 200 wild deer in the forest, although today you are far more likely to see sheep, grazing among the trees or sunbathing beside the road, unconcerned by the traffic.

The current focus is on tourism, with railway tracks left behind by empty pits turned into a network of footpaths and cycle trails crossing the forest between its carefully managed plantations of oak, ash, alder, beech, conifers and sweet chestnut.

Apart from the straightness of the disused tracks, little evidence remains of the forest's industrial heritage, though you still come across incongruities - you can be walking through apparent wilderness when you are confronted by a slag heap, or the din of a working quarry.

With a good map it is perfect walking country and there is no limit to the number of walks you can work out, but for those who prefer things to be simple, there is a good selection of waymarked trails. The largest is the Cannop Valley trail, a 10-mile round trip from south to north and back through a nature reserve, which can be joined at any one of seven car parks, and completed in short circuits of three to four miles. The whole thing made a satisfying day's walk; but my favourite short walk was the sculpture trail.

This imaginative trail was first conceived in 1984, when a group of sculptors were invited to visit the forest and produce works inspired by its landscape and history. The result is a gentle four-mile stroll, punctuated by at least 14 works of art, most of them constructed from forest materials.

The trail begins at the Beechenhurst picnic site, just off the B4226 between Cinderford and Coleford, where you can pick up a leaflet map and guide. Above you on a hill is the first sculpture, simply titled Place, but known as the 'giant's chair', a massive oak chair-frame by Magdelena Jotova overlooking the Cannop Valley and visible for miles.

Few of the other sculptures are so dominant, and as you follow the route, you need to keep your eyes firmly open - there are even pieces which are not listed in the guide, but concealed in their surroundings, designed to be discovered by chance. We got so carried away by this idea that we found ourselves speculating on the significance of discarded tin cans and plastic bags hanging in trees.

You can also have fun, as we did, by doing the walk once without the leaflet, looking out for the sculptures and interpreting them for yourself - then returning another day to buy a guide and repeat the trail, discovering what the artists intended, and comparing it with your earlier guesses.

I don't wish to spoil the pleasure of discovery, but a few of the larger pieces (which you cannot miss) stand out. Keir Smith's Iron Road is a set of 20 carved railway sleepers in their original setting - a 'poem in wood' according to the guide. As There Is No Hunting Tomorrow, by Zadok Ben David, is a light-hearted piece featuring seven black deer celebrating in a clearing.

The one which struck me most was Kevin Atherton's Cathedral, a large piece of stained glass hanging down between an avenue of trees. Light floods in from beyond the trees creating the effect of a columned nave with the glass acting as the link between the forest and the world outside. Close by is the austere Observatory, a black staircase providing branch-level views of the forest. 'The simple shape of this piece is painted black to bring attention to the beauty of its surroundings,' according to the leaflet.

Towards the end of the walk you glimpse the Speech House, built in 1676 and used by Charles II as a hunting lodge. The Verderer's Court, England's oldest court of law, still meets here, although its main function now is as a hotel. You could stop here for lunch, but we preferred to complete the walk and return to Beechenhurst Lodge, where we enjoyed an excellent vegetable crumble with herb bread, followed by giant slices of walnut tart with cream. A good lunch, for me, is an essential part of a good walk.

Taking our time to admire the sculptures, we found the walk had taken almost three hours. Not at all taxing, but a pleasant blend of exercise, landscape and environmental art. For a relaxing half-day on holiday it would be hard to beat.

(Photograph omitted)