The Traveller: Panniers from Heaven, a cycling drama: Frank Barrett gives his mountain bike a rare muddying in the forest of dean

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The Independent Travel
IF Dennis Potter wrote swirling historical romances instead of controversial steamy television drama, the Forest of Dean would by now probably have been branded 'Potter Country'.

Much of Potter's work, such as parts of Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, is set in his native forest (including the famous scene from The Singing Detective in which Patrick Malahide bares his bottom in the woods). Mr Potter may be one of the forest's most distinguished sons, but there are plenty of other local boys and girls who have made good.

Take this mixed bag as a random sample: Jimmy Young, Denis Healey's wife Edna, the pop group EMF and the eccentric record producer Joe Meek, tortured genius behind the likes of 'Telstar' and 'Johnny Remember Me' who killed his landlady and then shot himself in his Holloway Road studio.

If the people of the Forest of Dean tend to be an eclectic bunch, it is probably because the forest itself is a curiously eccentric sort of place. And it is a place people seem to know very little about - surprisingly few have any idea where to find it.

Hilary Carpenter who, with her husband Fred, runs a forest-based cycling holiday company, PedalAway, says even people who have heard of the Forest of Dean have difficulty locating it on a map. 'They ring and say: 'We want to come, but where are you exactly?' '

The forest occupies a lush triangle of Gloucestershire, sandwiched between the Welsh border of the river Wye to the west and the upper reaches of the Severn Estuary to the east. It is a part of England easily bypassed: the M4 just misses it in the south, the M50 skirts it to the north.

If you are told that it is a forest in Gloucestershire, you probably imagine Cotswold-style countryside: trees, dry- stone walls, babbling brooks and flocks of contented sheep safely grazing. Well, yes, up to a point. It is a forest with trees and shady glades and singing streams. But look at the names of Forest of Dean towns and villages and you realise that this probably is not all Archers country. Places called Coleford, Coalway, Cinderford and Steam Mills reveal the area's industrial history.

The forest's plantations of oak, beech, ash, elm, sweet chestnut and conifer have been an important provider of industrial raw material: from medieval times it was an important source of timber for shipbuilding. If the invasion had been successful, one of the first tasks of the Spanish Armada was said to have been the destruction of the forest.

Beneath the ground lay richer reserves of iron and coal. Iron was being mined in the forest from before the Romans until the Industrial Revolution. Coal became a big industry in the last century, when a million tons of coal were being mined each year. The last big pit closed in 1965, but mining continues on a smaller scale worked by the forest's 'free' miners. (The miners were granted special privileges by Edward I in appreciation of their work in tunnelling under Berwick-upon-Tweed's city walls during a siege in 1296.)

As a result of its industry, the Forest of Dean developed a culture, as well as a topography of spoil tips, slag heaps and ubiquitously grazing sheep, that had more in common with the Welsh valleys. 'Like South Wales - only with trees' is how the forest is described.

Given its curious history, attractive scenery and choice location sandwiched between the Wye Valley and the Cotswolds, tourism should have been an obvious industry for the Forest of Dean to exploit. But this has developed relatively slowly.

The most recent initiative to attract visitors cleverly capitalises on the forest's two main assets: its industrial heritage and its rural charm. Sustrans, which builds cycle paths, is surveying the forest's complex network of old railway lines and tramways to see how best to create what will be one of the most extensive systems of tourist cycle routes in Britain.

Imagine the navvies of the 19th century resting on their shovels and reflecting: 'It's not just a railway we're constructing here - we're creating a great leisure amenity for the late 20th

century.'

Sustrans has been spectacularly successful in turning useless old railway lines into valuable cycle paths, and the Forest of Dean offers extraordinary potential. The lines have been ripped up but the paths of the railways remain largely untouched, offering the possibility of cycle routes that could link the main forest towns and routes running from the forest into the heart of the Wye Valley.

A pilot circular family-cycle route has been opened, offering an 11 1/2 -mile ride through the forest, entirely off the road, on a path exclusively designated for the use of cyclists. This route, the result of co-operation between the Forestry Commission and the cycle company PedalAway, has been a huge success.

On a rainy Sunday in February the PedalAway cycle centre, housed in old colliery offices in the Cannop Valley between Coleford and Cinderford, was a heaving mass of bikers kitted out in fluorescent helmets and Day-Glo lycra shorts. If you want to hire, the centre has a selection of 140 cycles available, including mountain bikes, touring bikes, tandems, trikes, children's bikes, buddy bikes (where two people cycle side by side) and bikes adapted for use by the disabled.

Most people, however, seem to bring their own - finally taking the mountain bike out of the garage to try it out on something more testing than a trip to the newsagent. The circular ride has sufficient muddy patches to make a mountain bike indispensable.

Initially my son looked at the axle- deep mud with horror but, like me, quickly began to enjoy wallowing through it with the tyres making highly satisfying squelching noises (do not be surprised to end up looking like the creature from the black lagoon when you finish the trip).

The ride took us less than two hours: long enough to be interesting, short enough not to be too exhausting. There are a couple of short climbs which are more than compensated for by exhilarating descents through the trees.

If you are keen to venture further afield, Fred Carpenter at the PedalAway centre has a folder stuffed with other suggested rides in the area (you are legally entitled to cycle anywhere in the 28,000-acre forest, but you will not be popular with walkers if you stray on to their specially designated paths).

Now, if only Dennis Potter were to write a television drama about mountain biking in the forest: Panniers from Heaven?

FACT FILE

Package holidays PedalAway (0594 860065) has a centre at the start of the circular trail providing bikes for hire: two adults and two children can hire them for a special family rate of pounds 16 per day; mountain bikes cost pounds 12 per day. The company can also arrange routes and tours with delivery and collection of bikes. Two-, four- and six-day tours of the area are available from pounds 35 per person for two nights' bed and breakfast, excluding the cost of bike hire.

Accommodation The best hotel in the area is the nearby Forte-owned Speech House (0594 822607), once the meeting place of the forest's Verderers' Court. Weekend breaks from pounds 69 per person per night half-board.

The Beechenhurst Picnic Site on the B4226, half a mile west of Speech House, offers refreshments as well as information on the area. It is also the starting point for the imaginatively conceived sculpture trail.

Further information Forestry Commission information is available from Forest Enterprise, Bank House, Bank Street, Coleford GL16 8BA (0594 833057).

Tourist Information Centre, Council Offices, Coleford (0594 836307).

(Photograph and map omitted)

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