1977 revisited

Walking the expedition route again in 2003

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In February 2003 I was out of work and with little sign of any future possibilities. Stuck back at home with two young children my wife generously suggested I spend a few days away. Although it was March, a spell of unseasonably good weather gave me the idea of re-walking my 1977 D of E Silver Practice expedition to see how it had changed over the years.

Of all the six D of E expeditions I undertook, this one has left least documentary evidence. There is only a single copy of the checkpoints list and not a lot of information on that. A puzzling feature is that each day's walk is about eight miles. A Silver expedition should be 30 miles; ten miles a day. It can't be a mistake and although we might have rounded off some numbers to make the numbers easier in those pre-calculator days, the overall effect would not have been this great. Possibly we were told that on a practice expedition we did not need to do the full thirty miles yet I don't recall this happening on the Bronze or Gold expeditions. Click here to read an account of the original 1977 expedition.

A map, laboriously traced by Steven Heath, still exists and shows what must have been a first draft of the route. It starts at Lydney Harbour and finishes at Worcester Lodge Caravan Site where we had hoped to camp before discovering tents were not permitted. Although the route is roughly similar to the final version the paths followed are often different and of course there is a whole extra section from Lydney to Blakeney making the total day's walk 11.5 miles. The map only shows the first days walk, clearly we revised it later. So to plan my route I have to rely on my list of checkpoints, a copy of the 1977 Forest of Dean map and my memory.

I drove down to Monmouth and camped at the Glen Trothy campsite. The Forestry Commission site at Bracelands did not open for the season until the end of the week. I spent a pleasant afternnoon in Monmouth where the local schoolchildren had turned out in force to protest against the Iraq war.

Where possible I am using the same camping equipment as in 1977. The tent and groundsheets are the same. My plate is also 1977 era except I accidentally left it at home then and had to eat off a paper plate. Finally my cutlery set is the same. It comes in a plastic wallet - somehow during the 1977 camp bits of grass got into the wallet and remained there for years. Recently my wife spent ages getting them out. She did not appreciate my protests that it was 25 year old grass that I was keeping for old times sake!

After cooking and eating my evening meal I tried to light my Tilley lamp. Alas it failed with a blocked vapouriser so with no effective light source I decided to have an early night.

Thursday 20th March 2003

664072 START Near Blakeney Hill
652086 Railway bridge over road 50 mins 1.5 miles
634091 Road bridge at Dwarf Holes 2 hrs (inc lunch) 1 mile
608108 Road by upper Cannop Pond 1hr 15mins 2.2 miles
588122 Track crossing B4028 1hr 15 mins 2.2 miles
568129 Christchurch Camp Site 50 mins 1.3 miles

6.30 AM. It's getting light and seems to be warmer. I get up. The temperature is minus 3 and there is ice in the water carrier. I cook up some egg and beans for breakfast on an 43 year old primus stove. I'm not actually using the Primus for historical reasons although it is old enough (we used gas in 1977). I have a modern Coleman stove with me but the fuel for it is £10 a litre. Paraffin is cheap and I have gallons of it.

 

Frost on the ground and tent when I get up. I am the only camper on this site! The tent and groundsheet are the same ones used for the original 1977 expedition.

Nine o'clock and I park the car at Christchurch camp site in the Forest of Dean. I can't camp here as it doesn't open for the season until tomorrow. No school minibus to take me to the start point so I have to use the public bus service. At 9.36 I board the Gloucester bus; £2.20 gets me a ticket to Cinderford. Half an hour later after a slow trundle around Coleford we are back within walking distance of my start point. Then, on Worrall Hill, we are held up for ten minutes at a stop board while roadworks are carried out. This means that not only are we late arriving in Cinderford, but also it is past the departure time for my next bus. Luckily it is still there and the driver has not even started the engine. A single to Blakeney is £1.80.

We coast gently down the twisting road towards the Severn. There is only one other passenger on the bus. I am deposited at Blakeney and set off towards Blakeney Hill. At 11.10 I reckon I am at the start point of the 1977 expedition. I should follow the disused Forest of Dean Central Railway but, recalling fighting our way through dense undergrowth in 1977, I don't even try and stay on the road. I am not aware of crossing the railway although on the original trip it was at this point that the track became clear. Making my way into the woods and along a forest track I come across some very old rails that have been unearthed. Not tramway rails these are railway rails but of an unusual and early type. Shortly after this I lose the trackbed again but eventually regain it where it has been made into a forest track. In 1977 this section was a straightforward walk along an old trackbed.

 

These may well be original rails from the Forest of Dean Central Railway's construction.

Checkpoint 1, Blackpool Bridge. Arrive at 11.45, 5 minutes early. I leave the railway and cross the road. I take careful compass bearings, recalling wandering through trackless woodland at this point. This time I found the path easily, the starting point being shown correctly on the 2003 map and wrongly on the 1977 map. This accounts for our original error although it may have been correct in the 1930s when the 1977 map was surveyed! There is a steep climb ahead. Eventually I emerge onto a well-defined track but I'm not going along it - my path continues, rising at what looks like 45 degrees. I recall the protests which greeted this sight in 1977.

I'm coming to the top of Bailey Hill now and the height can be clearly sensed although I can't see very far. The open hillside of newly-planted conifers that was here in 1977 has now grown up. Improbably, there is a house on this remote hilltop, Danby Lodge. Here, on our original expedition we took a detour being unable to locate the correct path. Once again though I find it without problems this time and descend to the road at Moseley Green.

At Moseley Green the disused "mineral loop" railway runs through a tunnel. The 1977 route goes through it! I am told, however that the tunnel is now sealed at the Southern end. I go down to have a look and find it fenced off. I can't quite see the entrance but it does seem it may be blocked. I decide to walk over the top.

Baa. A forest sheep appears out of the undergrowth. Soon it is joined by more and more of its friends. I make my way back to the road with the sheep following. They stop when we reach the road - or so I think. Five minutes later as I walk along the road a car horn sounds. Looking back, the sheep are following me in a flock. This is embarrassing. I attempt to shoo them off up a forest track.

Rounding a bend in the road I am confronted with a signboard: "Rising Sun - Real Ales". A dilemma. Should I deviate from my 1977 route? A walk up a track brings me to the pub where I enjoy a pint of Abbott Ale in the sunshine.

Returning to my walk I make my way back on to the old railway line. A farmer appears in a pick up, he gets out and starts waving his arms and shouting "Oy, Oy, Oy". It isn't directed at me though; he is trying to find his sheep. I say nothing. I reach the demolished bridge at Dwarf Holes at 13.15, checkpoint 2 and the official lunch stop. This section has taken 1 hour 5 minutes (ignoring the pub stop). If I allow for the time walking to and from the pub I am still on schedule.

I sit on top of the railway bridge abutments to eat my lunch. The menu for this expedition has not survived but I can recall what we ate for this meal. Steven Heath had supplied the tinned fish called "sild". I had not encountered these before (neither has Microsoft's spell checker!) and misread the name as "slid". Anyway, for historical accuracy, sild sandwiches are what I am eating today.

Eating my lunch on the old railway line at Dwarf Holes. I'm eating historically accurate slid sandwiches (my wife doesn't see the point of this and thinks I am quite mad!)

A short stretch on road and it is back into the forest on what is now part of the circular cycle route. As I approach, a car pulls up and an old lady in her 70s gets out. The car drives off and she sets off along the forest track. She is going at quite a rate and I can't overtake her without forcing the pace excessively. Instead I pretend my rucksack is really heavy and adopt a slower pace. I eventually reach another disused railway at Cannop Ponds, turn right and walk on till I reach the B4226. It is now I look at my route card and realise I shouldn't be here at all; I should have turned off between the two ponds. This is the sort of error I criticise my scouts for! I have to retrace my steps. It has taken 1 hour 13 minutes from checkpoint 2 so I am still (just) on schedule. The teachers can't complain (or can they?: "John Mann, you are 25 years and 8 months late at checkpoint 3!").

Crossing the B4234 this time I tackle the climb out of the Cannop Valley. This is a hard slog and in 1977 we ground to a halt, apart from David Robins who went straight up to the top but eventually returned to physically push us up! Finally the ground levels out and eventually I reach the road at Howlers Hill Quarry. The footpath used to run through the quarry and zig zag up the rock face but today the quarry is the council tip. I have to divert slightly and take the more boring route along the approach road to Woodlands caravan site.

This point is etched in my memory - we were surprised to come across the caravan site but very pleased because we were able to refill our water bottles at a convenient water point. My choice of route from here was uncertain. The 1977 and 2003 maps show completely different tracks in this area. The situation on the ground was different again although conforming more to the 1977 map. In the end I just headed in roughly the right direction. I reached checkpoint 5 on the B4028 at 15.50. Exactly on time! After crossing the road a pleasant walk through woodland brought me to Five Acres and the rather tedious walk through the built up area of Berry Hill and Christchurch. I finally arrived back at the car at 16.22, still running ahead of schedule.

I really should be doing my own cooking but I decide to visit a Chinese takeaway in Monmouth for some lemon chicken. I return to the camp site to eat this. Still lacking a decent light source I go to bed soon after dark even though it is only eight o'clock.

Friday 21st March 2003

568129 Christchurch Camp Site
575108 Six roads junction in Coleford 50 mins 1.3 miles
553094 T Junction in Newland 50 mins 1.75 miles
537098 Telephone box at Lower Redbrook 2 hrs (inc lunch) 1.25 miles
526114 Opposite minibus near river 50 mins 1.5 miles
504127 Monnow Bridge camp site 1 hr 2.25 miles

The morning is much warmer: five degrees! I get up at 6.30, have breakfast then strike camp. I park the car in Monmouth and make my way to the bus station. This is smaller than it used to be; no double deckers now and what was the bus company office now seems to be a solicitor's. I check the timetable at the bus stop. What's this? It is different from the booklet I got from the information centre. There is no sign of the bus I was going to catch. I ring national bus enquiries; they think it should be running but give me the local bus company's number. The bus no longer runs. I decide not to wait several hours for the next one and go to the Information centre to enquire about taxis. They are very helpful and get on the phone to organise one for me. It soon arrives and whisks me up to Christchurch. Costs me £10 though.

10.35 and I am finally off. The first section of the route takes me down to Coleford. I am a bit unsure about the exact route to take and backtrack at one point but eventually end up going along a very pleasant path through Highmeadow Woods, then across a field. At this point I realise I have deviated from the 1977 route yet again. The public footpath I am following, although it is the obvious route, is not shown on the 1977 map and we took a more boring route following the road. Oh well. I reach the centre of Coleford at 11.25 Just about on time but my earlier dithering has lost me the 10 minutes rest time.

I now have to follow an old tramroad round the back of Coleford. The entrance is marked with a "Tram Road" sign and simulated tramway blocks in the pavement. After passing the back of several shops I should, as we did in 1977, enter a tunnel-like bridge under a road. Today, in 2003, a blank wall greets me. I have to backtrack and walk through the town centre.

I am now a little uncertain of the correct route. The original idea back in 1977 was to follow the GWR Coleford-Redbrook railway and take a look at one of the tunnels on it. However on discovering that the tunnel approaches were private property I got cold feet and altered the route. I am pretty confident that the route was changed to follow the nearby road. The only problem is that as I walk down it now I have no memory of having done so before. Despite being on-road it is a lovely walk. There are the remains of some ancient blast furnaces on the right but I don't remember them. The only point at which there is a faint stirring of memory is where a rushing stream is piped under the road. Very odd. I turn off onto a minor road and pass under the railway. The bridge is very large and dramatic; a little further on there is the remains of another bridge not shown on the map. Possibly it was part of the quarry sidings that used to be here. All this would have been fascinating to me in 1977 but I don't remember it at all. There is another possible route from Coleford, via footpaths, but I really don't think we went that way.

I soon reach a bridleway signed as "The Burial Path", doubtless an old route for the carriage of coffins to Newland Church. The path climbs dramatically up the hillside. It ought to be memorable, at least for the effort of slogging up it with a rucksack but again I have no memory of it. Whatever route we followed from Coleford in 1977 we definitely went along here. How odd. I climb to the brow of the hill - the burial path turns sharp left here and I continue to follow it although the 1977 route goes straight on following a footpath across fields. I have vague recollections of having to scramble through hedges and fences so decide to continue following the Burial Path.

This brings me down a long descent to the village of Newland where Miss Read greeted us in 1977 with ice creams. I arrive at 12.15 so I am not behind time. No ice creams today but there is the Ostrich Inn where I sit outside and enjoy a pint of Exmoor Gold.

I now descend a very steep road in the village. Tricky going, even with my relatively lightweight rucksack. It must have been quite dodgy with a full equipment load but, guess what, I can't remember it. The route strikes off across fields but with the benefit of the modern OS map I know that the parallel sunken lane is a right of way and follow this up the hill to Forge Wood.

After traversing so much distance with no recollection of having passed that way before, when I step through the gate into the wood it is instantly familiar although I haven't been here for 26 years. As I started late due to the bus problems I decide to make this my lunch stop, which strictly speaking should be at Redbrook. I then take some careful compass bearings as we went wrong here in 1977. I identify the correct path and set off. Within a few yards though, the path swings off sharply left away from the correct bearing. I realise I am making the same mistake as in 1977. This time however there are no leaves on the trees and I can actually see the correct path off to my right. After locating the entrance to this path I set off in the right direction, descending steeply towards the Wye Valley.

I emerge from the wood onto a track which takes me along the valley. The stream here once powered various industrial concerns, hence the name "Forge Wood". There is a house down below me. Strangely, in an overgrown corner of the garden is a table with computer, monitor and printer gradually becoming covered in vegetation. Further along the valley, where I think there used to be a factory, is a modern housing estate looking very incongruous in this setting.

Entering the village of Redbrook I briefly join Offa's Dyke Path which descends to the main road on a dramatic flight of steps. Guess what, I don't remember this! Some weeks later, vague memories return and I now think that the two photos of Redbrook Railway Bridge below are the same as the lost slides I took in 1977. I'm soon at Checkpoint 4, the phone box in Redbrook. This section has taken an hour and 13 minutes, including my pub and lunch stops. The schedule actually allowed two hours including an lunch stop. I now cross the River Wye via a footbridge attached to the disused railway bridge which takes me to the Boat Inn. My heart sinks when I enter as there are no handpumps. I order a keg Ruddles or some such but the landlady obviously spots the expression on my face and points to a blackboard listing real ales. Saved! The ales are served directly from cask. I have a pint of Freeminer Speculation.

The railway bridge at Redbrook in the Wye Valley.
Looking across the bridge to the Boat Inn, a scene little changed since the tracks were lifted in 1964.

I now follow the west bank of the Wye but pause to locate the spot where we had lunch in 1977. Miss Read came out to check us here, bringing with her all the girls on the camp. They sat on a concrete breakwater thing. I can't find this now (I come across some further upstream - what are they for?) but spot some submerged lumps of concrete which I think are the remains.

I think this picture shows the same location as the blurry 1977 picture on the left. There are some concrete blocks under the water which may be the remains of the breakwater in the original picture.

I have to admit to being out of training for walking and my legs are struggling a bit now (or perhaps it's the beer!). I follow the Wye in a sweeping curve with superb views of the railway viaduct till I leave the river and enter a large grassy field. As in 1977 some careful compass work is needed but I eventually gain the track I was heading for. There are now a few gates to climb, inquisitive cows and for the first time on this walk, mud.

The right of way runs right through Troy Farm. I wonder about the huge house here, far too big for a farmhouse. As I pass it I realise it is a school complete with modern accommodation and teaching blocks. It is all closed down and abandoned though. A mystery. Not far to go now, up the track to the road and over the top of Monmouth's railway and road tunnels. Houses have been built on the site of Troy Station (demolished brick by brick and re-erected at Winchcombe) but amazingly some of the deserted goods yard seems to survive.

Into Monmouth and along the road. I consider walking an extra quarter of a mile to the Monnow Bridge Camp Site, the 1977 destination but my legs are too tired and I return to my car, forgetting to log my finishing time.

The 1977 expedition continued for a further day, up the Wye to Symonds Yat then back to Bracelands. Sadly I don't have time for this final section and in any case have walked bits of it in the intervening years.

Conclusion

I finished this expedition with a great respect for our group of 15-year-olds. Not only for completing the route carrying heavy camping gear but also for planning an excellent route despite having at that time no knowledge of the area. The expedition crosses the entire Forest of Dean and then takes in the Wye Valley. You see famous spots and obscure ones and get a real feel for the geography of the area.