First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Take your umbrella if you visit St Briavels on Whitsunday evening, because it’ll be raining bread and cheese. Those humble comestibles are hurled from the top of the Pound Wall opposite St Briavels Castle, while the townsfolk hold upturned brollies aloft to catch as many morsels as they can for good luck.
St Briavels stands on the eastern fringe of the Forest of Dean. Legend, myth and arcane customs hang thickly about this ancient slice of forest where Gloucestershire meets Monmouthshire and England stares at Wales across the beautiful valley of the River Wye.
Below St Briavels Castle we found a field path running along a side cleft of the Wye Valley where ewes with lambs at foot stood staring as we went by. Through the bluebell woods of Slade Bottom ran the Slade Brook, a stream laden with calcium, depositing thick layers of the stuff in miniature dams and pool rims over which the water sparkled.
This is all steep green countryside, heavily wooded and set with scattered farms. At Great Hoggins a chestnut horse and its Shetland pony sidekick came up to look us over. Willsbury Farm sat well down on its slope, all white walls, tall chimneys and tiny windows. Forest of Dean locals have always been inclined to plough their own furrows without so much as a by-your-leave; and when the Reeve of St Briavels decided to build himself a fine house at Willsbury back in 1230, he did so without permission. The Reeve’s illegal farmstead has stood unchallenged for almost 800 years. So much for respect for the law around here.
In Rodmore Grove below the house the brook ran red with mud through clumps of brilliant gold marsh marigolds. A glimpse opened out across the trees of Pickethill Wood to where the grey River Severn broadened between hills to its estuary under a sky of giant white puffed clouds, trampolines for angels.
We left the trees and walk up the long meadow to Highgrove Farm where lambs went kicking the itches out of their heels. A last climb up a hedge of may blossom, and we were cresting the ridge towards St Briavels in the first low sunbursts of a beautiful spring evening.
Start: George Inn, St Briavels, Glos GL15 6TA (OS ref SO 559046)
Getting there: Bus 701 (Coleford), 707 (Coleford-Chepstow)
Road – St Briavels is signposted from A48 (Chepstow-Lydney)
Walk (7½ miles, woodland and field paths, OS Explorer OL14): Opposite St Briavels Castle, down Mork Road beside church (‘Bigsweir’). At left bend, ahead (557049, ‘Mork Lane’). In 40m, right down drive of Tyltham’s Tump (yellow arrow/YA on telegraph pole). Follow YAs down garden to cross stile; ahead, contouring hillside for 500m to enter wood (561053). Follow path above Slade Bottom and through woods for ¾ mile to cross B4228 at Bearse Farm (572051).
Up drive opposite (fingerpost). Fork left along drive (‘Little Hoggins’); over stile; at field end, left (573049) and follow hedge on right. At top corner, right through kissing gate/KG; aim 50m left of gate opposite. Through KG (575046); half right across field to KG; stiles in paddocks to road near Great Hoggins Farm (578045). Left along road; in 300m, fork right off road (581045, fingerpost) along field edge with hedge on left. At far end, over stile; half right over brow of field, aiming right of Willsbury Farm, to cross 2 stiles (585044, YAs). Bear right to skirt pond anticlockwise. Cross south end of pond (586042); right over stile (YA); follow path through Rodmore Grove and other woods for 1 mile to road (588028).
Right along road; pass drive to Clanna Lodge, then footpath crossing road. In another 100m on right bend, fork left downhill on stony lane (582028). In 150m, where lane forks and bends left and downhill, keep ahead on woodland path. In 300m, round sharp left bend (580032), returning southward down west side of valley for 500m to stile out of woods (578028). Keep ahead for ⅔ mile through three long fields to pass below Highgrove Farm. After crossing last stile (570033), bear left in front of rock outcrop with fence/hedge on left. In 150m, left across stile (568035); up field edge; right along top of field. At next corner, left over stile (565034); on with hedge on left. Through gateway (563034); right with hedge on right for ½ mile to stile on right into lane (561041). Left to cross B4228; down roadway opposite; in 50m, right down Pystol Lane to George Inn.
Lunch: George Inn, St Briavels (01594-530228, georgeinnstbriavels.co.uk)
Accommodation: St Briavels Castle YHA (0345-371-9041, yha.org.uk/hostel/st-briavels)
St Briavels Bread & Cheese Scramble: 4 June, 7.30pm (calendarcustoms.com/articles/st-briavels-bread-cheese-scramble)