We left our intrepid explorer in a tent in a field in the Forest of Dean, sheltering from a summer thunderstorm after having a few pints on a Saturday night. He was alone, cold, wet, miserable, and seriously regretting his decision to spend a weekend away from home. Now read on …
I was awake at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. I didn’t have much choice. Rushmere Farm keeps free-range chickens, and the cockerel had announced the new day with all the brash confidence of a Labour candidate canvassing in my home town. After the torrential downpour of the previous evening and night, I wasn’t relishing the prospect of unzipping the tent entrance. But Nature had taken its course, and I desperately needed a piss. It was time to venture as far as the toilet block at the end of the field.
I opened the front flap cautiously, half-expecting to find a puddle of mud outside. To my astonishment and unbounded joy, the storm had passed on its way. There were white clouds drifting slowly high in the blue sky, and the sun was shining on my little corner of England. My tent, still saturated from the night before, was steaming gently in the early morning warmth. It was shortly after 6.00, so I decided not to waste the beautiful morning. I put my boots on and wandered through the dewy grass to the toilet block. It was spotless, fair play, a considerable and welcome change from the execrable Portaloos I’d encountered at Cropredy many years earlier.
Once I was sorted out, I made my way back to the tent. I’d bought a quiche in the Co-op in Coleford the previous afternoon; half of it had served for supper when I returned from the pub, and now the other half made a substantial breakfast. I’d also bought some pop in a screw-top bottle, and after finishing that off I filled the bottle with water. I put it in my rucksack with my map, bus timetables, camera, and tripod, and set off to explore properly.
My original plan had been to try and find the house where Dennis Potter was born. All that I’d been able to find online was that he was born in Berry Hill in 1935. Well, that was a start – Berry Hill is only a mile or so from where I was camping, so I had a vague target in mind.
I set off from Crossways and along the country lane running alongside Rushmere Farm. I passed a field with half a dozen beautiful horses, and soon emerged onto a fairly wide B-road. I was surprised to see a few cars around at that time of the morning, but farming is a 24-hour profession. Just past the junction I decided to stop and try to take a photo looking south towards Coleford. It wasn’t great, but it gives you an idea of the sort of countryside I was in.
I walked on until I came to a road junction named Berry Hill Pike. It proved that I was heading in the right direction, so I struck out to the north and made my way along the roadside. There was a narrow pavement on the right-hand side, so I stuck to it. The houses were an odd mixture of old and new, with some of them set back from the road in substantial gardens. However, none of them seemed like miners’ cottages, so I soon gave up any idea of finding Mr Potter’s birthplace and mentally rewrote my plan.
According to the road signs, I was only about two miles from Symonds Yat and its famous viewing point over the lower reaches of the River Wye. That would do instead. I carried on walking until I reached the village of Christchurch, with its eponymous place of worship planted solidly beside the road. Actually, the two settlements are pretty much contiguous, so I just found my way here with no real effort involved.
I’m pretty sure that this is the earliest I’ve been out of the house on a Sunday morning since I was abducted by extra-terrestrials many years ago (see The Truth Is Out There.)
Quite often, when I’ve been awake early, I’ve wished that I had a dog of my own to go for a walk with. It seems daft to just go wandering around Aberdare on your own, after all. Then, as if by some sort of strange magic, a black Labrador came bounding towards me on the wet grass. This was a scary moment; surely Stella couldn’t have followed me all the way from Aberdare just to go for a Ramble! Luckily for me, the dog turned out to belong to another early bird, a chap of about my age who also had a chocolate Labrador in tow. The Stella wannabe made as much fuss of me as the real thing, until her owner called her away.
I carried on following a lane between large houses in the direction the signpost had pointed. Then I found a great signpost, which reminded me of a conversation which Martin H. and I had had just a couple of days before:
Well, I wasn’t driving and I had an Ordnance Survey map. I was definitely on the right path. From the point of view of a walker, I wish a pox on these modern toys. They don’t show you any of the terrain, or the history that lies beneath the surface of the skeletal road network.
When we were in London a few weeks ago, Martin and I navigated from memory and a decent knowledge of geography. Meanwhile, Huw F. used his iPhone to try and find his way around. It had worked perfectly until he reached the heart of the West End; then, surrounded by a jungle of high buildings, and drowning in an electromagnetic soup of contradictory signals, his app had admitted defeat.
Les D. and I had had a similar experience the day of The Boys Village Photoshoot, when we resorted to my old OS map and dead reckoning to find our way around. I pity the idiots who take the word of these gadgets as gospel, and consequently find themselves axle-deep in streams, stuck under bridges, or unable to turn in the narrowest of country lanes. Buy yourself a fucking road map! That’s what they’re for!
Anyway, after another few minutes the houses petered out. I found a path which dropped off to the left, and I decided to follow it. I found myself in the midst of thick woodland, where it was cool and surprisingly dry underfoot. I’d been expecting a quagmire, but the rich parched soil must have drunk the overnight rain in gratefully.
The path was level and well made; it wound slowly through the mature forest, punctuated occasionally by speed ramps and wooden waymarkers along the edges. There weren’t any proper signposts, of course, so I just followed the path and hoped for the best. I don’t know how long I walked for, but eventually I came to a car park in a clearing under a canopy of broad-leaved trees. From here, a timber signpost pointed walkers in several directions. I decided to make for Symonds Yat East, which (according to the map) lay a reasonable stroll from my current position. And that was where the fun started.
[A digression: There’s a famous paradox in Mathematical Logic, usually attributed to Zeno of Elea (born c. 490 BCE), involving Achilles (the fastest of all mortal men) and the Tortoise (the slowest of all creatures). They agree to have a race over a distance of one mile – and in a sporting spirit, Achilles gives the Tortoise a half-mile start! Achilles covers the first half a mile in no time at all, while the Tortoise creeps along at his own pace. Achilles covers the next quarter of a mile, while the Tortoise carries on trudging towards the finish line. Achilles makes short work of the next eighth of a mile – and so forth …
Well, if you think about it (and Zeno obviously did), Achilles’ progress can be expressed as an infinite series of increasingly small steps:
If you’ve done any mathematics to higher level, you’ll immediately recognise this as an infinite series – and you’ll also know what happens next. The sum approaches, but never reaches, 1. By Zeno’s logic, the Tortoise wins the race while Achilles remains tantalisingly, eternally, just short of the finish line.]
Anyway, I discovered on Sunday that what happened to Achilles is pretty much what happens to anyone walking in rural England. Symonds Yat East was a mile away, according to the signpost. After about five minutes or so, I arrived at another sign telling me that Symonds Yat East was a mile away. I’d been following a narrow path at the edge of the Forest, with a steep drop on the other side. Finally I reached a point where the path dropped steeply away, and caught my first glimpse of the Wye far below:
At least I knew I was on the right track. The path descended steeply down the cliff edge, while timber steps had been sunk into the ground to maintain the surface. Once again, the torrential rain had been absorbed by the soil and the going was very easy. It took me about ten minutes or so to make my way to ground level, stopping for a breather at the halfway point, and then I emerged at the river’s edge.
Wide, slow lowland rivers like this seem to be immune from sudden downpours. Two pairs of swans were drifting gently over a shallow stretch as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened the night before.
There are some very large and impressive properties along the river bank, which have been converted into hotels; there’s a Pay and Display car park (only £3 a day), and a landing stage for use by canoeists and anglers. A couple were out walking their dogs, and a young woman was starting a morning run along the riverbank. It must be a popular spot for a breath of fresh air, especially if you live locally.
While I was setting up my tripod, a middle-aged chap walked down from one of the hotels and greeted me cheerfully. I picked up from his accent that he wasn’t local; he told me that he and his wife come down to the Wye Valley from Yorkshire every year for the fishing. He was looking forward to the day’s pursuit of barbel – the hot dry weather had depleted the oxygen in the water – and he reckoned that the rain would have livened the fish up a bit.
He asked me if I’d been ‘up to the Rock yet’, and told me that it was about a twenty minute walk. It’s clearly visible from the water’s edge where we were standing.
I took a number of photos here and wondered about crossing to Symonds Yat West by the foot ferry, a little further upstream. Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t yet 8.00 on a Sunday morning, so it wouldn’t be operating anyway. I made my way back to the path, heading upwards again, and accidentally joined a minor road. I decided to take a walk along it. There was a surprising amount of traffic around, and I wasn’t sure where I was. The map is tightly packed with tourist information, and it makes filtering out the details rather difficult. A minute or so later the mystery was solved for me – I was right on the county line:
There were some beautiful houses here. To one side of the road there was a pair of little stone recesses, with no sign of their original purpose. One of the homeowners had found a use for them, though:
Along with the houses, I found one surprising building which is on the market. I wouldn’t like to know the asking price, mind you.
I rejoined the footpath and continued upwards, retracing my steps to the high ground above the river. The uphill climb seemed a lot steeper than the descent, so I stopped again for a break and a drink of water. There’s a seat at the halfway point, but the trees are so thickly clustered here that the river is completely hidden from view. I proceeded up the slope and re-emerged at the point where I’d found the signpost. Symonds Yat Rock wasn’t indicated, but I found my way to a timber building a short distance away.
It was a tourist information stand with toilets, displays, and a large map showing the surrounding area. The map showed Goodrich Castle and King Arthur’s Cave, two places which Pam and I visited when we explored the lower Wye Valley many years ago. They seemed fairly accessible on the map, but (as I’d already found out) the distances were very deceptive. There was another signpost, guiding walkers towards the ‘Log Cabin’. That sounded intriguing, so I walked for a few minutes to see what it was. It turned out to be a cafe and souvenir shop in the middle of the forest. Unfortunately, it didn’t open until ten.
I decided to stick to finding Symonds Yat Rock instead. I followed a waymarked path into the forest again, and then came across a timber walkway. I could hear traffic in the distance; the walkway led to a bridge across the minor road I’d explored a few minutes earlier.
Now that I was above the minor road, I was able to get more of a mental image of my position. Not for the first time, I wished I’d picked up my compass, which lives on the shelves along with my OS maps and atlases. I crossed the bridge and followed the walkway to its end, where it emerges here:
Finally, I was standing on Symonds Yat Rock itself. The pillar in the centre of the picture is similar to a structure I found over twenty years ago, above the White Horse at Westbury (see A White Chalk Horse Upon a Distant Hill). It bears a circular plaque, showing the distances to key places around the Rock itself.
Two hundred years ago, the Reverend William Gilpin coined the term ‘picturesque’ to describe the view of the Wye Valley from here. It’s an overused word. I was absolutely lost for words. From the Rock, there’s a view which made the whole journey worthwhile.
The Rock itself is at the centre of a loop of the river; to the east, the river flows lazily northwards, turning in a hairpin to flow slowly south on the other side. The settlement(s) of Symonds Yat straddle this southward stretch, and the Rock stands high above the river. By now it was about half-past nine, and I was still on my own. I took a couple of dozen photos from here, and was surprised to find that quite a number of people were out and about.
I’ve never been canoeing, but I’ve always fancied giving it a try. That morning, in the post-downpour sunshine, it seemed like the perfect way to work up an appetite for breakfast. The geology of the area is fascinating – there was a information display showing how the rock had been formed by the erosive action of the river over millions of years.
I was standing on the triangular wedge of rock, overlooking the loop in the river. It was nice to have an explanation for the topography of the place. I studied the circular plaque on the stone pillar for a few minutes. Directly in my line of sight I could see a church spire, some distance away. It turned out to be the church at Ross-on-Wye, five miles or so away. The view across Gloucestershire and into southern Herefordshire is spectacular to say the least.
After taking a few more photos, I crossed to the other side of the little enclosure. The river isn’t as clearly visible from here, but you can look over to Symonds Yat West. I was surprised to see houses perched on the hillside all the way up.
There’s even a building almost directly below the summit of the Rock itself, just visible in the thick forest below:
There must be more mature broad-leaved trees in this area alone than there are in the entire Cynon Valley. In Wales, Forestry Commission land is nearly all composed of conifer plantations. This is real forest – a throwback to the way the land must have looked back in the Stone Age, before the coming of agriculture.
I heard voices approaching from the timber walkway, and soon I was joined on the Rock by half a dozen guys in their twenties. They’d walked to the summit with a specific target in mind; peregrine falcons and goshawk nest on the high cliffs flanking the river. Sure enough, while we were scanning the river and the field below, a bird of prey rose into view, circling high above the stretch where the canoeists had been a few minutes earlier. We soon lost it as it flew over the trees; below, in the field beside the river, some horse riders were out for a Sunday gallop. I decided to take a few more photos before returning the way I’d come.
I was glad I’d set off as early as I did, it had been great to be able to explore without bumping into other people at every turn. After all, that was the reason I’d decided to leave Aberdare for the weekend. The walk out to Symonds Yat Rock had more than made up for the misery of the previous night.
By now it was approaching ten o’clock, so I decided to make my way back to the Log Cabin. By the time I got there, the shutters were open and there was a smell of cooking. The car park had started to fill up, and groups of visitors were spreading out in all directions.
Two bearded guys with some impressive camera gear were sitting at at a picnic bench; I gathered that they were RPSB volunteers, meeting visitors who wanted to see the peregrines for themselves. I decided that a second breakfast-cum-early lunch was in order, and checked out the menu chalked up beside the counter. A vegetarian breakfast for £5.00 sounded like a decent deal, and I counted out my change. I had just enough for breakfast, so I spread out my map and planned my course of action for the next stage of my exploration.