The 31 bus arrived opposite the Belfry in Cinderford exactly on time. I realised earlier that I’d forgotten to mention the name of the rather disconcerting hotel/pub in … And Also The Trees. I had the bus timetable stored on a memory stick, and I’ve just retrieved it. If only I could retrieve all my memories that easily, eh …? (Better still, why can’t I just carry out a batch delete on unwanted memories? Actually, I think I might have covered this topic already, in Memory Dump, but I can’t be sure.)
The driver on the return leg was the same man who’d taken me across the Forest about two hours earlier. I wondered for a few moments whether I’d have been better off paying the extra £1.25 and going to Gloucester for a change of scene. I haven’t been to Gloucester for years. I used to really like it there, when there was Joined-Up Public Transport and you could get there and back for a fiver (see Nice Work If You Can Get There.). However, I had a sinking feeling that Gloucester might have gone down the same Clone Town route as Cardiff, Swansea, Bath, Bristol, Hereford, and all the other cites I used to love visiting when I was in my twenties. Now a return ticket by train costs about twenty quid. Meanwhile, you can forget about doing it by bus if you want to get home the same day.
The return trip was exactly the same as the outward journey – Steam Mills School, Gloucester College, The Swan Inn at Brierley, the semiconscious villages with their corner shops and struggling pubs, the agricultural suppliers, the GSK factory, and finally the descent into Coleford itself.
I hadn’t had a decent look around on the Saturday afternoon. Within two minutes of my arrival, the long overdue summer storm had announced its presence, and I’d headed straight for the campsite. Now, with blue sky and time to kill, I decided to explore the town in more detail. The independent bookshop I’d found in the side street was still closed. So was the cafe I’d spotted earlier on. It appeared that I’d missed the town’s peak Sunday trading hours.
Only the Tesco Express was still open, so I called in to pick up a couple of odds and ends. There was only one checkout open, so I decided to use the self-service till. I hate those things anyway, and to be honest I’d have been quicker waiting for the queue to go down. Anyway, I was just across the road from the Tourist Information Centre. I found that it too was closed. As usual, my brain defaulted to Plan B – ‘Fuck it!’ I walked back to the town square and took a few more photos:
There are a couple of great names on this memorial plaque, so I had to photograph them individually. After all, when was the last time you met anyone called Abendigo or Jabez …?
I walked on past the Red Lion and found myself in Valleys-style territory again; just look at this for a chapel.
About fifty yards further on, I chanced upon one of the most remarkable structures I’ve ever seen. Coleford hasn’t had a train service since Dr Richard Beeching destroyed the railway system in the UK. If you look at the OS map, there are a number of ‘dismantled railway’ lines marked throughout the Forest of Dean. Only the line between Parkend and Lydney Junction still operates, as a private company running tourist trips at weekends. As a result, I hadn’t expected to see any railway architecture worthy of note in or around Coleford itself. However, I was in for a hell of a shock.
There’s a famous skewed-arch bridge across the Taff at Pontypridd, carrying the railway line into the Rhondda Valleys. You can see it, but you can’t get up close and personal, because it’s in the middle of a traffic roundabout. Coleford outdoes Pontypridd on two counts: the skewed arch bridge at Coleford crosses a road, rather than a river; and it’s made of brick, rather than stone. You really need to see it for yourself to appreciate the engineering ingenuity that went into its construction, but the photos capture some of its brilliance.
As I had at Symonds Yat Rock, I took a couple of dozen photos of the bridge from various angles. Unfortunately (as with most of the disused railway bridges in South Wales), it was impossible to climb onto the deck. I spent a couple of hours in Aberdare Library yesterday trying to find any documentation about Coleford Railway Bridge, but the few histories of the Great Western Railway glossed over this remarkable structure entirely. If it isn’t already a Listed Structure, then I’m a Dutchman. I’m so glad to have stumbled upon it in the middle of a showery Sunday afternoon.
I walked back up past the huge ornate chapel, and almost by accident found what we in the Valleys would call a ‘trip’ – a little flight of stone steps jammed between two houses. I’d already established that the parish church was on a hill overlooking the town, and the steps seemed to be heading in that general direction. It was worth a look. However, before I got to the top of the steps, I caught sight of this extraordinary building.
I’ve no idea what this building is, or who lives there, but it’s not to my taste at all. I followed the steps to their summit and emerged without any warning into the grounds of St John the Evangelist’s Church.
I opened the heavy iron gates of the churchyard and found myself at the top of a steep hill, lined on one side by impressive detached houses and on the other by terraced cottages. I was following my nose, and at the foot of the hill I recognised a building which I’d passed twice the previous day. On both occasions it had been pissing down with rain. Now, I took the opportunity to grab a photograph of it.
As if by magic, I’d found my way back to the junction where I’d first arrived at Coleford, barely twenty-four hours earlier.
Now, please bear in mind that I was travelling on my own. My tent was about a mile or so away (ten to fifteen minutes’ walk up a fairly gentle slope), and there wasn’t much point in heading back there. Sitting in a tent on your own and reading is okay until the light fails; then you’re sitting in a tent and not reading. For the umpteenth time in the past couple of months it was a case of ‘Fuck it!’ I headed back to the Angel Hotel and ordered a pint of Fosters.
It was a very different pub from the one I’d been in the previous night. The attractive (if extremely squeaky) barbint was nowhere to be seen; instead, the place was in the hands of a bored-looking guy in his twenties. The rest of the punters seemed to be of the same demographic group. I set up my Netbook in the corner and worked my way through the 200-odd photos I’d taken throughout the day. Think about that for a moment, will you: back when I first owned a camera, that would have been ten or twelve rolls of film, plus developing costs, and with no guarantee of a decent result. I couldn’t even have afforded to have ‘Photography’ as an interest on my CV, never mind as a major interest in my life, as I told you in Picture This.
I was getting peckish by this stage, so I asked about bar snacks. The answer I got was bizarre in the extreme. When it comes to bar meals, the Angel Hotel has a very strange policy: they don’t actually cook food on the premises. That would be far too straightforward. Instead, they keep the menus for the fish shop, two local Chinese takeaways, and the kebab shop, behind the counter. If you fancy anything on the menu, you ring them from your own mobile phone, and within ten minutes or so your meal will be delivered to the pub. The proprietors provide you with a plate and cutlery, and you can munch in comfort while enjoying your pint. How cool is that?
It was too early for food, so I sequestered myself in a corner. This cosy little alcove was lined with framed sets of Players’ cigarette cards and old advertisements. As soon as I sat down, I experienced one of those synchronicities which have been haunting me for months. On a shelf at about head height was a phrenology head. I hadn’t seen one of those for years – Tim and Dick M.’s father used to have one as a paperweight. Only a few hours earlier I’d seen one in the window of Curioddities in Cinderford. Now, in a pub in the middle of Coleford, there was another of the bloody things. Maybe I’d had a bump on the head at some point over the weekend. Maybe I needed my own bumps felt. All the same, it was a fucking odd coincidence.
I was scrolling through my photos when a young lady (blonde, and therefore not my type) approached me and asked me if she could share my socket. The Netbook was plugged in and charging its battery, and the other half of the socket was broken. I looked at her charger, and spotted that it was a USB cable with a 3-pin adapter attached.
‘Plug it straight in here,’ I told her. ‘That’s what it’s for, after all.’
‘Oh, right, thanks a lot,’ she said.
Of course, her phone appeared as an external drive on Ubuntu Linux, and I assured her that I wouldn’t steal her pictures or infiltrate a virus onto her hard drive.
‘I’m good,’ I winked, ‘but I’m not that good.’
While she was chatting to her friends, I tuned into the conversation around me. There seemed to be two basic themes: one group of lads in their twenties were comparing notes on their various drug experiences – what they’d taken (coke, powder, MCAT, LSD, and so forth), how much they’d paid for it, who they’d bought it from, what had happened while they were on it, blah blah blah…
The other conversation was about football.
And that was it. Just football.
I only knew I was in England because I was in the company of Football Pundits rather than Rugby Pundits. The sudden realisation that I’d travelled for fifty-odd miles into another country, only to relive the same fucking Groundhog Day scenarios I’d been running away from, hit me with the force of a coal-fired industrial steamhammer. I bought another pint and wondered whether the whole weekend had been a colossal and expensive waste of time.
Then, just as I was wondering (again) whether someone could come and rescue me, the blonde girl reappeared to reclaim her phone.
My Netbook had gone into ‘Hibernate’ mode (as had I, pretty much), and when I unplugged her iPhone it came back to life. For those of you who’ve never seen my Netbook in action, here’s what its screensaver looks like.
‘Ooh, you’re a Doctor Who fan as well, are you?’ she gasped.
‘I love it,’ I told her, and she went back to her pals, happy to have found another geek in the pub.
It didn’t occur to me until several hours later that I’d missed a wonderful chance to wind the poor bint up:
‘Well, now, you know they’re replacing Matt Smith in the Xmas special? I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but … I got sick of the paparazzi hanging around my place. I’ve just come here to get away from it all for a few days. But – don’t breathe a word to anyone … OK?’
It wasn’t the first time I’ve missed a golden opportunity with a young woman, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
I had a couple more pints and decided to get a takeaway to munch on the way back to the campsite. I looked into the one Chinese restaurant, more or less behind the pub, and it was heaving. Foolishly, I decided to go to the other one instead. Maybe having chips as a default addition to the order is a Valleys thing. Maybe not.
Anyway, I emerged with a decent mushroom omelette (and no chips) and headed back to Base Camp. I’d only been in my tent for about two minutes when a full-scale thunderstorm unleashed itself overhead. I had but three consolatory factors to keep in mind:
I was under cover (of sorts), as opposed to out in the open air as I had been the previous night
I had something hot and fresh to eat
Everyone back in Aberdare was currently experiencing the very same weather system I’d experienced the previous evening
I zipped up the front of my tent and wondered whether the site owners would miss a cockerel if it suddenly went missing overnight.
In which The Author continues his exploration of the Forest of Dean
Having breakfasted in fine fashion at the Log Cabin near Symonds Yat Rock (see Rocking Around the Forest), I retraced my steps through the trees and eventually emerged onto the minor road to Coleford.
It didn’t take me long before I found a signpost. It wasn’t a great deal of use, to be honest – I already knew where I was, and travellers wouldn’t exactly be spoilt for choice. To the north lies the village of Symonds Yat; to the south lies Coleford. There’s not much in between, unless you count Berry Hill/Christchurch. But it confirmed that the strange twisting path through the forest hadn’t totally confused my sense of direction. I was heading south, exactly as planned.
The signpost also advised me that Coleford was two miles away. Once again I found myself in the unenviable position that Achilles had been in when racing the Tortoise. I was pretty sure that I’d walked a lot further than two miles to get to Symonds Yat in the first place. I looked at my phone and it was about half past ten. That meant that I had roughly forty-five minutes before the bus left for Cinderford. This in itself was an exciting piece of information.
[A digression: That last sentence probably won’t mean anything to you unless you’re familiar with the South Wales Valleys. Let me spell it out for you: I was in the middle of rural England, on a Sunday morning, and I was on my way to catch a bus! Please bear in mind that the earliest we see a bus in the Valleys on a Sunday is early in the afternoon – always assuming you’re one of the lucky people who live in an area which has Sunday buses at all. (For the tear-jerking story of my first – and last – bus journey on a Sunday morning in Wales, please see Nice Work If You Can Get There.) Now you can see why I was so excited by the prospect.]
I wasn’t especially worried about missing the 1123 departure. After all, there’d be another one along in two hours. But I was heading to Cinderford for a reason. Maria B. had tipped me off about a good place to visit – Littledean Jail. It’s a former prison which has been converted into a ‘Black Museum’, and she’d described it as ‘a tad macabre’.
I’d actually had a choice of tourist spots to visit on the Sunday: the Dean Forest Railway, which runs between Parkend and Lydney, was running steam specials that day; Clearwell Caves, which have been used as a location for Doctor Who a couple of times, are an easy walk from Coleford; Coleford itself has a Railway Museum. It would have been impossible (not to mention expensive) to fit them all in, so eventually I’d settled on Littledean Jail, just outside Cinderford.
I hadn’t been able to find out very much about it beforehand. Maria had sent me a link on Facebook, but I wasn’t able to access the website in the Library. The filters had blocked it because it apparently contained ‘adult material’. That sold me on the idea straight away. I was keen to catch the 1123 bus to Cinderford, a short distance from Littledean. If the website is ‘adults only’, then the museum itself must be pretty cool!
I made my way along the minor road, which was surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning. I suppose people must have heading home from church, and of course there must have been a fair number of tourists heading for Symonds Yat as well. One car drew up as I was strolling casually towards Coleford. The driver wound down the window and asked me if I could point him in the direction of Butterfly World. I apologised and told him that he was asking completely the wrong person. It’s Sod’s Law that if you’re lost, the first person you meet will also be a stranger to the area.
A little further on I passed a parish noticeboard, which informed me that I was in English Bicknor. However, I’d seen English Bicknor Church indicated on the circular plaque at Symonds Yat Rock, with an arrow pointing roughly east – surely I hadn’t managed to lose my way during that short walk.
A quick look at the map reassured me that while I might have been in the parish of English Bicknor, the church was indeed some distance to the east. I was, in fact, making my way through the village of Hillersland, and there was a pub marked on the map. It was too early for opening time, of course, but when I got to it, there was no sign of life. It looks as though it’s been yet another victim of the War on Pubs.
A little further on, I found an interesting little post at the side of the road.
This exact spot is marked on the Pathfinder map, where the Forestry Commission land ends and the local authority land begins. I was almost back in Christchurch/Berry Hill, where my journey had begun a few hours earlier. An elderly gentleman on a bike greeted me cheerily as he sped past, and a couple of large farm dogs made their presence known as I passed their gate. A couple of minutes later I heard the bells of Christ Church ringing out across the fields.
I’ve never been a churchgoer (see Meet the Parents) but I still find there’s something strangely haunting about the sound of church bells when you’re in the countryside. Whenever I’m walking through rural villages like those, I get the feeling that anyone who doesn’t attend church every week is probably treated with great suspicion by the locals (when they’re not re-enacting weird pagan rituals themselves, of course).
The only other time I’ve been in an English village on a Sunday morning was the day that Martin E., Benji and I came back from Cropredy, many years ago. I found myself feeling rather odd, being on my own and miles from home. Even had I wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to get home very easily – I’d have had to travel through the Forest of Dean to Lydney, caught a train from there to Cardiff, and then made my way up the Valley on one of the two-hourly trains that we’re treated to on a Sunday. As things stood, I was left completely to my own devices.
I checked the time again, and reckoned that I’d be lucky to make it to Coleford in time for the bus. According to the latest signpost, not far from Christchurch, I was still ¾m from Coleford – and I’d been walking for a lot more than half an hour. I know from experience that I can average 4 mph on foot, so clearly something weird and Zeno-like had happened again. I quickened my pace and found myself on a fairly gentle slope which curved round to my right, lined with council houses on one side and a steep grassy bank on the other. From there, I could clearly see Coleford Church on its hill above the town.
With my target more or less in sight, I was dismayed to see a double-decker Stagecoach bus approaching from the direction of the town and pass me on the hill. I checked my phone for a time check. It was only quarter past – I suddenly had a horrible feeling that I was back in Public Transport Land, that mystical realm where drivers devise their own schedules, and only local people know that timetables aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Rather disappointed, I carried on walking into town and arrived at the square.
Nothing was open. And I mean, nothing, unless you count the Co-op in its little pedestrian square, and the Tesco and Nisa stores which sit cheek by jowl in the main street. There was a nice-looking cafe near the war memorial, but that didn’t open until midday.
The previous evening I’d spotted an independent bookshop, tucked away a few doors from the bank. That wasn’t open either. I hadn’t really expected it to be open, in fairness. I’d only walked that far because I wanted to visit the ATM. I’m so used to cashpoints which offer users a choice of English or Welsh that an English-only terminal came as something of a surprise.
[A digression: Naj and I were talking about bilingualism one day, and she remarked that when her cousins came down from London, the ATM in Aberdare offered to transact their business in English only. I teased her that she’d have a shock if, one day, she inserted her card and was presented with a menu in Bengali. It might happen soon, if smart technology continues to roll out across the world.
Another time, Leafy had acquired a mobile phone, and while his back was turned, we changed it to use Turkish as its default language. We told him that he’d have to go for a kebab at the end of the night, and ask the guys in the shop for Tech Support. (Changing it back to English was hard work, believe me!)]
Anyway, I took out some cash and walked back to the square, only to see a double-decker bus pull into the stop outside the Angel Hotel. It was a 31 – the service to Gloucester via Cinderford. In other words, it was the bus I’d thought I’d missed about ten minutes earlier. I boarded and bought a Forest Rover ticket, which cost £5 and covers pretty much the entire Forest area, down as far as Lydney. I hadn’t come across any mention of it on the Stagecoach West website, and guessed that it was a fairly new development. Next time I go there, I’ll know exactly what ticket to buy.
The bus retraced the route I’d taken into Coleford, but from my vantage point on the upper deck I was able to get a much better view of my surroundings. One sign in particular amused me.
We arrived at the junction I’d passed about twenty minutes earlier and turned right. It had crossed my mind to take a leisurely stroll through the Forest to Cinderford, which (according to the road signs) was only seven miles away. Then I’d remembered my previous experiences with Gloucestershire Miles vs Statute Miles and thought better of it. As the bus trundled along the route, picking up passengers here and there, I felt instinctively that I’d made the right decision.
It wasn’t exactly the scenic route. In fact, it was a pretty mundane journey through small village centres – seven-day-a-week general store, pub, community centre, church – and 1960s housing estates, only enlivened by the occasional light industrial park, builders’ merchant, agricultural feed supplier, garage, farm shop, FE College outpost, and (in Coleford’s case), a large GlaxoSmithKline factory on the outskirts of the town.
[A digression: In David Nobbs’ classic comic novel The Death of Reginald Perrin (1975), our eponymous hero goes on a bus tour through England, trying to lose his old identity and find a new life for himself. Instead, he finds himself in a succession of bogus olde-worlde tourist traps. (‘Five antique shops, four potteries, three boutiques’, he muses after one disappointing break of journey.) Forty years on, the antique shops have been undercut by David Dickinson’s TV shows, and the potteries and the boutiques are all trading online.]
Throughout the journey I’d spotted brown ‘tourist attraction’ road signs, pointing to Clearwell Caves, the Forest Railway, the Forest Heritage Centre, and other tempting places which I’ve logged for next time. Then, in Brierley, about halfway along the route, we passed a rather attractive pub in the middle of nowhere.
I mean, it really is in the middle of nowhere. Even on the OS map, the blue ‘pint glass’ symbol gives the impression that it’s been plonked there by mistake. Weirdly, the Swan Inn is a Georgian theme pub. That doesn’t mean that it’s been decorated in Regency style – instead, it specialises in the cuisine of the Caucasus. I bet their Eurovision Song Contest theme parties are something else.
We began the ascent into Cinderford, and I noticed the name of a school on the approach road. I had a weird feeling that they used to be Dillons account customers many years ago – why else would the name ‘Steam Mills School’ ring a bell? By now you’ll have noticed a bit of theme emerging in the place names of the Forest of Dean. Like the valleys of South Wales, it was a coal-mining area – but it was exploited many centuries earlier. (According to The Oxford Dictionary of Names, both Coleford and Cinderford were first recorded in the thirteenth century.) This could explain why, on disembarking at Cinderford a few minutes later, I felt a strange sense of familiarity with the townscape.
If the Forest of Dean ever declares independence from Gloucestershire, Cinderford has a decent claim to be its county town. Even so, it’s compact, neat, clean, and remarkably quiet on a summer Sunday afternoon. I was expecting somewhere a bit more tourist-focused. Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s managed to steer clear of the ‘five antique shops, four potteries, three boutiques’ scenario. Its steep main road, narrow side streets, majestic buildings, and (above all) the atmosphere of recently departed prosperity, reminded me that I wasn’t that far from home. A stone’s throw from the bus station I found these fantastic monuments to the town’s past.
Ranged at the base of the war memorial are four bronze plaques bearing the names of literally a couple of hundred people who died in the World Wars. When you consider that coal mining was a reserved occupation in 1939-45, it’s extraordinary to think how many local people served and died in the armed forces.
Not far off the main street I found another sign of the Forest’s industrial past.
I was amazed to find that it was still active – some elderly ladies were on their way out as I walked past the main door. A little further along, I found another chapel, which has been converted into flats.
If you lived in one of these flats, this is more or less the view you’d have from your back window.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was heading in completely the wrong direction for Littledean. It didn’t matter, though, as I stumbled upon a yet-to-open shop which must be worth a visit on another occasion.
It’s called ‘Curioddities’, and according to a sign in the window, the owners claim to be ‘Dealers of the odd and unusual’. Just inside the door, there was a large poster for something called ‘The Rock’n’Roll Circus’ (I think!), an extravaganza featuring, among others, Genesis P. Orridge himself. (See Zigzagging Down Memory Lane.) There was a mobile phone number on the window sign, but no website. I’ll give it a month or and check to see whether they’ve opened for business. Those vintage darbies would look just the job among my bondage gear.
I arrived at a road junction and discovered that I’d been heading in entirely the wrong direction. Now, if I’d stayed on the 31, in about another five minutes or so I’d have been in Littledean itself. On the other hand, I’d never have found Curioddities. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards offer a famous piece of advice to the creatively-blocked: Honour thy error as a hidden intention. I think my unintended detour through the back streets of Cinderford must have been a classic illustration of that maxim. I followed the road up a steep hill and eventually came to a rather treacherous road junction, just on the edge of the town centre. I managed to cross to the other side and my eye was immediately drawn to this house at the top of the hill.
I’m not sure about its neighbour a couple of hundred yards downhill, mind you.
At the top of the hill I’d seen a brown signpost for Littledean Jail. Apparently it was a half a mile away. Anyway, I kept walking and descended into Littledean itself. There isn’t much to see. It’s a quintessential English Village: it’s won the Best Kept Village Contest a couple of times, and has been highly commended for another few years. It boasts some beautiful old houses built of sandstone, a pub and a hotel on the main road, a couple of interesting monuments, and a war memorial in the grounds of the United Reform Church. There’s a huge disused pub on a street corner. There’s also a sign telling visitors that Littledean Jail is ¼m away. Finally, just on the edge of the village, you come across one of those churches that just fills your eyes and your viewfinder with its ancient solidity.
Hang on a moment, I hear you think, where did this river in the street come from? There’s blue sky in the photo.
Yes, gentle reader, there was indeed blue sky just two minutes before I passed St Ethelbert’s Church. There’s also blue sky in this picture, taken about five minutes later. In between, the heavens opened again. The river which you see flowing past the boundary wall wasn’t there when I started to descend the hill towards Littledean Jail. By the time I reached the entrance to the jail, I was soaked to the skin! As quickly as it had begun, the ‘sharp shower’ (a meteorological euphemism for ‘suddenly pissing down’) had finished and the sun was out. However, unlike Achilles, I’d finally reached my target.
And that’s actually as far as I got. Just inside the gates there’s a poster detailing the admission prices. I didn’t have eight quid on me. Eight bloody quid! It was no wonder the information leaflet I picked up afterwards warned potential visitors that they ‘might find some of the content offensive’. Eight quid per person is pretty bloody offensive, in my humble opinion. I turned around, walked back to the village, and had a glass of Coke while I waited for the bus back to Coleford.
There was a very odd crowd in the pub, and (not for the first time) I reflected upon the DVD extra commentary to The Singing Detective. There’s a scene where Philip Marlow recalls an episode from his childhood, in a working men’s club in the Forest. His father (played by the wonderfully lugubrious Jim Carter) is singing a duet with his friend Raymond Binney (Patrick Malahide), while Mrs Marlow (Alison Steadman) plays the piano.
The ‘extras’ in this scene were all drawn from the villages and towns of the Forest, and at one point Jon Amiel (the director) remarks, ‘You don’t get faces like that from Central Casting.’ I think I might have encountered the last generation of these true Forest faces, undiluted by outside genetic influences. In fact, I’m pretty sure they were in the pub in Littledean. As an outsider and (worse still) a tourist, I must have stood out like a spare dick at an orgy. I wasn’t sorry to get back on the 31 and retrace my steps to Coleford. I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere on the outskirts of the village there was an enormous wicker man with my name on it.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.