Pathways > The Pathways book > Forest tracks
Quite a substantial area of Britain became Royal Forest after 1066. William the Conqueror dedicated large tracts of land to his and his followers' hunting pleasure. Strict laws were enacted to protect the land and the 'venison', the animals reared for the chase. The 'forest' was not just woodland but open areas of grassland as well. The restrictions placed on the local people made life harsh, but the punishments for transgressing forest law could be harsher still.
From the Middle Ages onwards woodlands became industrial places, valued as sources of timber, foraging for pigs and the location of quarries and mines. In wooded river valleys water mills provided power in the days before coal. In places the air would be thick with the sulpherous stink of iron smelting, the ovens stoked with charcoal from the surrounding wood.
It is a far cry from the tranquil environment of most woods and forests today.
The Forest of Dean walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
In the century after the Norman invasion of 1066, a third of southern England was designated as royal forest. After the conquest William immediately asserted that he owned all the land of the vanquished country, and indeed the famous Domesday Book was an audit of what he regarded as his. The establishment of the royal forests was one of the key ways in which William and his descendants exerted control over the nobles and, within them, the monarchs indulged their passion for hunting. At the peak, there were 143 forests in all.
The word ‘forest’ has come to mean a large tract of trees but its original meaning, as defined in John Manwood’s Lawes of the Forest (a legal treatise first published in 1598), was ‘a certain territorie of woody ground and fruitful pastures, privileged for wild beasts and foules of the forest, chase and warren to rest and abide there, in the safe protection of the King, for his princely delight and pleasure’. As well as woodland, royal forests usually included large areas of heath, grassland and wetland; in fact anywhere that supported deer and other animals and fowl suitable for the hunt.
To protect his property and hunting activities William established a system of ‘forest law’. Offences against this law were divided into two categories: trespass against the ‘vert’ and trespass against the ‘venison’. Trespass against the ‘vert’ – the land and vegetation of the forest - included the enclosure of a pasture, erection of a building, clearing ground for agriculture, and felling trees.
Trespass against the ‘venison’ extended pretty much to every beast and fowl of the forest, including deer, boars, hares, wolves, foxes, martens, pheasants and partridges. Hunting or trapping of any form was prohibited. Ordinary folk were not allowed to carry hunting weapons and dogs were banned; mastiffs were permitted as watchdogs, but had to have their front claws removed to prevent them from hunting game. The only exception to the strict hunting laws was if a deer had escaped from the forest and was causing damage to agriculture, in which case it could be killed.
In villages and towns that suddenly found themselves inside a royal forest, people resented the restrictions placed on the environment in which they lived and on which they had relied for their living. Some common rights, however, such as access across the land, the gathering of firewood and mining rights, were not necessarily removed by the imposition of forest law, though they might be curtailed. This contrasts with the enclosure movement in England (see Chapter 13), which often resulted in the elimination of these rights altogether.
Forest law gave rise to a whole panoply of officers, charged with patrolling and protecting the forest. The chief royal official of the forest was the Warden. He supervised the foresters and under-foresters, whose job it was to maintain the forest environment and safeguard its game. The ‘agisters’ supervised ‘pannage’, the right to pasture swine in the forest, and collected the resulting fees. Another group, the ‘serjeants-in-fee’, were allocated small estates in return for policing the forest and apprehending offenders.
From the death of Henry II in 1189, the control of the king over the royal forests began to wane. The Magna Carta of 1216 curbed the power of the monarch over the nobles, after which no new royal forests were designated. From this time onwards monarchs were increasingly willing to ‘abridge’ their rights in the royal forests for a suitable payment; it proved a useful way of raising funds. Local nobles could, for example, be granted a royal licence to take a certain amount of game.
From the 16th century onwards the remaining Crown-owned forests were encroached upon by modern forestry, especially important for the navy. They were also continually nibbled away at by landowners intent on ‘enclosing’ the land and converting it to farmland, losing many of their heathland areas.
The Forest of Dean
Nicholas Rudd-Jones sets out with his old school friend Oliver Quick to explore this ancient woodland.
The Forest of Dean is set apart from the rest of the country, almost with an island feel about it. Bounded by the Severn on the south and east, and the Wye to the west and north, with the city of Gloucester providing the ‘plug’ at the top, it has a history of non-conformism. The accent is also noticeably broader than in the surrounding areas.
Driving into the Forest of Dean, one is struck immediately by the sheer mass of trees in every direction: deciduous and coniferous, coppices and saplings, ancient woods and new plantations. Houses with views across the forest and valleys have evocative names such as Overdale and Great Gables.
Trees have always set the Forest of Dean apart and been at the heart of its livelihood. Woodland was typically more valuable than agricultural land because of all the resources that it offered, including timber, underwood, faggots and charcoal, minerals, game, wild swine, acorns and hazelnuts. Woodland areas were also hives of economic activity, attracting first craftsmen making hurdles, wheels and household goods, and subsequently charcoal burners, providing fuel for the iron smelting furnaces that were key to the beginnings of the industrial revolution.
As England’s naval strength grew, so the Forest of Dean became an important source of timber for shipbuilders. The oak, with its short trunk and spreading branches, grew slowly on its poor soil and produced a strong, curved timber ideal for shipbuilding. By 1613 the forest was acknowledged as a ‘storehouse of naval timber’. In fact, around the time of the Armada a few years earlier, the Spaniards were intent on destroying the Forest of Dean, regarding it as a key military asset. However the navy’s demands and the production of charcoal meant that the forest was much degraded. It was the subject of a Re-Afforestation Act in 1667, probably the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
So since medieval times the Forest of Dean has been a worked landscape, rich in natural resources – trees and game above the ground, iron ore and coal beneath. The area is littered with old mines and tramroads (the forerunners of railways) designed to transport the mined materials from the steep valleys to the ports on the Severn. The complexity of the landscape and the early industrialisation set it apart from much of the British countryside.
The relationship between the landowners and the common man has always been a bit different here, too. Despite the forest law laid down in 11th century, the common man in the Forest of Dean ended up with more rights to roam and forage than his counterpart in England’s agricultural heartlands. There the precedent set by the king was taken up and expanded by the landed gentry into a much more draconian set of laws and punishments for anyone that poached on their land: the notorious Game Laws. As the lawyer Sir William Blackstone commented in the 18th century: ‘Though the Forest Laws are now… by degrees grown entirely obsolete, yet from this root has grown up a bastard slip, known by the name of the game law...’
Poaching was widespread in the royal forests, with dogs, bows and arrows, crossbows, nets and snares all being used to hunt and kill deer. The culprits were often otherwise law-abiding citizens. In the Middle Ages a large number of clergy were apparently involved. Among those charged with poaching or receiving venison from the Forest of Dean were the Archdeacon and canons of Hereford, the Abbot of Augustine’s, Bristol, and the monks of Tintern Abbey.
Yet the penalties could be severe: for killing one of the king’s deer, a serf could lose his life. Even apparently trivial offences prompted stiff fines. There is a record of a Blakeney man (on the eastern fringe of the Forest of Dean) being fined two shillings in the 17th century for beating down chestnuts. Chestnuts were a valuable natural crop, but the fine of two shillings would have been a week’s wages for a skilled man. In the 1860s, a policeman called Bear came across a group of four poachers setting nets for game. The fracas that followed left him with a fractured skull and he died a few days later. All four men were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years’ penal servitude.
But there is a sense in the Forest of Dean that the common man has always stood up against authority. Forest dwellers challenged Charles I’s annexation of large parts of the forest for timber for warships in the 17th century. In the 18th century locals appropriated land around the edge of the forest and built houses, at places such as Berry Hill, Parkend and the Hudnalls. In the early 19th century a group organised the notorious Dean Forest Riots in an attempt to overturn the enclosure of Park Hill for navy timber. Perhaps it was another independent spirit who a few years ago reintroduced wild boars into the forest without the blessing of the Forestry Commission. They are by all accounts thriving, although there are reports of them attacking dogs during the mating season.
The result of all the different woodland activities, and the way that roughly built hamlets around the edge of the forest became established, is a complex landscape: with many woods and coppices, irregular fields and smallholdings, twists and turns in the contours, and countless tiny pathways around and through the villages.
As for routes through the forest, it was always a pretty impenetrable place and often very muddy. The oldest highways were the rivers. We know that the Severn and Wye were used by Roman vessels and there is some archaeological evidence that they were trading routes even earlier, in prehistoric times. There was also a Roman road running between Ariconium (near Ross-on-Wye) to the Severn, near Lydney.
The hinterland remained extremely inaccessible until the arrival of the toll roads in the 18th century. The route between Monmouth and Chepstow, passing St Briavels, was turnpiked in 1755. In the early 19th century several tramroads were constructed that took the iron ore, coal, wood and stone from the mines and valleys to the ports in one easy movement.
The combination of impenetrability and complexity has led to myriad smaller paths, especially at the edges of the main forest. Describing routes to other walkers is therefore much trickier than in parts of the country where the choices are limited. It seems likely also that fewer paths were blocked or closed by landowners, as there was limited enclosure for farming and fewer large estates. In the royal forests throughout the south of England there is a sense that, even if you can’t quite roam at will, at least there’s a path that can take you wherever you want to go.
We begin our seven-mile walk at the Norman St Briavels Castle, on a fabulous June morning. Peering inside before we set out, we discover it’s now a youth hostel. A gaggle of walkers are just tying up their boots and getting ready for the off. It brought alive a comment I had read recently by a local author: ‘The Forest has changed over the centuries from a playground for kings to a playground for the masses.’
St Briavels Castle is said to have been built by Milo Fitz Walter in about 1130 to guard the Welsh border during the reign of Henry I. Milo became the first Constable of St Briavels and Warden of the Forest, guarding the king’s rights and collecting taxes. The castle was used as a hunting lodge by succeeding monarchs.
In the 12th century the St Briavels Hundred was created and the castle became the administrative and judicial centre of the Forest of Dean. For centuries it was used for sittings of the verderers’, miners’ and manor courts. The verderers were responsible for preserving the vert and venison of the Forest, and ‘gavellers’ were responsible for leasing ‘gales’ (areas of ground) to ‘free miners’ to work for iron ore, coal or stone.
In 1296, during the Scottish wars of independence, Edward I used miners from the St Briavels Hundred to undermine Berwick-on-Tweed’s defences and regain it from the Scots. As a result, the king granted them and their descendants free mining rights within the forest.
During the 13th century, the castle was a major production centre for quarrels – the iron bolts fired from crossbows. There is a Quarrel Field south of the village, on the edge of the Common, and part of Hudnalls Wood was probably cut down to make charcoal for the forges.
Heading north out of St Briavels, we almost immediately get great views up the Wye Valley. The path turns east into Slade Bottom, and we walk along a typical forest track down which trees can easily be lugged by tractor. Heading back down Slade Brook and a much narrower path, we come across the remarkable Travertine Dams. It looks as if a zealous Victorian garden designer has been busy at work, but these are natural dams formed when spring water, saturated in lime, runs over an obstruction in the stream bed, resulting in the deposition of travertine, a porous, crumbly limestone. They are beautiful and mysterious, especially in the dappled morning light coming through the trees.
As we cross the road and start climbing again, we find ourselves on the broad Weygate Lane, which was part of the original 1755 toll road from Monmouth to Chepstow, superseded in 1828 by a lower, valley route.
Heading east again, we enter Bigsweir Woods, a beautiful mixture of ash, beech, lime and oak. The path runs along the edge of the wood. This would have been the route that the charcoal burners took as they travelled with their charcoal to the furnaces. The sites of charcoal platforms can still be seen in these woods, although we find them hard to distinguish from badger setts, which are also remarkably flat where the earth has been thrown up.
Bigsweir Bridge formed part of the toll road along the Wye Valley between Monmouth and Chepstow, and was opened in 1828, incorporating a toll house at the western (Welsh) end. In 1876 the Wye Valley railway opened, and St Briavels station was built near the western edge of the bridge, nearly two miles from the village that it served – and in another country! The line closed in 1964.
Moving away from the fast-flowing river and uphill again, we cross the impressive earthworks of Offa’s Dyke and a delightful row of ancient sweet chestnut trees. This would be a great place to hide. Hudnalls Wood, which we reach next, is an ancient semi-natural wood, which since the 13th century has been recorded as a place from which the men of St Briavels are allowed to cut wood by right. The Hudnalls enjoys some of the oldest commoners’ rights in England, dating back to the 12th century, granting the men of St Briavels the right to take wood (estovers), graze animals (herbage) and turn out pigs for acorns (pannage).
We pick a path up through the trees in much the same way that gatherers of firewood and forest delicacies did hundreds of years ago. It’s steep and slippy; it must have been tricky carrying a bundle of wood at the same time.
Coming out at the top of the woods, we arrive on St Briavels Common. In medieval times, most of the flatter uplands seem to have been relatively open woodlands, with grassy clearings used as pasture. Much of this was settled and enclosed by squatters between about 1750 and 1810. If a squatter was able to keep the chimney of his new cottage smoking from sunset to sunrise, his claim was thought to become legitimate. The result is a patchwork quilt of smallholdings, small fields, coppices, streams, winding lanes and footpaths, more recently peppered with newer houses and bungalows.
Many of the old forest rights remain in force today. True ‘Foresters’ are those born within the hundred of St Briavels, an ancient administrative area taking in most of what is now considered the Forest of Dean. According to the statute, males who are over 21 and have worked in a mine for a year and a day can register as a ‘freeminer’ and dig for minerals. In October 2010 a woman successfully claimed the right to be a freeminer. Residents of the hundred who are over 18 can also graze sheep in the forest, under an agreement between the the Commoners’ Association and the Forestry Commission. The sheep keepers, known locally as ‘sheep badgers’, simply turn their flocks out to graze.
We shortly get back to St Briavels and repair to the George pub beside the castle, where we enjoy a hearty Sunday lunch. It is one of those pubs that still has a vibrant local feel about it, and is packed with true Foresters enjoying their independence. But no sign of a riot!
Below is a cross-section of woodland walks:
An easy walk from the village of Newtyle along a disused railway and woodland paths. It can be combined with Walk 7134.... More info
Central South Wales
A lovely walk on woodland paths, beautiful in the spring when covered in bluebells and wood anemones, with traces of an industrial past.... More info
Cardinham Woods contains over 250 hectares (650 acres) of mixed woodland set within a complex series of impressive steep valleys and narrow ravines. All abilities can enjoy the beauty of these woodland surroundings. This delightful walk takes you... More info
A gravelled path was laid a few years ago from Aira Force linking to an existing woodland path to Glenridding, but using it was limited by the difficulty of returning to the start. The building of a pier at Aira Force and the creation of a new... More info
A gravelled path was laid a few years ago from Aira Force linking to an existing woodland path to Glenridding, but using it was limited by the difficulty of returning to the start. The building of a pier at Aira Force and the creation of a new... More info
The majority of this walk is reasonably easy, mostly on field- and woodland paths with sections of walled lane paths around Bonsall. There is however, a steep climb from Oker crossing the hill towards Bonsall through Jughole Wood from Snitterton. The... More info
A quite demanding walk on the outward route, mostly along field, moor and woodland paths though some road walking is required on both parts. The climb from Stoke Ford towards Eyam is not really steep but is a long drawn out ascent. With a steep... More info
A short stroll around the woods, mostly on good tracks with one section on a woodland path. The walk passes the remains of a motte and bailey castle.... More info
From the pretty little Dorset village of Osmington Mills, this short walk takes the SW coast path to Ringstead Bay, then visits tiny Upton along field and woodland paths, with wonderful views over sea and land. ... More info
A delightful walk in Dorset from Ringstead, taking the SW Coast Path with wonderful views across Weymouth Bay, to Osmington Mills, then inland to visit the picture-book village of Osmington, before the return journey on field- and woodland paths; a... More info
Dumfries and Galloway
This route is labelled 'easy' because it is mainly level, with no 'rough walking' and no stiles. It is almost entirely along good woodland paths and tracks or minor roads, with an optional venture onto the beach at Sandgreen.... More info
This 'walk round the estate' combines riverside and woodland paths, tracks and byroads in Drumlanrig Country Park, seat of the Dukes of Buccleuch.... More info
The route crosses a golf course and leaves Minnigaff by road to reach Blackcraig, where we take the lane up onto the slopes of Larg Hill, to visit the Bruntis Lochs and descend to Kirroughtree Visitor Centre for halfway refreshments. Further woodland... More info
This easy and delightful trail is a there-and-back route with an optional extension to the new visitor centre. The walk is mainly level along existing woodland paths and visits the lovely Big Bruntis Loch.... More info
Starting at the edge of a heath at Eight Ash Green, this walk crosses farmland with excellent views to the picturesque village of Ford Street. It then follows the River Colne and Essex Way to Cook's Mill, before taking a lane and woodland path back... More info
This walk has incredible variety, delightful woodland paths and streams. The sections with views across the River Colne and along Alresford Creek must be experienced. ... More info
This is New Forest walking at its best. You start off in open heathland then turn into Brunes Purlieu, one of the ancient divisions into which the Forest was once divided. After walking a delightful farm track, skirting an unobtrusive camping area,... More info
Starting from a National Trust car park just outside the charming village of Mottisfont, a pleasant walk along the Test Way following the route of a disused railway takes you to Horsebridge. From here you cut across fields and follow a mixture of... More info
This walk starts in Bosworth Country Park close to the small and pretty Leicestershire town of Market Bosworth. It follows a woodland path and then fields to the village of Sutton Cheney, home of the Battlefield Church where King Richard III himself... More info
Circular walk starting near Hopwood Hall College, via country lanes and woodland paths.... More info
A fairly short walk from The Kymin, a National Trust property above Monmouth, walking downwards on woodland paths to the edge of Monmouth and on to Wyesham. A steep climb ensues, to reach The Kymin again on meadow and woodland paths, affording... More info
The route is along tracks, woodland paths, country lanes and across and beside fields.... More info
The route starts from the charming village and takes to meadows before joining a disused railway embankment track. See some grand and attractive houses, fine horses and the River Ouse. Quiet woodland paths and a country lane lead back to Westbury.... More info
This walk is a series of delightful surprises, a bit of everything: green lanes, field edges, woodland paths, country lanes, church graveyard, somebody's backyard, village streets, open fields, panoramic views.
If you intend to do this walk, give... More info
Lovely Cotswold countryside, meadows, fields, river and streams and woodland paths feature on this lengthy but not strenuous walk, in this area of outstanding natural beauty. ... More info
A cracking little walk in the Cotswolds, featuring two large villages and two picturesque hamlets, with marvellous views and fine churches. The route uses good bridleways, field and woodland paths and at times the Darcy Dalton Way. The scenes are... More info
From Ebury Hill Camping and Caravanning Park, this walk in Shropshire, much of it on woodland paths, visits Uffington and Haughmond Abbey.... More info
A short walk, which skirts part of Wimbleball Lake by way of a delightful woodland path and with the high point on Haddon Hill providing fine views over the lake and the hills of Exmoor beyond.... More info
Walking this route, it can sometimes be a challenge to relate the map to stiles and paths on the ground. There are some steep sections, in particular the descent into the Manifold Valley and climb back into Wetton past Thor's Cave. It takes in a wide... More info
A quite demanding walk, including sections of road-walking along quiet, narrow farm roads. The walk includes three steep climbs, two of which are on National Trust areas of Wetton Hill and Ladyside, though mostly the walk is along field- and woodland... More info
A challenging walk using a wide selection of conditions, mostly along field- and woodland paths, though some road- and track-walking is required. The route has some steep climbs and descents.... More info
A relaxing walk in this area between the Dove and Churnet Valleys, perhaps better known for the nearby Alton Towers. There are some climbs and descents, though not too steep, mostly along field-paths and tracks with sections of tranquil woodland... More info
This circular walk explores the great forest of Ard. You will pass a very beautiful lochan near the start of the walk; stop for a moment and take a few photographs. Further on, Ben Lomond appears in the distance; what a magnificent backdrop for Loch... More info
Start from the NT car park at Dunwich Heath. Walk along the beach to Dunwich, then inland and along a track to Great Dingle Hill (RSPB). Return first along the shingle mound to Dunwich, then take the clifftop and woodland path back to Dunwich Heath.... More info
Start from the church, high up on its hill at Stoke by Nayland. It will frequently be visible throughout the walk. Walk through the village and soon use a brief section of the Stour Valley Path (which paradoxically follows the River Box at this... More info
Starting alongside the river you walk the length of the town on woodland paths. Then, having crossed the river on a wooden footbridge, you turn your attention to the town itself. There are very many ancient buildings and the High Street has to be... More info
This is a very satisfying walk, for the most part on field-paths and tracks, with several stretches of sun and shadow- dappled woodland paths.... More info
From Wellesbourne, a Warwickshire village that has its own large airfield, the route soon leads out into open countryside with far-off views. Field- and woodland paths follow to reach a lengthy stretch on a farm drive that runs alongside fields and... More info
On quiet Wiltshire lanes and generally very good woodland paths, this walk explores the glorious Stourhead Estate, but without entering the gardens. There are some good distant views, an opportunity to visit Alfred’s Tower which stands atop... More info
This is another walk from Dalby Church in the Howardian Hills, around 13 miles north of York. We visit the City of Troy Maze and then move on to the quiet woodland path through Mugdale. Our walk then takes us through the strip village of Scackleton... More info
A half-day walk exploring the area north of Rosedale Abbey in the North York Moors National Park. After reaching Hill Houses we follow a woodland path to take us across to North Dale. After reaching Heygate Bank we return to Rosedale Abbey from the... More info
An easy walk with no strenuous climbing using field paths, bridleways, tracks, an old railway line and woodland paths in the Howardian Hills AONB.... More info
This magical linear walk incorporates a journey on the historic North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Starting from the picturesque market town of Pickering you will jump aboard one of the old steam trains, which takes you through wonderful scenery and on... More info