Abi­gail Whyte heads out on a fam­ily bike ride, ped­alling over crisp au­tumn leaves and muddy trails in search of one of Bri­tain’s most elu­sive mam­mals

Countryfile Magazine - - Great Days Out -


’ll never for­get the first time I en­coun­tered wild boar in the For­est of Dean. It was early au­tumn. I was cy­cling with my two-year-old daugh­ter, who’d just nod­ded off in her bike seat, when we stopped for a wa­ter break.

I heard a low rustling sound among the ferns and fallen leaves and, sud­denly, there they were, a fam­ily of about seven, emerg­ing from the for­est and cross­ing the path be­hind me. I woke my daugh­ter and we both sat and watched them nois­ily dig­ging the earth for grubs. We were com­pletely en­tranced, then they van­ished again among the trees.


Sight­ings of these stout, bristly haired crea­tures are be­com­ing more fre­quent in this an­cient for­est they’ve made home, grow­ing in num­bers since a group es­caped from a farm in the 1990s, fol­lowed by an il­le­gal re­lease in 2004. No one knows for sure how many there are – it’s be­lieved to be over 1,500 – but signs of them are ev­ery­where, from wal­low pits in the mud and tusk-scarred trees to churned-up grass verges. They are na­ture’s ro­ta­va­tors.

And there’s no bet­ter chance of see­ing them than with a walk or cy­cle along one of the For­est of Dean’s nu­mer­ous trails. One I do fre­quently is the Fam­ily Cy­cle Trail, a 10-mile cir­cu­lar route that fol­lows way­mark­ers along the old Sev­ern and Wye rail­way line, pass­ing time-worn sta­tions and for­mer col­lieries through en­chant­ing an­cient wood­land.


Start at the Pedal­abike­way cy­cle cen­tre in the oak­wooded Cannop Val­ley. Cross the bridge over the road and fol­low the trail as it heads up­hill – it’s not too stren­u­ous, but will give your thighs an early work­out. Keep your eyes peeled on your right for a deer sculp­ture among the trees, made en­tirely from steel rods and wire. After you pass un­der a horse­shoe-shaped bridge, you’ll soon come to Dry­brook Road Sta­tion.


If you’re cy­cling with young chil­dren and the full 10 miles seems a bit of a stretch, you can turn right here for the Hick­sters Way Loop –a five-mile route back to the cy­cle cen­tre. Oth­er­wise, con­tinue straight ahead.

Cy­cling among the ruddy blaze of oaks, beeches, larches and sweet chest­nuts, it’s easy to for­get that this land has been shaped by in­dus­try, from tree-felling for ship­build­ing in the 16th cen­tury to coal min­ing in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies. Relics of this past are dot­ted through­out the for­est, in­clud­ing the for­mer Light­moor Col­liery at Foxes Bridge, which closed in 1930. You’ll pass this old col­liery, then an­other at New Fancy.


From the old spoil heap look­out, en­joy spec­tac­u­lar views across the tree­tops – you might even see a buz­zard or goshawk soar­ing above. The vista also has a Geomap – a fas­ci­nat­ing walk-on map that de­picts the un­der­ly­ing ge­ol­ogy, mines and quar­ries of the for­est. From here, it’s a thrilling de­scent, filled with twists and bends. You’ll pass a mighty an­cient oak tree, where men from the lo­cal col­lieries used to gather for their union meet­ings.


Soon you’ll reach Cannop Ponds, cre­ated to power a huge wa­ter­wheel at Park­end iron­works a cou­ple of miles away. It’s an idyl­lic spot for a wa­ter­side pic­nic while watch­ing bob­bing swans, geese and man­darin ducks. You can even grab a wild boar sausage bap at the snack hut.


When you reach Speech House Road sta­tion, get off your bike to cross the street. The sta­tion’s name­sake, Speech House, now a rather lux­u­ri­ous ho­tel, was orig­i­nally built as a hunt­ing lodge for King Charles II in 1669. Verder­ers Court, a room in the house where judg­ments took place over 300 years ago, is now a fine-din­ing restau­rant. Ju­di­cial of­fi­cers, known as Verder­ers, dealt with shady be­hav­iour in the for­est, in­clud­ing the poach­ing of deer and il­le­gal cut­ting of


wood­land. To­day, reg­u­lar verder­ers meet­ings are still held at Speech House to dis­cuss man­age­ment of the

vert (wood­lands and open land), deer and, of course, the mis­chievous wild boar. Walk­ers and cy­clists can en­joy a well-de­served af­ter­noon tea in the ho­tel’s Orangery.

Cross the road bridge again and then head back to the cy­cle cen­tre where you can rest your weary legs in a café buzzing with mud-splat­tered moun­tain bik­ers.


The ini­tial stretch of the Fam­ily Cy­cle Trail links with the for­est’s fa­mous Sculp­ture

Trail – a 4.5-mile walk­ing route in­stalled in 1986. Each of its works of art are in­spired by the wildlife, folk­lore and the in­dus­trial her­itage of the for­est. My favourite is Cathe­dral,a spec­tac­u­lar stained glass win­dow sus­pended from the tree canopy, de­pict­ing the won­ders of na­ture. A se­ries of new sculp­tures were in­stalled in 2016 to mark the trail’s 30th an­niver­sary.

The walk be­gins and ends just off the B4226 in the cen­tre of the for­est at Beechen­hurst

Lodge – a bustling hub for ex­plor­ing the area, where you’ll find a play area, a café, BBQs and a tree­top ad­ven­ture park.

Beechen­hurst is also the start­ing point for the newly in­stalled Gruf­falo Trail – kids will love hunt­ing for clues to dis­cov­erer the clawed beast him­self on this in­ter­ac­tive ad­ven­ture in the woods. Who knows, the snuf­fling snout of a boar might also make an ap­pear­ance dur­ing the day’s ac­tiv­i­ties.


While the pres­ence of boar in the For­est of Dean is some­thing of a bit­ter­sweet upheaval for the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties (after all, they do make a lot of mess), this 27,000-acre his­toric wood­land is now their home. For vis­i­tors like me, see­ing them grunt and scut­tle among the trees is mag­i­cal, while some lo­cal res­i­dents have even grown fond of their sur­prise ap­pear­ances and dig­ging fren­zies on their lawns.

A lack of nat­u­ral preda­tors, lots of food and an abun­dance of shel­ter lead to high sur­vival rates for wild boar piglets in the For­est of Dean

Abi­gail Whyte is a writer based in the Wye Val­ley who loves to run, for­age and wild swim.

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