The International Steam Pages

Riding the Old Rails in the Forest of Dean

For convenience I have now grouped lifestyle illustrated features by topic:

This page is just one of several describing aspects of our '2011 new life', for earlier and later pages use the West Gloucestershire link above.

Frankly, there is only one real problem living in Mitcheldean and that is the existence of a large hill (Plump Hill) between us and the Forest of Dean proper. The main road over it is an official form of assisted suicide for cyclists, instead we walk up the Drybrook Road past Stenders and from the top of the climb continue down the track which leads to Harrow Hill and Nailbridge / Steam Mills. From the traffic lights on the A4136 it's just a short ride down the sealed footpath next to the road to the site of Northern United Colliery - the last operational deep mine in the area which closed in 1965.

This area is a mass of paths and tracks and from experience it's quite easy to get lost if you wander from the main marked trail shown on the map below, for comparison there is a sketch map of the original railways available too, but bear in mind that there were many tramroads in this area most predating conventional railways...

We enter the cycle trail at the former Drybrook Road Station (north-east) which is more or less the summit, nearly everyone seems to follow the official advice and travel clockwise. I know that I'm naturally perverse but that means going downhill on the one really steep section, going anti-clockwise instead allows coasting downhill all the way to Cannop (south-west) and a gentle walk up the steep bit... The first feature of railway interest is this 'tunnel', actually it's a retaining arch built for safety reasons when the adjacent tip at Trafalgar Colliery threatened the alignment.

One clear sign of the track's former use is old sleepers and, especially, old rails used as fencing posts. By and large the rails are Brunel 'bridge rail' made redundant when his broad gauge was converted to standard gauge. While the South Wales Railway along the Severn was initially broad gauge, the Severn and Wye had a complex history as far as gauge was concerned. Paar's 'History of the Severn and Wye Railway' states that the gauge of the original tramroad was 3ft 6in, although it was widened in stages to 3ft 8in! From 1868, the tramroad was paralleled by a broad gauge line to Wimberry (roughly Speech House Road) and after this was converted to standard gauge in 1872, the rest of the system constructed later enjoying a single gauge through its life. The trail swings left at the site of Serridge Junction - miss the left turn and you may end up in Lydbook. At Cannop beyond Speech House Road, the ponds were constructed in the 1820s to provide water via a leat (a small artificial water channel) to Parkend Ironworks. Today they are a pleasant picnic spot for visitors.

From Cannop it's only a short distance from the trail to Parkend, the terminus of the Dean Forest Railway. This was Yuehong's first visit to a UK preserved railway, culture shock... For me it was pure nostalgia, as I spent some formative years watching similar push-pull trains between Gloucester and Chalford. Of course, in those long off days I was too young to enjoy the pleasures available in the Fountain Inn opposite.

Whichever way we go from Parkend, it's uphill. The direct main road is not pleasant, so it's best to double back to Cannop and join the only significant part of the family cycle trail which does not follow an old railway. At the top, we skirt the site of New Fancy Colliery with its large waste tip, now a fine viewpoint, and join the 'Mineral Loop'. Along here is 'Central Bridge', built for but never reached by the disastrous Forest of Dean Central Railway from Awre. This never got further than New Fancy and more or less collapsed when the Mineral Loop was built and the Severn and Wye scooped its traffic.

There are plenty of railway relics here, what seems to have been a gated crossing and an unmistakable former mile post:

The trail passes the remains of Lightmoor Colliery and goes under the Cinderford to Speech House Road by the Dilke Hospital (which was the last to deliver potential 'Free Miners').

By now the trail is almost at its highest point and cuttings skim the minor summits to the site of Foxes Bridge Colliery;

For some reason, the trail leaves the original alignment before rejoining it for the final stretch back to Drybrook Road. This may be the end of the trail for us, but there's plenty of work left to be done to get us home. The section back to Northern United is relatively quiet and better for wild life, I have seen deer here and on one occasion this superb bird of prey which glided past me and then perched on a branch while I wound up my toy camera to its limit: Thereafter we have to retrace our route to Mitcheldean, it's a long day out but very rewarding.

If you want to see more of the railway then this fascinating collection of relevant photographs, both contemporary and historic, comes highly recommend -

The map below is courtesy of Pedalbikeaway who hire out bikes to visitors who do not have their own.

This map is reproduced from "An Historical Survey of Forest of Dean Railways" by Peter Smith, Oxford Publishing 1983, ISBN, 0 86093 167 06, essential reading if you enjoy this page...

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson