Mining a rich and proud Belgian history - in the Forest of Dean

It isn’t just Belgium that’s making a big show of this year’s centenary of Passchendaele.

Lest we forget, between July and November 1917, an average of 5,000 men lost their lives daily trying to capture five mile of desolate terrain near the Flemish village. 

The 100th anniversary of Passchendaele was marked by three days of ceremonies at Ypres in July but it’s also the subject of a new theatrical production next month (22 September) in a unique setting in the UK. 

“Hell Was Passchendaele” is a story being told by a Welsh theatre company amid the somewhat strange surroundings of Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean. 

The atmospheric caverns, near Coleford, tell a fascinating story, not just of the tragic loss of life in WW1, but also the miners who once worked here (plus the sea life dating back 345m years!). 

Nestling in the picturesque Wye Valley in one of most charming, but relatively unexplored regions of Britain, the caves have another direct Belgian connection. During WII the iron mines were operated by the British Government and amongst others there were Belgian miners brought to work here.

The Belgians formed a team to re-open a tunnel connecting two mines, through some badly broken ground, 150m underground. The men used steel supports and the tunnel became known as the ‘Belgian Heading.’ Over the years the area has collapsed again, drastically crushing and twisting the supports; showing how difficult their job must have been. Like the caves, the nearby market town of Coleford offers an insight into the region’s rich industrial heritage and history.

Designated an area of outstanding natural beauty forming the western border of the Royal Forest and separating England from Wales,the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley offer endless opportunities for outdoor activities, not least on what is perhaps Britain's most unspoilt major river.

And what better way to get a real feel for the “Great Outdoors” than staying in a cosy log cabin in the wood? Forest Holidays operates such sites at nine (soon to be ten) different locations across the UK, including the Forest of Dean.

Founded by the Forestry Commission back in the 1960s to meet the growing demand for holiday accommodation in forest locations, Forest Holidays is an independent company though still part owned by the Commission. They work hand in hand to preserve and protect the forest habitat for people who want to stay there, and all of the waste generated by guests staying in the forest is sorted and recycled off site.

Its Forest of Dean location is an ideal base from which to explore the whole area.

The accommodation blends very nicely with the wooded surroundings and range from cosy one-bed cabins to spacious 5-bedroom treehouses.

Some lodges, appropriately called “golden oak”, “silver birch” and “copper birch”, come complete with huge floor to ceiling glass windows and a hot tub (many of these have recently been refurbished and are especially beneficial after a day spent exploring in the nearby forest).

All are modern and boast a well-equipped bathroom and kitchen plus underfloor heating.

With 120 cabins (all of which are regularly refreshed), theForest of Dean is easily the biggest of Forest Holidays’ nine UK sites and at the heart of each is the Forest Retreat, with a shop and snack/coffee bar. 

There’s also a welcoming team of “forest rangers”, like Gerry at Forest of Dean, who will introduce you to a world of woodland secrets, from forest fungi to large mammal behaviour. They’ll detail how you identify animal tracks; show you the forest by night and explain the forest ecosystem.

The park is overseen by a South African-born manager who accurately describes the area as an “untapped little gem.” It all makes for a either a relaxing, laid-back break or something more adventurous.

“My favourite time,” says Kelly Macaskill. “is the autumn when the changing colours make for a quite spectacular setting.” And those looking for healthy outdoor activity need do no more than venture beyond the front door of your cosy wooden lodge.

The immediate area is littered with paths and trails, some more challenging than others but all easy to find and navigate (maps and guides are available at reception).

For those travelling with kids look no further than the local Go Ape where, after a full safety briefing, you’re off flying down zip wires and leaping off Tarzan Swings.

The course lasts about 2.5 hours,is great fun for young and old alike and it is all set amidst some of Britain’s most breath-taking scenery. Go Ape operate similar sites all over the UK and all are wonderfully designed and organised.

If, after one of their fun-packed sessions, you’ve still not had enough adrenaline-filled activity you should also head for Forest of Dean Adventure nearby which offers some great outdoor pursuits at a couple of locations.

These include archery and climbing plus the “Adventure Challenge” where, overseen by a qualified instructor, you can climb, swing, jump and dive your way around high rope activities that promise to push you to your limits.

Those who get their thrills on the tracks should try Dean Forest Railway which takes you back to a bygone and golden age of steam rail travel. With a hop-off hop-on ticket you can make the most of the villages and woodlands this enchanting nine-mile line passes through.

Yet more physical activity is available from Pedalabikeaway, located just outside Coleford and ideal for those in search of traffic free cycle trails (Belgian cycling fans will love this). One of the best trail centres in the country, it boasts a range of waymarked routes to suit all abilities - from gentle off-road family rides to the more technical (even World Cup riders have trained here).

It would be a shame to leave the Forest of Dean without enjoying one of its best features, the River Wye, and Symonds Yat, which straddles the Wye, is well worth a visit itself. Climb Symonds Yat rock, a 500ft high limestone outcrop, for wonderful views of the river below as it winds its way through lush countryside.

Not to be outdone, Beechenhurst has a range of walking trails the most famous being the Sculpture Trail with the iconic sculpture “Cathedral” known locally as the stained glass window.It also has the Gruffalo Spotters children’s trail.

After expending all that energy-busting adrenaline you’ll doubtless have worked up an appetite and one great local place to sate your hunger is the Tudor Farmhouse, described by Tatler Magazine no less as a “culinary oasis”.

Housed in picturesque former farm buildings in the historic village of Clearwell, its Yorkshire-born head chef Rob Cox is committed to quality and locally-sourced ingredients (the restaurant collects its own hen and duck eggs daily from the adjacent paddock).

This 2 Rosette restaurant offers fine dining with a menu strictly based on the seasons, including a 6-course tasting option showcasing the very best of local produce. The a la carte choice features some mouth-watering offerings, including roasted guinea fowl and the delightfully-named Gloucester Old Spot pork belly. It’s won a clutch of top regional and national culinary awards and it is not difficult to see why. The service, like the cuisine and wines, is excellent.

For those looking for some “hands-on” experience, it even operates its own foraging courses in the nearby woods (especially useful with the game season almost upon us). You go out for a spot of foraging and then return to the restaurant to cook and consume the spoils.

A bit further away is the newly-restored Kilcot Inn, on the Herefordshire-Gloucestershire border, which is also highly recommended.

Described as “modern English food with its own unique twist” the emphasis is on sourcing quality, local and seasonal produce from within a 30-mile radius.

Whether it’s a lunchtime snack to a more substantial evening meal, the cuisine here is also a delight.

It regularly features in the top 10 on Trip Adviser for the whole of Gloucestershire for its food. Look out for the original oak beams, some said to come from a pirate ship! Accessing the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley from Belgium can be easily done via Eurotunnel which offers the quickest and most efficient way of crossing the Channel.

The Eurotunnel car train service runs between Folkestone and Calais via the channel tunnel in just 35 minutes. Once onboard passengers stay with their vehicle throughout the channel tunnel crossing in bright, air-conditioned carriages.

Before leaving the lovely Forest of Dean don’t forget to venture into Puzzlewood, 14 acres of lovely ancient woodland reputed to have been the inspiration for J.R.R Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

It’ll also be of particular interest for Star Wars fans – key scenes in the latest blockbuster was filmed there!

The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley is just one hour from Bristol and three hours from London. With great transport links and access to perfect activity venues in a stunning natural environment, it really does make for an ideal area to visit.

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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