Wye Tour, Part Two: the Forest of Dean

If you haven't read the opening installment of this trilogy, A Picturesque Wye Tour, Part One, then you should probably go ahead and do so.

Because in that piece, I introduce the awfully brilliant structural conceit of following in the footsteps of 18th century priest William Gilpin, who wrote an influential travel book about his 1770 trip to this neck of the woods.

The trouble is though... he missed the woods in this neck of the woods. He followed the Wye, and then scooted off into Wales. Didn't pop into the Forest of Dean at all, really.

So, while I may yet crowbar Rev. Gilpin back into part three, that whole angle looks to be a dead loss for this episode. We'll just have to explore the forest without him...

Entering the forest

We parked up somewhere a few miles from our main strolling target of the day, the sculpture trail at Beechenhurst Lodge.

Walking through the forest towards the start of the sculpture trail, the forest was impressive and picturesque in the way that heavily managed, fairly newly-planted pine forests in England tend to be, which is to say not very.

As at Symonds Yat, visiting here three months after British Columbia, where the forests are rather bigger and a lot more serious, wasn't doing my home country too many favours in terms of direct spectacle-off.

Shiny things will catch the eye even at the most of uncanadian of small scales, however, and I spent a while following these beetles around with a lens.

Forest of Dean Mossy forest floor Beetle

Sculpture trail

Presently, we reached the official start of the sculpture trail, and it was a very short distance from there to the first piece of work, which also turned out to be my favourite of the bunch. A giant chair, or to give it its proper name, Place, by Magdalena Jetelova.

(NB: father depicted in photograph is for comparison of scale purposes only and not included as part of the installation.)

Sculpture trail

On the left is Observatory, by Bruce Allan, or as I inevitably thought of it, Staircase to Nowhere.

On the right are some trees. People complain of not being able to see the forest for the trees, but I always think it's important that sometimes, you do, in fact, look at the trees.

Sculpture trailFirs on the sculpture trail

A giant acorn (to go with the giant chair, perhaps), aka Cone and Vessel, by Peter Randall-Page.

As you may be able to tell, my sculptural background is somewhat shallow to say the least, and my interpretation and criticism of the artform is not in the loftiest or most sophisticated of registers.

Sculpture trail

Iron Road, by Keir Smith. A rail-less railway where each sleeper has been carved into a unique design.

I liked this one. It's not obvious from the photo, but the sculpture trail footpath had the unmistakeable air of a converted ex-railway around this point, making it situationally relevant and in dynamic dialogue with its historic and geographic context, or whatever it is people who know how to write about sculpture would say.

The former railway was created in 1809 to better transport the various industrially useful minerals being extracted from the Forest of Dean, of which we shall soon learn more...

Sculpture trail

The Heart of the Stone, by Tim Lees.

Not sure I really "get" this one, but it looks kinda like a fish, and as such I rather like it.

Sculpture trail

Heading out of the sculpture trail back toward the car, we passed this feeding frenzy.

Feeding frenzy #3

Cannop Ponds

At Cannop Ponds, duck trails made neat patterns in the algae.

Created to power a watermill for Parkend Ironworks, these days the ponds and surrounding area serve as a tourist picnic spot and nature reserve.

As I previously alluded, the forest has a more industrial history than you might expect, for in terms of valuable natural resources, lumber is just one of many natural resources the area offers. The mining of iron ore and coal/charcoal started as far back as Roman times, and that magic combination of ingredients saw industry grow on a far greater scale here during the industrial revolution.

Parkend Ironworks closed in 1877, but coal mining remained a major employer in this area well into the twentieth century. Although the last coal mine closed in 1965, industry has not departed altogether, with a stonemason's yard at the bottom of the Lower Cannop Pond, working locally-quarried paving stone.

Duck trails in Cannop Ponds Duck trails in Cannop Ponds

Between the upper and lower ponds, Cannop Brook tumbles attractively through a woodland grove.

Cannop Brook

New Fancy View

We reached the car, and I'd spotted another of those legendary blue 360° viewpoint icons (legendary - ba-dum tss - yes, a cartography pun) that had to be worth a quick visit.

It transpires that the viewing spot was the result of afforesting and landscaping the spoil heap of New Fancy coal mine, which closed in 1944. The site hosts a sculpture, Roll of Honour by Graham Tyler and John Wakefield, to commemorate those injured or killed in the Forest of Dean's mines and quarries. A nearby plaque tips you off that the three pillars respesent three elements of the Forest's mining/industrial history - stone, iron (represented by rusted steel), and coal (represented by carved and blackened local oak).

I liked it more than any of the sculptures at the sculpture trail, to be honest. With the plaque's tip off, you could immediately understand a genuine link to the local context, whereas some of the sculpture trail work's claims of situationality seemed a little tenuous. And without it, you still have an attractive contrast of colours forming an aesthetically attractive megalithy thing. Whereas, unless you can buy into the idea of being a "platform to consider the contradictions between human manipulation of landscape and the natural passage of time", this was basically indistinguishable from somebody flytipping a big pile of boxes into the middle of the woods.

OK, a sculpture buff would probably deride my grasp of the artform of sculpture as literally stuck in the Stone Age, and I don't think I'm in much position to argue, intellectually. But I know wot I lyke.

Sculpture at New Fancy View Forest of Dean panorama from New Fancy View

The view

Scaling the spoil heap presented us with the panoramic view seen above.

A somewhat impressive vista in the flesh, but a rather unsatisfactory picture. And here's the funny thing. I dismissed Gilpin as having nothing to say in this part, but read on from the passage I derided as boring in the previous part, and he comes out with the following:

correctly picturesque [...] is seldom the character of a purely natural scene.

Nature is always great in design. She is an admirable colourist also; and harmonizes tints with infinite variety and beauty: but she is seldom so correct in composition, as to produce an harmonious whole.

Either the foreground or the background is disproportioned; or some awkward line runs across the piece; or a tree is ill-placed; or a bank is formal; or something or other is not exactly what it should be.

[Nature] works on a vast scale; and no doubt harmoniously, if her schemes could be comprehended. The artist, in the mean time, is confined to a span; and lays down his little rules, whcih he calls the principles of picturesque beauty, mere to adapt such diminutive parts of nature's surfaces to his own eye as come within its scope.—Hence, therefore, the painter who adheres strictly to the composition of nature, will rarely make a good picture.

Rather impressively, he nails a critique of my photo despite having died centuries before I took it — and offers insight into the challenge of taking any good photo here, writing several decades before photography was invented at all.

Yes, Reverend, that bloody tree is ill-placed indeed. And how the broad sweep of even this unCanadianly modestly-sized forest struggles to fit in my viewfinder's span.

OK, the literalist pedant would object that the Forest of Dean is hardly of nature's design, having been occupied and influenced by humans since the Mesolithic, but we shall set that aside with the "oh, you know what he means!" understanding that it's a photo of endless trees, and not, say, a castle.

For this passage comes from Gilpin's observations at Goodrich Castle, in which he hails the artificial presence of the castle in creating a more correctly picturesque scene than nature's vast scale provides without the aid of man. And by happy coincidence (well, contrived authorial sleight of hand), Goodrich Castle is first on our agenda in part three of our Tour.

Forest of Dean from New Fancy View Forest of Dean from New Fancy View