CHRIS Packham would approve. We’re up before dawn on the trail of wild boar and an hour or so later we are actually having breakfast in a “Verderers Court”.
Not that we are in the TV presenter’s beloved New Forest, but a hundred miles north in the Forest of Dean, another of the three ancient royal hunting grounds (Epping is the third) where forest law is still enforced, as it has been since Norman times, by judicial officers called verderers.
At one time a third of the land area of southern England was designated as royal forest, and the verderers’ role was to protect venison and the “vert” – the ‘noble’ animals of the chase like deer and wild boar, along with the greenery that sustains them.
At various times across the centuries, they might be policing poaching and illegal felling while overseeing the rights of locals to take firewood, pasture swine, harvest produce and cut turf.
Staying at the Speech House Hotel immediately establishes a sense of connection with the past, because this 17th-century hunting lodge, erected for King Charles II in 1676, lies pretty much at the heart of the forest and is surrounded by “vert”.
Aside from hosting breakfast in the courtroom, which is still in use, the family-run hotel bristles with reminders of the past, from the antlers on the walls to the Royal coat of arms in the orangerie – and even the two royal spades used by the Queen and HRH Prince Philip in 1957 to plant two oak trees across the road from the courtroom.
The Gloucestershire Way passes a stone’s throw from the front door and provides the starting point for our leisurely morning amble. And just in case the fauna don’t oblige us with an appearance, there is also an intriguing sculpture trail here, forged over the past three decades through a partnership between the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust and Forestry England.
Inspired by their specific settings and comissioned from artists at crucial stages in their careers, these huge works reflect the historical tensions in the forest, between industrial and sylvan, man-made and natural, utopian and dystopian, settlement and wilderness.
One of the closest to Speech House is Cathedral by Kevin Atherton, a huge stained-glass window sited at the end of a tree-lined aisle incorporating imagery collated from drawings and photographs which the artist did around the forest.
After seeing the work in the fading light of dusk, it’s a delight to catch it in the early morning sunlight, even if the wild boar babies are choosing not to grace us with their presence.
Boar were once common in the forest and were hunted for food, supplying feasts for the king’s table in medieval times. Given that there’s a record of an order for 100 boars and sows for a Christmas feast in 1254, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they are thought to have become extinct in Britain before the end of the 13th century.
But feral wild boar have become a familiar sight in the forest in the past two decades, and our dusk wander the previous night proved the point. With the light fading, it was clear most of the rustling in the leaf litter came from hungry blackbirds and hopping frogs. Bats were out in a clearing and we paused on a bench to make the most of the last rays.
By the time we were close to the hotel, it was almost pitch-dark on the path. But then, finally, there was the sound of a snort, a snuffle and we paused, frozen. Inching forward, we could make out the shadows of four or five young piglets rooting about in the ferns that line the path.
True, it was only a brief encounter before the family rustle off into the undergrowth, and unfortunately too dark to see the distinctive stripes that lead the locals to affectionately refer to the young boar as “humbugs”.
But it was nonetheless a magical moment and just one of many reminders of the rich and varied history of this remarkable forest.
For a better picture of the changes in this landscape across the centuries and the lives of the foresters, miners and iron workers who populated it, head over to Soudley and the Dean Heritage Centre at Camp Mill.
Looking at the serene surroundings of the centre today, it’s hard to believe the former corn mill and factory was a scrapyard for 20 years before being rescued by the museum trust as a base where the stories of the forest’s social and industrial history could be properly explained.
Forty years on and the museum now houses over 20,000 precious objects and documents relating to the heritage of the Forest of Dean, from prehistoric times to a special exhibition about the life and work of locally born TV dramatist and screenwriter Dennis Potter.
There’s plenty for the kids to do too, from nosing round a forester’s home from Victorian times to exploring a Gruffalo Trail, trying on a range of hats and helmets, finding out about the wildlife of the forest or discovering what the life of a freeminer would have been like.
The forester’s cottage was moved stone by stone from its original location and is furnished and decorated in authentic Victorian and Edwardian period style. A typical two-up, two-down property, it features a collection of period china, a kitchen with an authentic cast-iron range, upstairs bedrooms and an outdoors wash-house, cottage garden and pigsty.
As well as chickens to provide eggs and ferrets for catching rabbits, foresters would traditionally keep Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs for their meat, allowing them to graze under the trees on fallen apples or releasing them into the forest to feed on acorns during the late summer, a right dating from medieval times known as pannage.
The youngsters can sit in a period school room too, and regular history workshops help children discover what life would have been like for foresters at different times through history.
For first-time visitors, perhaps one of the most extraordinary aspects of the forest story is the impact of industrialisation on the lives of those living here.
From charcoal burners to freeminers, the forest long provided a range of different trades. But the age of steam and the explosion of local foundries, collieries and railways transformed the area and left it with an extraordinary industrial heritage.
For centuries, individual miners were granted rights to dig for coal and iron in the forest, and archaeological evidence shows that working for ochre pigments began over 4,500 years ago, with iron and coal working extensive by Roman times.
But to appreciate the full scale of the later mining revolution, take a short trip to Clearwell Caves and discover a vast underground world of the caverns and mines which spread for hundreds of acres under the forest.
Large-scale mining operations here stopped in 1945 but telling the story of the caves to visitors became a labour of love for caver, freeminer and verderer Ray Wright from the 1960s until his death in 2015.
Today, his son Jonathan continues the family tradition, still producing ochre pigments for sale as well as managing access to the six interconnected iron mines which plunge up to 600ft into the earth.
Day-trippers savour a 45-minute circular tour of nine caverns to get a flavour of the place, while those inspired to continue the adventure can opt for a more ambitious caving experience allowing you to crawl, slither and clamber into places visitors don’t normally experience.
There are even deep-level guided tours for those prepared to gear up with helmets and lamps, get a little dirty and head off with a guide to discover areas last seen by miners centuries ago.
Back up on the main visitor circuit there’s been an intriguing sculpture trail running this summer giving guests a chance to enjoy contemporary works of art in the atmospheric setting of the cool underground chambers.
Curated by Gallery Pangolin, the display featured more than 50 works by a range of international artists, taking modern art back to its spiritual home underground and creating an almost prehistoric atmosphere with unexpected discoveries around every corner.
From street art with paleolithic echoes to works which feel as if they have been part of this setting for centuries, choosing and locating specific pieces for the exhibition produced its own challenges and rewards for all involved.
But as Rungwe Kingdon from Gallery Pangolin explains, the extraordinary exhbition also honours the “sheer graft” of the people who went underground to dig out the original metal and stone used to forge the pieces.
Outside the caves, there’s an almost sculptural quality to the rusting mining locomotives which once worked the narrow-gauge lines here.
As in similar mines across the forest, railways and tramways were used to harvest the heavy minerals that gave the area its wealth. Stone, coal, iron ore and even gold were extracted from the earth in huge quantities.
Mining and ironmaking industries were at their peak in the 19th century when they spawned an intricate network of tramroads and railways serving the foundries and collieries scattered across the forest.
By the 20th century deeper mining was abandoned as reserves of ore and coal became uneconomic to work, but across the area traces of the old lines and mines are not hard to spot.
Of course it wasn’t just getting materials out of the ground that proved a challenge, but exporting those materials around the world.
Proximity to the longest navigable river in England made that a practicality, and the Severn Estuary was known as one of the UK’s principal sea links to the rest of the world and had been since Roman times.
Nonetheless, with its massive tidal range the river posed its own challenges, as a visit to the historic docks at Lydney Harbour illustrates.
A recognised port since the reign of Henry II, the harbour was originally situated inland, served by both the Severn and the Lyd, and had a thriving shipbuilding industry in the 17th century.
But that was before massive silt deposits left the town landlocked, with the dramatic walls of the currently harbour being completed in 1821.
Looking at the tranquil upper basin today it’s hard to imagine the sprawling docks in their heyday, but by the 1960s the closure of the local pits saw the demise of its coal trade and the hoists and railway sidings were removed, with many of the harbour’s once ornate structures being obliterated by the time the site was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1980.
Thankfully, there’s still one place you can recapture an authentic flavour of the way things were round here in the past decades, thanks to the nearby Dean Forest Railway, which runs from Lydney Junction through four miles of beautiful woodland and countryside to the small forest village at Parkend.
Offering a mixture of steam and diesel rides, the line runs along part of the old Severn and Wye Joint Railway, first built as a tramroad over 200 years ago and rescued as a heritage line in the 1970s.
The main station on the preserved line is at Norchard, in the middle of the line, which boasts a large, free car park as well as a shop, museum and café, and where a clutter of historic engines, wagons and carriages grace the sidings.
It’s a picturesque location, with low- and high-level platforms providing scope for engines to shuttle their way round from the sidings to the main line.
Steam train services run on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from mid-March to early November, with Santa and Mince Pie Specials around Christmas and New Year, along with a range of evening specials, murder mysteries and gin trains, plus brake-van tours for dedicated enthusiasts.
Priding itself for friendly service and staffed by a dedicated team of volunteers, the line offers a relaxing journey through the forest in a manner that was not seen for many decades.
The primary function of the forest railway system was always the carrying of freight traffic, with passengers being of secondary importance. Indeed, Norchard itself was a colliery and passenger traffic on the Severn and Wye line ceased in 1929, long before the effects on the railway system of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s.
With improved road connections and the decline of the mining industry undermining the economic basis of the forest railway system, there was little surprise when freight traffic ended in the 1960s. The Norchard drift mine was derelict by 1968, and the only remnant of the old passenger network was the main line from Gloucester to Cardiff, still in use today.
Dean Forest enthusiasts remain hopeful that the line may once again extend north to Speech House, in the heart of the forest, but for now journey’s end remains the scenic station at Parkend.
The idea of passengers once again being able to reach the Speech House Hotel by train is an exciting one, but still something of a pipedream for the moment. But as the little railcar rattles and rolls its way back through the forest, it’s almost time to head home.
Don’t worry, we’ll be back. The visit may have been fleeting, but this is a forest steeped in history, and there’s so much more to see – not to mention a proper chance to come face to face with those little humbugs…