Jon Woodhouse takes us on a tour of this gem on the Welsh-English border.
Words & Photography JON WOODHOUSE
Sitting at the easternmost edge of the Forest of Dean, it’s easy for mountain bikers to overlook the Wye Valley – after all, it’s not as exciting on paper as the built trail loops, rad downhill tracks, and almost endless woodland singletrack in the Forest proper. However, there’s a lot to be said for shunning cheap thrills in favour of a more rounded experience – think ten bottles of blue WKD in a nightclub versus a nice evening of wine or posh whisky. Both are enjoyable; one is probably a more, well, ‘cultured’ experience.
That’s very much the case with this ride. What it lacks in sick stepdowns, tabletop jumps and roost-filled berms, it makes up for in stunning scenery, some technical treats and a journey through history. There’s cake, too.
Now I’ve set out my stall, I might as well admit that while I’ve lived in this part of the Forest of Dean for a good few years now, I’m usually drawn to the blue WKD side of things. That’s why a chance to explore riding on my doorstep with a completely new perspective was a rather welcome opportunity. The fact that I’m off the guest list for the nightclub of cheap thrills for a while after a rather vigorous interface with a tree – and resultant pulverisation of my collarbone – also means that finding some fresh alternatives to my usual plummets is very welcome.
Enter Sam Copp, local guide and coach for Wye MTB – an enjoyable career he’s swapped to from one as a professional fencer. The kind with pointy posts, not pointy bits of metal, just to be clear. He regularly runs riding trips with them [that’s Wye MTB, not pointy posts – Ed] up and down the Wye Valley, whether entirely human powered or with the helping hand of an e-bike battery or Land Rover uplift. His knowledge is vital in a landscape that folds in on itself multiple times, often getting disorientating as a long pedal down the valley bottom will leave you in exactly the same place as a short sharp climb and drop over the top.
“Oh bloody hell, we’re here!” rapidly becomes my refrain of the day, as he links up parts of the woods I’ve visited before in a way I hadn’t expected. That’s the magic of this place; it’s squashed into a kind of knotted ball of terrain that doubles back and wraps around and over itself. You can see why people have lived here since Neolithic times, with the contrast of being safely tucked away yet easily linked to the broader world thanks to the artery of the Wye river. The density of history is pretty impressive here too, with ancient barrows not far from medieval monuments next to Industrial Revolution sites, all slowly being consumed by moss and trees.
For all my riding charlatanism, I think there are few places more beautiful than the Wye Valley in autumn. Once the summer’s lush greenery has faded, it gets replaced with a far more exciting palette of burnt orange and brown hues, with the tree-covered valleys that have the river winding between them having a far more enjoyable depth and texture as the slow march towards winter begins. I suspect there’s something in me that also realises that time is running out before the real cold weather arrives, so there’s always a fresh urgency to make the most of it, especially on cold but clear and crisply lit days where the sky is a far more piercing blue than it ever seems in summer.
Let’s hoon in the geology…
Sixth form poetics aside, it’s also rather fun to hoon about in the leaf litter while the dirt isn’t an absolute bogfest beneath. There are plenty of leaves down too, as Storm Arwen’s 100mph winds have stripped the trees almost bare just a few days before we start, though thankfully there are only a few fallen trees on our route, though no shortage across the woods in general. It’s a ride that’s going to reward at any time of year though, with pretty solid going for the most part and not much in the way of bottomless slop, though the lack of leaves means that once we’re up high, the Wye threading below is a more constant companion than in high summer.
Geological buffs will have a field day regardless, thanks to a club sandwich of rock formations neatly de-crusted by the knife of water and time. It adds to the sense of this ride being a bit more of a journey, as the conditions underneath change from ancient broadleaf woodland dotted with moss-draped sandstone blocks to needle-carpeted modern conifer plantation loam and the odd dash of limestone thrown in the mix.
Our start and finishing point for the loop is the village of Redbrook. It’s really rather picturesque, with a cute village shop and Post Office that does a decent line in butties and pies if the ramblers and paddlers haven’t cleared them out before you get there. The village sits along the bank of the river, with either side joined by the red and rusted remains of a hulking great wrought-iron railway bridge that replaced the river as the fastest mode of transport in 1876 but succumbed to Dr Beeching’s axe in 1964.
While it’s all very nice nowadays – in summer it’s a great spot for a post-ride dip in the river – back in the day it was a major centre for the production of iron, copper and tinplate, helped by plentiful supply of charcoal, ore and coal from the local area and with the advantage of plenty of water power from the brooks that give the village its name, along with the iron ore that stained them red. It was also home to three breweries and around thirteen inns – thirsty business that industry – though a mere two pubs survive today, with the Bell Inn on the English side of the river and the Boat Inn over in Wales. The latter does good food and has a lovely little terraced pub garden which is great for summertime post-ride spectating of all the action on the river – assuming you can find a spot before the canoe groups beat you to it.
As well as my guide Sam, I’ve invited along Michael, PR manager for Merida Bikes, who is my boss and the man behind numerous mountain bike events you’ve almost certainly taken part in, with everything from the Ex Enduro to Bristol Bikefest and many a MTB Marathon to his name. He can be safely relied on to tear off your legs hour after hour, and despite living in nearby Bristol, he’s yet to explore the Wye Valley, so it means we can both ride some fresh trails.
Bike wise, it’s a mixed bag, with Sam’s burly Marin Alpine Trail in full enduro-guiding, survival-spec with coil shock and thick casing tyres, while Michael has opted for something a little lighter with a Merida Ninety-Six in a downcountry-style set-up. Cue friendly piss-taking as to who is the greater mountain bike fashion victim. I keep my beak firmly out of this fight as I’m playing the injury card and I’m on my electrically assisted eONE-SIXTY – it’s quite literally my first ride since the shoulder snappage and I’m hoping the battery will make up for the lack of fitness and the extra weight and stability for the dented confidence. I almost do myself a mischief while playing in the car park as it turns out one arm is now much better at pulling up on the bars than the other and I veer wildly between parked cars. I reset my rad-o-meter to the lowest setting and remind myself I’m a ‘both wheels on the ground’ guy for a fair while yet.
The only way is up
As usually happens when you start at river level, we’ve got a climb ahead, though there’s a nice warm-up along the river before we get going. This stretch of the Wye is well known for fishing, with little jetties that stick out into the flow to provide a place to fish from and a refuge from the current for the fish themselves. It’s fitting that the climb proper starts near a pair of wooden salmon and, while a mild gradient, doesn’t let up for quite some time. A quick wriggle down a bridleway from the fire road and I’ve rather joyously scratched my mountain bike itch for the first time in two months – turns out you don’t forget how to ride a bike, it just seems like you’re going a lot faster.
Climbing resumes and, as it is for most of the day, the hints of history are all around, with the natural-looking stream beds occasionally revealing stonework sides that must have fed millponds that now power nothing more than ducks.
We’ve not been blessed with sunshine, but it’s clear enough that, once the hard work is done and we’re up on the tops – harder for those without a magic button on the bars than others – we can see the Wye snaking below us.
The viewpoint of Cleddon Falls is a great place to stop for a swift snack as the hill falls away in front of us sharply and the small stream – more impressive after rain, obviously – falls away into space. Sam takes this opportunity to fill up with water, though some care should be taken as he recounts a story of dropping his brand new bottle in and having a fairly precarious time recovering it close to the edge.
As we look below, the contrast between the patches with yellowing needles of modern conifer and those with the bare branches of broadleaf trees is plain to see – though the plantations’ days are numbered as they’re slowly being removed to reintroduce native species, reducing the acidified run-off into the river that’s been hugely detrimental to the fish population.
Why wend when you can Wye?
Talking of plantation, we finish wending our way off the top of the ridgeline and start to descend from a place called Botany Bay. After some fun techy rock sections, we drop through a lovely deep-cut track that’s banked high with stone, lined by trees and worn deep by the passage of time. It’s an absolute hoot to slice deep through the leaves and ride up the natural bermed sides, though somewhat tinged with apprehension as I’ve no idea what lurks beneath. I hear a solid ‘offffft’ ahead of me as either Michael or Sam find out by connecting with a hidden lump of rock and resolve to go slower.
The wood this trail slices through is called Barbadoes, and both names strike me as rather exotic for this part of the world – it turns out the original landowning family were indeed rather well-travelled, having made their fortune off the misery of the Caribbean sugar and slave trade.
The trail spits us out right at river level and the ruins of Tintern Abbey – the furthest point down the river on our ride – heave into view. It’s quite the tourist hotspot so we settle down at the Anchor pub next to the ruins to have a light spot of lunch. Across the river, the steep wooded bank leads up to a viewpoint called the Devil’s Pulpit, where Satan was said to hang out to try and tempt the monks below into a life of sin. If he’s still up there, I suspect the Sulphurous One would be quite pleased that his dark works are continued by the National Trust’s rather exorbitant entry fee.
Cakes and pains
Loaded up with cake, it’s time to gain some height. My complaints of a tender bottom no longer used to hours in the saddle garner no sympathy as Sam and Michael shed off lunch legs all the way back up the 300m of heave to Cleddon Falls and my bike whirrs happily away beneath me. Once all the way up to Beacon Hill, we’re rewarded with some stonking views all the way towards the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons, deep in Wales. While the small village of Pen y Fan is behind us, the real mountain of Pen y Fan is in the distance ahead.
Sam tells us the best bits of descending are now to come and he’s not wrong. We get to rip along some more bermed and banked sections, with golden-brown leaves roosting up from our tyres. It’s at this point those with some fuel left in their legs – or juice in their battery – can opt for a small loop that Sam likes to call the Wye Valley Chunder. It’s a rough and lumpy plummeting blast that’s followed by an equally steep haul back up. If you’re suffering, it’s easy enough to cut this off to hasten your return. As the light is going and we’ve wasted time chatting nonsense, we have to ignore it and rip down past through the Colonel’s Park – spotting singletrack aplenty in the woods, but having to crack on regardless – and blast down a treat of a final descent that’s got some high-speed slalom sections to keep us honest in the dying light.
Back down by the river for the final time, Michael leads us back along the path towards Redbrook, setting a scorching pace on the flat that has both Sam and myself working hard on tired legs. As the lights of the village glitter in the now murky distance, I’m thinking it’s definitely time for a drink in the pub. One thing is for certain – it won’t be a blue WKD.
While the easily-accessible-from-pretty-much-everywhere Forest of Dean is a huge destination for mountain bikers thanks to the numerous man-made mountain bike trails near Cannop, its easternmost edge – the lower Wye Valley – has plenty of cracking natural riding with some truly spectacular views to match. Layered with both human and industrial heritage, it’s the birthplace of British tourism, when travellers unable to romp across Europe for a Grand Tour due to the Napoleonic Wars had to look a little closer to home to find their fix of the picturesque. Sound familiar? Despite being a major centre for the production of iron, copper, tin, wire and an artery to the sea for all that, visitors at the time were so enamoured with this newfangled ‘industry’ that they considered the sight of forges belching out smoke, fire and noise and the (short-lived and poorly paid) workers rushing about as a positive enhancement to the whole experience. Tourists were encouraged to sketch and paint as they bobbed down the river, meaning the travel influencer predates Instagram by quite some time, though there’s no word as to whether the (watercolour) selfie was invented during this period.
While selfies remain eternal, all the industrial heritage is slowly being reclaimed by the trees with ruins of mills and stone dams for waterwheels being overtaken by lush carpets of moss. However, the paths needed for those workers – and those who lived here aeons before that – to get around are still there, which is great news for mountain bikers as a network of bridleways is draped along, down and over the valley.
Don’t worry if the weather isn’t great, as surface conditions are generally good going regardless of rain. The surface does change a fair bit as you traverse about, with luscious loam and leaf litter equally as common as grippy sandstone and the odd bit of lethal limestone. It’s a bit of a geologist’s dream – or more accurately, a delicious layer cake of rock formations and something to really whet your tyres on. Mmm.
Being in the woods for the majority of the ride means there’s plenty of shelter too. Too much cloud and it will obscure the big draw of this ride, namely the stunning views down into the valley below. These stay with you for most of the ride, giving you an especially fresh perspective on the ruins of Tintern Abbey, the high point of any ‘Wye Tour’ a few centuries back – and still not to be sniffed at today. It also provides a perfect halfway lunch spot on our route, though the closer to the ruined abbey you get, the more tourist tax is likely to be applied. Getting hold of gold is exactly the reason it’s a ruin, as Henry VIII decided that the proceeds of the resident Cistercian Order’s lucrative commitment to work and prayer – work for the illiterate lay brothers and prayer for the educated monks – would make a cracking piggy bank to dip into during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbot struck a deal and got paid off, the abbey was sold to a local lord who flogged the roof lead, and the remaining monks were out of a home and a job after 400 years. Nothing changes, eh?
- Distance: 39km
- Elevation: 1,230m
- Time: 2:30–4 hrs
- Map: OS14 Wye Valley and Forest of Dean
You’re pretty much spoilt for choice in the local area, with the nearby town of Monmouth having everything from the no-frills delight of a Premier Inn to posher fare, while the start point of Redbrook has decent choices nearby such as the cute Dovecote self-catering cottage in Pennalt. If you’re in a van or tent, you’re got plenty of options too, with Broadstone Park and Bracelands both up the hill near Staunton.
Ace Bicycles in Monmouth is an offshoot of the Surrey shop and has all your sales, spares and servicing needs covered. They’re also connected with Wye MTB, the guiding and coaching outfit our Sam hails from, so it’s a good place for anyone who wants to explore the area further.
While Redbrook has a lovely railway bridge, neither it nor Monmouth are still connected to a working line. Buses do run to Redbrook hourly from Chepstow, which does have a train station. Failing that, it’s cars.
Eating and drinking
Redbrook is home to a pair of pubs, with the Bell Inn on the English side while the Boat Inn over the river in Wales does food and has a rather lovely terrace overlooking the river. For posher pub fare, try the White Horse in Staunton up the hill or the Ostrich in nearby Newland. Monmouth has a full spread of eateries, from kebabs and pizzas to shirted-up sit-down establishments.
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