Today the weather looked set fair so we decided to embark on a tour of the most interesting churches in the Forest of Dean.
There were spectacular views as we drove up and down steep inclines – probably the steepest I had ever driven. Fantastic views.
Our first port of call was the Church of St John the Baptist at Ruardean. Unfortunately, this was one of the few churches we have found to be locked so we were only able to view it from the outside. There was an interesting inscription on the inside of the lychgate. (Don’t forget you can click on each picture to enlarge it.)
From here it was quite a short drive to English Bicknor, along the Wye valley, and the 12th century Church of St Mary the Virgin.
It was built on the outer bailey of a marcher castle and defence ditches can still be found around the churchyard. Inside, the church is light and airy and has no less than three stone effigies in the north aisle (placed rather incongurously by a radiator). One is of Ralph de Abenhale, the first rector, one of Lady Cecilia de Muchegros who died in 1301 and the other her great grand-daughter, Lady Hawisia de Bures who died before 1348. Apparently Lady Cecilia owned a coal mine before the free-miners of the Forest of Dean were given their charter by Edward I in return for services as sappers in his Scottish campaign – the origin of the Royal Engineers.
There was also a sweet little American Organ which had a sign to say it was looking for a new home. Surely this wouldn’t be a problem you’d think? There were a few jars of preserves for sale and we purchased a jar of squash and date chutney – just right with cheese for lunch!
The name, English Bicknor, probably derives from “Bica’s Over” (over the river) and on the drive to the village we had noticed a pretty little church on the other side of the river.
Looking at the map now, we realised that this must be in the village of Welsh Bicknor (so called because it used to be part of Monmouthshire but now is in the English county of Herefordshire). Complicated.
Luckily, I managed to pick up a rare 3G signal and looked up Welsh Bicknor. The church we had seen tucked away in the trees over the Wye turned out to be St Margaret’s, apparently disused since 2001. To get to it you either had to cross the river to the north and drive down a narrow lane to what is now a Youth Hostel next to the church or take the public footpath next to the abandoned Lydbrook cable works, which supplied most of the telegraph cable in World War Two. It closed in 1965 and behind it is an old viaduct which used to connect the rail line from Cinderford to the Ross-Monmouth railway. It was built in 1874 and last used in 1951, but there is still a pedestrian route across the viaduct. This is the way we decided to go!
Climbing up the makeshift steps to the viaduct was awkward and crossing it rather scary with the swift flowing Wye beneath our feet but, safely over the other side we started to make our way along the river bank towards our goal. All along the bank grows a profusion of Himalayan Balsam (the spread of which the authorities are concerned about) and we caught sight of a little Goldcrest flitting about in the trees. At last, through the Himalayan Balsam, we caught sight of the tower of St Margaret’s.Beside it is the large elegant house that is the Youth Hostel.
What a pretty little church and how disappointing it was to find it locked!
Disappointing but, I suppose, hardly surprising. There is a wonderful tall cross in the churchyard and many old gravestones.
Looking across the graves I just caught sight of a roe deer and her fawn on the other side of the iron railing. As soon as they spotted us they fled, leaping effortlessly over the tall stone wall behind them. I think this could be the boundary wall of the big estate, Courtfield.
Having at least found the little church, we made our way back along the Wye and over the viaduct once more to the other side where Bessie waited patiently.
So onwards and upwards to the next church in the village of Clearwell. We spotted a small chapel beside the road leading into the village and stopped to investigate. The door was ajar and so we walked in.
There was a layer of dirt everywhere, the odd toy animal lay discarded and, most strange of all, Christmas decorations lay carelessly tossed aside on the floor.
This was not the church we imagined! There was a notice on the door and it appeared that we were in the Cemetery Chapel to the Church of St Peter rather than the church itself. Perhaps it is no longer in use but then why wasn’t it locked?
We left this rather forlorn place and headed into the village proper where we found the actual Church of St Peter. Now, this was more like it!
St Peter’s is a Victorian church in the French Gothic style designed by a fashionable Cheltenham architect, called John Middleton (or George as a carelessly typed guide told us!) at the behest of the lady of the manor, Caroline, Countess of Dunraven in 1866.
It is a very attractive church inside with much use of different types of stone and there is a host of unusual features. The original stencilled and painted roof is beautiful.
Newland was next on our list and All Saints Church, or “the cathedral of the Forest” as it has been dubbed.
Going inside, it was easy to see why. It dates back to medieval times, is Grade 1 listed and enormous.
We had only been there about two minutes when a lady appeared (verger or vicar perhaps?) and explained that she had to lock up. We managed to take a few pictures before we got chucked out (very politely) but missed seeing the brass of the Forest miner with his hod, pick and candle in a holder held in the mouth. We vowed to return to see more of this fabulous church. What we did get a chance to admire, however, was the 1997 stained glass window by Henry Haig. Magnificent.
Although time was getting on, we decided to make a last stop at St Briavels (pronounced Brevels) where there was a moated Norman castle
and the church of St Mary the Virgin – amazingly still open at 6pm.
However, no sooner had we got our cameras out than a noise outside the door heralded the entrance of a man who had come to lock up! We only took a few photos,
but the two recumbent figures of William Warren and his wife Mariana dominated the south aisle. I have never seen effigies in this relaxed and informal position before.
Thus ended another interesting day in the Forest of Dean and our last at the Christchurch campsite. Although we had found a good location at the corner of the site overlooking the trees, I never ventured into the ‘facilities’ which Peter had described as ‘dated’ with an unpleasant aroma. I am hoping that those of the Hereford campsite will be more inviting!