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While Gloucestershire may be better known for the Cotswolds, the county is also lucky enough to have a second, quite different, area of great natural beauty within its borders. To the west of the county, between the rivers Severn and Wye, lies 42 square miles of surviving ancient woodland - the Forest of Dean. Known as the "Queen of Forests", it offers visitors both a tranquil getaway for walking, picnicking, camping, fishing, or holidays in log cabins, as well as a range of activities from horse riding to canoeing to paintballing. With so much to offer, the forest is an excellent place for a day out. I most recently visited with my Other Half, when we took our bikes for a day of cycling in the late summer sunshine.
**The Cannop Cycle Centre**
Tucked away in the forest at the site of a former colliery in the Cannop Valley, is the Cannop Cycle Centre, a great base for exploring the forest by bike. The centre is on the B4234 between Coleford and Cinderford (GL16 7EH for GPS) and isn't too difficult to find - it was about a 50 minute drive from Cheltenham, and around 30 minutes from Gloucester. We arrived at the Cannop Cycle Centre at around noon on a Saturday in early September; it was outside of peak season, but the fine weather had clearly brought out a range of cyclists to the centre, eager to make the most of the day. The centre offers a small visitor centre and cafe (limited choice, but what they do have is reasonably priced, especially given the lack of local competition), bike shop, showers, toilets and the Pedalabikeaway cycle hire service (prices available here: http://www.pedalabikeaway.co.uk/hire.html). Car parking was a reasonable £3.50 a day, and the car park was quite large, although I would imagine it could be difficult to get a place during the summer peak season. What impressed me the most about the centre was the range of people it catered for; alongside the serious mountain bikers and road bikers were leisure riders with their inexpensive bikes, and families hiring cycles for the afternoon, all milling together in a happy and relaxed atmosphere.
There are a number of cycle trails spiralling out from the centre of varying length and difficulty, but the one that we (and most of the other non-serious cyclists present) chose to try out was the "family cycle trail", as neither of us has a huge amount of experience or has previously cycled more than six miles at a go. It was at this moment that we realised the trail was eleven miles long and included an extended section of uphill pedalling; either most families are considerably fitter than us, or else whoever graded this as an easy trail was perhaps a little overoptimistic! Still, not to be outdone by small children, we decided to have a crack at it anyway. So it was that, armed with a 60p guide to the trail, some bottled water, a puncture repair kit and a rather optimistic bottle of sun cream, that we set off on the trail.
**Riding the Family Cycle Trail**
The cycle trail is way-marked with distinctive yellow signs from the centre and runs in a loop through the forest. It mainly uses the path of former railway lines and connects up with various points of touristic interest (such as picnic sites) and to a number of other paths that will take to you villages, view points and attractions in the local area. The route is hard surfaced, so while it is not as rough as riding off-road, it won't be as smooth as tarmaced urban roads, either. As a tip to anyone thinking of bringing their own bike, this trail is best suited to mountain bikes, but is perfectly manageable on a hybrid bike, as I found out - ironically though, it was Other Half on his mountain bike that ended up getting the puncture. Hence my other tip: take a puncture repair kit with you and know how to use it. Getting back to the cycle centre on a patched up tyre may not be the most comfortable ride, but it will be a lot quicker than walking.
We started out looking forward to experiencing something more scenic than the local route to the shops, but were somewhat disheartened to find that we very soon found ourselves at the bottom of a long hill. The sort of hill that had us novices puffing and panting and straining to climb it in a low gear, while scores of more experienced people whizzed past us easily and without breaking their conversations. The sort of hill that almost made us wish we had chosen a less active pursuit for our Saturday. The sort of hill that made me feel like I was back in school PE classes and couldn't keep up with most of the other kids. Two miles into the route, and we felt almost ready to give up. I mention this because while it makes us look quite pathetic, it should also serve as a note - whatever the Forestry Commission says, this is not really a route suitable for all difficulty levels. Those new to cycling or with young children might want to avoid this route; scenic as it is, that early hill is a killer to those with untrained legs!
Still, we persevered, and once up the hill found that the route flattened out became a good deal more enjoyable. The considerable numbers of people who left with us from the centre gradually dispersed (well, overtook us mainly), and we were left to cycle at a more comfortable pace and take in the peaceful forest around us. We were on our own for the most part, although at one point where the trail crossed over a small road, we met a volunteer on a folding bike, who had cheerfully set up a little information stand at the side of the road. Had had further maps and leaflets to give out, and was quite happy to chat about the history of the forest (well, he chatted and we caught our breath). The route was infrequently signposted, so it turned out that 60p turned out to be well spent in a couple of places, where it wasn't entirely clear which path we needed to take - the free copies we picked up from the guide didn't go to waste either. Fortunately for the most part the mid-section of the route was just a matter of quietly enjoying ourselves and the wonderful scenery around us. There were three or four places where the route crossed over roads, but all were well signposted and easy to navigate safely without difficulty.
The road surface was mostly well maintained, and the only place where we felt more work could have been done, was near the end. Remember how we had to work really hard to get uphill for the main part of the route? Well, as it is a circular tour, you have to come down again somewhere - and that somewhere is near the end, where the long, slow climb is undone down a short, steep gradient. Plenty of warnings are given in advance, but as well as being steep and straight, the road here was also gravelly, so the descent had to be a carefully controlled one - fun for adults, but perhaps another reason to not do this route with small children!
Well, we completed the route - and the only casualty was one punctured tyre! Despite the early difficulty, we found this a very enjoyable and rewarding day out, and a very cheap one too; if you took a packed lunch and your own bike, the parking and optional route map would be your only expenses once you got to the cycle centre. Completing the route takes anything from two hours upwards (it took us just over four, but we did have to stop to do the puncture repair), so it makes a good day trip from any of the surrounding Gloucestershire towns or holiday cabins/hotels/camp sites. Despite the "family" name and the implication it easy, I would recommend that complete novices and young children might find this a bit much, and anyone who does do it should take a puncture repair kit, pump, and drinks with you when you go.
Map of the trail is available here: http://www.pedalabikeaway.co.uk/sitefiles/johngordon/188870/cycletrailmap.pdf
The cycle centre is open throughout the year, with facilities available 9am to 5pm during the winter, and 9am to 6pm in summer.
Useful websites: http://tinyurl.com/3azmw4c