Much of the Parish of St Briavels is in a classified Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The boundary of the AONB can be taken as the B4228, the main road which dissects the village and runs between Coleford and Chepstow – land to the west of the road is part of the AONB, whereas the more-open countryside to the east of the road is not. In addition to the AONB, the Parish also hosts four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), of which more later.
Overall, the Parish is well-endowed with footpaths, there being over 100 separately-numbered routes. More correctly, these are Public Rights of Way (PRoWs), being categorised into three types – a basic Footpath is just for walkers; a Bridleway also allows horses plus pedal cycles and finally, a Restricted Byway allows, in addition, non-motorised vehicles, such that, for instance, a horse and cart could use the route. A very practical and clear adjunct to the standard Ordnance Survey map is the map showing all of these PRoWs (including the path number and category), which is accessible from the Gloucestershire County Council online site.
The routes are varied, as the Parish extends from the River Wye up to the village itself (which is over 700 feet above sea level) and for some distance beyond. The highest point of the Parish is over 800 feet above sea level and this being the case, the paths range from flat to undulating to very steep.
The scenery is just as varied. It is possible to walk alongside the River from Bigsweir Bridge and into the neighbouring Parish of Brockweir, as far as Brockweir Bridge. There are paths through the famous Hudnalls Wood, where locals are allowed to gather firewood. Other paths meander through cultivated fields, or pasture land where sheep, cows and horses may be grazing. There are also the odd surprises when the route passes through a farmyard or a private garden, or perhaps comes out onto a road which then passes the llamas …! There are many stunning viewpoints, with sights of the old Severn Bridge and the Welsh hills in places. From the high points of the Parish, there are views across the Wye Valley, sometimes looking down at the cloud in the valley below or, after dark, seeing the twinkling lights of Llandogo in the distance, on the hillside overlooking the far side of the river.
The observant walker may be lucky enough to see a small herd of deer during the day. At night, their eyes will reflect in the light of a torch as they watch to see who is approaching. Although not rampant within the Parish, it is possible that the Wild Boar may also be seen, that is, one or more adults, often with a drift of young piglets in tow.
The paths traverse or run alongside the four Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSIs) which exist within the Parish. The River Wye is one such SSSI and, as mentioned above, there is a route alongside the river from Bigsweir Bridge to Brockweir Bridge, part footpath and part bridleway. A second SSSI, The Hudnalls, occupies much of the central and southern parts of the western Parish boundary. There are several separate areas which jointly form the SSSI, some of which come down to the river. There is a wonderful complex of paths winding through the fascinating woodlands, which lead almost to the village. There is an age-old tradition whereby local people can gather firewood from the woods, the ‘right’ being linked to the annual ‘Bread and Cheese’ ceremony held at or near the Castle.
The whole of the western boundary of the Parish is in fact the River Wye itself and at the northern end is Cadora Woods, listed as the Bigsweir Woods SSSI and owned by the Woodland Trust. The fourth SSSI is the Slade Brook, with the longest stretch of tufa dams in the country. A particularly picturesque path runs the full length of this SSSI and is well-known for its seasonal show of Bluebells and Wild Garlic.
The Parish is host to two long-distance paths running through it. After entering the Parish, the Offa’s Dyke path almost reaches the River Wye at Bigsweir Bridge and then rises to a majestic 800 feet within a relatively short distance, before falling to a mere 300 feet to enter the Parish of Brockweir. Some of the route is footpath, some bridleway and sections of it are along roads. Although the route is not on the Dyke itself, evidence of the Dyke can be seen at various points.
The second long-distance path, the Gloucestershire Way, takes a less-severe and more undulating route across the Parish, entering close to Bream at just below 500 feet and leaving through Rodmore Grove at almost 350 feet. Most of the route is on footpath.
Hewelsfield Lane was part of the original route from St Briavels to Chepstow, used before the current road was built. Only a short distance has public access now, once the metalling finishes, but an ongoing, sunken section of it, albeit somewhat overgrown, can be followed and clearly seen from the adjacent footpath.
There are paths with ‘local’ names, such as the ‘Postman’s Path’. This one actually stops at the edge of a field, although many years ago it was presumably part of a through route or led to a dwelling, of which there is no obvious sign now. Other paths are bordered with ancient stone walls or age-old hedges. Along the footpaths, access through boundaries (hedges, walls and the such-like) is achieved with a mixture of farm gates, kissing gates, stiles or just a plain gap. These access points are generally the responsibility of the local landowner; some have been good enough to replace stiles with kissing gates, to make disabled access easier, whilst others have renewed ageing stiles to keep them safe. Some of the stiles also have a dog pass. A few of the older stiles are actually made out of stone; stones also make good footholds when a footpath crosses a stream.
Most paths are well signposted and clear, with many waymarker arrows along the routes. Dog walkers are reminded that, although there are no laws or local by-laws requiring dogs to be kept on a lead, it is a requirement that dogs keep to the line of the path – failure to observe this constitutes trespass against the owner of the adjacent land. In order to keep the paths free of obstructions for walkers and horse riders alike, a team of volunteers (‘The Wayfarers’) makes regular sorties to clear the undergrowth and overhanging branches which have grown since the previous season. New volunteers are always welcome and although the team is not a part of the Parish Council, they can be contacted through the lead Councillor for footpaths and Public Rights of Way – contact details are available on this website and on any of the Parish Council notice boards at the Assembly Rooms, at Coldharbour, at Mork Corner and in the bus shelter by the Castle.
The Parish Council works closely with the Public Rights of Way Inspector for the area. This allows for fast reporting of problems and opportunities to discuss situations in order to help with an acceptable outcome. Any PRoW problems should be reported initially to the lead Councillor for footpaths and Public Rights of Way, or to any other Councillor or to the Clerk, for appropriate action to be taken – contact details for all Councillors and the Clerk can be found in the same way as described in the previous paragraph.