The Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Britain's Best Drives


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The Wye Valley and Forest of Dean

Richard Wilson drives an Austin Cambridge around an area claiming to be the birthplace of British tourism, culminating at a renowned viewpoint.


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For many, the 1950s were the golden age of British motoring.

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Back then, driving was leisurely, liberating, and fun.

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SCREECHING BRAKES, HORNS HONK

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Yes, things have changed a bit since then.

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But perhaps it's still possible to recapture some of that old magic.

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Oh, yes!

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I'm setting off on six of the best drives from the 1950s as recommended by the guidebooks of the era.

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And I'll be driving them in some of the decade's most iconic vehicles.

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# Oh, I've gone into reverse! #

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I want to find out if these routes still thrill and inspire.

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This is a spectacular road.

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And how, in 50 years, Britain itself has changed.

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Oh, for God's sake!

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-They wouldn't have thought to come here without a sat-nav.

-I'm sure they wouldn't.

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-People don't value each other as much as they did then.

-It was a different type of life.

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TRUCK HORNS BLARE

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Wye Dean is one of the most popular inland holiday areas in Britain

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and deservedly so.

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It includes scenery of diverse and often spectacular beauty.

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Whatever road you take within the confines of the forest

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you can be sure that it will give you a picturesque

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and often exciting journey.

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# Sweet, sweet the memories you gave to me

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# You can't beet the memories you gave... #

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Sounds just super, doesn't it, and I'm going to experience it all

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in this lovely thing, a 1958 Austin Cambridge.

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Very sweet it is too.

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I suppose one of the differences in motoring today

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and motoring in the '50s, I think the car has got much more of an identity.

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This is a very cheerful-looking car, it has got a very nice sort of character.

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# ..The memories you gave to me

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# Then have the wedding bells... #

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Going back 50 years ago, there wouldn't be very many people who could afford a car like this.

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This costs about £650 which is, of course, a year's wages for many people.

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# These are the dreams you will savour... #

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My route is on the Welsh-English border in an area

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which some consider the birthplace of British tourism.

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From Chepstow I'll be driving north on the A466 along the famous Wye Valley.

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I'll then loop up through the Forest of Dean before heading to my final

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destination, the renowned viewpoint of Symonds Yat.

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Very straightforward with a modern sat-nav, not quite so when you're travelling in authentic '50s style.

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The producers and their rather warped sense of humour

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thought it would be an idea to use a guidebook of the period.

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So what do we have here?

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"Travellers by car coming from the south or south-west will find that the Severn crossing

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"by the Aust Beachley Ferry will save a detour of some 50 miles."

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My map shows me the Aust Beachley Ferry here

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but clearly the Aust Beachley Ferry finished many, many years ago.

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And the reason is plain to see, on my map it's conspicuous by its absence,

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in real life it's unmissable.

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The first Severn Bridge was opened in 1966 to carry the new M4 motorway into Wales.

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-Hello there.

-Hello, darling, how are you doing?

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-I'm fine, better for seeing you.

-And you.

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Since then more than 300 million vehicles have crossed it,

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well and truly putting paid to the old car ferry

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that had been plying its trade below for the previous 40 years.

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Very cheerful, that ticket lady, very charming.

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It may have been a giant leap towards modernity but this magnificent mile-long bridge

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must surely be one of Britain's best drives in itself.

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Oh, spectacular, wonderful.

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Vistas... Very nice.

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On a clear day the views must be even more spectacular, just a slight mist this morning.

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It's very handsome.

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On the far side of the river in Chepstow lies a rusting reminder of the past.

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The actual ferry that, 50 years ago, would have carried my little Austin Cambridge across the water.

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-Good morning.

-Good morning.

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Welcome aboard the Severn Princess.

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Dr Richard Jones has a very personal connection with this old relic.

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This was your grandfather's ferry, you helped out when you were a boy.

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Yes, he used to allow me to come down with some persuasion

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to work on the pier, initially, when I was quite a young lad.

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It was great adventure and I would be responsible for taking the ropes

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from the boats as they came onto the pier, tying them up and having a good day for little money.

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It seems difficult to estimate how you got 19 cars on,

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was that a difficult task?

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Well, yes, the crew were extremely skilled in loading.

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There were gangplanks, which you can't see now, which used to be let down onto the pier

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and the cars came onto the turntable,

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some of them could drive straight into their position, others of them had to be swung

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into a more tight space but it was quite a close squash to get the 18/19 that this boat would carry.

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There are tales of The Beatles coming across and kids getting a half day from school, is that true?

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Yes, that is quite true. There were quite a few people like that and, of course, royalty at times.

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What would the Queen do, would she stay in her car?

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Oh, yes, she didn't seem to want to get out,

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but it was quite a perilous crossing in some people's eyes.

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The actual tide was quite dangerous, wasn't it?

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Yes, it's a very large rise and fall.

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In fact, I believe it's the second largest in the world.

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-Have you ever had any sinkings of these ferries?

-No, there was never any threat to life

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or no car was lost. I think a couple became waterlogged but, of course, it was quite a perilous thing,

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particularly for elderly ladies and not-so-elderly ladies and gentlemen

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coming on and off the gangplank onto a very muddy pier

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and they could easily have slipped off into the water.

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But to my knowledge, it never really happened to that extent.

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So you enjoyed yourself as a boy, Richard, working this ferry.

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Do you still think that the ferry days were the freer,

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more open, more exciting days?

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Well, certainly I have very fond memories of my childhood and adolescence in those days.

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I enjoyed the whole thing of the ferry, not just because it was a family concern,

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but it was an adventure and it was really reflective of times gone by

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when life was a little quieter and somehow a little more important.

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The Severn Princess may have come to the end of her journey, but I'm just at the beginning of mine.

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From Chepstow I'm heading up the A466 to the Wye Valley, a road that promises much.

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The Wye, justly considered one of the loveliest of rivers,

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is perhaps seen at its best when making the northward journey

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from the Severn estuary into Wales.

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The Wye Valley includes some of the happiest cameos of riverside scenery in all Britain,

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two historic towns and one of the most beautifully situated of abbey ruins.

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Ah, whoops. Stalled.

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Just went through a red light, but don't tell anyone!

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HE LAUGHS

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Oops.

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The law will be after us all the way down the Wye Valley now. ..Sorry, sorry.

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Sorry.

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I wonder if they make an allowance for a very old car and a very old driver?

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And there it is, the abbey just suddenly comes into view, a spectacular moment.

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Astonishing...

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But covered with scaffolding.

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Oh, wonderful.

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Wonderful view as you drive past it.

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Tintern Abbey was founded in the 12th century by Cistercian monks

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attracted by the isolation of the valley.

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The car park and gift shop are slightly more modern additions!

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After the dissolution of the monasteries, it fell into disrepair and that is when it took on

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a whole new lease of life, because if there's one thing a tourist loves, it's a good ruin!

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I'm meeting historian, Anne Rainsbury, to find out how one 18th century book,

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written by the Reverend William Gilpin,

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led to an absolute flood of sightseers eager to experience a brand new concept -

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the "picturesque".

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"Observations on the River Wye,

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"relative chiefly to picturesque beauty."

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Was "picturesque" a word that he invented?

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Not completely, but I would say that he was one of the masters of it's definition

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because picturesque, it's quite a difficult thing, because really it just means,

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"what would make a good picture", which is quite a hard thing. What exactly is that?

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Looking at nature was something that was quite new to people in the 18th century.

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What did Gilpin have to say about the abbey in particular?

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Ah, well, the abbey didn't quite from the outside totally meet up

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with his expectations for the picturesque

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because the straight lines of the gable, the gable ends on the abbey really offended him.

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They didn't quite match up with the irregularity that the picturesque required.

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It liked shagginess, broken things, irregularly shaped things, not smooth beauty.

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And, of course, the gable ends are triangular and quite harsh

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and he has this wonderful quote of,

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"If a mallet judiciously used, but who durst use it? You know one would quite dare."

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So he wanted someone to break it up with a...

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It was just a bit too regular for the picturesque ideal.

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Even some animals were more picturesque than others.

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-Shagginess, sort of unkemptness was...

-Yeah.

-..about the "picturesque".

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In a way, distinguishing it from what was considered beautiful,

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which was smooth, rolling, tamed countryside, pastoral beauty.

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How is picturesque viewed now though?

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I mean, that's quite an interesting one, isn't it?

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What, what people understand now by "picturesque".

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I mean, it's almost sort of quaint, isn't it or chocolate box picture.

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-It's almost got a slight patronising...

-Slightly, yes, yes.

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-..twinge in it now.

-Yes, yes.

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Um, but then it was what everybody was looking for, Pursuit of the picturesque.

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I wonder if Gilpin would have considered scaffolding picturesque?

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Doubt it.

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Leaving Tintern Abbey behind, my route continues along the valley and very nice it is

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but I'm not sure it quite lives up to its description in my '50s guidebooks.

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It is a road which passes now over green pastures, now beside the wide flowing river,

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now on a ledge commanding long views across the valley to the hills on the farther bank.

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Problem is, from my Austin Cambridge, long commanding views are in short supply.

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Very nice aspects of rock faces and forest,

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but, as of yet, I haven't really seen any spectacular vistas.

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Pretty as it is, much of the road is flanked by dense trees

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that must have grown up over the last half century.

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Still, despite the lack of panoramas, it's an undeniably beautiful route.

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Ah, it's a pretty, little village.

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Brown's General Store.

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Browns in Llandogo has stood on this road for 80 years and present owners

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Roger and Ruth Brown have fond memories of village life here in the 1950s.

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What was the village like then?

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Very different from what we've got today. Much quieter.

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I remember Ruth stayed, when she was at school, here.

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-She stayed with a school friend, and you...

-That's right.

-You were playing tennis in the road.

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-On the road, yes.

-It was so quiet.

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I've got a lovely photograph I'll show you of Mr Joins going to serve

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some petrol to a police motorbike smoking a cigarette.

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ALL LAUGH

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He literally put his cigarette onto the pump, and it was a hand pump, and it was literally on the side.

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-Dear, dear, dear.

-We could have been blown to high heaven.

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What's the big difference in what you sell now?

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Well, strangely enough, we're going back to the way we were in after the war.

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They bought from local farms producing sausages and bacon

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and we sell a lot of local, we get a lot of fruit.

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-We've had strawberries in today, asparagus in today.

-Right.

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-It's all local.

-All local, yes. Yes.

-And it's what people want.

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It is returning to that, because at that time the local farm produced the butter, the milk, cream, eggs.

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The farmer used to come around, and we were talking the other night,

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Mr Morgan used to come around delivering the milk and he'd literally have eggs in his pocket.

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If your mother wanted some eggs, "Oh, I've got a couple in my pocket".

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But it was very...

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It was wonderful, looking back.

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But where do they shop now?

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-Er.

-Mostly Tesco.

-Tesco Online!

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-Online, of course.

-Yes, they do, yeah.

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-£1.59, please. Would you like a bag?

-No, that's fine.

-Thank you.

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When you look back to the old days, do you regret that they've changed?

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In some ways, yes.

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I would say no, Everyone's better off.

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-Yes.

-Absolutely, yes.

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There was poverty.

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-Life was quite hard, in the old days.

-It was quite hard.

-Yeah.

-It was very hard.

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-Yeah.

-People don't appreciate the standards of living they've got today.

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Leaving Browns family store behind

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my route continues to wind its way alongside the Welsh bank

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of the River Wye before crossing over this natural border and back into England.

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The next part of my journey, if I'm to believe my old guidebooks,

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will plunge me into an ancient and curious world.

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Even now as we drive along the minor roads

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we shall be slowed down by pigs and sheep and chickens

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wandering off the unfenced forest land.

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If we leave our car, we shall meet people whose outlook on life

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is not so very different from that of their distant ancestors.

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It's extraordinary the way the sheep here...

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..sit very close,

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very close to the edge of the road.

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I'm not quite sure what the attraction is for them,

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but this one's absolutely asleep, right on the white line on the verge of the road.

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I wonder if they get some comfort from cars going by, I wouldn't have thought so.

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But they're just right on the verge.

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The medieval Royal Forest of Dean comprises 27,000 acres of woodland,

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sandwiched between the Rivers Wye and Severn.

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It's relative isolation has fostered a very distinct cultural identity

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and the freely roaming sheep are an ancient reminder of this.

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The men who own them have the intriguing title of "sheep badgers".

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They probably remember these cars, Henry?

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'50 years ago many foresters, like Henry here, kept sheep in this way to supplement their incomes.'

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Yes, I've had sheep on the forest 60 years.

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Lets put it like this, I worked at the pit, I looked after the sheep, I fished the Severn

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and I never took my trousers off for a week.

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Because you were working so hard?

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Yeah.

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As locals born and bred, Henry and his good mate, Mick,

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have the right to graze their sheep anywhere in the forest.

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-Oh, you're greedy.

-He is!

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So what's the actual meaning of the word badger, sheep badger?

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Well, to badger, or to badge, means to agitate or to keep on the move.

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The right to keep sheep in the forest was granted

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-by a charter in the year 1217.

-Yeah.

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Right, and that was given and called the Charter Of The Forest.

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We're born with the right, and no doubt, we'll die with it.

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-And is anyone questioning the right?

-Oh, it's anybody and everybody.

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The Forest Of Dean is a very unique place to be.

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It's different from anywhere else in the country.

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It's a beautiful place to live and in some places, you see, there are not very many sheep.

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So people come along, they buy a little property

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and they knock down the garden walls and they knock down the fences.

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So they can drive their motors in, big cars in and park wherever they want to.

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Along comes a sheep to graze and they say, "Oh, dirty sheep grazing on my garden, I don't want it."

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Well, what we say is this.

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The sheep have been in the forest since the 1200s.

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Now then, if you want to come and join us welcome.

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If you don't like what we're doing don't bother to come! It's as simple as that, sir.

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Yeah, absolutely.

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So, you've been around sheep a long time. What do you think of sheep?

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Lovely, lovely.

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-Are they nice animals?

-Yeah.

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Some people call them a bit stupid.

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Don't worry about them being stupid. They know where their bread's buttered.

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Don't worry. And people say they're stupid, that's bunkum as far as we're concerned.

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Back in the '50s, it was a wonderful time compared with today.

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When you think about what did we have in the '50s?

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We had railways, engineering works, we had the pits open,

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you didn't get the drug problems in the '50s,

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you didn't get the problems with road rage and things like that

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and young people fighting and injuring others.

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It was a different type of life, wasn't it?

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The only thing we got left from the '50s, is the countryside.

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We still got the Forest Of Dean.

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But what we've got to be careful of is that we don't let

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the modern-day things take away these things like sheep grazing.

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Anybody who wants to come and live in the Forest Of Dean, welcome,

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come and live with us, but don't try to alter us, please.

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50 years ago, keeping sheep like this would have been, more often than not, a sideline.

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Most men made their livings down the huge coalmines that dominated this community.

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But now there's no trace of any such industry.

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Due to falling demand, the pits all closed down in the '60s.

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However, one man refuses to stop digging.

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73-year-old Robin Morgan began mining in the forest when he was just a boy of 13.

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Hello, Robin. And, like the sheep badgers, Robin also has an ancient birthright.

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He's a freeminer and as such can open his own mine.

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At one time there was about 10,000 of us underground everyday in the Forest Of Dean.

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You know, at one time.

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Now, there's only just four small mines left

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and, like this, there's three men working at the one, one at the other and two and then there's me here now.

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Now I'm doing all this developing myself.

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So, you were 13 when you came down?

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Well, the first mine I ever went down, yes, I was 13 years of age.

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Instead of going to school my two brothers had their own mine and they used to drop me down the shaft

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100-foot-deep in a 40 gallon drum with two hooks inside. That's the first mine I went down.

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And then at 14 years of age, I was working down a mine 700-foot deep.

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I was always bottom of the class,

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never went to school.

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But I've enjoyed my life, what more do you want?

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No, that's the main thing. The big pits they closed in 1965 and is that when you became a freeminer?

0:24:050:24:12

No, no, I was a freeminer before that.

0:24:120:24:14

-Would you work in the big bits and then go and work in your own pit?

-Yes, yeah.

0:24:140:24:20

-As a hobby.

-On weekends and in the evenings to try to get it going,

0:24:200:24:24

we hadn't got any money and we were trying to get it going.

0:24:240:24:27

So you'd be working long days?

0:24:270:24:29

Yeah, and then in the 1960s, like, we were working there full-time then.

0:24:290:24:35

Yes, we've worked long days and, in fact, sometimes we've worked out there all night.

0:24:350:24:39

We've had a day's work and then worked out there all night, you know?

0:24:390:24:43

But you were talking up top about the satisfaction you still get from taking coal out the ground.

0:24:430:24:50

-That is right.

-It's interesting to know what that actually...

0:24:500:24:54

What is it that makes you think, "Ah, that's a good day, I'm enjoying this."

0:24:540:24:58

Is it the actual digging?

0:24:580:25:01

The amount of coal you get out, the more you get out, the more pleased you are,

0:25:010:25:05

the more money you're making. You put your wooden supports up

0:25:050:25:08

and you look at it after and think, "Well that's a tidy job, like." Yeah, I've actually...

0:25:080:25:13

-You still enjoy it.

-Yeah, I'm still enjoying it now. A lot of people call me a fool,

0:25:130:25:18

and no doubt they are right, but I'm enjoying myself.

0:25:180:25:21

Well, it's your decision, you can do what you like.

0:25:210:25:23

-No, I shall keep going on as long as I can.

-Ah, very good.

0:25:230:25:27

Industry and tourism existed side-by-side in the Forest Of Dean for centuries.

0:25:300:25:36

The pits may be gone, but the sightseers are still coming

0:25:360:25:40

and the final part of my drive leads me to one of the Wye Valley's biggest draws.

0:25:400:25:46

Symonds Yat Rock is the culmination of my route

0:25:460:25:50

and I can't wait to see what the fuss is all about.

0:25:500:25:53

Beyond Monmouth, the Wye enters what is perhaps the loveliest stretch of all, with the famous

0:25:560:26:02

double bend seen in all its glory from the summit of the Yat Rock.

0:26:020:26:06

Symonds Yat, a delightful place.

0:26:080:26:11

The road is narrow but the view is well worth the effort.

0:26:110:26:16

Ah...

0:26:160:26:17

Symonds Yat Rock, at last!

0:26:180:26:23

Oh, wonderful!

0:26:300:26:32

Spectacular!

0:26:450:26:47

Beautiful!

0:26:500:26:52

See this big loop of the River Wye.

0:26:530:26:57

Very, very spectacular.

0:27:000:27:03

Breathtaking. Beautiful.

0:27:030:27:05

Ah, yes...

0:27:150:27:17

That's the river down there, so it goes,

0:27:170:27:21

it's a big loop.

0:27:210:27:24

Beautiful.

0:27:240:27:25

Beautiful.

0:27:280:27:29

Well, there's no doubt this view from Symonds Yat Rock is the highlight of the tour.

0:27:300:27:37

This is the crown of the trip, visually.

0:27:370:27:40

A lot of the early part of the drive was sort of shrouded by trees,

0:27:400:27:47

very nice, very picturesque,

0:27:470:27:50

but this is just well worth the whole journey.

0:27:500:27:54

But above that, I think, what one takes away from the journey is not so much the views

0:27:560:28:02

and this particular view, but is meeting the people,

0:28:020:28:06

meeting people who are hanging on to ancient traditions that have survived.

0:28:060:28:12

That's what, to me, has been the most memorable part of the trip.

0:28:140:28:18

Yeah, it is a journey well worth making.

0:28:200:28:23

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:480:28:51

E-mail: [email protected]

0:28:510:28:54

Actor Richard Wilson takes a journey into the past, following routes raved about in motoring guides of 50 years ago.

Using an Austin Cambridge to explore an area that claims to be the birthplace of British tourism, Richard learns about life before the Severn Bridge, finds out why thousands of tourists flocked to the Wye Valley in search of the 'picturesque' and discovers how ancient customs are still practised in the medieval Forest of Dean, with his trip culminating at a renowned viewpoint.