Day 1, Chepstow to Parkend, Forest of Dean
EVERY trail is a new adventure and all adventures should start with a certain sense of occasion. The shadow of the ruins of the medieval castle at Chepstow certainly provide that feeling of occasion and it is worth taking a moment to look up and enjoy the view before hitching your pack up and heading out down a narrow street north towards the bridge and the official start point.
  It was quiet this end of town and there is little traffic as you walk out on the bridge allowing you to cross from side to side and enjoy the views across the River Wye. To the left, the river snakes around high cliffs where the castle sits and can be viewed in its entirety, whilst to the right it is narrower and you might see a collection of moored boats.
  The mudflats that characterise the River Severn as well as the Wye are in evidence here, thick and brown, almost chocolate-like in their smoothness hugging the base of the high cliffs that spring up in front of you as you head towards the far end of the bridge.
  What appeals to me most about the Gloucestershire Way is its anonymity, how it quietly goes about its business of opening up a fantastic variety of countryside without ceremony. The start of Offa's Dyke footpath not so very far away on the banks of the Severn is marked with an official stone but the Gloucestershire Way does not shout itself out, it simply is and waiting to be discovered by the lucky few introduced to its secrets.
  So in front of you as you reach the end of the bridge and cross from Wales into England, into Gloucestershire, is a solitary blue wooden door to a workshop or garage, then to the left some couple of yards is a narrow pathway upwards and a green fingerpost sign. The adventure can begin.

The ruins of Chepstow Castle


The bridge into England at Chepstow

The River Wye at Chepstow

The initial burst is uphill but it is not too much of a lung-buster, just a steady tread and that is true for the whole of this first day actually. The country does undulate, particularly towards the middle section but there is no really vicious ascents or descents to punish the legs, just a gentle up and down.
  The challenge of this first day isn't physical really, beyond the obvious demands of walking 13-plus miles, but Day 1 will test you navigationally, not for the first nine miles largely but towards the top end.
  There is an early hint of this coming out of Chepstow, shortly after the route diverges from that of Offa's Dyke and you make your way towards Bishton Farm. The route through the farm can be tricky to work out and a small but skittish herd of cows enjoyed the sight of us exploring the recesses of their field before we finally found the exit in the top right-hand corner.
  Which brings me to GPS and the issue of Ordnance Survey maps on phones. I know purists might howl and, indeed, I have always got by with a paper map in the past but I am starting to appreciate the value of knowing EXACTLY where I am, which GPS provides.
  I walk not as some sort of challenge but because I enjoy the open air and the sheer variety of weather and landscape that this wonderful country can offer. So to me, navigation is a means rather than an end in itself and I have no problem with using GPS as need arises and don't really regard it as 'cheating'. But horses for courses …
  GPS will be incredibly valuable on this first day, I think I would have struggled without it to be honest because the path is only intermittently signposted - there are two sections in particular which I will come to when it is very challenging to put yourself on the right route immediately.
  But a warning about GPS - this is the Forest of Dean largely, which is notoriously uncertain for signal so be prepared to be blacked out periodically (inevitably at key moments) - navigating for me was a mixture of everything, the traditional paper map, the description in the official handbook and GPS to tell me when I was off. Oh and a passer-by came in useful in the woods above Bream.
  Not that you will see many passers-by, one of the joys of this trail is that it is a hidden gem and for walkers who enjoy a little quiet time, some solitude and the feeling of being miles from anywhere and anyone, then this is the trail for you.
  We saw a father and daughter walking a dog near Chepstow then one further dog-walker a little later but apart from that, not a soul until we reached the natural break-point for lunch north of Alvington some nine miles in. 

A stone stile outside Chepstow

The Jubilee Obelisk

The River Severn in the distance is a regular companion on this section

And so on we go, we are not in the forest yet but crossing grassland and the occasional tramp on tarmac, there are cattle but no sheep as yet and occasionally away to the right there is a glitter of sun on water, which denotes the River Severn, pretty broad as it nears the Bristol Channel. Beyond it is the rising of the Cotswold scarp, turned blurry-blue in the heat-haze.
  This is pleasant walking and easy navigation up to Boughspring and then the first patch of woodland (Parson's Allotment on the OS), which was cool and pleasant. Here, on the right, you will see rising suddenly about 100 yards off the path a standing stone, which is a marker celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond jubilee in 1897 - altogether a very pleasant spot.
  This whole section through to Alvington and beyond is actually very lovely, particularly just beyond Woolaston Slade, where the path jackknifes back on itself and then follows a gentle downhill, partly on tarmac, to Alvington. To the right, the view of the river is at its best and a constant companion, with some nice photo-opportunities.
  It was here, in the lazy August heat, we saw a dragonfly flitting amidst the vegetation and we were sufficiently interesting to warrant a few repeat flypasts, which was magical. Perhaps it is the proximity of water but there was an odd feeling of coastal walking on this section, the narrow lane was flanked by tall ferns and with the sun beating down, it could almost have been Dorset.
  But enough of the whimsies, our stomachs were now calling and we pressed on to our preferred lunch spot, a point just beyond Alvington where the path passes between two ponds just before Kear's Grove.
  It is a good spot, there are a couple of low stone bridge parapets where sandwiches can be placed and legs rested, whilst behind you, about 20 feet down, water rushes. We chose the nearer one, which was in shade and we needed respite from the strong sun.
  The guidebook recommends exploring the area for other, better eating spots and I am sure that would reward you but we took the easy option with one eye on the clock and still some five-odd miles to do.
  You are likely to see people here, we gave way to a straggling line of ponies bearing young riders under tuition and further on, two more experienced riders were cantering along the ride through Kear's Grove, a steady climb uphill immediately after lunch.
  We were back in woodland now, after crossing the road at Clanna Lodge and the first section was easy to follow through to Rodmore Grove. However, towards the end of the latter came the first of the navigational challenges, the area leading up to Willsbury Farm.
  The path was very indistinct and there are other footpaths intersecting, which made it tricky. It was here that I was grateful to GPS for keeping me right and giving me the confidence to push through a rare overgrown section of the path. Immediately following was another section needing some thought, around a small pond but we made it with a certain amount of wandering and cursing and then the path is clear again, especially when you hit the road, where a fingerpost directs you across fields. The first was cereal crop and the farmer had kindly left a good gap to show the way.
Two fields later and we were on the road to Bream, which was a welcome sight but thus begins the biggest navigational challenge of all - through the woods at Parkend.
  Bream is a real hotspot for poor signal and you are likely to lose the support of GPS here, which is a shame because this is when you need it most. However, take your readings whenever you can and it is actually not far from Bream to Parkend at all, providing you can keep on the right path, the actual route dropping you nicely into the RSPB reserve of Nag's Head.
  A good stopping point would be the car park here, where there is a little wooden building with some information on the area. To reach your accommodation in Parkend, follow the graded track down to the road then turn left and the village is only a short way. There are two pubs, The Woodman and The Fountain, and also Whitemead caravan and camping site, which has a restaurant and bar plus small shop.
  But the main thing is to put your feet up - that is a good day's walking from Chepstow and tomorrow there is more to do before you stand in the shadow of May Hill, one of the loveliest spots in Gloucestershire.