5 reasons why you should visit the Forest of Dean this summer

PUBLISHED: 15:59 30 July 2019

Whitemead Forest Park

Whitemead Forest Park


It may only be a half-hour drive or so, but the magical, mystical Forest of Dean is a world away from the Cotswolds

I've always had a soft spot for the Forest of Dean.

Even when growing up on the right/wrong* side of the River Severn in Saul, I used to gaze across to the opposite banks and imagine the adventures the Foresters would have...running wild with the deer, boar and bears (well, maybe not the bears), while foraging for food and getting intoxicated on cider blessed by Dionysus himself.

Waterside accomodation at WhitemeadWaterside accomodation at Whitemead

Outings to the wild side of the Severn were surprisingly few in my youth. While travels to the south coast, North Wales, Gower, Nottinghamshire and the Channel Islands were on the cards, our near neighbours in the West of Gloucestershire remained something of a mystery. Rumour had it they had their own language and didn't take kindly to strangers. BBC TV productions of Dennis Potter works, such as Blue Remembered Hills and A Beast With Two Backs, only served to pile on the mysteries, with their thick Forest dialects and talk of murderous children and bear-maiming activities (I promise that's the last time I'll mention bears). From my teens onwards, though, I discovered the many and varied delights of the Forest - her landscape, legends, towns and people - and made it a regular destination.

Though a mere 30-minute drive from my front door to the depths of the forest - so negating the need to stay overnight - I thought a few days and nights immersed in her green canopy would recharge the batteries rather nicely and signed up for four nights in a log cabin as guests of Whitemead Forest Park, near Lydney.

Tintern AbbeyTintern Abbey

It wasn't too much of a hard sell to the 'kids' (aged 14 and 21), with the promise of hot tub and wi-fi, and the additional pull of continuous access to the indoor pool and sauna was a definite plus. Our cabin provided all the necessary creature comforts and was an ideal base for exploring the area.

A must when visiting the Forest of Dean is the magical, mystical Puzzle Wood - a short seven-minute drive from Whitemead - with its deep, mossy ravines carved out by the area's ancient iron-mining industry. It's believed it was the inspiration for Oxford don and author JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth, and you almost expect to see elemental beings around every crooked, vine-strewn corner. Other attractions here include indoor and outdoor mazes, friendly farm animals and a café.

Tudor Farmhouse wild swimmingTudor Farmhouse wild swimming

To learn more about the mining techniques that created Puzzlewood, a two-minute pootle down the road took us to the wonderful Clearwell Caves which have been mined for over 4,500 years, and are still active in the extraction of rare ochre pigments (available for artists to buy in the on-site shop). Though we didn't have time on this visit, we're huge fans of Clearwell's sister site, The Secret Forest , which is just across the road and features rock formations - or 'scowles' - similar to those at Puzzlewood, along with a roundhouse village and its three Iron Age replica roundhouses.

As we hadn't visited the Sculpture Trail since summer last year, we made a point of going along to re-walk the site - some sculptures have been there since its inception in 1988, with many pieces being added over the last 31 years. All are inspired by the area's natural beauty and industrial heritage, and it's always a day well spent.

Leon and Carmen at the Forest of Dean Sculpture TrailLeon and Carmen at the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail

Halfway through our week in the forest, we fancied a jaunt slightly further away and headed to the majestic ruins of Tintern Abbey , just a 20-minute drive south-west and settled on the banks of the beautiful River Wye. A casualty of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey is a neck-cricking marvel and something everyone should behold at least once in their lives. Oh, and if you're feeling particularly active, take the climb up to Devil's Pulpit to see where Old Nick looked down on the monks below, trying to tempt them to desert their order. I'm guessing many would have been tempted, but gave up after running out of steam halfway up… or perhaps I'm just out of condition.

Our four days and nights positively flew by, and we just managed to squeeze in an afternoon walking by the tranquil Cannop Ponds and nature reserve, though another couple of days would have seen us visiting Dean Heritage Centre, Littledean Jail, Symonds Yat Rock, Hopewell Colliery, etc, etc...You get the picture.

Now, make like a Vorister and head there with your awld butty.

Where to stay...

Whitemead Forest Park

Based near Lydney in the Forest of Dean, Whitemead offers accommodation from log cabins and woodland lodges to glamping pods and apartments. There are also caravan and camping pitches available. On-site facilities include indoor pool, gym, sauna, outdoor activities area, restaurant & bar, and entertainment venue.

Prices range from £15 for a one-night low-season caravan, tent & motorhome pitch, to £1,995 for a full week, peak-season break in a bungalow. Discounts are available for Boundless members .

What to do while you're there…

Wild swimming in the Wye Valley

Tudor Farmhouse in Clearwell offers the chance for guests to enjoy a Wild Swimming package during the summer months; heading out with expert Edward Rose for a half-day guided lesson or simply grabbing one of the hotel's specially designed wild swimming maps and exploring the best local swimming spots alone. There are a range of nearby locations, from a simple paddle on a riverside beach in Hay-on-Wye to a slightly more challenging 2km swim along a river that runs through a cluster of fields towards Hereford. Come evening, relax tired muscles with in-room massages and enjoy gourmet cuisine in the hotel's restaurant, headed up by Rob Cox who recently won the South West Chef of the Year title.

A two-night private wild swimming break is priced from £510 (two sharing, (£225pp) including accommodation, breakfast, glass of Prosecco, dinner, picnic hamper for two and a wild swimming map, whilst a two-night guided break is from £700 (two sharing, £350pp). Book via tudorfarmhousehotel.co.uk or call 01594 833046.

Summer forest bathing

Combat stress and anxiety and feel the benefit of 'nature's health service' with a forest bathing experience at Soudley Woods; combining tranquil walks through the woods, foraged teas and plenty of time to relax and reflect whilst breathing in fresh air. Forest bathing has its roots in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku which translates as 'taking in the forest atmosphere' and aims to improve all mental wellbeing and reduce stress, whether you're dealing with depression, lacking in energy or simply feeling demotivated.

Courses are run by trained forest therapy guide Carina Greenwood at £26 for a three-hour session.

Book via forestbathe.co.uk.

Biking trails

The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley is home to numerous cycle paths, suitable for people of all ages and experiences from 'easy rider' and 'family' trails to challenging mountain biking routes. The family cycling route starts in the Cannop Valley from the Pedalabikeaway bike hire shop and takes you along the old Severn and Wye railway line, passing a host of former stations such as Drybrook Road, Cannop Wharf and Speech House. Remnants of former coal mines can be seen at Foxes Bridge, Lightmoor and New Fancy, too. Families can pick up a copy of The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Cycling Guide () - downloading the family cycling route (bit.ly/2XdXubU) or use the Hidden Heritage App which provides tips about nearby stop-offs.

For more information and maps visit wyedeantourism.co.uk/cyc.

Sculpture Trail

A brand new sculpture, by Natasha Rosling, was unveiled at the Sculpture Trail in April. 'Threshold' was inspired by the area's rich mining heritage and has been created using moulds of hidden underground rock faces taken from the nearby Clearwell Caves; with areas revealing the pick axe marks of miners who worked in this ancient iron and ochre mine.

Threshold joins 16 other unique art installations inspired by the area's heritage and history, hidden amongst ancient oaks along the four-mile trail. Beginning at Beechenhurst picnic site near Coleford, visitors follow the purple posts between each hidden sculpture; from a hanging stained-glass window, to a large 'fire' created from melted iron, and the famous statue known as 'The Searcher' which has been in the forest since 1988. Upon returning to Beechenhurst Lodge, visitors can enjoy snacks at the café or make use of designated picnic and barbecue areas while little ones play in the recently updated adventure play park.

The trail is completely free of charge and is open from 8am-dusk (with paid parking nearby).

Bushcraft skills at Puzzlewood

The magical Puzzlewood forest (with its mile of meandering pathways and over 14 acres of ancient woodland) is offering special bushcraft experiences during the spring and summer for groups of up to eight. The one-day course spends time deep in the woods acquiring the basic skills needed to not only survive but thrive; from learning how to make shelter to building and lighting fire, searching for natural resources useful for survival to cooking your own lunch.

Puzzlewood's paths follow deep ravines of moss-covered rocks, over wooden bridges and through fantastic tree and rock formations. Many people believe that Puzzlewood was the inspiration for JRR Tolkien's forests of Middle Earth in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it has been used in a number of TV and film productions, including Merlin, Doctor Who and Star Wars. Also onsite are farm animals, outdoor and indoor play areas, including mazes, outdoor and indoor picnic areas and a small café with gifts.

This experience costs £99pp, with maximum group size of eight. Normal entry to Puzzlewood costs from £7 per adult and from £6 per child.

Book via puzzlewood.net or call 01594 833187.

Latest from the Cotswold Life