The Best of the Forest of Dean
The Best of the Forest of Dean
Discover some of the best spaces of the Forest of Dean. It's renowned for its unique combination of forest, history and outside adventure. Take in some of the best places to experience the true spirit of the Forest of Dean and this part of Gloucestershire.
Explore some of those places with these ideas:
Beechenhurst lies in the middle of the Forest of Dean. A central hub for all things including pay-for-parking, walking trails, play activities, information and a cafe with loos.
Very popular with visitors during the holidays especially with the kids. But a useful start if you've just arrived to get a taste of the Forest of Dean
For more information, head over to the Forestry Commission website here.
2. Cyril Hart Arboretum
The Cyril Hart Arboretum offers a wonderful amble amongst the grand trees planted here. It offers a unique opportunity to see giant redwoods, oaks and maples set amidst the Forest of Dean.
For those who bring a friend to wander with, or family - this place offers the chance to while away an hour or so whilst staring at the huge giants that started life so small. And by happy coincidence, the Speech House sits as a splendid backdrop. With no hills or climbs, this is a chance to walk on level ground for those who just want to wander for a short time.
3. The Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail
The Sculpture Trail is set within the heart of the Forest of Dean. A unique arboreal adventure. The trail itself is somewhere between three and four miles in length and zig-zags its way around the Forest whilst bumping into the occasional sculpture. Its been around for nigh on twenty years and over the time some sculptures have come and gone but some still remain, and some are new.
The giant acorns hidden above the pool of water which in heavy rain flows across the track. The stained glass window which hangs tall in perfect stillness high up in the trees. The remnants of the railway tracks which encourage young and old to skip over them. The stones and signs hidden in the leaf litter and the trees canopies.
Who can not be slightly amused and attracted to this slice of wandering and art? Don’t go me wrong there are some strange sections, some faintly quite odd sculptures but when you come across the concrete mirage of the rock face in silver, you do pose questions?
Simply the Sculpture Trail offers a decent length walk that can wile away an hour or three depending on speed and company. And also depending on how long you take to investigate and critique the art? But distractions aside it is an attractive forest walk on trails and paths for all ages and abilities to engage with something.
For young kids, there are other amusements available on route – you can’t fail to miss the long-limbed branches made into dens in the woodland. But the wonder is in the outside – the fresh air, the mud, the acorns, the beech cobs, the birds and deer…
So whilst the adults, the grandparents slowly amble along the trails, youngsters may trample through the muddy channels and the undergrowth which runs parallel. Take a pack, take a snack and take some pictures – its not all about the sculptures – for its in the surroundings that the real paintings are made, and it is in our interactions with this walk that the art is truly made.
If you can, get yourself a map from Beechenhurst, or follow the way-marked path. For shortcuts or for further directions, feel free to ask the locals - they'll be the ones who look as though they know where they're going...
4. Nagshead RSPB Reserve
Birdsong is a beautiful sound.
And this place, Nagshead Nature Reserve deep in the Forest of Dean, is one of those places where you just need to stand and listen. The bird song resonates from tree to tree. High up in the canopies of the trees. It seems wrong to just walk on. So do yourself a favour – shut your eyes and just listen. And there are so many points in this delightful woodland setting where you can do just that.
Nagshead is just a wonderful piece of woodland. It is planted with a myriad of native trees. Some have been there for as long as Horatio Nelson needed ships. For Nagshead is the place of the mighty oak tree. Some of them have been there a long time. It is why places like Nagshead need to be protected and exist, so that it reminds us all of how transitory life is, that trees can outlive humanity, that their presence will live long until the future as long as there are places like this.
The oaks at Nagshead, mainly Sessile Oaks, were planted on these large plantations primarily under the behest for timber for building ships during the Napoleonic War – when England faced France, in part at sea and Admiral Horatio Nelson needed more wood for the faster, buoyant English ships to give England advantage in the war.
In 1802 Nelson visited the Forest of Dean. He saw a misuse of the Forest being predominantly used for charcoal burning and a lack of new trees. So instead pushed for a massive re-planting of the Forest with acorns. And the enclosure of the Forest. It happened. The Dean Forest (Timber) Act was passed in 1808 leading to a mass enclosure programme and the planting and protection (against rogue pigs and sheep) from eating the precious acorns. This would lead to large-scale riots in the 1830s as the Foresters viewed this a mass over-step by the state against their rights of free movement.
The war passed, as did others after, but the trees remained. And now Nagshead Nature Reserve is under the joint custodianship of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Forestry Commission. It is a gem.
Nagshead has many birdboxes and is a wonder in spring when the birds begin to sing. All kinds of birds are identified here ranging from the busy blue tits to flycatchers. There are hides here to sit and watch. To be quiet. To be still. To listen.
But one of the magical things about Nagshead are the trails which take you on circuits of different parts of the woodland reserve. The kids love to charge down the paths. To fossick through the fallen leaves, to roll over logs gently looking for centipedes, to study woodlice and spiders, to listen with their eyes shut as bird song sings over their heads.
In the weekends of the summer, the lodge opens and allows people to borrow pond-dipping equipment for use on the platforms on the pond. But in early spring, frogspawn and tadpoles proliferate.
The trails loop around with places to perch and sit. Watch the canopies. Watch the bird boxes. The paths can get muddy in rainier times but that is half the charm of this place. For this is a slice of Gloucestershire not often seen, where the wildlife gets to take over and the humans take second place. Despite attempts to keep them out, there are still signs that the boar venture in this woodland. But mostly this place is for the bugs and the birds.
And in the life cycle, the success of one bringing success to the other. And the trees are a singular important part of this eco-system.
But the stories of Nelson’s oak trees was not finished. In 2004, once again navy men were in the Forest of Dean looking for mature sessile oak trees. This time to complete the job that these oaks were planted for – the refurbishment of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship. Two oak trees were felled and were taken on the journey down to the historic dockyard at Portsmouth where Victory was being readied for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005.
Built for war, valued now for the peace. This is Nagshead. Peace for us. Peace for the birds. Peace for the bugs. Peace for the trees. Live and let live.
5. Forest of Dean Cycle Trail
The Forest of Dean Family Cycle Trail offers 11 miles of forestry tracks and paths that run in a circular route around the glorious Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Through mixed woodlands of native species oak and beech, to conifer and pine, to heathland. Squirrels are plenty. But it’s the deer and boar that are the rarities to spot.
The trail itself criss-crosses two main roads over special crossing points and offers spectacular woodland biking. It runs moderately uphill but gently and over time with interesting fun zones and intriguing riding. On a sunny day, scores of families with young ones disappear into the green. But there’s plenty of space in this Forest.
And the best bit is the open riding. Look left. Look right. And all you can see are trees. Windows into the wild. There are, of course, some wonderful viewpoints. But it is the liberation on two wheels when you’re knee-deep in the Forest which is the best bit!
There is more adventure for those excitable riders – the Verderers Trail and the Freeminers Trail based at the Cannop Cycle Centre offer more variety and more ‘danger’.
But stay awhile on old faithful. For the Family Cycle Trail follows the former route of the Severn and Wye Railway. Whilst you’re peddling away, imagine if you will, the sights, sounds and smells of the old puffing engines laden with coal, iron and tin making their way up and down these valleys. For these woodlands were the heartbeat of the Industrial Revolution. And the route navigates by the old features of this route: Cannop Wharf, Drybrook Road, Speech House…
The mines are nearly all long gone now. But the Forest remains, as does the character. The cycle trail has been specially surfaced for bikes and the grading offers riding for beginners or for those with tag-alongs.
There are opportunities to jump off and, on the trail, depending on if you’re got interest further afield. If you’re short on time, or on energy in the legs, there is a shorter route called the Hicksters Way Loop. And if you are without your own bike, there are opportunities to hire bikes locally at Cannop and Parkend.
Most cyclists venture around in a clockwise direction, ending or beginning somewhere near Cannop or Beechenhurst. Some like to stop for an ice cream and to watch the wildlife at Cannop Ponds from the comfort of a bench or leaning on the wooden bridge. The circular loop takes most about two hours to tap round. But when faced with a clear trail on a fine day, a couple of hours can take the entire day. Your choice.
So if you’re a cyclist or more of a leisure rider, a hero on a bike or more of the wobblier variety, take a turn on this cycle trail. It quite simply offers the very best way to see the Forest of Dean. Eleven miles of sylvan magic, full of wildlife and with history in spades.
6. Cannop Ponds
Cannop Ponds is one of those lovely spots where you can stop, stretch your legs, watch the light as it bounces off the water and just stand and stare. It sits adjacent to the Family Cycle Trail which criss-crosses the Forest of Dean; so bikes of all shapes and sizes will whizz past your eyesight. Picnic benches are scattered across the green for those who come prepared.
The bridge begs children to run across it, whilst other will aim for the bench which sits centre stage waiting for the audience to just stop and watch as its actor - the ducks, swans and dragonflies dance their dance of life. All this surrounded by an auditorium of magnificent trees.
Come at dusk, and study the light as it makes pretty pictures whilst the shadows fall and the people disappear then you will truly appreciate the Ponds as it is meant to be seen, in the quiet.
7. Yat Rock
Some people refer to it just as ‘that view’.
By rights it should have been called something poetic and lyrical. A myriad of words that describe the absolute beauty and majesty of the views which rise up and fan out in front of you. But instead those who know, those who realise the wonder behind the words ‘Yat Rock’, know that it is, in its own humour, wonderfully understated.
The Rock is located just above Symonds Yat, which is the village which sits alongside the haunting River Wye, in the crook of an elbow between Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth. The village is wedged in nooks up and down the river valley side and at sunset and Christmas their lights illuminate this place.
Yat Rock is at its heart a high point. A natural wedge of sandstone that sticks out above the river valley. A promontory which allows us to witness a delicious slice of landscape and natural beauty. On nearly every side there is a framed shot begging to be photographed. But its beauty is in the simplicity of standing and just taking in this nature’s gift.
From left to right the panorama gifts you the sight of the rocks which now inspire with the peregrine falcons who nest here every year and where birders sit, sit and watch in awe of nature. But the rock climbers also hunt this way searching out the climb and glory. The mighty River Wye meander in perfect solitude with only a few cows or a random rambler for company. The trees which smoulder on the tops of the valleys. The horizon which opens up to the green and gold countryside of beyond into Herefordshire and Monmouthshire. The village which tickles up and down the sides. The forest lines. The sky. So grand and so high. It is a gift.
This grand vista is not so new. It is not some created tourism from a prior age. This place is as old as the world which gave this to us. The people of the old times recognised its mystique and its import. For there once were Iron Age peoples living on its high points and low – a hill fort now long departed. And that is one other of its delights – timeless, changing but with the seasons. In summer, the long days grant us golden sunsets and in autumn with its changing shades a softness and vulnerability.
Walk. Ride. Travel. To this great wonder. For it is. Come at quiet times. Come just for the quiet. Come just to exist. For these are the places which remind us of the beauty of these lands.
8. Dark Hill Iron Works
In a shy corner of the Forest of Dean are the wonderful and atmospheric bones of an industrial site so set in history that you could wonder why people aren’t shouting about it from the treetops. The Darkhill Ironworks was the scientific laboratory where Scottish David Mushet set to work to create the strongest, most malleable and perfect ingot of steel. The perfect ammunition for the Industrial Revolution. For manufacturing; for shipbuilding; for railways.
Most people will never have heard of David Mushet. But travel the surrounds of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and his name is scattered like confetti. A name to be proud of in these parts. A significant figure from the Industrial Revolution.
Surrounded by the woodland amid the treescape of the Forest of Dean in western Gloucestershire lie the ruins of Dark Hill Iron Works.
Park in the car park and venture along the path to explore the last remains of an industrial archaeological gem. There are plenty of opportunities to discover its secrets and make your own conclusions about what this forgotten place was once.
It encourages all to ask questions. Kids will ask what? Adults will ask why? Some will ask when? And in the quiet of the Forest, you may stand and listen, thinking what was this place was once like. In the coal, the fires, the smoke. But now only the stone remains and the trees that hide its once industrious past.
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