Gloucestershire's Forest of Dean is one of the UK's lesser-known but most beautiful forests. With oak woodland full of walking routes, cycle tracks and waterways, it makes for a great activity break
Covering 35 square miles between the Rivers Severn and Wye is the Forest of Dean. The area's unspoilt woodland is spectacular at all times of year – with carpets of snowdrops and bluebells in spring to red-leafed trees in autumn – and is home to wildlife like deer, otter and wild boar, as well as plenty of native birdlife. And with miles of walking trails, cycle routes, lakes and rivers to explore, as well as a fascinating heritage, it's the perfect place to escape for a few days.
Exploring the forest
There are enough places to walk in the forest to keep you going for weeks, but one of the most interesting routes is the Sculpture Trail (www.forestofdean-sculpture.org.uk). This four-mile walk passes by 17 artworks amongst the woodland. As you walk along the trail you come across a huge stained-glass window hung between the trees, a giant chair overlooking the forest, and old railway sleepers carved into symbols of the forest, as well as many others. The route starts at Beechenhurst Lodge, where there is a café and picnic site with barbecues if you want to stop for lunch.
Another place to experience the ancient forest is at Puzzlewood (Perry Grove Road, Coleford, Glos GL16 8QB; 01594 833187; www.puzzlewood.net). With its gnarled trees, tangled vines and rock formations, it looks just like something straight off the pages of a book – and in fact was recently used in the TV series Merlin. It doesn't look to have changed for thousands of years as you wander through pathways and bridges through the trees and is spookily atmospheric. Admission £5 adults and £3.50 children.
For a spectacular viewpoint across the forest and beyond, climb to the top of Symonds Yat rock. Set on a rocky outcrop 120m above the River Wye, you can see across seven old counties from the viewpoint. Its strange name comes from the area's 17th-century sheriff Robert Symonds, and 'yat' is an old word for gate as the river gorge here was the gateway into his area. The rocks around Symonds Yat are also home to peregrine falcons and the RSPB often have a stand on the rock where you can watch the birds and even catch a glimpse of them feeding their young.
If you want to get on your bike then there are around 200km of cycle routes in the forest, from gentle paths to extreme mountain biking. The Family Cycle Trail runs for 11 miles along the old railway tracks and is an easy, fairly flat route. It passes by some of the old railway stations, local villages and old coal mines. For the more adventurous, the FODCA mountain bike trail is graded red and has switchback climbs and hairpin bends through the trees. Both these trails and others run from the Cannop Cycle Centre, where you can get route maps and hire bikes from Pedalabikeaway (Cannop Valley, Nr Coleford, Glos GL16 7EH; 01594 86006; www.pedalabikeaway.co.uk).
Or for a more adrenalin-fuelled view, you can climb through the forest and whizz through the treetops with Go Ape (Mallards Pike Lake, Park End, Lydney, Glos GL15 4HD; 0845 643 9215; www.goape.co.uk). They have a network of ladders, walkways and high-wires amongst the trees as well as a 180-metre long zipline. Adult tickets £30.
Messing about on the river
Being surrounded by rivers, there's plenty of opportunities to get out onto the water. Down the hill from Symond's Yat rock are the pretty villages of Symond's Yat East and West, separated by the River Wye. You can hire Canadian canoes or kayaks here from Wyedean Canoe and Adventure Centre (Symonds Yat East; www.wyedean.co.uk). They can also drop you off in nearby Ross-on-Wye or Kerne Bridge and you can kayak back to Symonds Yat along one of the prettiest sections of the Wye with its horseshoe bend and Symonds Yat gorge (half-day trips £38 for a family of four).
If you're feeling less energetic then you can also take a guided boat trip from Symonds Yat East with Kingfisher River Cruises (departs near Saracen’s Head Inn; 01600 891063; www.fweb.org.uk/kingfisher). These 35-minute cruises have commentary about the history and nature of the area.
Heritage and history
The Forest of Dean was first set up as a medieval royal hunting forest where the monarchy came to hunt venison, and later exploited for its mineral resources and timber. It was a major source of naval timber at one point – legend has it that the Spanish Armada were ordered to destroy the trees in the Forest of Dean as a way of defeating England!
The area also produced coal for around 200 years until the 1960s, though an ancient law means that a group of 'freeminers' still have the right to mine there today. To be one you need to be male, over 21, born within 'the Hundred of St Briavels' (which is equivalent to the Forest of Dean today) and have worked in the mines for a year and a day. There are still a few freeminers left in the forest today and you can meet one at Clearwell Caves (Nr Coleford, Glos GL16 8JR; 01594 832535; www.clearwellcaves.com). This natural cave system was first used as an iron ore mine and is still mined for ochre and pigments. It's open to the public and you can explore nine of the huge caverns and find out about its mining history (adults £5.80 and children £3.80). And if you're not too claustrophobic, you can also do guided trips into some of the deeper caves.
If you want to see what a traditional freemine looked like, then you can see one at the Dean Heritage Centre (Camp Mill, Soudley, Glos GL14 2UB; 01594 822170; www.deanheritagemuseum.com). This 19th-century former corn mill has exhibits telling you all about the history of the forest, from the local landscape and geology to its industrial heritage, with recreations of a freemine, charcoal burner's camp and Victorian Forester's cottage which you can go and wander around. Adults £5.40 and children £2.75.
There's another glimpse into the past at the Dean Forest Railway (Forest Road, Lydney, Glos GL15 4ET; 01594 843423; www.deanforestrailway.co.uk). Until the 1960s, trains ran through the forest but once the line closed local enthusiasts bought the four-mile section from Lydney to Parkend and now run steam trains on it. The timetable varies throughout the year so check their website, tickets cost £10 for adults and £5 for children. They also run special Thomas the Tank Engine days for kids, and for bigger train enthusiasts there's a day course where you can learn to drive the train yourself.
Where to stay
Whitemead Forest Park (Parkend, Lydney, Glos GL15 4LA) is a good family choice. They have log cabins and apartments to rent as well as pitches for caravans and tents. The site is right in the heart of the forest so there's easy access to all the activities, plus it has its own pool, spa, children's play area and organises kids' activities like pottery and archery in the school holidays. Log cabins for four from £250 for a weekend, caravan or tent pitches from £20 a night.
The Saracens Head (Symond's Yat East, Ross-on-Wye HR9 6JL) is a 16th-century riverside inn. The terrace right alongside the river is a relaxing place for a drink on a summer day and you can watch the old hand ferry taking people across the river to Symond's Yat West. There is also a good restaurant serving local produce which does great Sunday roasts and cream teas. Double rooms from £79 B&B up to £120 for a boathouse room with a balcony overlooking the river.
The Speech House Hotel (Coleford, Glos GL16 7EL) is a 17th-century hunting lodge set in the middle of the forest. It's a country house style hotel with four-poster beds and has two restaurants with a choice of formal or more casual dining. Rooms from £98 B&B.