Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Day Trip to the Forest

With the summer slowly ebbing away and UK weather patterns returning to the standard mix of sunshine and showers (read torrential rain) last weekend, we were looking for somewhere to go for the day that wasn't too far from Bristol but would allow for some exercise and a last gasp of sunshine ahead of a week that was forecast to be miserable. After discounting the beach (perhaps not a good option when the tail end of a hurricane looms on the horizon) and a train trip to Cheltenham (too many tempting shopping opportunities) we ended up packing a picnic and heading off to the Forest of Dean, or specifically the Sculpture Trail at Beechenhurst. 

Ticking the boxes for being cheap (just petrol costs and parking - £3.50 for the whole day – to consider) and not being too far away if the weather should turn really foul, this is a great place for a family day out. About an hours drive from Bristol, this particular part of the forest offers some lovely surroundings to explore, as well as some unusual, natural sculptures to spot en route.

The trail is accessed via Beechenhurst Lodge where you’ll find plenty of parking, information (including maps of the trail), toilets and a café. There’s also a lovely children’s play area, with sections for both toddlers and older children – a great place to hang out and have a cuppa from the café before you head home. If you're bringing a picnic there's a large, flat grassed area in front of the lodge where you can lay out your blanket, play some ball games or just relax before or after your walk.

The full trail might be a bit ambitious for younger kids, being 3.5 miles long, but you can do a portion that suits you and there are signposted short cuts to help you keep distances manageable for little legs. There are plenty of places to rest along the way, with lovely, tranquil spots where you can build dens, walk along logs or just sit on a tree stump and drink it all in. The sculptures are designed to blend in with the natural surroundings and aren't hugely obvious, particularly for kids, who may be expecting something with a bit more 'wow' factor. That said, be sure to look out for the hanging stained glass window, which casts an ethereal glow over the surrounding trees. The sculptures are really a bit of an aside to the simple pleasure of walking in some peaceful, magical surroundings, away from the crowds. If you're lucky you might also spot a wild boar as we did on our travels... 

If you’re looking for an alternative attraction in the Forest of Dean, try Puzzlewood. If there was ever a place to define the idea of a magical wood, this is it – Puzzlewood is an otherworldly place of ancient trees, moss-covered rocks, labyrinthine pathways and rickety wooden bridges. It's really quite spectacular and quite probably unlike anywhere you've ever been before.Walking around this strange environment you can see why Puzzlewood regularly crops up as background dressing for dramas such as Merlin an Dr Who. It's also rumoured to have been the inspiration for Tolkien's Middle Earth forests. There's an outdoor and indoor maze, toddler racing track, playground and cafe here, too, and at just £22 for a family ticket, pretty good value for a family day out.

If you'd like longer to explore this lovely corner of the country, a good accommodation option is the Forest Holidays outpost at Coleford. Bed down in well-equipped, high-spec cabins (ranging from standard options to more luxurious cabins equipped with outdoor hot tubs; some even have their own adjoining tree house!) and enjoy direct access to the forest with its many cycle trains and walking routes. We visited a couple of years back when the complex first opened so we enjoyed the facilities at their shiniest, newest best, plus we paid next to nothing for a three-day break. Prices are substantially higher now Forest Holidays have become much more established, but you can still get reasonable deals out of season, or if you're able to stay during week outside of peak times. If you can travel in a larger group and split the cost between you, prices even out quite significantly. 

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