Easy Peasy Weekend: The Very Best (Hidden) Things to Do in the Forest of Dean

Posted on 18th May 2022. In , , , ,

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This article has been produced in partnership with Visit Wye Dean

There are some places in the UK that you don’t simply visit, you sink into. Nowhere more so than England’s largest oak woodland: the Forest of Dean. Sandwiched between the Severn and the Wye River, this ancient sea of 20 million trees sucks you in, shielding you from the daily grind with just about every distraction you can think of.

From its cycle paths, beautiful walks, and River Wye canoeing, to its proud mining past, crumbling abbeys, free-roaming wild boar, countless legends and unique places to stay. Yes, there are so many wonderful things to do in the Forest of Dean and so much heritage and natural wonder to absorb it’s hard to know where to start.

We escaped into the Forest of Dean for a girls’ weekend break to uncover some of its most famous attractions and its lesser known hidden treasures. What we found was a place where you can free your mind, body or soul by getting in amongst the trees and people. We also discovered that to do it justice, you might need longer than a weekend.


 

For more Easy Peasy Weekends, see 48 Hours in The Wye ValleyPlaces to Visit in South WalesThings to do in ReadingA Girls’ Weekend in Cornwall, 48 Hours in Herefordshire.


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Do this: No sweat e-cycling through the stunning Forest 

The Forest of Dean is a mecca for cyclists and mountain bikers thanks to its miles of cycle trails weaving through woodland, countryside, villages and towns. So, no matter what kind of adventure you want to have on two wheels (one pumped with adrenaline or a gentle family-friendly pedal), the Forest has it covered.

We opted for the ‘no sweat’ option, which meant hiring e-bikes from Wye-Bikes and setting off fully charged to tackle any hills that dared get in our way (it’s not cheating; it’s efficiency).

Wye-Bikes offer an impressive fleet of e-bikes for adults from the brand-leader Cube, and also a range of Frog bikes for children.You can hire the bikes for a day or for longer from Wye-Bikes’ HQ in Coleford or, better still, get them delivered to you at your Forest of Dean holiday home, glamping base, or a campsite of your choice.

Hire comes with helmet, lock, pump, puncture repair kit, multi-tool, plus, one-to-one tuition so you don’t power off not knowing what you’re doing. You can add-on extras like a gel seat, dog or kiddie trailer and an OS Forest of Dean Map to complete your cycling adventure.

Steve, the owner, gave us a quick training session, introducing us to ‘Giggle Mode’ – the top speed of our 9-speed bikes, which saw us flying up a practise hill with Cavendish-like ease (in a flurry of giggles). Off we then went on a suggested 3-hr cycling route passing much-loved Forest gems such as Dark Hill and Cannop Ponds, ending up at Beechenhurst to refuel at the cafe. For a well-earned (sort of) pitstop.

Costs: E-bike hire from £55 per day

Find it///browsers.crossword.remake

Alternatively, do this: Unsurprisingly, walking is one of the Forest of Dean’s most popular activities. So, park the bike and set off for happy wanders amongst the ancient trees. With miles and miles of woodland trails and shaded footpaths, there’s a walking trail for everyone.

Hardy walkers can choose from several long-distance footpaths in the area, including the Gloucestershire Way, the Wysis Way, Offas Dyke National Trail and Wye Valley walk. For those who, like me, prefer more of a meander than a ramble, then follow one of the outstanding circular walks from some of the towns and villages or Visit Wye Dean’s 12 Easy Walks.


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Visit this: The subterranean ‘freemining’ world of Hopewell Colliery

Freeminers is the ancient title given to Forest miners who were granted permission to mine their own coal, iron ochre or stone in the 13th century by, legend has it, Edward I as reward for their service during the King’s Scottish wars.

There are thought to be around 150 Freeminers still living in the Forest today and a handful of small operating collieries, including Hopewell Colliery in Coleford.

hopwell colliery forest of dean

Now, sinking 200 metres beneath the Forest floor may not be top of your list of things to do in the Forest of Dean, but if you are not claustrophobic it’s an experience not to be missed – hand on heart.

Hopewell Colliery runs 45-minute tours into the yawning tunnels that make up its small coal mine; your guide for the tour is a proud and experienced Forest Freeminer with plenty of fascinating tales to tell about the geology of the Forest, the history of Freemining and the skill of this ever-decreasing tradition.

Our guide was the wonderful Rich Daniels MBE, who runs Hopewell Colliery and is also a Verderer for the Forest of Dean.

As you descend deeper, with the light of the known world behind you and the ghosts of old miners watching as you go, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the men (and later women) who made this underground landscape their home.

For centuries, boy to man, they’d spend 12 to 14 hours a day hacking at the coal face, digging out black gold alongside fossilised tree stumps left over from a time before the dinosaurs.

Their office is dirty and dusty, crammed and colourless, with the ever present threat of ‘black damp’ (an odourless gas) literally sucking the life out of you. If the candle you hold goes out, best make a sharp exit before it’s too late.

But alongside the danger, there is also a camaraderie that the modern world would do well to learn from. In these tunnels, your team is your lifeline – and you are theirs. Being able to trust your work mate isn’t just a nice to have, it is essential. Cutting corners, getting lazy or leaving a job for someone else can lead to catastrophe.

Maybe that’s why the tour made such an impact on us; there’s no finger pointing or blame game underground in the cool air and Hades-like darkness; instead there’s courage, competence and an unshakeable faith in your fellow man (or woman). And that’s a rare and precious gem to find these days.

Costs: £10 adults, £8 children (4 -16) | Last tour leaves approx 3.00pm | Open 7 days a week 10am – 4pm

Find it: ///surprised.wildfires.funky


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Go here: The fascinating museum of the Forest, The Dean Heritage Centre

The Dean Heritage Centre holds a multitude of treasures to see on a weekend in the Forest of Dean. As well as being a ‘living’ museum, with a Victorian School, Forester’s Cottage and Free Mine, the Dean Heritage Centre also boasts 5 onsite-galleries, with over 20,000 artefacts, and 5 acres of flora and fauna to enjoy when the sun shines. And it’s all set across a stunning five-acre site.

On the afternoon we visited, it was shutting shop for the day – but we still managed to grab something good to eat in the café overlooking the Centre’s striking Mill Pond. On previous visits, we’ve wandered the wildlife trails, seen the chainsaw carving, and immersed ourselves in the Forest’s unique story thanks to the Dean Heritage Centre’s impressive exhibition, which stretches from pre-history to industrialisation. There is also a programme of special events that run throughout the year, so it’s worth checking them out beforehand to see what takes your fancy.

Costs: £8.00 adults, £6 children (3 – 16) | Open 7 days a week, 10am – 4pm

Find it: ///taps.ridiculed.flashback


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Try this: Clay pigeon shooting the eco-friendly way 

Take a breather from well-trod things to do in the Forest of Dean and set your sights on this hidden gem: clay pigeon shooting with a high-tech twist. Head to Dean Laser Clay where you can have a blast shooting make-believe ‘pigeons’ and ‘rabbits’ with friends or the family – without the killing, live ammunition or sky-high cost.

Yes, you’ll get to hold and use a real shotgun, but the guns here have been deactivated and fitted with invisible infrared beams, so when you point and shoot you won’t be firing real ammunition. That means no ear-splitting noise or bruises caused by dramatic recoil – hallelujah.

Instead, when you fire your gun there’s a realistic ‘bang’ sound effect and when you hit one of the reflective reusable clays (much more eco that destroying individual ones, and less messy too) there’s a immensely satisfying ‘smashing glass’ sound. Your ‘hits’ are shown on the digital display board and you play a number of different types of game to sharpen your shooting skills.

It’s 100% safe fun that really stoked our competitive fire! Although our first attempts were pitiful, with tips from one of the patient owners we found our rhythm and were soon blasting pretend pigeons from the overhead blue sky and plastic rabbits from the rolling green in front of us.

The hour and a half session sailed by in a flash, even with a half-time break for drinks at the on-site tuck shop. It’s a great bolt-on activity if you’re staying in the Forest of Dean as a group or you’re looking for a shot of laughs for a special occasion – hen party shoot ’em up, ladies?

Costs: £25 per adult, £20 per child for 1.5 hours

Find it: ///copying.slack.partied


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Do this: Picnic on local cheeses at famous Symonds Yat Rock

2,500 years ago, Iron Age people built a hillfort on the cliff top at Symonds Yat Rock. They were on to something. This spot has the most astonishing views over the River Wye; if trouble was coming, they could see it long before it arrived. Today, the site is an ancient monument so even though it’s not a hidden gem, it’s one of the top things to do in the Forest when you’re visiting. And its well known as one of the best places in the country to watch Peregrine Falcons.

We recommend taking a picnic to enjoy in the fresh air at the picnic tables near the Symonds Yat Rock. But don’t just take any picnic. Order a bespoke picnic to go from the Forest Deli in Coleford. This family-run deli is an Aladdin’s Cave of locally-produced food and drink; it’s most famous for the huge selection of cheese on offer, including Forest cheeses and Welsh Valley cheeses. Ask for some Hereford Hop, Angiddy or Single Gloucester (or all three), collect and enjoy.

Order your picnic: 01594 833001

Find them: ///savings.sobered.applauded


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Play this: Outdoor laser tag with the thrill of paintball (but no pain and no paint)

When you’re done playing Mrs Goody Two Shoes and you want to unleash your inner Die Hard, grab a group of guys, gals and everyone in-between and make a beeline for Battlesports Glos in the Forest of Dean.

We were a little unsure it was for us at first (having feared the pain of paintball), but as soon as we were handed the camouflage paint, reassured that there were zero physical projectiles (no goggles needed) and given our chunky metal laser weapon, it was combat mode, on. Nice gal mode, off.

All the laser tag guns are super realistic (with instant audio, visual and Rumbleforce feedback, a red-dot scope and a display screen); they work by sending out a harmless signal when you fire that ‘hits’ your enemy’s tag. Before play you’re split into two teams and your task is to battle it out on the large purpose-built combat field, which is dotted with camo nets, piles of tires, and wooden structures to hide in and behind.

There are brilliant, friendly marshals who oversee the fun, explain the rules of engagement, give strategy hints during play if you need help and ensure the various missions run smoothly (missions include King of the Hill, VIP, Battle Royal and Supply Drop).

It’s crazily good fun diving for cover and sniping at the enemy (or hiding, which was our strategy for the two hours); you can even buy smoke bombs at the onsite shop and cafe to add to the warfare realism. And we’d definitely recommend putting it on your Forest things to do list, especially if there’s a group of you who fancy a bit of fresh-air gaming in the Gloucestershire sunshine.

Costs: £25 per adult, £20 per child for 1.5 hours

Find it: ///copying.slack.partied


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Don’t miss this: The magic of Puzzlewood early in the morning

Stories of ghosts and elves abound in the Forest of Dean; one visit to Puzzlewood and you’ll see why.  With its twisted ancient trees, tumble of paths and steps, and velvety moss-covered crags, this place is more Middle Earth than midway between Wales and England. Indeed, JR Tolkien is reputed to have based his imaginary worlds on Puzzlewood and that’s not its only claim to fame: Merlin and Dr Who were filmed here, as were scenes from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

Fiction aside, Puzzlewood has real-world adventure tales of its own to tell: Iron Age settlers once extracted Iron Ore from the wood’s exposed limestone and Romans may even have made the area their home in the 3rd century AD, a theory which is supported by the discovery of a hoard of over 3,000 Roman coins hidden away in earthenware jars in the cliff face.

With so much legend and enchantment and international fame and recognition, it has to be on your list of things to do in the Forest of Dean. Trust us, you can easily spend the day in Puzzlewood, getting lost in its Scowles (dips which were formed many millions of years ago), whilst discovering crooked bridges, benches and doors along your way. If you can, go as early as possible to catch its natural beauty before the rest of the world visits. For smaller adventurers, Puzzlewood has play areas, a willow maze and farm animals to get up close and personal with.

Costs: £8.50 adults, £7 children (3-16), children under 2 go free | Open daily 10am – 4:30pm

Find it: ///hobble.endearing.date


 

The Best (Hidden) Things to Do In the Forest of Dean

Eat here: In the historic courtroom at The Speech House Hotel 

You can’t miss The Speech House Hotel as you drive through the heart of the Forest on the road from Coleford to Cinderford. This impressive square-set building looks out towards the woods like a king surveying his land. Understandably so, because it was originally built as a hunting lodge for King Charles II in 1669 and has stood firm like a guardian of the Royal Forest of Dean ever since.

In fact, it’s here in The Speech House Hotel that the Verderers Court is held, and has been for several centuries. This court is a sort of parliament for the Verderers and Freeminers managing the forest, game, and mineral resources of the area. Visit The Speech House Hotel to see the court room – now the Verderers’ Restaurant – and many of the original features from the courtroom’s long history.

If you want to tarry a while, book into the AA Rosette à la carte restaurant, where imaginative seasonal dishes from talented head chef Gareth Jenkins are served in sight of the original raised courtroom gallery. On our visit, the Verderers’ Restaurant was fully booked so we ate in the hotel’s light and bright Orangery.

The food was really good (the Wild Boar sausages a must-try), the service swift and friendly and, apart from the lack of historical surroundings, we didn’t feel like we missed out. The menu was reasonably priced (main start at £13.50) and there was local Wye Valley gin behind the bar, one of our favourites.


 

Where is The Forest of Dean?

Less than an hour from many major cities, the Forest of Dean straddles the England-Wales border (along with the Wye Valley) covering parts of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire in England and Monmouthshire in Wales. Gloucester and Cheltenham is to the east, Hereford is to the north, the Brecon Beacons and South Wales to the west and the River Severn to the south.

How do you get to The Forest of Dean?

The Forest of Dean and The Wye Valley is within easy access of the M4, M48, M5 and M50 motorways, as well as many other major roads. It’s only 1 hour from Birmingham, 35 minutes from Bristol and 45 mins from Cardiff. From London you can be in the Forest in just over a couple of hours.

If you want to reach the Forest of Dean by train, there are railway stations at Abergavenny, Chepstow, Gloucester, Ledbury and Lydney.


 

All the places feature here have been independently tried and tested by us. If you book something through the links on this page, we may earn an affiliate commission.


 

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Claire Robinson Founder of Weekend Candy
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