Imagine yourself following a winding, woodland path in the Forest of Dean, the rocks dripping with moss, the branches tangled overhead. Or coming across a sculpture on the forest path, making you wonder about its connection with this ancient tree-scape. Or delving underground into caves that have been mined for thousands of years, an unexpected industrial twist to this natural environment. With no more tolls on the Severn Bridge, now could be the perfect time to discover all the things to do in The Forest of Dean, a part of Gloucestershire with heritage railways, fabulous local food and plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. We spent a day exploring to bring you some of our favourite things to see and do from The Forest.
1. Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean – wander in the ancient forest
First stop of the day was Puzzlewood, an area of ancient forest that has become a leading visitor attraction in the area. Walking down the path into the forest, we felt a magical aura about the place, as if we’d walked into a scene from the Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien worked in this area in the 1920s, so perhaps the Forest of Dean and its wooded landscapes really were the inspiration for his tales of Middle Earth!
In the 19th century this woodland was laid out with paths, to create a place for the local landowner to enjoy with family and friends. Later Puzzlewood forest was open for the public to visit, with an honesty box at the gate, to raise donations for the local church.
The paths bounded by rough wooden fences meander through the rocky outcrops, dripping with moss and clothed in ferns. Tree branches reach out as if to pluck at your clothing and the roots of the trees threaten to come alive and twist like snakes around your ankles. The wood feels wild and mysterious, but there’s also a sense that man has made his mark too.
Perhaps it’s because these woods were worked through the Iron age and Roman times for opencast iron ore, which you can see down the road at Clearwell Caves. The limestone stacks are known as scowles and were part of underground cave systems that formed millions of years ago, collapsed and eroded over time. You can see why Puzzlewood forest is a popular film location that has been used for TV productions like Merlin, Doctor Who and Star Wars.
We walked around the forest paths of Puzzlewood for an hour, exploring the ravines, crossing wooden bridges made of yew branches, half expecting to come across a band of elves encamped under the trees. Emerging from the forest, there are more activities at the entrance, with small farm animals like the Shetland pony, pygmy goats and the ducks splashing in the pond.
There’s a picnic area and children’s playground, with a willow maze that sprouts green shoots in the spring, for kids to run around in. The indoor barns offer more information about the history of this area, there’s an indoor maze and a Puzzlewood cafe in the pretty cottage, serving sandwiches, drinks and snacks. You may like to download the Puzzlewood App when visiting, which has further information about the filming and history as well as enabling you to have a treasure hunt for the hoard of Roman coins that were discovered in the forest.
More info: Puzzlewood Website | Check the Tripadvisor Reviews | Where to stay nearby | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Adults £7 | Open 10am – 5pm (may vary with season)| Address: Perrygrove Road, Coleford, GL16 8QB
2. Perrygrove Railway – ride on a heritage steam train
Almost across the road from Puzzlewood is Perrygrove Railway, where you can take a ride on a heritage miniature steam train. The railway meanders the woods and fields, as you watch from the open windows of the carriages, with steam billowing out of the funnel – choo choo! This is a great attraction for all ages, and the excitement of the families on board was so infectious that I felt like a kid again – I couldn’t stop grinning for the whole train ride!
The trains at Perrygrove Railway run around a loop on the farm every 30 minutes and you can have a cuppa and cake in the cafe, or have a look around the engine house while you are waiting. Once you are aboard, the train sets off gently, curving around the track and there are a couple of stations where you can get off along the route, if you fancy a walk in the woods.
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At one end of the line, is Oakiron station where you can hop off and have a picnic on the grass or tables at Foxy Hollow, with an undercover play area for the children. This is where the engine has to be decoupled and put onto the other end of the train, while you wait for a few minutes. Then the train loops back to the start, and if you’ve stayed on board the whole journey takes around 30 minutes.
If we’d had more time, I’d have liked to get off the train to explore some of the woodland walks and then catch the next train back. At the end of the trip, Lydia the steam engine had a well earned drink to top up her tanks – steam engines can get very thirsty! In the engine shed there were a few more engines that are used at different times, like Spirit of Adventure, and Anne who used to work at Longleat.
These engines really have a lot of character, no wonder the popular Thomas the Tank engine books were inspired by them. There was a children’s party going on at the time of our visit, but normally the volunteers are happy to let you take a look at the other engines in the shed. But don’t think it’s just for families – this is one of the Forest of Dean activities that’s fun for all generations.
Next to the main station is the treetop adventure area with walkways, slides and climbing area that’s all accessible for buggies and wheelchairs too, with a nice viewpoint for the trains as they come into the station.
More info: Perrygrove Railway Website | Check the Tripadvisor Reviews | Where to stay nearby | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Adults £7.35 | Open 10am – 5pm in high season (varies with the season)| Address: Perrygrove Farm, Perrygrove Road, Coleford, Gloucestershire GL16 8QB
3. Clearwell Caves – exploring the mining heritage of the Forest of Dean
Close to both Puzzlewood and Perrygrove Railway is Clearwell Caves, and this trio of attractions would make a great combination if you are staying for a weekend in the Forest of Dean. Before I visited Clearwell Caves I think I was expecting to walk through large, natural underground caverns. This is partly what Clearwell Caves offers, but the interesting twist is that the caves were also mined for iron ore, so you get the combination of natural geological features and mining heritage. And if you’re wondering what to do in the Forest of Dean when the weather is not playing ball, Clearwell Caves would be a great choice.
When we think about the Forest of Dean, perhaps we imagine a swathe of pristine woodland, but this area has been a hive of industry since Roman times, due to the coal and iron ore lying beneath the surface. In the 18th and 19th centuries the small mines or Gales were worked for iron ore, with families being granted a licence that would enable the extended family to earn a decent living this way. A Freeminer, who is born in the Forest of Dean, within the Hundred of St Briavels, can still apply for the rights to work a particular mine if it’s not claimed by anyone else.
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Walking through the different caverns, our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting and we saw some of the pick axe markings, carts and rail tracks from the time when this cave was mined for iron ore. In the past, boys from 8 years old would join their fathers working down the mine. Known as “Billy Boys” they carried iron ore on their backs, loaded into containers known as Billys. I tried to lift one of the small pieces of iron ore which was incredibly heavy, so I can feel sympathy for those who had to undergo this backbreaking work!
Later pneumatic drills were introduced to extract the ore, which became charmingly known as “Widow Makers“, since the clouds of dust caused so much lung disease. You can see a few of the empty bottles of lung tonic hanging in the cave.
Clearwell Caves is also home to several species of bats, and if you press a button next to the information sign, you can hear a recording of the bats calling to each other. The noise level varies depending on where you stand in the cave, illustrating how the bats use echolocation to find their way.
In one of the caverns is a pool of still water, where the miners dammed the flow of rainwater, to prevent it running into the mine workings. Fossils of sea creatures have been found in the cave, and projections of fish and ammonites swim over the cave walls, to illustrate that millions of years ago this area would have been a prehistoric sea.
In the small museum we discovered more about the mining heritage and saw the different colours of ochre that are used by artists and still produced in the mine today. On display are pottery figures of Forest of Dean characters by local sculptor Phyllis Lewis who taught ceramics in the local Wyedean College. One of her pupil at the school was JK Rowling, who is said to have based her Harry Potter character of Professor Sprout on Phyllis, with the wooden carts in the Gringotts Bank imitating those used in local mines of Clearwell Caves.
If you fancy exploring more of the caves, there are regular Deep Caving sessions, which take you into the lower levels of the mine, suitable for age 7+ with no experience necessary and helmets, lamps and overalls provided.
Christmas is a very popular time to visit when the caves are decorated with coloured lights. There’s a nice cafe at Clearwell Caves with lots of mining memorabilia, which you can stop at even if you are not visiting the caves themselves.
More info: Clearwell Caves Website | Check the Tripadvisor Reviews | Where to stay nearby
Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Adults | Open | Address: Clearwell Caves, Nr Coleford, Gloucestershire, GL16 8JR
4. Coleford and our picnic from the Forest Deli
Just up the road is Coleford, one of the small towns on the western edge of The Forest of Dean. At the centre of town is a clocktower, which is all that remains of a church that was demolished in the 1880s and the area around the tower is sometimes used for markets and community events. This is a pleasant market town for a quick stop and a bit of shopping, with attractive Georgian buildings surrounding the central marketplace. Look out for the Country Market that’s held on Fridays and Saturdays, the live events that are held on the Last Thursday of the month and the free Coleford Music Festival that takes over the town in July.
We spotted a mural under the wrought iron archway leading to Mushet Walk, which highlights the contribution to the town of David and Robert Mushet, who lived in Coleford and developed innovative new ways to process steel in the 19th century.
Our impression of Coleford based on our short visit, is that its fortunes are on the turn. Elements of the town feel run down, with empty shops that have closed, yet there are also new, stylish businesses moving into town that make it worth a visit. We enjoyed wandering around some of the places on St John Street, with gifts and upcycled furniture at Moot Home and Gardens, stylish and affordable fashion at Pomegranate Lifestyle and Guy definitely had his eye on the The Dog House, a micro pub that won Cider pub of the year 2019.
One of our reasons for visiting Coleford was to stop in at The Forest Deli, which is an Aladdin’s cave for foodies. We love to discover and support local food businesses when we travel. The Forest Deli was set up by Debbie and Simon Jones a year ago, aiming to supply a great selection of local cheeses as well as other deli delights, local beer, wine and freshly baked quiches and sausage rolls. They try to minimise waste through selling in small quantities, baking daily and encouraging customers to refill their own bottles of oil and vinegar.
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We picked up a delicious picnic with a selection of local produce, with Debbie’s freshly baked quiche and Bakewell tart to take away for our picnic. If you’d like to do the same, just pop into The Forest Deli or ring ahead and ask them to prepare a selection for you. Look out for the local specialties of Single and Double Gloucester cheese, and tipples such as Foxtail Gin, cider from Jolter Press, Orchard’s and McCrindles, Hillside Brewery ales, Tintern Parva wines and VQ Country wines.
Where to eat in The Forest of Dean
We asked Debbie and Simon, who are discerning foodies, for their recommendations for great places to eat in The Forest of Dean and they suggested the following pubs and inns. While we haven’t eaten at these ourselves, we are happy to pass on their recommendations;
The Farmer’s Boy at Longhope | Read the Tripadvisor Reviews | A 17th century, family run inn with open fires and oak beamed restaurant, which is known for its excellent pies “the size of dinner plates – portions are never small in the forest!”
and of course The Tudor Farmhouse at Clearwell where we were headed for dinner later.
5. Beechenhurst visitor centre – have a picnic and get active
From The Forest Deli we headed to the Beechenhurst visitor centre – it was difficult to resist scoffing our picnic on the way! Beechenhurst is in the heart of The Forest of Dean and it’s a central point run by the Forestry Commission, with a large car park (parking from £4 all day) and lots of activities to enjoy in the forest.
We set out our picnic from The Forest Deli and Guy waited patiently, his mouth watering, while I photographed the delicious quiche with wild garlic and home made wild boar sausage rolls. There are bookable barbeque areas nearby that are popular with families and groups of friends to gather for a party or picnic.
This is a great spot for families, and those looking for adventure activities will find them at Go Ape in the Forest of Dean. The high rope course at Beechenhurst offers wobbly bridges, zip wires and treetop platforms, designed to be accessible for adventurous kids aged 6+. Mums and Dads can join in, or watch from below if they’re too scaredy cat. Price is £19 per person and you can book in advance or try it out on the day if they are not too busy. Read the Tripadvisor Reviews
If you fancy a spot of climbing, there’s also a climbing tower within the Beechenhurst site, which is run by Forest of Dean Adventure, offering archery at the same site. The 40 foot tower has an easy beginner’s section and a more challenging vertical wall to help you develop your climbing skills over multiple routes. There’s no minimum age, but climbers must be 20 kg minimum weight. A climbing session costs from £5.50 per person, with archery from £7.50 per person and both can be pre-booked online.
If you just want a fun time with the family there are other free activities around the Beechenhurst centre, such as the Beechenhurst children’s play area just beside the Beechenhurst Café, that serves refreshments and has lots of outdoor space if the weather is fine – read the Tripadvisor Reviews. Families can try the Zog trail, which is based on the popular Zog children’s book, with trail markers through the woods to find characters from the story. Pick up your Zog activity pack for £3 from the Beechenhurst Café.
Just a little further down the road, and accessible via the walking trails from Beechenhurst is The Speech House in the Forest of Dean. Originally built as a hunting lodge for Charles II, the Speech House became the administrative centre for The Forest of Dean, and a parliament to resolve disputes for the Free Miners and Verderers of the forest. From the 19th century the Speech House became an inn and it continues to run as a 35 bedroom hotel. It’s a popular venue for weddings, or a place to have a classic afternoon tea (£30 for two people). The Verder’s Restaurant is still used as a courthouse by the Verderers, who meet here four times a year.
6. Forest of Dean sculpture trail – art in the forest
After our picnic at Beechenhurst, we set off on the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, where we were keen to see a new sculpture that had recently been installed. These Forest of Dean walking trails were established thirty years ago, showcasing art works that were specially commissioned to have a strong connection with the forest. The trail is well marked on flat forestry paths, but you can pick up a map of the sculpture trail for £1 from the Beechenhurst Café.
You can also go walking in the nearby Wye Valley – check out this Wye Valley and Tintern Abbey half day walking tour from Cardiff.
The sculpture trail is one of the best known things to do in the Forest of Dean, and although we didn’t see everything on the Forest of Dean sculpture walk, we enjoyed quite a few of them including the Iron Road by Keir Smith. This piece is installed along a disused railway embankment and the twenty railway sleepers are carved into motifs that reflect the life of the forest; a feather, wheel or leaf. It’s a fun piece to jump along or play hopscotch, while wondering what each carved railway sleeper means for the Forest of Dean.
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We also spotted Cone and Vessel, a sculpture by Peter Randall – Page, which was positioned half surrounded by pools of murky water and out of reach. The giant pine cone and acorn cup were carved from locally quarried sandstone, as if the tiny details of the forest had been enlarged to enable us to notice them more clearly.
Finally we came upon the new sculpture called Threshold, by Natasha Rosling, which had only been installed the week before. The piece is inspired by the long standing history of mining within the Forest of Dean, with the inside walls of the sculpture taken from moulds of Clearwell Caves, complete with pick axe marks and outcrops of iron ore. The red ochre colour of the pigmented concrete reflects the ochre paint that is extracted from Clearwell Caves and still sold for artists today. This is one of the best walks in the Forest of Dean but there are many others you can find on the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley website.
7. Tudor Farmhouse – a luxurious boutique hotel in the Forest of Dean
Our busy day exploring the Forest of Dean was nearly at an end, but before we headed back to Bristol, it was time for a well earned rest and delicious dinner. Tudor Farmhouse Hotel in the village of Clearwell is a pretty boutique hotel and restaurant, with a reputation that is stretching well beyond The Forest. After an afternoon walking we were back where we’d started, ready for a little luxury to balance the fresh air and muddy boots.
The 20 bedroom boutique hotel was converted by Hari and Colin Fell from a stone farmhouse, parts of which date back to the 16th century. Nearby they have a small farm, where they raise livestock and grow vegetables in the kitchen garden and fruit in the orchard, for use in the restaurant. The culinary credentials are impeccable, with everything created by Head Chef Rob Cox, based on local suppliers and seasonal produce, yet with a relaxed sophistication that will please any well travelled foodie.
Our dinner started in the cosy lounge with open fireplace, where we were served some nibbles with our drinks – mine a non-alcoholic but totally refreshing Tudor Farmhouse Pappleade (apples, pears, lemon juice, ginger and bitters). In the pretty dining room, there were groups of friends and couples of all ages, enjoying a rather special dining experience that belied the understated bare wooden tables with amethyst glasses and glowing nightlights.
The prize for the prettiest dish went to our shared starter of Cornish mackerel, artistically arranged with a scattering of apple, grapes, walnuts and cheese (£10). For my main course I ordered the Welsh lamb rump on a puree of Jerusalem artichoke and roasted hazelnuts, the meat meltingly tender and flavoursome (£24), followed by a refreshing and utterly delicious desert of passionfruit mousse with scoop of mango and lime sorbet (£10).
Unfortunately we weren’t able to see any of the bedrooms, but if we’d been staying for a weekend break, the Tudor Farmhouse Hotel would definitely be my choice for a luxurious rural escape from the city, with charming staff and no shortage of details to delight the guests. They earned bonus points for offering a selection of colourful wellies to borrow, blankets to keep you cosy in the garden and leaflets to guide you on local walks. Of all the Forest of Dean hotels, this has got to be one of the best, if you’re looking for boutique style, understated luxury and top notch food.
We love this video that shows you all the fun things to do in the Forest of Dean
Although we were heading back to Bristol after dinner at The Tudor Farmhouse, there were a few more things that I’d have liked to try, if we’d been making a full weekend of it.
8. Harts Barn in the Forest of Dean – for crafts and cookery classes
Harts Barn sounded like my kind of place, one of the oldest buildings in the Forest of Dean, with barns and outbuildings converted to make a craft centre. Around the old stable yard are businesses selling antique, gifts and creative finds that you won’t see on every high street. Lunch and afternoon tea is served in The Old Dairy Tearoom, using local suppliers for their organic fruit juices, Gloucestershire farm cheeses, cakes and farmhouse dairy ice cream.
The light and airy Harts Barn Cookery School runs hands on cookery classes and demonstrations that are a fun activity for groups of friends, from artisan bread baking and chocolate making, to Forage and Feast days. If you’re getting in the mood for tasting, you might also like to check out nearby Hillside Brewery which brews classic ales that you’ll find in many Gloucestershire pubs and restaurants, and offers brewery tours from £15 (check the website for dates)
More info: Harts Barn Craft centre | Read the Tripadvisor Reviews | Harts Barn Cookery School Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Harts Barn Craft Centre, Monmouth Road, Longhope, Glos, GL17 0QD | Open daily except Monday 10am – 5pm (seasonal variations)
9. Taurus Crafts and the Chocolate Bar
Another spot that I’d love to visit is Taurus Crafts near Lydney on the southern edge of The Forest of Dean. It’s part of the Camphill Village Trust, that supports adults with learning disabilities and mental health issues. The Taurus Crafts Visitor Centre has a range of crafts on sale, with workshops throughout the year to discover your own creativity.
The centre is home to many independent businesses, with a cafe that serves hot lunches, light snacks and refreshments, which you can enjoy while admiring their latest art exhibition. Check out the seasonal events that include art markets, vintage fairs and Christmas markets. Foodies will want to pop into The Chocolate Bar, which produces artisan chocolates, runs chocolate making workshops and supplies the Taurus Crafts cafe with delicious cakes and chocolates.
More info: Taurus Crafts Website | Read the Tripadvisor Reviews | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter |The Chocolate Bar Website |Address: The Old Park, Lydney, Gloucestershire GL15 6BU | Open 10am – 5.30pm with free entry and parking
10. Pedalabikeaway – for Forest of Dean bike hire
If you fancy something a little more energetic than a walk in the woods, stop off at Pedalabikeaway where you can hire a bike to ride on the many Forest of Dean cycling trails. You can pre-book the bikes or just turn up at less busy times to hire on the day. They also have e-bikes, which gets my vote if you want to enjoy a more gentle cycling experience without dripping with sweat.
There are lots of cycle trails to ride from the Pedalabikeaway centre, from easy family trails, to more advanced mountain bike trails for the adventurous cyclist. The centre also has a shop selling all kinds of cycle gear, workshop for repairs and cafe to refuel after your cycling adventure in the forest.
Where is the Forest of Dean?
If you’ve read this far, you’ll no doubt be wondering how to get to the Forest of Dean, so that you can enjoy some of the fun things to do in the Forest of Dean that I’ve mentioned. Take a look at the map below which will help you locate The Forest of Dean, which is in the county of Gloucestershire, in the west of England.
By Car: Drive west on the M4 / M48 and turn north at Chepstow along the A48 or through the scenic route via St Briavels. Driving time to Coleford is around 3 hours from London, 50 mins from Bristol, 50 mins from Cheltenham. An added bonus is that there are no longer bridge tolls to cross the Severn Bridge! Although it’s the ‘other’ side of the Severn Bridge, The Forest of Dean is in Gloucestershire, not Wales.
By Rail: The closest station for The Forest of Dean is Lydney or Gloucester.
By Air: If arriving from international destinations, the closest airports are Cardiff and Bristol, both of which offer flights from a huge number of destinations and have car hire at the airport.
Because of the rural nature of The Forest of Dean I’d recommend using a car to get around, as you will be able to see more in the time you have available.
Map of Forest of Dean
Check out my Map of the Forest of Dean with all the places mentioned in this article that we recommend.
Accommodation in the Forest of Dean
Budget accommodation in the Forest of Dean – if you are looking for family or budget accommodation take a look at the YHA Hostel at St Briavels – hugely popular because it is in a real castle! | Read the reviews on Tripadvisor
Visitor Information for The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley
We love this video that shows you all the fun things to do in The Forest of Dean
If you are looking for a walking guide to The Forest of Dean, we recommend Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Outstanding Circular Walks
This article was sponsored* by Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Tourism, who arranged the experiences and meals mentioned.
* More info on my policies page
Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links.