Outdoors and Active in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley
If you fancy a weekend of adventures without having to drive for miles between activities or pack the car with kit, try getting outdoors and active in the Forest Of Dean and Wye Valley. Within an hour or two of arriving you and the family can whizz down mountain bike trails, paddle the river, go deep under the earth, throw yourself out of a tree, or accelerate up a muddy track. Or you can chat to providers and get a taste for what’s on offer at an annual activity festival on April 23rd 2017. In this advertising post, part of the #deanwyebloggers initiative, I went into the woods to check it all out….
At the top of the forest
I am standing on a tightrope fixed to the top of some very tall trees. I am navigating my way from one giant red space hopper to another, clinging to them for dear life. My arms are tired but I’m exhilarated. I’ve already survived standing at the top of a tall Jenga style tower of crates, and crashing down to the floor. I’ve already managed to jump from a tree on the leap of faith, trying and failing to grab a suspended trapeze. And I’ve already considered whether I want to do the final challenge upside down hanging from my feet, or in a more conventional manner. It’s all happening at Forest of Dean Adventure, which was the first ever ropes course to be built on Forestry Commission land, and just one of the many things to do in the Forest of Dean.
You get the sense that however adventurous you want to be on a zipwire, tree or pile of crates, Joe Lewis, who runs this adventure challenge course, will facilitate it for you. The only thing he won’t let you do is bottle out.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” says Joe. “However you do have to try,” he grins.
Unlike other tree top adventure courses, here you do the four stations as teams, in a maximum group of six. Anyone from aged eight to 99 is welcome to take part. The oldest person that’s swung about in the trees so far is 78.
Check out this video to see what it’s possible to jump out of or into in the Forest of Dean.
Easy family paddling
Forest of Dean Adventure is just one of the many providers in this part of Gloucestershire offering groups and families the chance to have fun and bond together. And when I say together, I mean it. Even our canoes move as one as we attempt the mini rapids at Symonds Yat. This part of The Wye is an easy stretch of river perfect for families with children who want to have a play in canoes or kayaks – we used to travel down here for kayak practice occasionally when the kids were small.
Today as the water levels are high and some in the group are novices, Paul Marshall from Inspire2Adventure lashes the canoes together so they effectively become a raft. We then potter down the river, past swans and holidaymakers on a three hour ride from near Goodrich to Monmouth, with a whitewater thrill at Symonds Yat in the middle. Paul enthusiastically urges us to paddle and gives us tips on our techniques and location while his wife Liz tells me they regularly put together tailored packages for families of all ages including gorge scrambling, canoeing and climbing.
A different and muddy driving experience
I don’t expect off-road driving to be a water activity. I also don’t expect it to be suitable for kids. But children aged between 14 and 17 who have handled the controls of a car can take part in a course that’s ‘better when it’s wetter.’
On an overcast Sunday morning I find myself at the bottom of a steep muddy slope in a 40 acre quarry near Coleford. As a resident of Cumbria I often find myself in this kind of situation but happily this time I am in charge of a Land Rover Discovery instead of my normal Citroen Picasso.
“First gear, you don’t need throttle, just let the vehicle do the job,” says my instructor Geraldine Hooper. “Because the tyres can grip, this vehicle is accelerating up. It’s in low range. It would stall if it was in high range,” she continues. Techniques for getting this vehicle around this terrain are counterintuitive. A lot of the time I am instructed to keep my feet firmly planted on the floor while the car advances as if by magic. This is particularly tricky on the downward slopes and when I’m about to hit the water as my brain is telling me to put my foot on the brakes. It reminds me of riding horses in Chile and Iceland, where I was in the control seat but often irrelevant.
It’s a lot of fun though, ploughing brightly coloured vehicles through huge dusty puddles, and hanging off ridges, ditches and grassy banks. “Adrenaline at five miles an hour,” is how Geraldine puts it. Geraldine is the owner of Whitecliff 4×4 Off Road Driving Centre. Depending on your experience of driving her team offers a half day introductory course, or an advanced course and you can do it as a group or solo. “We don’t get many women up here, but when they they do, if they’re amongst a bunch of fellas they tend to do really well,” says Geraldine.
Staying with mud
If you like getting down and dirty in the quarry, it’s only a skip hop and jump to Clearwell Caves, where you can put on a boilersuit and helmet and squeeze into underground passages deep in the earth. Deep Level experiences offer you the chance to crawl and scramble 200ft underground in natural caverns and tunnels once rich in prehistoric creatures, iron ore and ochre. These include the rabbit hole and the terrifying sounding mouse hole. You can also go bat spotting and cover your face with the ochre pigment for your ‘miner’ selfie.
Pedal or potter
After that, if you still have a passion for getting dirty then blasting downhill on a mountain bike after learning some skills with Pedalabikeway is a pretty unbeatable way of spending a morning in Gloucestershire. Or for a more gentle cycle you can explore an 11 mile traffic-free trail on mining railway tracks and forest roads in the Cannop Valley.
If you prefer to potter the woodland on foot then the Forest of Dean Sculpture trail has 17 pieces sitting alongside temporary works on 4.5 mile footpath. Meanwhile Puzzlewood provides an easy, hour long walk where you can spot the locations from films and TV series including Star Wars and Merlin. I was captivated by this simple attraction and its spooky, atmospheric depths.
A whole weekend of adventure activities
All the activity providers I meet in the Forest of Dean are passionate about making their sport accessible to all and welcome the chance to give families an experience together. To enable people try before they buy, locals run a festival every April that began small and has now grown substantially to include everything from archery to circus skills.
The Forest Activities Festival is on the Speech House field and locals and visitors can have a go at fun activities including arts and crafts, battle-sports and segways. “Basically anything we can get onto the field,” says one of the organisers. “The festival suits anyone from five upwards depending on how adventurous you want to be, and this year it is growing into a fringe event on the Saturday for water activities at Mallards Pike.”
A few of my favourite things about The Forest of Dean
My favourite moment: Puzzlewood at dawn when the only other soul around is the ghost of Morgana – her door from BBC TV’s Merlin is one of the spookier props.
My favourite food: Without a doubt the award winning wild boar pie at the Farmers Boy Inn. The night before our visit it won silver at the British Pie awards.
My favourite drink: Gin cocktail on a ‘gelato and gin’ night at Green and Jenks in Monmouth.
My favourite freefall: Crashing down from the spacehopper in the sky.
The next Forest Activities Festival is at Speech House grounds near Coleford from 10am-5pm on 23rd April 2017. Entrance fees are £5 for an adult and £2 for a child, and activities are free. On Saturday 22nd water sports will be offered in half hour sessions. For a taster of things to do in the Forest of Dean and Wye valley pre-book at www.forestactivityfestival.co.uk or turn up on the day.
There’s loads of accommodation in the local area from luxury cabins at Forest Holidays to elegant hotels like Speech House. I stayed in renovated cottages on the Puzzlewood site. The three cottages are fully equipped for self catering and you have full access to Puzzlewood which means you can see it free from other tourists. If you dare go down to the woods alone…
Disclosure Note: This advertising feature was made possible in part by the support of Wye Dean Tourism. I visited the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley for the Outdoor and Adventure Bloggers Activity Weekend and produced this post to help promote tourism in the area and the Activity Festival. The swinging from trees, Jeremy Clarkson impressions, photography and opinions expressed are all my own.