The National Forest, now more than a quarter of a century old, is the result of a need for regeneration after the end of mining, and the desire to transform one of the UK’s least-wooded areas into a wild and wonderful expanse for exploration. In a sense it is an effort to reconnect with the past, a past before men and machinery extracted coal and clay from this land in the Midlands – 200 square miles of it – in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire.
When the first tree was planted in 1991 this became the country’s first new forest in more than a thousand years. At that time only 6% of the area had forest cover; 26 years on and that figure is 20%. Eight and a half million trees and 16,500 acres later and the National Forest links the ancient forests of Needwood in Staffordshire and Charnwood in Leicestershire. It also offers an array of activities and attractions, plus accommodation at hotels, farms, cabins and campsites.
It’s possible to see the forest’s evolution close-up along the National Forest Way, a 12-stage 75-mile walk that takes in bucolic villages, market towns, restored wildlife habitats and disused coalfields. The stages, between four and seven-and-a-half miles long, can be completed as day walks or as part of a long-distance trail with overnight stays. My walk went west to east, from stage 12 to stage one, ending at the summit of Beacon Hill.
Spring represents a great opportunity to see bluebells along the National Forest Way, and areas to take note of include Jackson’s Bank, Needwood, the Woodland Trust’s Burrough Woods in the south-east corner of the forest, Swithland Wood in Charnwood, and Lodge Hill, near Yoxall, a short walk off the route. The National Forest will also be holding its 10th annual walking festival from 13-25 May.
Stage 12: National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, to Yoxall (5.14 miles)
Marking the route’s start or end, the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas (admission free) honours the military, emergency services, charities and individuals who have served the country, with 30,000 trees and more than 300 memorials across 150 acres of meadow, river and woodland. The striking glass panels of the Naval Service memorial are hard to miss, but it’s worth exploring the grounds to find others, such as the moving Christmas Truce memorial. Daily talks and tours include the Far East Prisoners of War Talk, and the Remembrance Centre, open since October 2016, which has three galleries and an interactive exhibit on the importance of remembrance. One-and-a-half miles away is the village of Alrewas, home to England’s first commercial canal, the Trent and Mersey, and post-walk pints at the Crown Inn.
Stage 11: Yoxall to Rangemore (7.46 miles)
Along or near this route are six “True Noon Columns” – wooden sculptures carved from sustainable English oak by artist David Nash, each representing a different forest landscape. They are carved so that at noon, (around 1.06pm summertime, 12.06pm winter), a stream of sunlight shines through a vertical slot. At Sence valley the blackened oak column references the area’s mining history, and Trent Valley’s floodmarker design represents the surrounding wetlands.
Stage 10: Rangemore to Branston (4.1 miles)
With a serene setting, Lock House is an 18th-century lock keeper’s house-turned-B&B with two double bedrooms (£60 a night) overlooking the Trent and Mersey canal. Breakfast is vegetarian/vegan, and expect homemade jam, free-range eggs any style, and a super-size fruit salad. Lock House is a few minutes’ walk from Branston water park, formed by the flooding of a disused gravel pit. The one-mile lake path takes in wetland, woodland, meadows and birdlife.
Bridge Inn, Branston, Staffordshire
It’s not every day you stumble across a gourmet Italian restaurant on the Trent and Mersey canal. Fast becoming known for its homemade pizzas (from £8.95), pastas (from £7.95) and risottos, seasonal menu, and a specially selected 100% Italian wine list, the pub uses local suppliers, and fresh fish is delivered daily. Dishes are beautifully presented by chef Mariusz Wójtowicz, often using home-grown herbs and edible flowers. The pub’s 200-year-old building used to operate as an inn and stables, and is a short walk from Lock House B&B.
Stage 9: Branston to Rosliston (5.5 miles)
Rosliston Forestry Centre, Derbyshire
Rosliston was the first visitor centre in the National Forest, with 120,000 trees planted to create new woodland, while the Rolls-Royce Greenheart Lake emphasises the support from local businesses. The walking and biking trails are the best way to explore the grounds; the bike path is easy or there are more challenging off-road tracks. Those short on time could take a quick look at the Monument to South Derbyshire Mining, and grab a coffee and cake in the Hub Cafe.
• Trails and gardens free, activity prices vary, roslistonforestrycentre.co.uk
Stage 8: Rosliston to Moira (7.66 miles)
YHA National Forest, Swadlincote, Derbyshire
This modern, four-star, eco-friendly YHA property has all the essentials: well-stocked bar, free wifi, hot breakfasts and three-course supper club dinners. Some of the 23 en suite rooms have double beds, and can be booked privately for up to five people. The food is good, too; it was pizza night on my visit. Non-residents are also welcome at both the cafe and supper club. Within walking distance is Conkers family adventure centre (YHA guests get free child tickets), the four-mile Ashby Woulds Heritage Trail along a disused railway line, and Moira Furnace Museum on the site of a 19th-century blast furnace.
• Three-bed private room from £39 a night, dorm beds from £11pp, supper club £8.50 (under-10s free with paying adult), yha.org.uk
Conkers Discovery and Conkers Waterside, Derbyshire
This family adventure centre in 120 acres of woodland, ponds and lake on a former deep coalmine was one of the first attractions when the National Forest project began. There’s an array of activities, many included in the entry price – such as the 18-stage activity trail, barefoot walk and mining museum. The Hi and Lo Ropes Adventure is extra. The indoor interactive exhibit exploring British woodland through the seasons is excellent and a 4D cinema is scheduled to open on 14 April 2017.
• Adult £9.05, child £8.14, family (2+2) £35.95, visitconkers.com
Stage 7: Moira to Hartshorne (5.67 miles)
Bull’s Head pub, Hartshorne, Swadlincote, Derbyshire
Stage 7 passes Feanedock Wood, where active landfill sites are being transformed into wildlife habitats, an example of the “black-to-green” transformation. The stage ends at Hartshorne, where the family-run Bull’s Head is a good lunch stop, serving filling portions of lasagne, Derbyshire steak, lamb and mint suet pudding, and 15 desserts a day. It’s got plenty of character with timber beams, memorabilia and some sections dating to the 16th century. In the village, St Peter’s church contains the tomb of the Dethic family; one of whose members went to Cleves to find a fourth wife for Henry VIII.
• Soup of the day £4.50, sausage and mash £10.95, mixed grill from £15.95, bullsheadhartshorne.co.uk
Stage 6: Hartshorne to Ticknall (4.93 miles)
Calke Abbey, Ticknall, Derbyshire
After passing Hangman’s Stone, the route’s most northerly point, Ticknall village beckons. Refuel in Ticknall Tea Room, The Wheel Inn or The Staff of Life pub, where the accommodation (doubles from £105) includes two decadently designed boutique suites. The big attraction is the National Trust’s Calke Abbey, the “un-stately home”. It’s deliberately in a bit of a state, recalling a time in the 20th century when many estates fell into decline. The hoarding habits of the eccentric Harpur-Crewe family include stuffed birds and an unpacked state bed. In the grounds is a 1,200-year-old oak tree, Old Man of Calke.
• Various admission prices for whole property (adult £13.50, child £6.95, family £33.70), house and garden, and park only, nationaltrust.org.uk/calke-abbey
Stage 5: Ticknall to Ashby-de-la-Zouch (7.65 miles)
Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts, Staunton Harold, Leicestershire
Walking from Calke Abbey past Staunton Harold reservoir, it’s worth veering half a mile off the National Forest Way, for the Ferrers Centre for Arts and Craft. Artists have been working in the studios around this Georgian stable block since 1974, and now 16 workshops produce fine art, ceramics, silverware and more. Ferrers is a handy lunch stop too. Pick up takeaway sandwiches and cakes at Breadfirst bakery and deli, or Staunton Stables Tea Rooms does tasty homemade quiches, pies and sandwiches.
Ashby Castle, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire
The Ivanhoe Way section of the National Forest Way – named after Walter Scott’s novel, set in and around Ashby Castle – leads walkers into Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Its 15th-century castle was the seat of Lord Hastings, a powerful figure in the 15th century, but much was destroyed in the civil war and the free audio guide takes a lively, witty approach to its fascinating history. It is still possible to explore the underground passage between the kitchen basement and Hastings Tower and climb up for the views. In town, the Royal hotel (doubles from £60 B&B) is a comfortable stop in a grade II-listed building.
• Adult £5.60, child 5-15 £3.40, family (2 adults, 3 children) £14.60, english-heritage.org.uk
Stage 4: Ashby de la Zouch to Sence valley (5.72 miles)
Sence valley forest park, Leicestershire
This stretch takes walkers into King Coal country, where “black gold” was mined for centuries. Sence valley forest park was an opencast colliery until 1996 and its transformation into a wildlife habitat is remarkable. As many as 150 bird species have been recorded since, and my quiet stint in the bird hide resulted in a few sightings. Some 100,000 trees have been planted, and three lakes link to the river Sence, where otters are making a comeback. A mile and a half away is Ibstock, where the Post House B&B (doubles from £70) offers four en suite bedrooms.
Stage 3: Sence valley to Thornton reservoir (7.82 miles)
The Reservoir Inn, Thornton, Leicestershire
A popular pitstop at the end of this stage, this inviting pub welcomes both muddy boots and wet dogs. The set lunch is very good, with homemade pies, asparagus risotto and a homemade Indian thali among the options, and it offers steak nights, Sunday lunch and a changing dessert menu. Thornton reservoir itself is owned by Severn Trent Water and opened to the public in 1997 with help from the National Forest Company. The two-and-half-mile circuit takes in woodland and waterside settings, popular with walkers, cyclists, birdwatchers and fly-fishers.
• Soup £4, two-course lunch £12.50, two-course evening menu £15, thereservoirinnthornton.co.uk
Stage 2: Thornton reservoir to Bradgate Park (5.85 miles)
Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire
Four miles off the National Forest Way but still within Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire’s first National Trust property is worth the detour. This intentionally wonky-looking heritage cottage, which resembles something from a children’s adventure tale, was built in 1898 by designer-architect Ernest Gimson. A leading figure in the arts and crafts movement, he designed it as a summer house for his brother Sydney but it became home for generations of Gimsons until Sydney’s grandson Donald approached the Trust in 2012. It has been restored to its 1950s look, and expert guides take you through the warren-like interior.
• Guided tours only. Booking essential (closed Dec-Jan). Adult £8.60, child £4.25, family £21.80, nationaltrust.org.uk/stoneywell
Stage 1: Bradgate Park to Beacon Hill (7.23 miles)
Horseshoe Cottage Farm
Expect Aga-baked cakes, homemade bread, free-range eggs from the Horseshoe’s own hens, and local cheeses at this green-thinking, three-room guesthouse converted from a 200-year-old farmhouse. Owners Tim and Linda Jee grow vegetables in their kitchen garden, and even press their own apple juice. It’s around the corner from Bradgate Park, home to deer herds, 500-year-old oak trees, Old John Tower and the ruins of the family home of Britain’s nine-day queen, Lady Jane Grey. The end of this stage is rewarded with views from Beacon Hill, Leicestershire’s second-highest point.
• Doubles £100. Supper £22.50/dinner £30 (BYOB), horseshoecottagefarm.com
For more information visit The National Forest (nationalforest.org) and the National Forest Way (nationalforestway.co.uk). The National Forest website has downloadable step-by-step directions, complete with OS maps. Leaflets and waymarkers are colour-coded; purple for westbound walkers, orange for eastbound