Forest of Dean holidays are a great way to enjoy a family break. We visited the region for my 40th birthday during a fairly chilly February half term. Despite the weather, it was a fantastic place to visit with children. There is a great selection of things to do in the Forest of Dean with kids aside from the obvious woodland walks. Highlights from our trip include the magical gnarled woodlands of Puzzlewood, exploring the tunnels of Clearwell Caves and taking a train ride at Perrygrove Railway.
The Forest of Dean includes 43 square miles of woodland with Symonds Yat and the Wye River on its western edge and the River Severn on the eastern side of the forest. Ross on Wye lies to the north while Chepstow is on the southern border. For our visit to the Forest of Dean we stayed in a lodge with Forest Holidays. I’ve put together some of the best family-friendly things to see and do in region.
Forest of Dean Holidays: things to do
Handily for families of little children, opposite Puzzle Wood is Perrygrove Railway. The train line uses steam engines and diesels and has a couple of stops where passengers can go for a walk or explore an elevated wooden adventure play area. We rode on the train and then headed to the cafe for an overdue cuppa while our boys took delight in a table top wooden train set (fairly similar to one we have at home but the appeal never wanes on anything train related). There was also an indoor mini town play area which looked perfect for rainy days but my sons were so absorbed by the train set that they didn’t even notice it.
Castle ruins are evocative places to visit for children and medieval Goodrich with its impressive views over the Forest of Dean countryside is one of the best preserved castles in the area. Kids will enjoy scrambling to the top of the battlements and learning about the castle’s history through its varied artefacts including a Civil War mortar. Run by English Heritage, the castle has plenty of facilities including audio tours and a cafe.
Dean Heritage Centre
The Dean Heritage Centre provides a complete history of the region set across five galleries with plenty of interactive exhibits including a reconstructed Victorian cottage and a charcoal burners camp. There’s an outdoor adventure play area and a cafe.
All of the Forest of Dean child-friendly attractions opened their doors for the season when we visited on the February half term weekend including magical Puzzlewood. With paths winding past moss-covered rocks and gnarled trees, it is no surprise that various productions such as Merlin and Doctor Who have been filmed in this atmospheric spot.
Clearwell Caves is a natural series of caves which have been mined for iron ore for thousands of years. Visiting the caves today is a great introduction to mining and geology. The walk through the cave system took us about half an hour and afterwards our kids enjoyed the great little play area outside with some rusting mining vehicles to clamber on. There’s a cafe for that obligatory cup of tea or coffee which tired parents need from time to time.
We had tiny tots in tow on our trip to the Forest of Dean but on a previous visit to the region I really enjoyed the long walks through the woods and the climb up to Simmonds Yat Rock, a limestone outcrop with wonderful views over the landscape below. There are lots of walking trails and a marked bike track through the forest and of course there’s a cafe.
I’d like to return to the Forest of Dean for a family holiday when the kids are a bit older so that we can take them kayaking on the River Wye. There are plenty of canoe and kayak operators on the River Wye including at Symonds Yat.
Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail
Introducing small children to art can be a tricky business so when art can be incorporated into an outdoor walk children are far more likely to engage with it. The sculpture trail in the Forest of Dean is approximately four miles long and begins at Beechenhurst picnic ground where there is a car park, cafe, play area and toilets. There are both permanent and temporary sculptures, all of which are designed to blend into the forest.
Where to eat in the Forest of Dean
I had prebooked the Saracens Head Inn in Symonds Yat for lunch on my birthday. It was recommended by Forest Holidays and also by my parents who had stayed there several years ago. Set on the banks of the River Wye, it’s a proper pub full of walkers, dogs and, the day we visited, lots of people watching the Six Nations rugby.
To my delight, although it was Valentine’s Day, there wasn’t any naff romance theme to the pub (something I take issue with, sharing my birthday with this particular saint). What it did have was an excellent menu including a good variety of children’s meals. Although the lamb dishes were very tempting I ended up with some delicious monk fish as we had a fridge full of local Welsh lamb awaiting us for dinner. We enjoyed a three course meal at the Saracen’s Head including candles on my pudding and my toddler miraculously managed to stay at the table for most of this period so it felt like a relatively relaxed celebration.
Forest of Dean Holidays: where to stay
Forest of Dean Lodges with Forest Holidays
Forest Holidays has various locations around the country. The concept is simple: a collection of lodges dotted through the woodland. It feels more special than Center Parcs (which it is often compared to) as there are far fewer units and no chain-style eateries. In spite of it being the February half term weekend when we visited, it was surprisingly lacking in children. There were several couples celebrating the Valentine weekend and quite a few groups sharing the larger properties.
We arrived around 4pm at Forest Holidays which is check in time. It was quiet and we quickly found our lodge and did a bit of exploring. For dinner we headed to the Retreat, billed as “the heart of the resort” but not beating at quite the rate one might expect. We turned out to be the only people having an early meal there (it’s only open until 8pm). The Retreat is open plan so the eating area and bar share the same space as the check-in desk, shop and a large bookshelf full of ceramic woodland creatures waiting to be painted or possibly smashed by a curious toddler. The food and wine were good and it was fun heading back to our little forest house in the darkness, the children armed with torches.
At Forest Holidays, all of the extras are chargeable: highchairs, cots, towels, hot tubs… We decided to bring everything we could fit in the car and pay for the hot tub. And hot it certainly was, we could only really manage the suggested twenty minutes before clambering out to cool down in the zero degree night air. The lodges were all fairly well spread out and there was little light pollution so it felt very peaceful and although we were among the trees we could still see the starry night sky.
Forest Holidays works well as a base for exploring the area rather than as a destination in itself. The emphasis is on the forest and its surrounding attractions rather than the multitude of activities on offer. Each location has a forest ranger and various forest-related activities such as twilight walks and bush skills courses. There are bikes and trailers to hire and plenty of waking and cycling routes to explore. As well as eating in at the Retreat, you can also order takeaways or book in-room spa treatments.
We hired bikes and a trailer during our stay at Forest Holidays. Quite a few of the paths are pedestrian-only routes and dragging the trailer through mud was a bit tricky at times so we kept to the roads through the resort which had very few cars on them during the day.
You can opt to stay in a forest lodge or tree house in the Forest of Dean or alternatively you can book one of the meadow lodges which looked like they would be perfect in summertime. We enjoyed being hidden away among the trees. The lodges can sleep between two and 10 guests.
Have you taken any Forest of Dean holidays? Let me know in the comments below.
If you’re driving in the UK, check out my post about the best family-friendly places to stop just off the motorway, including picnic spots, country parks and castles.