There’s a certain pressure to celebrate milestone birthdays so I started giving some thought to my 40th half way through last year as friends around me started hitting the big four zero. I wasn’t too fussed about having a party and as my birthday falls on Valentine’s Day I didn’t want to share a special evening out in a restaurant full of overcharged fellow diners. So I opted for a weekend away with my family. This meant a certain amount of web-trawling to whittle the options down. I looked at some of the luxury family-friendly hotels but decided the prices were a bit excessive. Given my children’s age and propensity to be unwell in winter I knocked all thoughts of foreign travel on the head which left UK cottages or a Center Parcs type of experience. In the end I opted for Forest Holidays as it felt a bit more special than Center Parcs (we took a house with a hot tub) and less full of other people’s children. In fact, in spite of it being the February half term weekend, it was surprisingly lacking in children. There were several couples celebrating the Valentine weekend and quite a few groups sharing the larger properties.
We live in Hertfordshire and although there are closer options we settled on the Forest of Dean as we have good memories of a pre-kids trip there. If like us you have to travel along the M40 and A40 to reach Gloucestershire, you may find yourself travelling through the irresistible Cotswolds by lunchtime. Although it may seem like a travesty not to eat in one of the endless gastropubs which dot this delightful corner of England, we decided to choose a more down to earth option and had lunch at the Little Chef in Burford. Feeling a bit sheepish about visiting the least attractive part of this otherwise charming town, we did find time to enjoy the excellent playground at Burford garden centre which has a wooden train and tractor plus a sandpit and picnic tables. We also made use of its rather luxurious (by garden centre standards) toilets but skilfully avoided the posh toy shop and even posher cafe.
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.
Forest Holidays is more low-key than Center Parcs and 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.
On our first day we woke to sleet and decided it might be wise to nip into nearby Monmouth to buy some waterproof trousers (bad planning on my part for not packing any) before collecting our hire bikes and trailer. Monmouth boasts not only the very indispensable Millets but also several butchers and a particularly great bakery, Wigmores, where we had coffee, ginger bread men and a slice of delicious blondie (a white chocolate version of the brownie). My husband also picked up an excellent cake for my birthday after I forgot to pack the ingredients for him to make me one… Armed with the cake plus Welsh lamb, beef and cheese from one of the butchers, we returned to the lodge for lunch and then collected our bikes and trailer for a cycle around the area. 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.
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.
I had prebooked the Saracens Head Inn in Simmonds Yat for lunch on my birthday. It was recommended by Forest Holidays and 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. To my delight is was completely free of naff Valentine-related nonsense. 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 lamb awaiting us for dinner. We enjoyed a three course meal 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.
After lunch we visited Clearwell Caves which gave our four year old a great introduction to caves and mining and gave our toddler the opportunity to sleep off a mystery virus / teething issue. The walk through the extensive cave system took about half an hour and afterwards there was a great little play area with some rusting mining vehicles which the boys enjoyed exploring. After a busy day of looking after the kids in the rain and mud (and caves), followed by some delicious roast lamb for dinner, it felt particularly gratifying to relax in the hot tub with a glass of bubbly that evening, not a bad way of spending one’s 40th.
Although there was a dearth of families at Forest Holidays, all of the local child-friendly attractions opened their doors for the season on the February half term weekend. I had already read about the magical Puzzle Wood and, given my four year old’s keen imagination, we headed there on our final day. 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. We all enjoyed wandering through the trees, across stepping stones and over little wooden bridges. Even though our toddler had been feverish and unhappy for much of the weekend he enjoyed this magical wood no end and we spent over an hour exploring without scooping him up once (which is lucky as pushchairs are not permitted). There were also some farm animals, a barn with ride on toys, a cafe and a good play area including a little maze woven from willow branches.
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.
After our cuppa it was time to hit the road and return home. And in case any readers think that all of this was a bit overly child-orientated for a 40th celebration, I did also have a special dinner out in London with my husband the following week and I’m currently en route to a joint birthday celebration weekend with a group of girlfriends, child free. No harm in milking it a little bit!
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.