The Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley might just be Gloucestershire’s best-kept secret. Here's why – and where – you should visit.
As the name suggests, Tudor Farmhouse is a former working farm, converted into a stylish boutique hotel with 20 characterful rooms, cottages and suites. Set in 14 acres of ancient grassland in the Gloucestershire village of Clearwell, it’s been lauded by the likes of Conde Nast Traveller and Tatler and it’s easy to see why. Tudor Farmhouse is the definition of laidback luxury, with the sheep, ponies, chickens and runner ducks out in the fields throwing in a dash of personality for good measure.
In our suite room, beams of late afternoon sunlight stretch their fingers through the skylight-style window angled on the side of the timber-beamed A-frame ceiling. A bronze chicken stands guard on another windowsill, gazing at the comfortable lounge space. A duo of doors at the end of the room opens to reveal a claw-footed bathtub prowling by a glass panel protecting the monsoon shower. The little touches whisper of understated elegance; a curved glass coffee table, Bramely bathroom products, the Nespresso coffee machine. Outside, sheep roam in a paddock. Inside, it's all rustic lux.
It’s not only the accommodation that punches above its weight either. Provenance is taken seriously here, with Head Chef Rob Cox championing local suppliers whenever possible and incorporating foraged elements into the perfectly presented plates. The spiced duck leg ragu with cep veloute and crispy duck skin is lightened with shaved rhubarb, while the light Dorset crab with apple, coriander and fennel hints at summer. The Longhorn beef sirloin and braised short rib served with carrot and onion and drizzled with red wine sauce is richly satisfying and the Old Spot pork belly with cauliflower, charred baby gem and marjoram jus is simply divine. Don't miss the vanilla cheesecake with rhubarb sorbet and poached rhubarb either.
The Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail
The Forestry Commission’s Beechenhurst picnic site marks the start of the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail. The four-mile trail meanders gently through ancient forest, punctuated by contemporary sculptures created by artists to interpret the Forest environment and the history of this unusual landscape.
Dappled sunlight filters through the trees as you make your way around the circuit – it's worth buying the map from the café before you set off. Some of the artworks take more imagination than others. Several blend into the surrounds so well they are hard to recognise. Others are more obvious and more arresting, including The Iron Road, installed along a stretch of disused railway embankment deep in the Forest. Images carved into 20 evenly spaced railway sleepers bring the Forest’s industrial past to life.
The penultimate work, Cathedral, is perhaps the most evocative. A single stained-glass window, 15 feet high by 10 feet across, is suspended above the path. There is no religious iconography, but rather, a pastoral scene is sketched out in the coloured glass. Despite being man-made, it seems to belong here amongst the trees, providing an ideal venue for self-reflection.
Standing in open countryside above the River Wye, this is one of the best-preserved of all English medieval castles. The medieval fortress originated in the 11th century and it towers over the surrounding countryside, offering spectacular vistas. It was once an important border fortress, responsible for securing southern Herefordshire, but, despite its location, it had a relatively peaceful history – until the Civil War anyway. During that conflict it was used as a Royalist base, resulting in a siege and bombardment that damaged it beyond repair. You'll have to visit to learn more about the Civil War Siege, as well as the murder holes built into the castle walls and the stunning stained glass window in the 13th-century chapel.
Symonds Yat Rock
Symonds Yat Rock is a limestone outcrop rising high from the banks of the River Wye, offering superb views of both the river and valley. Further on, down a treacherously winding, single-lane road, Symonds Yat East and Symonds Yat West stare at each other across the river, the only immediate means of crossing an old hand-pull cable ferry. If time and weather permits, you can hire a canoe to paddle down the river here, or stop in at one of the watering holes and watch the river flow by.
Doctor Who fans won't want to miss seeing where the eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, filmed both his first and final episodes. The strange rock formations, secret caves and ancient trees of Puzzlewood, an atmospheric ancient woodland, have attracted many a film crew and wandering the pathways with their tangle of trees and rocks, it’s easy to imagine goblins and fairies hiding in its nook and crannies. It's a lovely place to get lost in and enjoy the earthy scent of the forest, the tangle of trees and the winding paths that snake in and out, up and down over the gnarled landscape. Be aware that you may have a Hansel and Gretel moment and wish you'd brough breadcrumbs – the exits are not clearly marked, but that's part of the fun.
Underneath the Royal Forest of Dean lies a natural cave system that has been mined for more than 4,500 years – and Doctor Who has been here a few times, too. The caves are actually a collection of six mines: Clearwell, Old Ham, Lambsquay, Old Bow, Oak Pit and New Dunn. The interconnected cave systems were formed by underground streams from around 180 million years ago and were originally mined for ochre, then for iron ore. Clearwell Caves are still worked intermittently to produce coloured ochres for use as natural pigments. These are washed and milled for sale in the mine's shop.
Nine well-lit chambers are accessible to visitors, with displays throughout. There is also a small museum, shop and café. For spelunking enthusiasts, a network of deeper chambers can be visited with a guide and appropriate caving equipment.
Tintern Abbey is a little further afield (but still only a half-hour drive from the Forest of Dean) and as it is the best-preserved medieval abbey in Wales, it's worth the detour. When I say best preserved, I am by no means saying whole. The abbey is roofless, but this just adds to the atmosphere.
Tintern was the first Cistercianf abbey founded in Wales back in 1131, and only the second in Britain. In 1269, the original structure was replaced by a new abbey church, widely recognised as one of the masterpieces of British Gothic architecture. The great west front with its seven-lancet window and the soaring arches of the nave continue to awe. The abbey fell into ruin after the Dissolution of the Monasteriesin the 16th century, but lives on as a highly visited slice of history that continues to inspire poetry and art.