‘Hidden gem’ is a pretty over-used phrase these days, but it definitely applies to the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean. Not only are the acres of ancient forest and deep rushing rivers spectacularly beautiful, but the area is also full to the brim with places to explore and activities to try. What’s more, it’s only an hour’s drive from me – so after a quick zip down the M4 on a Friday afternoon, I soon found myself bowling along quiet country roads to arrive at Puzzlewood, where I was staying for the weekend.
A place to stay
Being slightly obsessed with lichen, the first thing I did after unloading the car was head into the woods themselves, stopping to say hello to the resident Shetland ponies on the way. Helen (site manager and our lovely host for the weekend) gave me a quick run-down of the area’s history, before leaving me to explore the jutting rocks, gnarled trees, and meandering pathways of Puzzlewood.
All-in-all the site covers 14 acres, and it’s easy to see why J.R.R Tolkien supposedly used it as inspiration for the forests of Mirkwood and Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings. The strange geological features (known as scowles) are actually the result of natural erosion and later iron ore mining by the Romans, but as you wander around you could easily imagine that you’ve been transported to Middle Earth instead. Location scouts aren’t immune to Puzzlewood’s charms either, casting it in everything from Doctor Who to Star Wars (The Force Awakens, if you want specifics.)
It’s an incredibly peaceful place, especially when you can explore alone out of hours – just another reason to book into one of the holiday cottages on site. I was in Puzzlewood Patch, the smaller of the cottages, where my lovely weekend flatmate Iona and I could curl up after a long day of adventuring for a cup of tea and a chat. As well as beautiful surroundings the cottage has all the facilities you could want – although with so much to do nearby, you probably won’t need the DVD player.
Where to eat
When it comes to food, my criteria are pretty basic: 1. taste good, 2. give me energy for adventuring, 3. stop me starving to death. However I reckon the food in the Forest of Dean would impress even the most hardcore of foodies. Here’s a round-up of a few places to try…
Green and Jenks, Monmouth
Green and Jenks is family dairy business that started in 1888, and was re-launched in 2015 following a gap of just a mere 58 years. These days they focus on producing delicious gelato ice creams made every day at their shop in the centre of Monmouth, where we went for the first meal of the weekend. It just so happened to be their ‘gin and gelato’ night, so first up was cocktails – though being a true West Country girl I opted for the cider version over gin.
Next up, Gilly (the 5th generation of the Green/Jenks family) had laid on a delicious buffet of local produce including bread from the bakery down the road, spring-time salads and wild boar charcuterie from the Forest itself. Then came the real thing we’d been waiting for: the gelato. They seemed to have every flavour under the sun from traditional vanilla through to Jaffa Cake, with the option to mix and match and add toppings to your hearts content. Plus gelato contains less fat than traditional ice cream – so you can eat twice as much (right?)
House of Bread, Christchurch
Wherever your adventures in the Forest of Dean take you, you’ll never be far from good food. We popped in to the House of Bread for a lunch stop between activities – they’ve got a cosy tea room serving fresh lunches and home-made cakes. While eating you can peruse the shelves of beautiful ceramics, made on-site at the Hot Pot Pottery. If you’ve got time you can even try your hand at painting your own piece of pottery.
Farmer’s Boy Inn, Longhope
After a day tearing down mountain bike trails or canoeing along the river, you’ll be in need of a good meal. The Farmer’s Boy Inn at Longhope is a 17th century former coaching house, now converted into cosy pub surrounded by beautiful countryside. We pitched up in the dark and drizzle, but received a warm welcome and a table by the fire to help ease aching muscles. There are plenty of locally produced ales and ciders to try from the bar, and the food is also well worth the trip – with portions that are both generous and delicious. I plumped for pork with apple crumble for desert, but they also have award-winning pies to try, many of which are gluten-free. Because who doesn’t like pie?
Forest of Dean Hog Roast Co.
It wouldn’t be a trip to the Forest of Dean without a Wild Boar roast. On our last day we all gathered under the canopy of Puzzlewood for a cook-out courtesy of the Hog Roast Co., with ethically sourced meat from a local butcher. If that doesn’t strike your fancy then they also have their own home-reared pigs, so you always know where your meal has come from.
So that’s your accomodation and food covered, but if you want some ideas of things to do during your stay then be sure to check out part 2 of my trip. Fair warning: you could end up wanting to spend more than a weekend here!
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Tourist Association on this trip. All words and opinions are my own.