Discover birds, beasts and bark

Attracted by the dark secrets of forest life but can't see the wood for the trees? Lucy Gillmore beats a path for explorers

If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise. That is if you're expecting trees, fresh air and little else. These days England's forests and woodlands are a hive of activity. There are still shady groves where you can soak up the peace, breathing in the scent of damp earth, clutches of bluebells brightening the forest floor, but more often than not you'll bump into walkers, cyclists, birdwatchers, anglers, orienteerers and, er, admirers of modern art. According to the Forestry Commission we make 350 million day trips to the UK's forests each year, and that's apart from longer holidays - many forests have campsites and cabins, and don't forget CenterParcs (08705 200 300; www.centerparcs.co.uk).

So where should you start? Well, that depends on whether you want ancient royal forests, plantations of dark conifers or a forest of the future...

THE ROYAL FOREST OF DEAN

This patch of Gloucestershire was designated the first National Forest Park in England in 1938 (www.fweb.org.uk). It contains around 2,500 acres of ancient woodland between the River Severn to the east and the River Wye to the west, although today the predominantly oak woodland is mixed with conifer plantations. Walking and cycling paths weave through the trees, past disused mine shafts and quarries while - on the wildlife front - fallow and roe deer can be spotted along with badgers, polecats and otters. On the western fringe of the forest, Symonds Yat, high above the River Wye, is a famous peregrine viewing point. There is a three-and-a-half mile sculpture trail scattered with specially commissioned works of art such as Cathedral by Kevin Atherton, a stained-glass window suspended from the branches of a tree.

GRIZEDALE FOREST

In the Lake District, in the Grizedale Forest's 6,000 acres of deciduous woodland and soft wood plantations you can also see contemporary art in the landscape. The forest is home to over 90 sculptures created over the last 25 years by regular artists-in-residence. Along the 10-mile Silurian Way, a huge circuit around the valley, sculptures using wood, stone and other natural materials are dotted among the trees. You can pick up a map and guide from the visitor centre (01229 860010; www.nwefd.co.uk). This year, Go Ape - a high-rope course - has been added to the activities on offer.

WHINLATTER FOREST

Also in Cumbria, Whinlatter Forest Park (017687 78469; www.nwefd.co.uk) is England's only mountain forest at 2,952ft above sea level with views into Scotland and over Bassenthwaite Lake. From May to September you can see wild ospreys raising their young on the Osprey Watch (it's only the third time in 150 years that chicks have hatched here) while for children there's the foxtrot trail, which teaches about food webs. There are eight waymarked paths and tracks to explore and three high-level walks and mountain-biking routes.

DELAMERE FOREST PARK

The north-west of England is also home to Delamere Forest Park (01606 889792; www.nwefd.co.uk), Cheshire's largest woodland where wildlife watchers can spot the greater spotted woodpecker and southern hawker dragonfly. There are the usual forest trails beneath mature pine trees, cycling along sandy paths and birdwatching at the flooded forest of Blakemere.

THE NEW FOREST

It's certainly not new, dating back almost 1,000 years to when William the Conqueror decreed that the land from the Solent to the Wiltshire Downs was to be his new hunting ground. And less than half of it is a forest, the rest being heath or bog. Nevertheless, the New Forest in Hampshire is well worth visiting. The forest itself is made up of two types of woodland; the celebrated ornamental woodland of beech and oak and enclosures where conifers and other trees are grown for timber.

Leggy foals are one of the area's main attractions. New Forest ponies are not wild; each is owned by a commoner who pays for grazing in the forest. Cattle also graze the land, while beneath the forest canopy, five types of deer still roam. Within the forest, attractions include nature reserves such as Lymington reed beds (80 acres of wetland managed by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust), Lepe Country Park (a mile of coastline, beaches and cliff-top walks), Hurst Castle, the New Forest Museum and Rockbourne Roman Villa (02380 283141; www.thenewforest.co.uk). For the free Where to Stay Guide contact the Visitor Information Centre (01590 689000; www.visitnewforest.com). There are 10 official campsites (0131-334 0066; www.forestholidays.co.uk).

FOREST OF BOWLAND

The Forest of Bowland (01772 534709; www.forestofbowland.com), like the New Forest, is an area rather than one tract of forested land. Spread across 310 square miles of rural Lancashire and North Yorkshire, it was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1964. It encompasses large swathes of peat moorland, upland valleys and the lush lowlands of the Ribble, Hodder, Wyre and Lune Valleys as well as forest (Gisburn Forest, the largest forest in Lancashire). Places to visit include Pendle Hill, which soars over the Ribble Valley and is famous for its links to 16th-century witchcraft, the Ribchester Roman Museum and the Ribble Valley Sculpture Trail. The area around Stonyhurst College at Hurst Green is also now on the tourist trail for J R R Tolkein fans. Tolkein stayed in the grounds of the college while visiting his son, John, who was studying for the priesthood here, and the surrounding landscape inspired the descriptions of Middle Earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. You can now follow in Tolkein's footsteps on a designated five-and-a-half-mile walk.

THE NATIONAL FOREST

When is a forest not a forest? When it's a forest in the making. The National Forest is a long-term environmental initiative covering 200 square miles across three counties: Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The aim is for a third of this land to be forested, which means planting a total of 30 million trees. The area was chosen because it was one of the least wooded in the country - stripped bare by mining and clay working over the years - and links the ancient forests of Charnwood and Needwood. Planting is under way but it will be another 15 to 20 years or so before the new landscape will be completed. There are already numerous activities on offer such as lakeside walks, sculpture and nature trails, train rides and assault courses. In the Visitor Centre, called Conkers (01283 216633; www.visitconkers.com), there are also four discovery zones for children and adults, exploring the life of the forest.

Further information from The Woodland Trust (01476 581135; www.woodland-trust.org.uk) and the Forestry Commission (0845 367 3787; www.forestry.gov.uk)

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