The UK’s Secret Woodlands and hidden forests

Writers find their inspiration in many different forms, for some it’s the sea, for others it’s the hustle of city life. For me, it’s the forest. John Muir, the famous naturalist said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness” and I firmly believe it.

There is nothing more magical to me than a forest, the possibilities that hide in the trees, the wildlife just out of sight, the stories we can create from nothing but nature. I grew up on Beatrix Potter, Jack London, and like most kids of the 90s, Narnia – children stepping into a magical forest and having an adventure with a lion? Yes please.

As I became a writer, those inspirations found their way into my novels. The Wolf Road takes place in the Canadian wilderness, The Origins of Iris in the Catskills, Children of the Sun in a remote part of the Adirondacks in America and the forested valley in Bitter Sun is rooted in my childhood playing in the woods in Cornwall.

I tend to seek out woodland wherever I go, be it the alpine forests of the Rocky Mountains, the spruce and pine forests of Sweden, or the multiple and varied woodlands on our doorstep in the UK. In my travels I’ve found some true gems worth a visit and a wander.

Here are my favourite secret woodlands in the UK

Helland Barton Woods in Cornwall is truly hidden and only really known to locals. It’s a patch of woodland in a valley at the end of a long trail near the tiny village where I grew up. Full of bluebells in spring, and carpeted in bright orange leaves in autumn, it’s a hideaway for local kids, swinging on ropes over the streams and racing up and down the steep hillsides and making dens.

Also in Cornwall, Trebarwith is a magical area, a stone’s throw from the beach and one of the many hidden woodlands in valleys all over North Cornwall. At Trebarwith a trail runs up past an idyllic picnic spot beside a stream into the wooded valley, in the spring replete with bluebells, past the remnants of Cornwall’s mining past, and the iconic Prince of Wales Engine House, to stunning views of the wild coast.

Further inland, Davidstow Woods is a small, man-made coniferous forest beside an old airfield where most teenagers in North Cornwall, including myself, first learn to drive. The woodland is an imposing stand of blue-black conifers, inside it’s a grid of straight-trunked trees, all the more eerie and uncanny for being so neat.

Devon, especially Dartmoor, is full of amazing woodland, but my favourite is Wistman’s Wood. It’s one of those places you have to see at least once. It’s a remote, high altitude oak forest on Dartmoor and was one of the reasons Dartmoor was designated a Special Area of Conservation. Because of the altitude, the oaks are short and have developed twisted trunks with their branches lying on rocks or the ground. The branches are draped in lichen and moss giving the whole place an eerie, fairytale quality. Fertile ground for a writer.

In Oxford where I live now, Shotover Country Park is my favourite place to go. Shotover is a forested valley full of ancient woods, hidden places, varied habitats, and extensive wildlife. This is my go-to place for a Sunday stroll and Gruffalo hunt with my daughter, but it turns Narnian in the winter, the slopes of the meadow turn white with frost and the whole valley takes on a magical air.

If I have a bit more time and my daughter is in the mood, we’ll head to Warburg Nature Reserve in Henley on Thames. High in the Chilterns, this place is a hidden gem, abundant in wildlife with grassland at the valley bottom and thick wooded hillsides. It is an orchid wood, with more species and abundance of wild orchids than anywhere else in the three surrounding counties. 

When I lived in London, Ashstead Common near Epsom was my place. This is a beautiful little woodland in Southwest London where we used to take a weekend ramble to get away from the bigger and busier parks like Richmond and Wimbledon Common. Ashstead is full of ancient oaks, earthworks, even a Roman Villa. A true treasure within the M25.

Just outside the motorway, you’ll find Box Hill, near Guildford. A national trust area with woodland stretching up a steep hill. It’s named for the box trees that grow on the west slope. There is an old fort which served as a defence for London and it’s full of winding trails and stunning views.

Out the other side of London, is the Norsey Wood Local Nature Reserve in Billericay, Essex. A beautiful woodland of ancient chestnut, hornbeam and oak. It’s a designated monument and Site of Special Scientific Interest with around four hundred years of known history and evidence of Iron Age use. The ground is hilly, undulating with ancient paths and habitats. A great place to lose yourself for a few hours.

I love camping so the Lake District is high on my list of favourite places in the UK and there you can find Manesty Park and Brandelow Park. Two gorgeous patches of woodland, one on top of the other, on the shores of Derwentwater. In contrast to the farmland and bare slopes around them, these forests are havens of calm, with trees pushing up against the rocky beaches, low branches touching the water.

Lastly, Scotland, one of the UK’s last wild places, has always held a special place in my heart but when I think of woodland there, one place comes to mind and it’s not even an official forest. At the base of Conic Hill on the east side of Loch Lomond, there is a patch of dense, dark woodland that feels transplanted from Canada. It’s damp and boreal and smells of wood rot and moss. A small slice of wilderness and a place to get off the trail.

Author note: Beth Lewis is a wilderness writer and her latest novel Children of the Sun is published by Hodder on 25th May, £18.99 Hardback.

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