Almost 25 years after Britain’s biggest afforestation project began, the National Forest has a new long-distance path that showcases the extraordinary transformation of a scarred, post-industrial landscape into thriving, mature woodland. But, as David Atkinson discovers, remnants of far more ancient times remain.
Five years in development, the National Forest Way long-distance trail takes in some 121km/75 miles of public and permissive footpaths. It crosses the National Forest from the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to Beacon Hill Country Park in Leicestershire, in 12 sections that can be navigated from west to east (or the reverse) – with plenty of sections to dip in and out of for a weekend excursion. Along it, you chart two centuries of social history, from pastoral farming to industrialisation and its subsequent decline, to today’s partly replanted fledgling forest.
I set out on a bright, sun-dappled morning of birdsong and early summer flowers, heading east along the central spine of the trail through South Derbyshire. This section was previously one of the most blighted and scarred areas in the wake of post-industrial decline. Picking up the trailhead at the Rosliston Forestry Centre, the evolution from coal and clay mining to green forest shoots is soon apparent.
I enter the woodland outside the centre and make my way through the first of a series of wheat fields, a skylark crooning on the breeze. As I cross a wooden bridge into Penguin Wood, a young plantation of ash and wild cherry managed by the Woodland Trust, a yellow-topped waymarking post with an orange arrow sign beckons me onwards. The sun is high in the sky, hawthorns line my path, and a kestrel swoops above an old oak.
As I push on towards Park Farm, tortoiseshell butterflies flutter around my boots and I stop on a hill to check my map. The Cannock Chase AONB lies to the west, and Burton-on-Trent, the stalwart of the Midlands brewing industry, dots the hazy horizon across the Trent Valley. But it’s the trig point on the fringe of Potter’s Wood that offers the clearest perspective on how the landscape looked before the forest was planted: signs of industry towards Tamworth contrast with copses of silver birch and brightly coloured tufts of bluebells. After a break for a snack and to soak up the view, I cross the stile into the next wood and follow the ancient pathways where miners once walked to work at the local colliery.
Beyond a kissing gate lies the Grangewood estate, where 42,000 trees have added 20 hectares of new woodland to the higher ground. I continue on through Dead Dane Bottom, a glacial valley carved out by meltwater many millennia ago. By this time I’m ready for lunch, but a short detour up Cadborough Hill tempts me on, past a pond where kingfishers dip and dive. The views from the top sweep across the developing forest to the village of Overseal. Pheasants honk in the distance as I pick out the new plantings that stand next to more established varieties of silver birch, wild cherry and small-leaved lime looking on with paternal concern.
An evolving landscape
After lunch, I take a short detour from the trail near the site of the former Rawdon Colliery to explore Moira Furnace, one of the few remaining physical emblems of the Industrial Age. A blast furnace built in 1804 by the Earl of Moira to exploit the wealth of iron and coal in the area, it now houses a small museum and offers canal-boat trips past the nearby lime kilns. The red-brick furnace, set back from the Ashby Canal and with huge arches, is a scheduled Ancient Monument.
The afternoon leg from Moira to Hartshorne follows a well-waymarked path via the hamlet of Boothorpe, the spring at Blackfordby and Smisby’s ancient church. From the 18th-century village lock-up near the church, I head across farmland towards the final section through Several Woods.
Late afternoon, I trudge off the trail with boots muddied and muscles aching, the promise of a pint of Marston’s Pedigree at the CAMRA-acclaimed Admiral Rodney Inn spurring me on through the dusky village of Hartshorne.
“For me, the variety of landscape is the National Forest Way’s greatest attraction,” says Roy Denney, chairman of Leicestershire and Rutland Ramblers, which – together with other local Ramblers groups – has helped develop and promote the route, carrying out risk assessments and ‘road-testing’ it before launch. “Along its length, it passes through charming villages, pockets of new and ancient woodlands, and places transformed from industrial dereliction.”
Roy has produced a walking map of the eastern end of the National Forest and plans to work on more maps to cover the central and western sections, as well as to create a series of trail leaflets – a welcome addition as the route is still something of a work in progress. More interpretative material, including audio guides featuring the stories of local people to bring the history buried in the landscape to life, is mooted for the future.
With its target of one-third woodland cover across 200 square miles of the Midlands, the National Forest Company still has some way to go to fulfil its mission. Having planted some eight million trees to date, cover currently extends to about 20 per cent, from just six per cent when the first trees were planted in 1991.
“I hope walkers will find more than just the amenity of it as a place for a nice walk,” says Peter Wood of Greenwood Days, who offer traditional woodland craft courses, such as chair-making, pole-lathe turning and willow sculpture, in the forest outside the village of Ticknall in South Derbyshire. “For me, working in the National Forest is about being part of a living thing. Open your eyes as you walk, look for clues in the landform. The forest is an ecosystem, and I’m taking a gentle meander through its aeons.”
Walk this route with our Ramblers Routes guide!
TIME/DISTANCE: Allow 6–7 hours for the 19km/12-mile walk from Rosliston to Hartshorne via Moira. The whole 121km/75-mile National Forest Way runs over 12 stages from the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to Beacon Hill Country Park in Leicestershire, via Derbyshire. Allow around 10 days for
a leisurely take on the whole trail.
MAPS: OS Explorer 245; Landranger 128 & 129.
FURTHER INFO: www.nationalforestway.co.uk
PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Morgan