It’s one of those gloriously golden summer evenings as we leave the Forest Centre behind us and follow a winding trail into the woods, our feet crunching a rhythm into the gravel. The air is heady with scents of bracken and pine, warmed by a full day of sun that now sends hazy rays slanting through the trees. Nestled on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, just 15 minutes by road from Exeter, Forestry England’s Haldon Forest Park covers 3500 acres of trees and hills, networked by well-maintained, waymarked trails. We’re here to explore, linking up the three dedicated running trails of 3-5km in distance to make one larger loop of around 10km. As well as being a great trail running venue, Haldon is also popular with walkers, horse riders, mountain bikers and families – yet its waymarked trails make exploration of the quieter areas of the park a doddle.
Following the arrows, we cross an area of open hillside, a lone buzzard circling high above us, gold against a deep blue sky. A designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, this is an important place for birds of prey, with goshawks, hobbies, sparrowhawks and kestrels all hunting in and around the forest, while rare birds including nightjars and crossbills breed here. Over the summer months it’s also a great place to spot butterflies, including wood whites and pearl-bordered fritillaries.
We soon find ourselves in a dense pine plantation, deliciously cool and dark after the bright sunshine. It’s a fun, fast stretch of trail, snaking between the trees, and we pick up speed, racing each other, leaning through the bends like we’re riding bikes on singletrack. Before we know it we’re back out in the open, stopping when we reach the crest of a hill to take in views that stretch along the wide meanders of the River Exe to the glittering sea beyond. The rest of the route is enjoyably varied, winding and undulating through a mix of dense woodland and open reaches, dotted with unexpected views. We arrive back at the Forest Centre to find plenty of people, from evening dog walkers to mountain bikers, still out enjoying the quieter trails.
Being so close to both the coast and Dartmoor, the weather at Haldon is notoriously changeable and there’s a fine drizzle in the air when we return the following morning. We’ve arranged to meet Forestry England Ranger Jon Waller, who introduces us to a gathering crowd of cheerful runners – the Haldon Trailblazers. Clad in sunshine yellow in defiance of the weather, the members of this free, over-55s group, funded by Active Devon’s Connecting Actively with Nature (CAN) project and co-ordinated by Jon, started running less than a year ago. Led by local running coach, Helen Lynch, the group progressed through a structured Couch to 5K programme together. Many had never run before and started out walking, graduating 12 weeks later by completing Haldon’s Parkrun. The Trailblazers now meet regularly to run the forest’s peaceful trails in a sociable and supportive environment.
Ten years ago, Helen and her husband, Ian, founded their own off-road club – Haldon Trail Runners – which now boasts 40 members including some regular race winners. She is delighted to be involved with the Trailblazers and her enthusiasm and expertise is clearly pivotal to the project’s success. “I’m so elated with the way they’ve bonded,” she says. “At the start they all wanted to achieve, they just weren’t sure they’d be able to manage it. But because it was geared to the over-55s, they didn’t feel there was any pressure to look a certain way or behave a certain way.” Chatting to the group as we run – a 3km loop with a good hill at half-way – this inclusive approach is something they really value, along with the camaraderie of the group and the joy of being out in such beautiful surroundings. There’s a real sense of pride in having achieved something many of them hadn’t thought possible, and in achieving it together. This is a project that has really made a difference, and at the end of our run we say goodbye to the group, humbled and inspired.
Like many Forestry England sites, Haldon Forest hosts running events throughout the year, as well as a Saturday morning Parkrun (when permitted again by government Covid-19 guidelines). Self-guided trails start from the Forest Centre or, if you’re local, Haldon Trail Runners train here twice a week.