Ten years ago, London-based runner Andrew Kaye took a big decision to leave urban life behind and put down roots in the Forest of Dean. It is one he hasn’t regretted.
“I had no prior knowledge of the area or any friends here, so it was a brave decision,” said Andrew.
“I was fortunate enough to buy an old cottage located down a track tucked into the forest. I couldn’t believe my luck – step outside the door and I’m straight on to fire tracks; no roads in sight, just abundant wildlife and endless mixed-leaf tree plantations. Often the only distractions are a group of boar or deer hidden around the corner.”
He loves the area so much he decided to step up as event director for the Mallards Pike Parkrun, set up in conjunction with Forestry England.
The woodland straddling the southern end of English-Welsh border is one of Britain’s surviving ancient woodlands. While centuries ago it was most popular as a royal hunting ground, nowadays there are plenty more activities for the public to choose from – including trail running, naturally.
Clare Curtis, Active Forest Ranger for the forest, brims with enthusiasm as she promotes all these activities. She particularly enjoys running around Mallards Pike Lake.
“It’s just so peaceful,” she said. “You’ve no cars around, and miles and miles of off-road trails. There’s various wildlife, such as birds and squirrels. Generally, because you’ve so much forest you don’t come across groups of people. If you want a bit of escapism time, you have it in bucketloads.”
However, with such a wide expanse of forest, you are never short of options, with plenty of different scenery and a mix of surfaces. Symonds Yat on the banks of the Wye is a really good place to start if it’s more challenging hilly terrain that you’re searching for.
“Through the spring the colours are absolutely beautiful,” Clare said. “It doesn’t get too sparse through the winter either because of the diverse range of tree species in the forest.”
Among other runners fortunate to live here is Andy Raynor. He said: “Having the forest trails on my doorstep is a runner’s paradise. During the winter you can appreciate the vast expanse of the trails with the lack of foliage and, in the summer, you get to experience the full beauty of what the forest has to offer.
“During lockdown I felt extremely fortunate to have these trails easily to hand as you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere very quickly, very easily, and very safely as most of the trails are well marked.
“Whenever you wake up and feel like running, you can guarantee there is a suitable trail here ready and waiting to be explored.”
Among the wildlife, the forest is home to more than 1100 wild boar, the largest population in Britain.
The feral pigs were actually hunted to extinction in England around 300 years ago. But a group escaped from a nearby farm in the 1990s and then, in 2004, a further 60 or so were released illegally and their numbers subsequently spiralled.
The wild boar are rumoured to be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt, so you definitely wouldn’t want it to give you a headstart in a race.
One local, Mark Baker, said: “If you go on the quieter trails, you can see them in the daytime, but they just run away when they hear you coming.”
You are advised to avoid dense undergrowth. Runners who like to take their dogs on the trails are also advised to keep their four-legged friends on leads at all times and, if you do encounter boar, remain still or move away slowly in another direction. Resist the temptation to do a spot of forest Fartlek!
Nature-lover or not, there’s no doubt you will love a run in the picturesque Forest of Dean. It has some of the most remarkable trails on a variety of terrain beneath the towering trees. It’s certainly worth the journey, no matter where you’re travelling from in the UK.
WHY YOU NEED TO GO
Mallards Pike trails
Mallards Pike Lake is a stunning location and makes a great start for a run with a range of waymarked running trails. With varying distances from 2-10k routes, the network of marked trails makes running through the forest more accessible, so you can feel confident to just hit the trails and go. The new Parkrun from the lake is 1.5km of climb followed by a speedier second half of gentle descents and undulations, all on hard trails which can be muddy in wet weather.
The Forest of Dean is home to many species of wildlife (beyond our porcine pursuers) and you may be lucky enough to spot some on your run. Look out for the flash of a tail from a deer species such as fallow, roe and muntjac. Not forgetting to look down now and again for the boar, if you look up you may catch a glimpse of the majestic Goshawk, its broad wings weaving in and out of trees, hunting at speed. Pine martens have also been recently reintroduced here. The size of a domestic cat, they are a member of the weasel family.
Among the races on offer are the Forest of Dean Spring Trails Half Marathon, Forestry 100 Series and the Rogue Runs Off-Road Night Series.
Go Ape, cycling trails, watersports and Gruffalo orienteering for the family are just some of the things you can try to fit in around your run.
Where to stay
Some of the most popular places to stay in the area include Monmouth, Chepstow, Ross on Wye, Coleford, Cinderford and Tintern.