Entering the ancient woods, you leave behind an English countryside filled with farm animals and green fields, suddenly transported into a mythical world, one full of warped trees, the senses filled with twisted branches of oak, lime, beech, ash and yew; a maze of pathways jinking and interlinking through rocks, stones and over wooden bridges – welcome to Puzzlewood
Last weekend, I travelled down to the Forest of Dean with a group of good friends for a short weekend break, renting out a spectacular and fairly remote lodge nestled into the heart of the forest, near Lydney and Parkend, deep down at the very far end of long potholed filled lane, just a short drive from the village of Yorkley. From the front door of the house, across the landscape and through a gap in the trees, you are able to glimpse the River Severn a few kilometres away, a majestic sight on a clear day. Unfortunately, that would have to wait for the Sunday morning.
Picking up a hire car on the Friday evening and bored by the monotony of the M4, we had arrived late in the evening with the hope that all indications and undesirable forecasts for the following day were incorrect. The plan for Saturday morning had been to walk from the Lodge, travelling by foot about ten/fifteen kilometres or so through the forest, southwest towards Puzzlewood – an ancient woodland covering 14 acres (about the size of seven football pitches).
Frustratingly, this plan was quickly thwarted early on the Saturday morning, awaking to the beating of heavy raindrops on the windows and swirling mist across what should have been the incredible vista visible from our front door. As much as I love to walk, and I’m by no means a fair weather walker, it really isn’t much fun to walk in the pouring rain, the feeling of being soaked and damp only moments after leaving shelter, especially when in the shelter you have warm mugs of steaming tea clasped tightly in your hands and a choice not to venture outside.
With torrential rain still falling at eleven, the decision was made to make the short drive to Puzzlewood instead, passing over roads transformed by the recent storm, tarmac distorted to torrents.
As we pulled into the car park, the deluge seemed to only increase in intensity, with the path to the ticket office submerged with a stream of fast flowing flood water, lapping at the door of the office, and threating to venture inside. We stood deliberating our options – no mean feat in a group of thirteen friends crippled with indecision. We had come this far, it would be a shame and a waste not to enter, despite the torrents.
After purchasing our £6.50 tickets, we left the ticket office to find the rains had suddenly stopped, with fortune and timing it dried up completely whilst we explored the indoor maze, assembled in an old farm building and then said a quick hello to Lulu, the resident Gloucestershire Old Spot pig, happy wallowing away in a paddock filled with mud and puddles.
I had mixed feelings about paying to enter the woodland. On one hand, it’s presumably someone’s livelihood and also funds and supports the local economy. However, I’m a big believer that all relevant outdoor areas should be open for all, be it woodland, beaches, moorland etc, and access to such an ancient woodland such as Puzzlewood should be free and available for all to enjoy responsibly.
Entering the woods by the single entry and exit path, you leave behind an English countryside filled with farm animals and green fields, suddenly transported into a mythical world, one full of warped trees, the senses filled with twisted branches of oak, lime, beech, ash and yew; a maze of pathways jinking and interlinking through rocks, stones and over wooden bridges. Even the name itself – Puzzlewood – is completely apt and relevant, a tumbled mess of natural features evoking mystery and intrigue, especially in previously more devout times.
Every corner is turned expecting a goblin or wizard to approach you from the other way, and it is very easy to see how the woods served as inspiration to literary and film figures alike – J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling among some of the famous authors to have drawn inspiration from the forest and placed the similar characteristics into their renowned written work.
Recent filming was allegedly completed at Puzzlewood for the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII – currently titled ‘The Force Awakens’, and it’s easy to picture the forest as a location for Dagobah (‘a world of murky swamps, steaming bayous and petrified forests’); the home of the Jedi master, Yoda, or an Ewok village. It will be interesting to see how the forest is used when the film is released in December 2015.
Among the knotted roots of the trees and moss lined pathways, you can immerse yourself inbetween the many scowles – ancient cave sandstones features of the landscape eroded over time, no doubt acting as the dwelling for pixies and goblins that live in the forest.
After an hour in the mystical world, it was time to re-enter back into England, our group having split up into smaller groups, giving a greater sense of having the forest to yourselves. The earlier rain had certainly helped, drops of rain falling from the canopy above, adding to the atmosphere, and no doubt discouraging a greater influx of visitors during our short time there, allowing us to savoir the woods with a peaceful tranquillity, we passed only a few fellow explorers on the way around.
Later in the day, we drove up to Beechenhurst Lodge, a Forestry Commission centre and the start of a short walk, a sculpture trail through publicly open and free mixed woodland. We were able to sneak in a couple of hours short walking before the seasonal premature nightfall at 4.30, a highlight spotting a group of about ten or so feral wild boar, native to the Dean, scurrying into the undergrowth before us.
Danby Lodge is a grade II listed property, full of character and compulsory creaky floorboards, and a bedroom hidden in a bookshelf, all set within an isolated and tranquil self-contained 2 acre holding, surrounded by natural forest and an incredible vantage viewpoint towards the River Severn. It’s well worth a visit. It’s available for self-catering hire, more details can be found here.