It’s a kingfisher!” Ed’s body swung round and leaned forward, his arm following in a wavelike motion the bird soaring above the water at Cannop Ponds in the Forest of Dean. We leaned with him, scanning the sky. “There it is, there it is.” Ed Drewitt, our guide, had spotted its landing perch in a pine around 400 metres away. “Wow, I’d love to be able to do that,” my daughter whispered. Ed got his binoculars out so we could glimpse the orange belly of the bird, the first kingfisher he’d seen this year, he told us excitedly. Ed, a passionate zoologist, was taking us on an “animal safari”, offered to guests staying at the Tudor Farmhouse in the heart of the Forest of Dean. The “safari” is perfect for animal lovers, including my daughter Sophie, 20, studying animal management, and my 16-year-old son, Toby.
We’d arrived the afternoon before and, thanks to the hotel’s map of wild swimming spots, headed straight out to the River Usk, half an hour away, sinking into the water from a tiny island beach in the centre of a bend in the river. After a slow journey on clogged motorways, it was a refreshing and magical way to start our forest adventure. Back at the hotel, we enjoyed cocktails in the garden, before stepping across a wooden bridge over a tiny stream that led inside to dinner. I was impressed by the variety on the menu, particularly for someone like me who is gluten and dairy-free, and by the fact that much of it was locally sourced – and tucked into delicately flavoured beetroot and cured salmon, followed by pork belly with roast onion.
The next morning, it was a short drive to Puzzlewood, the inspiration for Tolkien’s Middle-earth, an area of woodland where moss carpets a landscape of rocks and trees. We ambled up paths and across bridges, trying to spot the precise locations for scenes from Star Wars and Doctor Who, both of which were filmed here.
Following a lazy afternoon at the hotel – me on the terrace drinking in the views, Sophie and Toby in front of the TV – we set off for a picnic at Wenchford before Ed collected us from the hotel. Stopping at the ponds, he was soon in raptures at the sight of wagtails, mandarin ducks, coots, goldfinches, chaffinches and, of course, that kingfisher.
What we were itching to see were wild boars, the wild pigs which were once native here, before being hunted to extinction. But then, 10-15 years ago, they were reintroduced by an anonymous breeder who released a few into the woods. As prolific breeders with no natural predators, the boars quickly multiplied and today there are an impressive 1,500 of them. Deep into the forest Ed led us, encouraging us to inhale the hoplike scent of flowering horse chestnuts and the freshness of wild mint, as the words and rhythm of Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt played in my head. Suddenly we heard snuffling and grunting and the sound of twigs snapping under trotters. We stood still, peering into the trees, slightly scared by the prospect of the untamed beasts we could hear, but wanting to see them, too. Minutes passed. The sound died away. We marched on.
The geography of the forest, sandwiched between the rivers Severn and Wye, meant that it was historically an isolated and closed community. Even today, “Foresters” – people born in the Forest of Dean – have special privileges, such as the right to mine iron ore, coal and stone, and permission to allow their sheep to roam free. A couple of days later at the Speech House, a 17th-century hunting lodge and courthouse turned hotel, we were to learn about the ancient system of rule that still exists – and indulge in a three-tiered cream tea.
It was 9.30pm and the light was fading. We’d stared through the binoculars at the grace of a stock-still deer and glimpsed another as it bolted into the trees. Ed picked up a dorbeetle to show us its iridescent belly and Toby held a tiny toad in his palm. Then, almost back at the ponds, we finally caught sight of a pair of cute stripy-backed boarlets who shuffled across the path in front of us. Then it was back to the hotel where a welcome platter of cold meats and cheeses awaited us.
The following morning we had a break from animals to glide up and down the Wye on paddleboards – a first for me – with Inspire2Adventure. In our two-hour session, thanks to skillful instruction from the friendly Paul Marshall, we quickly got from kneeling to standing, learned several ways to turn and even mastered a few tricks, such as linking our boards to create a raft. Fully clothed, Sophie and I were determined to keep out of the water while Toby, experimenting with jumping 180 degrees on his board, fell in multiple times – and declared that we were boring for staying dry. Later, Sophie was keen to visit the butterfly zoo a few miles up the road, so she and I spent a couple of hours in its tropical enclosure spotting rare specimens, such as the owl and blue morpho, and even a delicate glasswing.
As the day closed, we checked into a remote but extremely comfortable cottage with Forest Barn Holidays outside Cinderford, on the forest’s eastern edge. A hot tub on the patio and a welcome basket of local goodies meant we barely strayed from the site. We were, however, lured away to dinner by the Lyon Inn at Westbury-on-Severn where our fussy diets were once more impressively catered for, again by mostly local produce. I couldn’t resist the sound of charred peach and maple-glazed tofu with puy lentils, while Sophie and Toby enjoyed nasturtium pesto on a light and fluffy bruschetta.
There was a final piece of forest magic on our last morning, at the onsite falconry, a stone’s throw from our cottage. My own childhood experience of birds of prey, gawping at them in cages or watching somebody else fly them, had never stirred my imagination. Here, however, we saw them up close – really close – just the three of us, and the resident falconer Mark Parker whose passion began, just as in Kes, with a tough school life and a pet kestrel. Each of us in turn slipped our hand in the glove so that Mark could place the bird – first a kestrel, then a Harris hawk, finally a barn owl – on it. The birds then flew to a post before gliding back towards us, wings full stretch in hypnotic motion, hovering momentarily in front of the gauntlet then touching down gracefully as we kept its landing perch steady. I held a goshawk, the lethal beak and fearsome stare of its yellow eyes inches from my face and witnessed my daughter do likewise, her absorbed, lit-up expression alongside is dazzling plumage. And I caught my son’s reverence at the peregrine falcon on his arm. Its ability to dive at 200mph makes it the fastest creature on earth.
The final treat was when Mark brought out the falconry’s newest arrival, a baby snowy owl, which we were allowed to stroke. We all watched as the tiny fledgling with soft grey feathers hopped around in front of us – the perfect end to our nature adventure.
• Tudor Farmhouse has double rooms from £99. Their Wildlife Safari costs £40pp. Forest Barn Holidays, four nights sleeping eight, from £1,076. Their half-day Falconry Experience: £25 per adult, £15 per child, £70 family ticket. Puzzlewood entry: £7. Paddle boarding with Inspire2Adventure: £25pp for two hours. Europcar car hire from £13 per day.
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