The Forest of Dean is a jigsaw puzzle of diverse trees, all glowing with wonderful autumn colour at this time of year — with so many hidden hotspots and unique ways for visitors to soak up the season.
SoGlos spoke to Visit Dean Wye's appointed chief leaf peeper, Ed Drewitt, about the campaign to make the Forest of Dean the leaf peeping capital of the UK and his top tips for experiencing autumn colour in the area.
About the expert – Ed Drewitt, chief leaf peeper for Visit Dean Wye
Ed Drewitt is a naturalist and zoologist, who regularly leads wildlife safaris in the Forest of Dean, taking people out into the woods to spot birdlife, wild boar and experience the area's diverse natural environment.
As chief leaf peeper for Visit Dean Wye, he's helping to put the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley on the UK tourism map as the best leaf peeping destination in the UK.
What exactly is leaf peeping?
The whole idea of leaf peeping has come from New England and North America, where they have quite remarkable colour transformations in the autumn and people enjoy travelling to view and photograph the changing season.
What Dean and Wye Valley Tourism wants to do is make the
Forest of Dean the leaf peeping capital of the UK. It’s a very new term for
this country so at the moment, the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley is very
much leading on this idea of leaf peeping, to get more people in the country out and about to enjoy the stunning colours this autumn.
What makes the Forest of Dean a special place to be the leaf peeping capital of the UK?
The key thing about the Forest of Dean is that compared to many forests in Britain, it's a real mosaic environment.
It's a patchwork of larch trees going yellow; the sweet chestnut trees, which have been going orange for the past few weeks; then you’ve got your oak, your field maple, your birch and your hazel. And amongst the firs and spruces which are very dark green, you’ve got this contrast of brilliant colour.
And because there is a variety of different trees here, the
autumn hangs on in different ways. For example, a lot of the oak trees
are still quite green and just starting to turn – they won’t properly go orange
for another two or three weeks. You don’t really see that fall change until the end of November, when the leaves fall off the trees.
The area is also centrally located with great road access from Wales and England. It can be reached from both the M4 and M5 motorways and we've got good train links to Gloucester, Chepstow and Lydney — as well as regular bus routes connecting the towns and villages to more outlying areas.
Autumn is well and truly here now. What’s the science behind the changing colour?
The green chlorophyll – the green layer that helps plants produce the food they need – is basically breaking down and revealing the different layers of colour that are underneath.
The yellows, oranges and browns are always there, but they’re marred by the green chlorophyll. As that deteriorates, it reveals all the beautiful colours.
Why did we experience a 'false autumn' in 2022? Was it down to the extreme heat this summer?
Essentially, yes. The reason that trees lose their leaves in the autumn and winter is because they’re trying to save water. During a period where there isn't much sunshine and they can’t really photosynthesise and produce sugars easily, it’s better for them to lose their leaves and regrow new ones in the spring.
What happened earlier in the year was the same sort of thing. The trees were detecting that there was no water around and saved themselves by losing their leaves, to make sure they didn’t dehydrate and defecate.
Then when we did get rain in early September, a lot of those trees produced new leaves — so there’s been a greening-up process over the last six to eight weeks. But from now, in response to shortening days and cooler temperatures, all of the trees will start to lose their leaves again.
What are your top tips for experiencing autumn in the Forest of Dean?
The key thing with the Forest of Dean is that you’ve got lots of ways of moving around. You can get here by bus, by train to Lydney – you can also get the steam train from Dean Forest Railway, for example.
You’ve got the Family Cycle Trail, you’ve also got the water… You can hire local canoes that take you along the River Wye and past Symonds Yat Rock, so there are ways of being able to see the Wye Valley in the changing colours from the water.
If you go to somewhere like Mallards Pike, you’ve got Go Ape, so you can potentially experience autumn up in the trees.
There are fantastic bed and breakfasts all around the Forest and the Wye Valley, where people can really escape from every day life and experience autumn on their doorstep.
Another key tip would be to visit viewpoints as well, so rather than just walking through the trees, you can be looking above them. You’ve got a fabulous view looking down on the River Wye at Symonds Yat Rock, then in the middle of the Forest of Dean, you’ve also got New Fancy Viewpoint, looking towards Cinderford.
Is the Forest of Dean an accessible destination?
In terms of accessibility, one of the great things is that many of the tracks in the Forest of Dean are managed by Forestry England. They’re wide and well surfaced, so people who have accessibility requirements don't have to navigate very small, narrow, rooted pathways.
People who are in wheelchairs and using mobility scooters will be able to get around reasonably well at Forestry England sites, like Cannop Ponds, Beechenhurst and Mallards Pike. You can also hire all-terrain vehicles from The Speech House Hotel and Forest Holidays in Christchurch.
Another thing is cost. Places like the Cyril Hart Arboretum, which is right by The Speech House Hotel, Speculation and Nagshead Nature Reserve have car parks that don’t charge.
Where are your top spots to see autumn colour in the Forest of Dean?
Some of the greatest places are in the centre of the Forest, like Speculation, Beechenhurst and Cannop Ponds. The lovely thing about Cannop Ponds is the beautiful reflections of all the different sorts of trees on the water.
Beechenhurst is especially good for families. You've got the play area and the café and the option to go walking along the Superworm trail. You’ve also got the Sculpture Trail, as well, which takes you through some very colourful parts of the forest.
If you head over to the Wye Valley, you’ve got the Devil’s Pulpit along the Offa’s Dyke Path, which takes you along the ridge looking down over Tintern.
When is the best time to go leaf peeping in the Forest of Dean?
Certainly over the next two to four weeks, we should
still have the autumn colour here. Unless we get some really dreadful rain or
wind, which could cause the trees to lose their leaves completely.
We usually recommend that people plan to come and see us anytime from mid-October until mid-November.