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Go down to the woods in the National Forest
Spinning pit head winding gear, blackened miners’ faces thick with dust, and open cast mines gouged out by big boys toys. I grew up close to the Leicestershire coalfield, and loved it.
There was something exciting about that patchwork of rolling farmland, cosy villages and industry, which mainly consisted of digging for stuff — granite, limestone, clay, and especially coal. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was kind of cool.
In the past few years, however, big things have been going on in the heart of England. That landscape of pits and tips has been transformed — greened over with millions of trees and returning to woodland.
It is called the National Forest, and, quietly, and without fuss or fanfare, an area of exhausted industry is being turned into an area of woodland covering 200 square miles across three counties.
More than eight million trees have already been planted, connecting the ancient hunting forest of Needwood, in Staffordshire, with lovely Charnwood, near Leicester — a jagged worn-down volcanic landscape of gnarled oaks, bracken heaths and outcrops of some of the planet’s oldest rocks, once the stomping ground of the young David Attenborough.
Eager to see what was going on, show my soft southern kids what proper countryside was like, and remind myself whether Bass and Burton ales really did taste better at source, I went back home. And, I don’t mind admitting, it was all mildly disorientating.
For a start, there are all those trees. I mean, they are all over the place. And while the villages all seem to be in the same place, it is disconcertingly pretty, with country parks and play areas where once were spoil heaps, lakes and spinneys instead of black holes in the ground, and enough craft centres, tearooms and smart pubs to give even the Cotswolds a good run for its money (though, thankfully, still at East Midland prices).
We decided to stay in the heart of the forest, taking a self-catering forest lodge at Rosliston Forestry Centre, a stone’s throw from what used to be Cadley Hill Colliery, in South Derbyshire, not that you’d know that now.
These new timber lodges are set in their own private clearings in the woods — bordered by lakes, reedbeds and wildflower meadows criss-crossed by cycle tracks and fitness trails. Think Center Parcs without the pools, crowds and prices.
The lodges are spacious, with massive kitchens containing everything you’d expect from a fairly posh cottage, big bedrooms and bathrooms. The size is important; each is designed to accommodate disabled visitors. And as well as underfloor heating, TVs and DVD players, each comes with its own deck and barbecue — perfect if you are travelling with young Bear Grylls or Ray Mears wannabes. And it’s quiet, with just the gentle sound of birdsong and woodpeckers and, at dusk, the spectacle of bats reeling overhead. Oh, and in our case, the racket of two boys armed to the teeth with water pistols, charging through the undergrowth.
For young adventurous souls who fancy themselves as Indiana Jones, it is a paradise.
The woods are big enough to be genuinely exciting without being too easy to get lost in; just perfect for searching for Temples of Doom, or, at least, fir cones and hatched-out birds eggs.
The forestry centre hires out cycles, including trailers and tag-alongs, for exploring the trails; or you can try your hand at falconry, archery, or a climbing wall, all of which are laid on at the centre. Even more fun is the laser combat, where boys and girls of all ages — including those of us old enough to know better — can spend a relaxing hour diving into foxholes, hiding behind log piles and being ambushed by kids with more stamina and better aim. We were kitted out by a strapping Royal Marines officer in training who, I don’t mind reporting, also came a cropper to a six-year-old sniper.
A short distance away, at the heart of the forest, is Conkers where an equally energetic day can be had, losing your kids on the adventure playgrounds, riding a train around the site, exploring the lakes and woods and even learning something useful in the indoor discovery zones — where young adventurers can follow a simulated treetop walk, get to grips with hands-on science displays and tire themselves out in an enchanted forest play area. It is all quite lovely.
But this beauty is more impressive than the casual visitor may realise, because, for 150 years it was the site of Rawdon Colliery — a dusty riot of winding gear, conveyors and heavy machinery, sitting on top of coal seams where toiled hundreds of local people. Almost everything you see is new; nature given a massive helping hand by man. Here and there, tantalising traces of the past do remain, though.
For a real taste of the recent past, however, head to Coalville, where Snibston Colliery still crowns the skyline. The mine shafts have been capped, but everything above ground has been left exactly how it was when the last shift knocked off in 1983. And on hand to tell you its stories are the very men who worked its seams – once again donning orange overalls, helmets and lamps, but this time to show curious visitors around the pit head, tool shop, stores and engine shed — where Pitt, the colliery shunting loco, will take you along what is left of the old line.
The coal and quarrying industries are given their due respect in the neighbouring Discovery Museum, where kids can also pull on helmets and dart into tunnels, and try out hands-on experiments like lifting a Mini with an electro-magnet, creating a mini-tornado, and using bellows to fire up a furnace. And huge fun it all is too.
In nearby Charnwood Forest, you can go back further still, exploring the romantic ruins of the home of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day Queen of England, set among 850 acres of heath, woods and splintered rock, or head for the heights at Beacon Hill. But, to be honest, the true marvel of the National Forest is all around — in the ambition of its grand design, where the clock really is being turned back to a rural, pre-industrial idyll. It’s like the Olympic opening ceremony in reverse — those chimneys falling to be replaced by meadows, lakes and woods.
It’s tempting to imagine one of those tough old miners leaning on a gate and looking out at the forest and sighing “I remember when all this used to be pits.”
NATIONAL FOREST FACTFILE
VISIT: For more information on the National Forest go to nationalforest.org
STAY: Rent a forest lodge at Rosliston Forestry Centre, Swadlincote, Derbyshire.
Lodges can sleep from four to 10 people and are available for four-day midweek breaks or long weekends. Prices start at £541 for an August weekend and £569 for a midweek break in a lodge sleeping four. Prices fall for September, and are even cheaper in the autumn. Go to roslistonforestlodges.co.uk to book.