There’s something tremendously healing about trees; spending time in woods and forests can create a wonderful sense of calm and serenity. What better way to relax and unwind than going back to basics, playing games and following nature trails through some of the region’s ancient woodlands. Enjoyable whatever the weather; if it rains, just throw on your sou’wester and jump in the puddles!
Regularly voted as the UK’s best nature reserve, Rutland Water Nature Reserve offers plenty of opportunities to get close to nature, with walking trails through several woodland habitats around this internationally renowned wetland. Teeming with wildlife whatever the season, there’s always something interesting to see in the woods.
Looking out from the trees on a brisk autumnal yomp, you can watch migration in action out on the wetlands, where the waders gather and the first of the winter wildfowl start to arrive. Later on, in the not-so-bleak midwinter, take a much-needed Boxing Day stroll through the woods, enjoying the crispness of the fresh air while working off some of that festive excess. As winter draws to a close, head out with a camera to capture the snowdrops starting to blossom. Make sure to stop to listen out for the drumming of woodpeckers, a sure sign that spring is well and truly on its way.
Here are some of the fabulous forests and woodlands in and around Rutland:
Fineshade Wood – NN17 3BB
A great day out for all the family, especially wildlife lovers. There are lots of places to explore, cycle round and play in. You can build dens, look out for forest animals, or visit the Tree House play area. Next to the visitor centre is the Oak Leaf play area suitable for toddlers upwards with seating and a picnic area. The three walking trails are marked and a cycle trail, don’t worry if you forget your bikes, cycle hire is available.
Prior’s Coppice – Braunston, Oakham, LE15 8DB
A woodland reserve teeming with wildlife and ancient atmosphere, Prior’s Coppice is a relic of the wildwood that once covered all of Leicestershire and Rutland. When you step beneath the trees, you can feel how old this remnant of woodland is. Some of the trees are several hundred years old and centuries of management have led to an ideal habitat for birds, beasts and butterflies (and botanists!).
As well as looking out for wildlife, you can read the trees here much like you can read a history book. You can see the signs of centuries of traditional management on the native British trees, in the form of giant coppice ‘stools’; this is when trees are cut down but they do not die, the stump, or ‘stool’, throws up numerous poles, which can be harvested every few years. This process, known as coppicing, prolongs the life of some trees, and there are examples in Prior’s Coppice with stools five metres across – so they’re several hundred years old!
The Seek – Braunston, Oakham, LE15 8QY
Appropriately named The Seek – meaning ‘a field running down to a stream’ – this young woodland occupies a prominent south east slope planted between 1992 and 1994 with oak ash and hazel. Enjoy stunning panoramic views across local countryside.
Gorse Field, Harris Grove & Ball’s Meadow – Oakham, LE15 6HQ
There is a permanent orienteering course on the site, starting at the car park. To download a free map, visit the British Orienteering website. This lovely mix of woodland and open grassland is on the outskirts of Oakham offers stunning views over the surrounding countryside and Rutland Water. As autumn approaches, clumps of bright red berries appear on the guelder rose, and you can help yourself to the windfall apples.
Brooke Hill Wood – Oakham, Oakham LE15 6HQ
Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust purchased Brooke Hill Wood as an extension of Gorse Field, Harris Grove and Ball’s Meadow in 2008. It was planted with native trees, including a number of royal oak trees collected from royal estates to mark the Diamond Jubilee. The site was officially opened by Princess Anne. The site used to be home to the shooting stations of Oakham School’s rifle range up until the 1970s. In older history, the site was used as a medieval field, still showing signs of the ridge and furrow ploughing method.
Wakerley Great Wood – East Northamptonshire, NN17 3BA
Open 365 days a year, from dawn until dusk, visitors can explore this historic ancient woodland that contains rich and diverse archaeological remains, near Corby. There are numerous informal trails and paths along the forest roads and tracks, some surfaced, some not. The car park is set amongst majestic larch and includes a large grassed area for games and picnicking. There are no parking charges at Wakerley Great Wood. The car parks are all hard standing and open plan so spaces are suitable for disabled parking (no marked bays).
Launde Woods – Launde, Leicester, LE7 9XB
Made up of two of the most ancient woodlands in Leicestershire, stepping into Launde Woods is like stepping back in time. Both the Park Wood and the Big Wood are very old, with massive boundary earthworks, huge coppice stools clearly centuries old, and many plants known to be confined, or nearly so, to ancient woodlands sites. Oak, ash, hazel and field maple dominate Big Wood to the west.
GO WILD IN THE WOODS!
Woodland’s make fantastic playgrounds for children and the young at heart; sparking imaginations, inspiring a love of the natural world, and creating happy memories you’ll have for a lifetime. Here are some ideas of the kind of things you can do while exploring the woods:
Build a den – gather branches and sticks that have fallen to the ground. Please don’t break them off the trees.
Be a wildlife detective – polish your magnifying glass and get up close and personal with some woodland creepy crawlies. Identify wildlife by looking for animal tracks on the ground or even recognising their poo! A pocket-sized wildlife book should help you identify what you find.
Go on a scavenger hunt – search for the wonderful natural treasure of autumn, like twirling helicopter seeds, prickly conker cases, brown acorns and bright berries. Later on, look out for the signs of winter, such as lacy leaf skeletons, fallen tree cones and glossy evergreen leaves.
Make woodland art – Make a pattern using pine cones, leaves and pebbles, build a tower out of twisted twigs, or create funny faces on the woodland floor with a stick. By all means take a photo for posterity, but be sure to leave your art where it is to surprise the next woodland explorers!
Let your imagination run wild – if you love pirates, see how many shipwrecks (fallen trees), cannon balls (conkers) and parrot feathers you can find. Use crossed fallen twigs sticks to make an X to mark the spot of buried treasure. If pixies, elves and fairies are more your thing, look for evidence of them living in the woods. Can you find secret doorways in trees, toadstool seats, flower petal hats or acorn cup goblets?
Get inspired by your children’s favourite books – get everyone to hunt for the Gruffalo’s footprints, find the Magic Faraway Tree, or pretend you’re in the grounds of Hogwarts, looking out for the Whomping Willow.
Take a blanket, a flask of hot chocolate and your favourite book and sit on a log to read it.
This Japanese practice of forest bathing is an effective relaxation technique; know in Japan as shinrin yoku. The simple act of being calm and quiet among trees, breathing deeply while observing nature has been found to help both adults and children reduce stress levels and boost their health and wellbeing in a totally natural way.
Government research in Japan in the 1980s concluded that spending a couple of hours forest bathing could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels and improve concentration and memory. Researchers also found that trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies, boosting the immune system. As a result of the studies, the Japanese government introduced ‘shinrin-yoku’ as a national health programme.
Over the last few years, mindfulness practices like forest bathing have gained popularity in the UK. Why not take this opportunity to slow down and immerse yourself in the forest atmosphere. Here are some top tips to help start your meditation journey and get back to your roots:
- Turn all of your devices off (or at the very least, to silent mode) to give yourself the best chance of relaxing, being mindful and enjoying a sensory forest-based experience
- Slow down. Move through the forest at a very slow pace, so you can see and feel more
- Take long breaths deep into the abdomen. Extend the exhalation of air to twice the length of the inhalation – this sends a message to your body that it can relax
- Stop, stand or sit, and smell what’s around you. What can you smell?
- Use all of your senses to take in your surroundings. How does the forest environment make you feel? Be observant, look at nature’s small details.
- Sit quietly using mindful observation; try to avoid thinking about your to-do list or issues related to daily life. When doing this, you might be pleasantly surprised by the number of wild forest inhabitants you see.
- Feast your eyes on the beautiful greens and blues around you. Keep your eyes open; the colours of nature are incredibly soothing and studies have shown that people relax best while seeing greens and blues.
- Stay as long as you can, start with a comfortable time limit and build up to the recommended two hours for a complete forest bathing experience.