In the past, I’ve lead walks helping families get closer to wildlife and be inspired by the outdoors. A regular comment that took me aback was parents admitting that these events helped them discover places where they could take their children in the future. Even though they really wanted their children to spend time amongst nature, they didn’t know where to go ‘out there’ in the countryside.
So, here are five places I’d recommend where families can have some fun, fresh air and do a bit of wildlife watching (and all for free):
Woodchester Park, near Stroud – this is a great place to go, one of my top recommendations. It offers acres of woodland, plenty of space for children to explore, a natural play trail installed by the owners, the National Trust, and even a grand gothic house. The house boasts one of the biggest roosts in the UK of the rare greater and lesser horseshoe bats as well as looking like a set from one of the Hammer House of Horrors films. If bats make you feel slightly on edge, don’t worry, they’re not free-flying as they live in the roof space and cameras beam live pictures of them to TV screens in the house. A small cafe and toilets finish this off as the near perfect place for parents keeping children happy – note, though, that the Mansion and cafe are only open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. You can get into the cafe free if you explain on the door that you don’t want to look around the house. However, if the rain starts, a look around the mansion and time watching the bats (which are surprisingly active during the day) are ideal wet-weather options. www.woodchestermansion.org.uk.
Cost: £3/day for the car park, otherwise free unless you want to visit Woodchester Mansion which is extra (this is owned by Stroud District Council and run by volunteers).
Directions – take the B4066 Stroud to Uley road and then take turning to Nympsfield (just before or after Coaley Peak viewpoint depending on where you’re travelling from). Half a mile down the road is a left turn signposted to Woodchester Park. Drive down this unsurfaced road to reach the car park.
Horsley Valley, near Nailsworth – an idyllic valley running from Horsley to Ruskin Mill near Nailsworth. There’s a permissive footpath (i.e. the owners allow people to walk along the valley, it’s not a public right of way) all the way along with the great Ruskin Mill cafe at one end. The valley is owned by the Ruskin Mill Trust who run a college for students but as a lot of the learning activities focus on land management, food growing and traditional craft skills, the site is a maze of fish ponds (which attract herons and kingfishers), colourful flower beds (but not the municipal park kind), vegetable plots, and woodland with beautifully carved wooden benches, bridges, statues and other interesting art pieces along the way.
At the Horsley end of the valley, the stream is so shallow (it’s only a couple of inches deep) and narrow that it’s ideal for children to play in. There’s a spot where a small patch of concrete has been laid onto the bank creating an easy place to walk into the stream. When I’ve taken my daughter and her friends there, they’ve played for ages, making up games as they’ve paddled in the stream whilst I’ve sat in the sunshine on the bank. Just beyond this point is a small field with some sheep and a couple of inquisitive goats (though they weren’t there the other day when we visited). We just love this place.
Cost – It’s free to walk along the valley and Ruskin Mill is also free to get into plus it stages some interesting arts and craft exhibitions from time to time. Visiting at weekends is best when the students and teachers aren’t around so it’s quieter. The college doesn’t mind other people visiting this site as long as it’s treated with respect and all litter is taken home.
Directions – from Nailsworth, take the B4058 to Horsley. Just as you reach the top of the hill in the centre of Horsley and you can see The Hogg pub ahead of you, there’s a small public car park on your left hand side. Park in there and then turn right when leaving the car park. Walk a few yards until you reach a single track road on the right. Walk to the bottom of this road and you’ll find yourself in the valley where the road goes over the stream. Look to your left and you’ll see the public footpath sign – this is the path that’ll take you along the valley to Ruskin Mill.
Cherington Pond, near Minchinhampton – this really is a small lake not a pond but it’s good place for spotting dragonflies, damselflies and birds. Next to it is a small woodland, and a footpath takes you on a lovely stroll around two sides of the pond, over a stream flowing out of the pond, through the woodland, across a reedbed and out onto the road where you can walk back to the parking area (the road is a minor, back-road with little traffic). The place where the stream leaves the pond is a great spot for children to paddle, play pooh-sticks and generally have fun getting wet. The walk around the site doesn’t take long, only about 20 minutes – but that’s at grown-up’s pace without stopping to look at anything. The path is flat most of the way, with a gentle slope up into the woodland but could easily be walked by young children and is passable with an all-terrain buggy. It’s a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the site isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or people with mobility diffuculties.
Cost – it’s free to walk around the site but it is privately owned so please respect both the place and the wildlife, and take all litter home.
Directions – Drive over Minchinhampon Common as if you’re leaving Stroud and heading towards Cirencester, turn right where the Ragged Cot Inn (nice food and real ales, good for a drink or bite to eat) is on the corner and carry on along that road past Crackstone stables to a T-junction. Turn left and then left again almost immediately (there’s still a signpost for the Nag’s Head pointing in the direction you want to go but this pub closed a long time ago) and carry on for about 1-2 miles. Eventually, you’ll see the pond on your right. There is a small area where cars can park at the furthest side of the pond. NB there’s only space for half a dozen cars.
Rudge Hill, near Edge, Stroud – it’s so good for wildlife that the site has been designated as a site of special scientific interest (a SSSI for short). Rudge Hill is an excellent example of unimproved limestone grassland. “What on earth does that mean?” you may wonder. Essentiallly, it’s grassland in its natural form which has been grazed by farmers’ livestock for hundreds of years, without any chemicals added to it. The result is soil with low fertility, giving the wildflowers a massive head start as they’re not competing with the botanical bullies such as nettles, docks, rye grass which need soil with high fertility to thrive.
Most of the site is open grassland, and there’s an small woodland along the section which borders with the A4173 to Gloucester. Children should find plenty to explore, and butterflies are coming into their own at this time of year so look out for them: on a sunny day, they won’t be difficult to see. Apart from the road along one side, generally you feel as if you’re miles away from anywhere. Lots of flowers can be found here, (including a number of different types of orchids earlier in the season) plus trees and bushes, and a few bolders offering a restful seat for parents. As Rudge Hill (which was called Edge Common until a few years ago and probably still is by some) is a small site, children could go off on their own and can still be found when it’s time to go home. The only factor to be aware of is the gate at the bottom of Rudge Hill which leads onto the busy road. However, on the opposite side of the road is the Edgemoor Inn and it’s menu of delicious food makes it worth a visit!
Cost: not a bean. The Edgemoor Inn serves caters for all food preferences including vegan and gluten-free so adding a visit would be a treat though would obviously cost.
Directions: car parking is a bit of an issue as there isn’t much space. Either drive along the A4173 Stroud-Gloucester road and then park in the layby opposite the Edgemoor Inn where there’s a footpath leading into the site; or drive along the Whiteshill to Edge road and when you’ve passed a bus stop on your left hand side, keep an eye out for a couple of laybys on the right just before you get to the village. You can park here and enter Rudge Hill through the metal gates at the official site entrance. If you end up in the vilage, you’ve gone too far. Alternatively, the number 63 bus does pass by – ask the driver for the stop before Edge village and then cross over the road, looking for a public footpath sign will lead to Rudge Hill.
Strawberry Banks, Chalford – another place which feels that it’s miles from anywhere, an idyllic spot on a sunny day. Most of the sloping site is flower-rich grassland consisting of two fields divided by a hedgerow, and there’s a stream running along the bottom of the slope. This is another great, safe place where kids can paddle as the stream is only a couple of inches deep. At the far end of the site, the lower footpath crosses a couple of wooden planks over the river. This is a good spot for kids to paddle and parents to sit and relax! The stream bed here is made of tufa – an uncommon kind of rock which only occures in a few places around the country. It’s formed in limestone-rich streams where the limestone drops out of the water where it settles onto the bed of the sream/river bed. Gradually this layer gets deeper and then solidifies. At Strawberry Banks, the result is a hard surface which children can easily walk on without sinking into mud. There is a footpath that runs alongside part of the stream though you’ll have to re-trace your steps walking along the lower path through the meadow to find the entrance.
To reach Strawberry Banks, you have to walk through Three Groves Wood first which belongs to Glos Wildlife Trust. It only takes a few minutes and where a path splits off to the right, someone has built a log wigwam where children can play. This path leads to the top of Strawberry Banks which offers a nice walk through the flower meadows and down to the bottom of the site and the stream. Like some of the sites I’ve described above, Strawberry Banks is a place where parents can give children a bit of freedom to roam about on their own without having to worry about traffic. On your way to Strawberry Banks, you’ll pass a well-equiped, large playground where you could take the children if they get bored with being in Strawberry Banks. There are picnic benches there so you could take a packed lunch and split the day – part in the playground and part on the Banks. Chalford’s shop is also a short walk away if you wanted to get extra provisions.
Can prams be taken there? Possibly if you can lift your pram over the gate at the entrance. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way that wheelchairs can get onto the site because of the gate and the roughness of the path. I don’t think it’s suitable for people with mobility problems due to the path leading through Three Groves Wood which is not only a long way for people who can’t walk well but it’s also uphill. If anyone does manage it, please let me know!
Cost: it’s all free. There’s a community shop nearby and Lavender Bakehouse serves the most wonderful cakes plus lunches should you want a treat.
Directions: At the junction between A419 Cirencester Road and Chalford (opposite Victoria Works), turn left and drive through Chalford along the High Street and continue past the playground on the right hand side. Carry on for about a mile, and you’ll see 5 tall, wooden posts on your left at a small layby. Park here (note: there’s only room for a couple of cars here) and walk forwards a few feet to reach the footpath entrance to Three Groves Wood (an interpretation board shows that you’re in the right place). Follow this footpath until it splits into two: take the left hand path to reach the top of Strawberry Banks and to also pass the log wigwam, or continue on the main path to reach the entrance gate into the bottom part of the Banks.