The best forests to explore in Northumberland holiday cottages

The best forests to explore in Northumberland

Lauren 28 November 2022

Northumberland is home to some of the most stunning forests in the UK, many of which can be found in the beautiful Northumberland National Park, an area covering over 1,000 square kilometres on the border with Scotland. 

The national park sits within the bigger Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, a recognised site with ideal conditions for stargazing. As a result, the towering trees of the area can be enjoyed under the cover of a starry sky and in the peaceful atmosphere of one of the country’s least visited national parks. It is regarded by many as being the home of the best forest walks in Northumberland.

There are also a number of woodlands worth visiting outside of Northumberland National Park, with some of the best spots located along the east coast of the county. Many of these woodlands reveal Northumberland’s rich history, with remnants from medieval conquests to more recent industrial developments. 

There is a forest to suit everyone, whether you’re looking for forests for family days out, forests for adventures, or forests with plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Here, we have collected what we consider to be the best forests for every visitor:

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Best forests for family days out

Kielder Forest

Kielder Water as seen from above hillside pine trees and rock outcrops

Possibly the best known of Northumberland’s forests, with its world-famous observatory and Europe’s largest man-made lake to boot. This 250-square-mile forest is situated within the Northumberland National Park and the Dark Sky Park, which hosts a visitor centre, the country’s largest reserve of red squirrels, a vast mountain bike trail and bike hire available at The Bike Place. There are also opportunities for trout fishing on Kielder Water, plus the ‘Minotaur Maze’ and the ‘Skyspace’ light sculpture, meaning it has plenty on offer for a family day out in Northumberland. 

The observatory regularly hosts dark sky events which are ideal for introducing the whole family to astronomy. If this sounds appealing, a visit during February might be ideal, as this is when the observatory hosts the annual Northumberland Dark Skies Festival. If you need even more persuasion to visit this fantastic spot, we’ve compiled our top six reasons to visit Kielder Forest.

Joe's Wood, Simonside Hills

Crag rock outcrops emerging from the moorland in the Simonside Hills area, near Joe's Wood

With a spacious car park at the start, Joe’s Wood offers one of the best circular walks in Northumberland, covering a distance of 5 miles and taking in the sights of the Simonside Hills, Dove Crag, Joe’s Wood and Coe Burn beck, all sitting within the Northumberland National Park.

Near the start, when the first section of woodland clears, there is the chance to take a short detour to see Little Church Rock, an interesting rock outcrop which has been used as a secret spot for religious gatherings in the past. Back on the main path, the Simonside Hills are in full view. The summit is majestic and, with steps built into the side of the ascent, getting there is easier than it might seem, with access even possible for small children. The views towards Rothbury at the top are truly stunning. 

Continuing on towards Dove Crag, you will encounter another impressive summit before eventually descending into the pine trees of Joe’s Wood, where the peace and quiet is broken only by the sound of birds in the trees. There is even a quaint wooden bridge over Coe Burn Beck towards the end of this circular walk, which will be the perfect end for any water-loving four-legged friends who have joined you on the walk! 

Plessey Woods

The still waters of the River Blyth as it navigates through Plessey Woods

Set within grounds of over 100 acres, Plessey Woods is a haven for wildlife, offering year-round colour and interest with a wide variety of flowering plants, meadow areas and interesting tree colours in the autumn and winter. Otters can be spotted along the banks of the River Blyth which runs through the area, and often kingfishers too. In and amongst the trees is a sculpture trail designed by a local artist which just adds to the enchanting feeling of this woodland. As the woodland is part of the wider Plessey Woods Country Park, there is also a visitor centre here where you can learn more about the forest and the surrounding area, as well as a cafe and young children’s play area, ideal for taking a break after a woodland walk! 

To extend the excitement of a trip to Plessey Woods, why not take a short 3-mile detour to Bedlington where you can visit Northumberlandia? Also known as the Lady of the North, Northumberlandia is a vast sculpture made of clay and soil which reclines for a quarter of a mile.

Best adventure forests

Hepburn Woods

A view of the bracken and overhanging trees that can be found at Hepburn Woods

Hepburn Woods has so many secrets to uncover and is the ideal forest for an adventure! There are scatterings of historic remnants in and amongst the birch and pine trees here, including a detached crag known as the Berthele’s Stone, which was named after Fritz Berthele, who worked for the Forestry Commission and in his time discovered a vast amount of Bronze Age pieces from this area. All of these pieces are now on display at Chillingham Castle, which is just 3 miles away and well worth a visit after your forest trip. 

Wandering through Hepburn Woods, you may also encounter the 3,000-year-old Iron Age hill fort, perfectly positioned for fantastic views of the surrounding areas. There is also a 19th-century lime kiln to be found, one of the many located primarily along the Northumberland coast. If you are up for an even bigger challenge, we recommend heading east of the woods and up to Ros Castle, which isn’t a castle but actually the summit of the Chillingham Hills, and peaks at 315m, with a trig point on its summit and views back towards Hepburn Woods and the surrounding area. On a clear day, it is said that you can spot seven castles, including Chillingham Castle, from this vantage point! This is also a great spot for stargazing, with the Wooler area being one of Northumberland’s Dark Sky Discovery Sites

Thrunton Woods

A historic cairn set on the moorland near Thrunton Woods

Thrunton Woods is a great spot for climbing in Northumberland, and also has a number of interesting folklore stories to uncover. Why not head out in search of McCartney’s Cave on the side of Callaly Crag, reportedly once used as a place of contemplation for a local monk? Or Thomas Wedderburn’s Cave, said to have been used by a local highwayman and cattle rustler as a place to escape justice; his initials are said to be carved into the entrance of the cave, so you’ll know when you’ve found it.

Thrunton Woods offers stunning views of the Cheviot Hills through breaks in the trees and offers sight of the crags that surround the forest: Thrunton Crag to the north of the wood, and Coe and Long Crag to the south. Coe Crag offers some quirky rock outcrops and is a popular climbing spot. For a more challenging climb, Callaly Crag is to the west of the woods. Whether you are up for a spot of climbing or not, this side of the woods is well worth a visit to see the Hard Nab Cairn, which offers a largely undisturbed look at the Bronze Age settlement that once existed in this area. 

If fishing sounds more like the kind of adventure you're seeking, you can try your hand at Thrunton Long Crag Trout Fishery, a great way to spend the day or a few hours, just make sure you have an Environment Agency rod licence.

Holystone Woods

The Drake Stone, a rock outcrop set in the Northumberland moorland near Holystone Woods

Although it is within half an hour's drive of Thrunton Woods and also within the Northumberland National Park, Holystone Woods offers a very different experience, and one that we really recommend if you're looking for unusual forest walks in Northumberland. Being an ancient woodland, it's ideal for a peaceful walk, and it’s no wonder that there was a priory set up here in the 12th century, given that the nearby waterfalls create a magical atmosphere, perfect for contemplation. The woodland is also a top spot for reconnecting with nature, with the nearby Holystone Common being a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the whole area a stronghold for red squirrels. 

A short 9-minute walk from the woods will continue the atmospheric adventure, arriving at Lady’s Well, a pool of water which emerges from within a grove of trees where it is thought that St Ninian baptised early Christians. You may want to extend your walk further and head up to the medieval ruins of Harbottle Castle, as well as the Drake Stone which is said to have magical healing powers and also goes by the names ‘Dragon’s Stone’ and ‘Druid’s Stone’. From the Drake Stone, you can see Harbottle Lake, which supposedly has a ghostly spirit protecting it. Or, head south to see Woodhouses Bastle, a fortified farmhouse which offers a glimpse at rural life in years gone by.

West Dipton Woods

Red and white mushrooms known as 'fly agaric' which can be found in West Dipton Woods

This woodland probably has more stories attached to it than any other on this list, and is perhaps the trickiest to navigate, with its combination of ancient woodland, overhanging oak trees and dense jungle-like ferns, all contained within a very steep glacial gorge. Within West Dipton Woods, the intriguingly named ‘Queen’s Cave’ can be found. It is so called because legend has it that during the Battle of Hexham, Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI, had to flee with her son, the Prince of Wales, but was unable to escape due to her horse losing a shoe. The site of this happening is marked on the map as the ‘Queen’s Letch’ (an old English word meaning ‘boggy meadow’) and can still be visited today. To avoid capture, the Queen was forced to take refuge in a cave within the gorge, where she remained until it was safe to emerge. 

Within the forest, you will also encounter the ‘Devil’s Waterfall’, a name dating back to the 15th century for this tributary of the River South Tyne which fuels the ‘Devil's Water’ stream. Other things to look out for are ‘false truffles’ which look very much like the edible kind but aren’t, as well as fly agaric, the inedible red and white spotted mushrooms, which only add to the mystery of this gorge forest! 

Best forests for wildlife watching

Whittle Dene

A small pale cream and green bird known as a Willow Warbler, which can be spotted in the woods at Whittle Dene

Whittle Dene is a great choice for a forest walk in Northumberland, especially if you are looking for a particularly scenic route. Home to abundant wildlife, this woodland is particularly good for birdwatching, with willow warblers, kestrels, woodpeckers, kingfishers and dippers seen here. A visit in spring will offer walkers the chance to see the woodland floor carpeted with bluebells, and the rarer early purple orchids can be seen here too, if you know what to look for! Like many of Northumberland’s forests, the ruins of a water-powered mill can be found at Whittle Dene, highlighting the rich industrial heritage of the area. The reservoirs on this site also draw in a number of interesting aquatic birds, and there is the opportunity to try out fishing on the water. 

The best time to visit for birdwatchers is between April and September when ospreys can often be seen in flight and fishing, though there is plenty to see here all year round with curlews, terns and greenshanks being drawn to the water. At the northernmost reservoir, there is a fantastic bird hide, and access to the Hadrian’s Wall Trail, the coast-to-coast path which follows the famous wall, allowing visitors to easily connect to other wildlife hotspots along the route.

Slaley Forest

A red squirrel sat on a snowy pine branch, as can be spotted at Slaley Forest during the Winter

One of the best things about wildlife in Northumberland is that it’s never too far away, given how abundant it is in the county, and Slaley Forest makes it possible to see some truly unique species. Being on the edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) means that not only do you get to glimpse what Northumberland has on offer but also to see the differences just outside of the county. Slaley Forest overlooks Derwent Reservoir; the circular route here is a great way to experience both, as well as the variety of wildlife that is drawn to these spots. Slaley Forest and the surrounding areas are home to red kites, red squirrels, nightjars, tree pipits and a wide range of insects, including the green hairstreak butterfly which can be found on the bilberry bushes of the area. This can be an elusive butterfly, but a sighting on Pow Hill Heath, to the south of the reservoir, is where it’s most likely. 

With its mix of spruce, pine and larch trees, Slaley Forest is a magical place to visit in the winter under the cover of frost or snow, but there is plenty to see and do all year round, with a sculpture trail to be uncovered on the eastern side of the woods. There’s also the option to pick up the Weardale Way in the forest, which takes you deeper into the North Pennines AONB, ending up in the pretty village of Blanchland. If the North Pennines is new to you, we’ve created a handy guide to what you can see and do in the Allendale area.

Harwood Forest

A purple marsh orchid as can be spotted in Harwood Forest

Much like nearby Holystone Woods to the north, Harwood Forest is a red squirrel reserve. It is the ideal home for them with its mixture of broadleaf trees and conifers, with plenty of nuts, seeds and berries to enjoy from the pine and spruce trees. The red squirrels build their nests, known as ‘dreys’, high up in the trees, using a mixture of sticks, leaves, pine cones and grass. Roe deer also frequent the woods. 

Harwood Forest is a site of over 1,000 hectares so, while it is a popular forest with local visitors, there is the option to avoid the well-trodden paths and seek out some tranquillity by making your own route deeper into the forest. As with all forests, it’s important to keep your dog close by and on a lead when wildlife is around so that this important habitat can be maintained. To make the most of this Northumberland forest, you might also want to visit Mill Burn, on the eastern edge of Harwood Forest near Elsdon, which is a swathe of grassland with limestone slabs and the mill burn stream running over it. Given this environment, it’s possible to spot adders and golden-ringed dragonflies who make the most of the grasses, as well as marsh orchids and other grasslands species that live in this unique environment. 

Map of Northumberland forests

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Northumberland’s forests have something to offer every type of visitor, whether you’re looking for a taste of adventure, family days out or spots for a relaxing walk, and we have cottages to suit every type of visitor too. From family-friendly barn conversions to cosy cabins for two, start planning your woodland escape with a stay in Northumberland today. 

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.

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