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England's Best Ancient Woodlands

Will Harris

Contributor

From the iconic Puzzlewood of The Forest of Dean — used for the filming of multiple Hollywood movies, including Star Wars — to The New Forest National Park, proclaimed a national forest one thousand years ago, by William the Conqueror himself, England is home to captivating and fantastical ancient woodlands that have inspired myth and folklore, yet still remain to this day. Here are four of the most astonishing ancient forests in the country.

Puzzlewood of the Forest of Dean

Located in the western region of the county of Gloucestershire, The Forest of Dean is a broad and varied landscape which nestles against the Wye River Valley. In the 11th century, the medieval St Briavels Castle was built as an administrative centre and still remains beautifully intact to this day. But the most magical wonder of The Forest of Dean is Puzzlewood, an area of ancient woodland which doubles as a tourist attraction and a filming location.

Puzzlewood has been in use since at least the Roman period, with many Roman coins having been excavated from the area. Today, tourists can visit Puzzlewood and follow its trains in order to take in, and marvel at, the gnarled, wizened, but very much alive and thriving trees that fill the woodland. There is nothing on Earth that looks like the trees of Puzzlewood, which is exactly why it has been used so many times by Hollywood.

The final showdown of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens takes place in a snow-covered forest of wild and twisting trees. A stroll through Puzzlewood reveals the exact places where actors John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver jumped, ran, and fought. The area also inspired J.K. Rowling to create The Forbidden Forest, and was even later used as a filming location for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1.

The New Forest of the Domesday Book

The New Forest is a sprawling national park in the south of England. One thousand years ago, when William the Conqueror first set foot in England, he declared it a royal forest. Because of this, it is also featured in his legendary Domesday Book: a manuscript of the Great Survey of 1086.

Today, The New Forest is home to all manner of wildlife native to England, including a variety of heathland birds, deer, ponies, and even reptiles including adders and grass snakes. As a habitat, The New Forest is invaluable and carefully protected.

For visitors, there is a wealth of things to discover and do, from simply hikes to visits to the Heritage Centre and even local gardens and museums (including the hundred-year-old Exbury Gardens and the Rockbourne Roman Villa.

While The New Forest is certainly an enormous expanse of ancient woodlands, it thrives today thanks to the sites that have been built upon the area, including the 18th century village Buckler’s Hard, which was originally built as a place to manufacture naval warships.

Queen's Wood of London

Once upon a time, the ancient Forest of Middlesex covered much of what is now North London. What still remains of this near-mythical medieval forest is today known as Queen’s Wood, and it is a beautiful place if history and nature to explore for anyone looking to escape the city noise. Queen’s Wood is, in fact, one of four areas of ancient woodland found in the London borough of Haringey; the other three being: Bluebell Wood, Highgate Wood, and Coldfall Wood.

Today, Queen’s Wood is a nature reserve and a popular place for local hikers and dog-walkers to come and enjoy the peace and quiet. The diversity of birdlife is particularly impressive, with several species of woodpecker having made a home in Queen’s Wood.

Visitors out for a hike or a stroll in Queen’s Wood can stop at Queen’s Wood Cafe: a romantic wooden hut which serves coffees and teas, as well as organic and vegetarian dishes.

Pankhurst Forest on the Isle of Wight

A little-known secret of the often overlooked Isle of Wight is that it is home to one of the UK’s oldest forests. Beloved by locals for its diversity of nature — especially the endangered red squirrel, which thrives on the Isle of Wight —Pankhurst Forest is a tranquil and historically vital stretch of woodland.

While it has no relationship with the famed Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, one claim to fame is that King James I would travel to Pankhurst Forest to hunt deer. Today, walking, hiking, and red squirrel watching are all popular pastimes in the forest, as well as enjoying family picnics. Horse riding is also a popular forest activity, and a fantastic way to see and enjoy the forest landscape, just as James I would have done.

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