As you may have gathered from my blog posts, I've really enjoyed walking the National Forest Way. I found myself eagerly anticipating each walk, and happily inking the route on the map when I'd done it.
The National Forest Way is an ideal starter long-distance walk. There are no enormous mountains or exposed cliff edges. The route is never too far from a village, a car park, or a cafe. But there are some lovely views over sunny fields, some beautiful patches of woodland, and some industrial history along the way. I very rarely found it boring.
An advantage that I didn't appreciate when I started is that the Way forms a giant zigzag. This means it fits 75 miles of path into a relatively compact space, making it easy to reach all of it. From my home in south Derbyshire, every section was within a 40 minute drive. The distance between Beacon Hill and the National Memorial Arboretum is only about 25 miles.
The countryside is lovely, and generally overlooked in favour of the Peak District. I often went for miles without seeing another person. There are exceptions (don't do Bradgate Park on a Bank Holiday like I did!) but usually it's very tranquil. Of course, you can join the crowds if you like; Calke Abbey, Conkers, Rosliston Forestry Centre, and Foremark Reservoir are all popular attractions en route.
Finally, but very importantly, the directions for the National Forest Way are excellent. The free downloads cover each stage in both directions (many paths assume you will only walk one way). They include a chunk of the OS map with the route clearly marked. In general, the waymarkers on the ground are obvious, too. Occasionally one has disappeared. I often found the directions useful on the short sections through village streets, where the arrows were less common. But I almost never had a problem finding the path.
There were only a couple of minor quibbles. Firstly, as someone who likes paper maps, I found it annoying that while most of the route was on OS Explorer 245 (National Forest, obviously!) I then had to buy two more maps to finish - Leicester and Loughborough. However, I do realise that all sensible people have gone over to apps now. And if I wasn't so keen on plotting my route with a Sharpie, I probably would have just used the downloads and not bought the extra maps. Still, I might complete the Leicestershire Round one day...
The only other disappointment was the lack of starting and finishing signposts. There are some very nice information boards along the way. So it was a surprise to get to Beacon Hill and find nothing, not even a waymarker with "START/END" underneath it. I don't remember anything at the Arboretum, either, although that was a long time ago. Both places are owned by separate organisations; perhaps that led to difficulties in putting up signs.
It's hard to pick highlights. Jacksons Bank and Gresley Woods were both beautiful. I would like to go back and walk around Thornton Reservoir on a sunny day. Netherseal, with Sir Nigel Gresley's grave, was interesting, and the miners' memorial at Bagworth unexpectedly moving. And of course, you can't beat Beacon Hill.
So, if you've ever been wondering about trying a long-distance route, I would recommend the National Forest Way as a great place to start. It's not too strenuous, it's easy to get to, you'll see a lot of trees... and if you want company, I'd be happy to do any of it again.
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