As the seasons change and the leaves take on their autumn colours, it’s good to get out into the fresh air and make the most of the shortening days. Luckily for us, one of the places named in the Forestry Commission’s 2016 Top Ten for woodland walks is not far away. Alice Holt Forest, sits four miles south of Farnham in Surrey, but is located within the county of Hampshire. It offers more than eight miles of trails for walkers and cyclists of all ages and abilities, in a delightful, family-friendly setting. Dogs are very welcome too! The origin of the park’s name is obscure, but it’s been suggested that it’s a variation of ‘Aelfsige’, an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester, and ‘holt’ meaning ‘wood’.
If you fancy a longer walk, Alice Holt is the first stop on the recently completed Shipwrights Way, which connects with Sustrans, the national cycle network. One of the newest trails in Britain, Shipwrights Way meanders fifty miles through the beautiful South Downs to Queen Elizabeth Country Park, and beyond to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, home of Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose and Nelson’s flag-ship, the Victory. Along the trail are twenty sculptures, with three of these, by artist Richard Perry, found at Alice Holt. With no less than seven railway stations along the route, it’s quite feasible to walk in one direction, then let the train take the strain on the way back, perhaps with a stop for refreshment at a friendly country pub or cosy tea-shop.
But for a day out with the kids, especially with half-term approaching, you need venture no further than Alice Holt Forest. Once a royal hunting ground, it can now be enjoyed by everyone. In Tudor and Napoleonic times, the oaks in this ancient woodland were felled to build ships for the Royal Navy on the south coast. Centuries later the forest has regenerated, providing a wonderful setting in all seasons, with a combination of evergreen pines, conifers and native broadleaf species. The woods are carefully managed, with the aim of providing suitable habitats for a variety of wildlife, ranging from the rare Purple Emperor butterfly (which features in Alice Holt’s logo) to the elusive dormouse. This is home to all manner of birds, including woodpecker, grey heron and nightjar, as well as badgers, roe deer, squirrels and rabbits. Despite plenty of cars in the car park, it’s easy to get away from the crowds and find your own peaceful spot in the forest.
This extensive natural environment is a great place for energetic kids to let off a bit of steam. Intersected with nature trails and streams, playgrounds and open spaces, Alice Holt has plenty to keep the family entertained. There’s the Habitat Trail, plus a recent addition, the Timberline play trail, with plenty of opportunity for climbing, scrambling and sliding. And for autumn there’s a seasonal activity trail to engage the senses while exploring the forest. Although there are a few steep hills, there are also plenty of flatter paths. Most of these are gravel, making them accessible all year round, but if you venture off the path, it can get muddy and wellies are recommended. The Easy Access Discovery Trail is suitable for wheelchairs and baby buggies, and encounters a number of charming characters from the popular Gruffalo stories. This gentle route has a mile or mile and a half option, and is mainly bump-free.
If you’re more adventurous, you can clamber up rope ladders and whizz through the tree-tops on a zip-wire at Go-Ape (booking required). For those with a head for heights this bird’s eye view is definitely the best way to see the forest. If you prefer to travel at ground level, bring your own bike, or rent one from the cycle hire shop situated near the visitor centre. The helpful staff can provide bikes and helmets for riders large or small, including tagalongs and bike trailers. They dispense maps, safety tips and advice on what to do if you get puncture. A popular family cycle route covers three miles of traffic-free forest and includes picnic opportunities! Advance bike booking is available online and is recommended for busy times.
If you don’t fancy a picnic, refreshments are available from the Café on the Green, with a new, larger café currently under construction.
Alice Holt Forest is located off the A325 at Bucks Horn Oak, near Farnham, Hants GU10 4LS. The park is open every day except Christmas Day, from 8am to 5pm, October to February, with later closing times in spring and summer. Admission is free, but pay and display charges apply to parking. At the time of writing, one of the car parks is being extended to provide additional spaces.
For more information please check the website
Written by Claire Thurlow