Swinley Forest adventures with top-notch facilities
Swinley Forest has pretty much everything going for it. Acres of woodland to explore, fantastic bike trails, playground, Go-Ape tree-top adventure, cafe and a science discovery centre.
This is a regular haunt of ours which our kids can never get enough of. There is a large car park with a reasonable pay-and-display charge. Just by the car park is the Discovery Centre which has toilets and a coffee shop, the Go-Ape venue, mountain bike hire, large kids playground and a space for kids to make dens from a well stocked supply of branches.
Exploring the forest
We use the forest all year round. In summer we explore all the hidden clearings, ponds and ancient roman ditches. In the wet months the wellies are on and we paddle in the many puddles and small streams. Spare clothes are a must with my two. Josh always ends up with wet feet at best, sitting in a puddle waist deep in water when things get really crazy. Emma will also push the paddling to the limits of until her boots fill with swampy forest water. It’s a little smelly but nothing offensive.
During the autumn months the soggy kids is not too much of an issue. During the winter when the temperatures are below or close to freezing, soaking wet clothes usually mean we are heading back to the car park to change. When the puddles are frozen the uncontrollable urge to skate on them or break up the ice far out-ways the uncomfortable cold walk back and the struggle to get wet socks off.
There is so much space in the forest it’s easy to find a quiet spot to sit and have a picnic or spend time building a den. We often come across areas off the beaten track where the forest rangers have left many trimmed branches. Perfect for a lesson in building a wilderness shelter.
I also use the forest for running. There are around 16 square kilometers of it so make sure you know your way back to the car park. In places the tree cover is dense and all the paths look the same after a while. The main paths through the forest are easy to navigate. It’s the smaller paths that are more challenging.
Riding the bike tracks
One of the main attractions in Swinley forest are the three purpose-built mountain bike tracks. Someone had the sense to make these one-way routes so you are unlikely to crash into other riders as you head around the corners. They are clearly marked and out of the way of the walking paths. There is an easy short track that is approximately 0.75km with gentle slopes. Josh easily managed two or three circuits when he was seven. We have not tried any of the other tracks yet. These are 10km and upwards in length and somewhat more challenging.
There is a bike hire centre with all the gear you will need. We normally throw the bikes on the back of the car so have not tried it.
Testing out the playground
Compared to the usual all metal dominated playgrounds dotted around in local parks, this one is much more forest oriented. Most of the structures are wooden starting with the smallest toddler challenges to a more serious wooden two-storey fort where the kids can climb and worry anxious parents. I was more comfortable with my kids using the fort once they got to 7 years old. Before that I don’t think they had the risk awareness to keep them safe.
There is a large area on the far side of the playground where you can find a many branches that are used to construct shelters. Make sure you do some research before building any major structures. Some of the branches are large and you don’t want it falling on your heads as you sit inside your den, admiring your Neanderthal efforts. When the GoPro arrives I might try to post something on youtube showing out best efforts in wooden construction.
By the playground is the cafe, great for those cold days, with ice creams for the sunny weather. The all-important toilets are here too.
The Indoor Discovery Centre
There is an additional charge for the Discovery Centre. My kids (especially my daughter) love it. There are lots of hands-on exhibits in there covering nature, human biology, climate, science and physics. There is also a water play area with supplied plastic aprons as well as a very high look-out tower. It’s the sort of place that my two want to visit about once a year. It’s a great option if the rain is coming down though. You can easily kill an hour or two, more if you hit the cafe afterwards.
Go Ape in the forest
When I wrote this, Emma had just reached the age / height to be able to give Go-Ape a try. As soon as the season opens (Go-Ape closes for the winter and opens around March) she will be swinging around the tree tops. I gave it ago with a few friends and it is a pretty awesome adventure. If you don’t know the concept, it is a series of high ropes, swings and zip-wires stretching out across the forest. The instructors show you how to stay safe and use the safety equipment. If you follow the instructions you are always fastened to a safety line so can’t fall. Kids do need to be supervised by an adult so make sure you don’t go to pieces on heights before taking your little-ones’ on there.
It gets quite physical and some of the leaps get the pulses racing. We easily burned 2 hours and several thousand calories swinging around.