Lower Woods Nature Reserve, Gloucestershire


Burnt Wood
Felled conifers

One of the largest areas of ancient forest in south England; a group of over 20 small, adjoining woods, separated by grassy tracks. Home to many wildflower species
Photo Tours: flowers, fungi, trees
Much of south England was once covered by forest, but few original sections remain. One of the largest is found just east of Wickwar in the Vale of Berkeley, Gloucestershire; a 700 acre expanse known as Lower Woods, consisting of 23 small, named woodlands separated by grassy tracks, or trenches, in use for many centuries. Some of the woods are or have been coppiced, a process where selected mature trees are felled for timber and to create space for new growth, but others are essentially unaltered, and the whole place has a very quiet, peaceful atmosphere.

All of the woods are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest on account of the great variety of plant and animal species found here, while most is also part of Wetmoor Nature Reserve. The trees extend nearly two miles north to south and just over one mile east to west, so the area is still relatively small, but easily big enough to be able to escape all sight and sound of the surrounding roads and farmland. Many of the tracks are muddy much of the year since the woods lie on heavy, clayish, poorly-draining lias soils, but they are in general suitable for walking, cycling and horse riding all year round. Most trees in the woods are oak, mixed with conifers, and other deciduous species including ash, alder, hazel and field maple. In recent years however, culminating in spring 2022, all the conifers have been felled, with the intention of restoring the native woodland.

Over 70 wildflower species grow in the Lower Woods, more than at any other southwestern wooded site; plants are most varied along the edges of the tracks, and also in the meadows, of which the largest, Stanley Meadow, is near the main (northern) entrance, while several others are in the Wetmore area to the west.

The Woods

Lower Woods is part of a gently hilly landscape along the foot of the Cotswold escarpment, about one mile east of Wickwar. A dozen or more paths enter the forest from all sides, and there are two vehicular access points; the most used is to the north, starting at a parking area beside Lower Woods Lodge, at the end of a short, unpaved and sometimes bumpy spur off the lightly-used Chase Road, between Wickwar and Hawkesbury Upton. This point is already deep within the woods, enclosed by coppices on all sides; the main walking routes are Plumber's Trench to the west, Green Trench to the east and an unnamed path to the south, heading towards East Stanley Wood, where, after a T-junction, the easterly route soon reaches the Little Avon River. The other, less used entry to the Lower Woods is at the southern tip, along Vinny Lane, a narrow farm track where parking is limited. From here, the widest of the pathways (Horton Great Trench, up to 150 feet across) leads northwards through the woods, initially fairly flat then descending steadily to a crossing of the river, meeting with the narrower path that continues uphill to the lodge. Musgrave's Trench to the east and four connecting tracks allow for several loop hikes through this section of the forest, south of the river, and there are also a number of route options to the north, starting at the lodge, an area that sees rather more visitors. Some of the tracks are broad and grassy, such as Long Trench between Burnt and Sturgeon Woods (both very good for bluebells in the spring) while others are narrower, stonier and darker, due to overhanging tree branches, for example Chalkley Trench and Don's Trench, also in Burnt Wood. All paths are open without restriction at all times. Besides the main routes, only a few of which are signposted, there are many lesser paths crossing all parts of the woodland, so the place can be rather confusing. The least visited section is south of the Little Avon River and west of Horton Great Trench, centred on Upper and Lower Wetmoor Wood, and this is the place to see some of the rarest plant species, including bird's nest orchid and violet helleborine. This latter also occurs in an even rarer all-pink form (var rosea), found in Littley Wood.