The National Forest - 20 years on

PUBLISHED: 11:03 27 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:03 27 October 2014

Exploring the National Forest

Exploring the National Forest

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The landscape of South Derbyshire has gradually been transformed as the National Forest has grown

Then: Sence Valley Forest Park, when still an open cast siteThen: Sence Valley Forest Park, when still an open cast site

Thirty years ago the last battle lines were drawn in the mining industry as strikers took on Margaret Thatcher’s government with the future of communities as well as jobs at stake.

Three decades later, the wounds of that bitter dispute and the subsequent decimation of mining as an industry has had profound effects on communities that still carry the scars, in the lines on the faces of the men who used to work in the pits and through a swathe of ravaged landscapes.

This year a report by Sheffield Hallam University highlighted that even now there is lingering deprivation in these former coal mining areas, with lower life expectancy, health issues and poverty being identified as key problems.

There were few bright lights in the report, few success stories of old coal communities managing to reinvent themselves wholeheartedly, but South Derbyshire is one of them.

Now: Sence Valley Forest Park as it is todayNow: Sence Valley Forest Park as it is today

Millions of tonnes of coal was extracted from South Derbyshire and the landscape was ravaged by the criss-cross of workings. But even as Cadley Hill, the area’s last deep coal mine, was shutting in 1988 the future was being outlined.

The plan for a new National Forest had been envisioned, with the 200 square miles centred around Swadlincote one of several areas on the shortlist for the scheme.

It was a bold, imaginative plan, using landscape transformation as a tool to revitalise part of the country both economically and aesthetically. The corridor between the old Needwood and Charnwood forests wasn’t necessarily the obvious or the easiest choice for this national scheme but the enthusiasm of the community and the desire for change meant that in 1990 an inaugural site was planted and the seeds of a grand plan were sown.

The initial strategy was formulated and endorsed by the Government in 1994, the National Forest Company was established and the dramatic transformation of South Derbyshire had truly begun.

Out on the cycle trails at Hicks Lodge Cycle CentreOut on the cycle trails at Hicks Lodge Cycle Centre

Over the last 20 years, eight million trees have been planted, the woodland cover has risen from a mere six per cent to 20 per cent. Industrial landscapes have been returned to nature, coal slag heaps replaced by lakes and trails for cyclists and walkers.

Major tourist attractions such as Conkers, the heart of the National Forest visitor centre, and Rosliston Forestry Centre have been established and the perception of South Derbyshire as a place to live and work has been dramatically changed.

An area that once fed power stations with coal now refuels visitors instead and the National Forest is a local success story that has become recognised as a shining example of transforming lives and landscapes throughout the UK.

Now, after 20 years, the National Forest is ‘coming of age’ with a new ten-year strategy recently launched that reflects on the achievements made but looks to a sustainable future free from Government support with independence the goal between now and 2024.

A new footbridge on the National Forest Way Photo: Rebecca SoanesA new footbridge on the National Forest Way Photo: Rebecca Soanes

Sophie Churchill, the departing chief executive of the National Forest Company, won’t be on hand to guide the project through its next phase but she’s leaving it in good health and believes that South Derbyshire has emerged in a better place as a result of the unique scheme.

She told Derbyshire Life: ‘The National Forest has accelerated the recovery for South Derbyshire and was about not letting a whole generation get lost while the land was slowly recovering.

‘Ultimately, I think South Derbyshire would have been remediated in some way as you don’t go around the country and see too many areas that have just been left for 20 years but often it has been a lot slower than around here and the National Forest helped give more of a plan to it. It wasn’t piecemeal and the quality of it has been much better.

‘We have also had some very good leadership in South Derbyshire. Politically it has worked well as a unit. It has been very dynamic in terms of jobs and new development and we are not phobic about that in the National Forest and have worked hand-in-hand with that.

‘Unlike South Wales and other parts of the country we are fortunate in the connection we have with big cities and the road networks. That might seem surprising for the National Forest to say but you have to go where the jobs are and they have to come to you. I don’t like lots of big lorries and logistic sheds in the National Forest in a way but I do think it’s important for people to have real lives and jobs and what we have done is thread the forest around those lives.

‘I also think people in South Derbyshire have put their differences aside to make a good future and the forest is something everyone is now proud of.’

Sophie also believes that where once Swadlincote might have been seen as a blackspot in an otherwise beautiful county and certainly not recognised as a tourist hotspot, now people visit the National Forest in its own right and the perceptions have altered over the last two decades.

She says: ‘If your relatives come for the weekend you have lots of places to go and enjoy and you may no longer feel the need to go to the Peak District for a day out with a walk and for natural beauty.’

The National Forest  Photo: Rebecca SoanesThe National Forest Photo: Rebecca Soanes

The fact that The National Forest is now very much seen as a place that attracts visitors from far and wide is part of what Sophie sees as its ‘coming of age’. Another step in that direction has been taken by the establishment of the National Forest Way – a 75-mile long distance trail that takes in the best of the forest area.

Sophie says: ‘I think it shows how far we have come as a tourist destination and an outdoor one as you have the Pennine Way, the Cotswolds Way and now The National Forest way. Ours is also a bit more varied than some of them. Residents can walk bits of it and be really proud of it, or you can come along and do it as a holiday. It’s putting us on the map and I’m looking forward to buying my next road atlas and seeing it showing the National Forest Way!’

The next decade will see further development of the National Forest project. More trees will be planted but on a smaller scale than in the past and instead the emphasis will be on the quality of the landscape projects and the connectivity of the mosaic of green spaces that flow around the Burton and Swadlincote areas.

Sustainability is part of that goal with the National Forest Company becoming a charity, exploring more partnership working, looking at new revenue streams and becoming independent from Government support.

Catherine Graham-Harrison, chair of the National Forest Company, says: ‘After nearly 20 years of investment and growth on the ground, The National Forest is here to stay. It is visible in the landscape and valued by a very wide range of people and organisations. The strategy consultation told us that people want the investment to continue, including making it very easy to enjoy the forest, whatever your interest. It needs to be well looked after, into the future.’

The National Forest Way

The new long distance walk, which was officially launched on 17th May, extends 75 miles from the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to Beacon Hill Country Park in Leicestershire passing through the South Derbyshire villages of Walton-on-Trent, Rosliston, Hartshorne and Ticknall. It can be walked in either direction and takes in market towns, new and ancient woodland and a changing landscape.

For walkers wishing to explore The National Forest Way in bite-size chunks it is split into 12 stages ranging in length from four mile to 7.5 miles.

Each section is designed to showcase a different aspect of the National Forest, from the views from Tatenhill Ridge to the restored landscapes of the old coalfields

Trail leaflets are available from tourist centres in The National Forest or you can visit

Three places to visit in the National Forest -

CONKERS – the place to find out more about the National Forest project and to experience a themed mix of outdoor and indoor attractions. There are a host of indoor interactive exhibits, a play area, 120 acres of lakes, woodland and gardens to explore and 23 outdoor activities – including an 18-stage assault course and a 450-metre barefoot walk.


The country’s national centre for remembrance with more than 250 memorials dedicated to those who have served their country or sacrificed their lives. There are more than 50,000 maturing trees on the site as well as a café-restaurant and chapel. There are also special First World War trails to mark the centenary of the start of the ‘war to end all wars’ this year. Click here to see our article on The National Memorial Aroboretum


Created on 90 hectares of former farmland this is a centre for indoor and outdoor play – with waymarked trails, craft workshops, bird hides, cycle hire, fishing, birds of prey, archery and laser combat.

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