What to do in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

Discover a literary trail, cycling paths and picturesque villages in this little-known corner between northeast Lancashire and North Yorkshire, where nature takes centre stage.

Langden Beck on the approach to the Trough of Bowland.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Daniel Stables
Published 6 Feb 2023, 17:21 GMT

Sandwiched between the great cities of Manchester and Liverpool to the south, and the beauty spots of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales to the north, the Forest of Bowland is every bit as enchanting as its more famous neighbours. This is a land with a deep history peopled by Vikings, witches and kings; where the patchwork fields, coaching inns and pretty villages evoke a sense of time out of mind.

A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, its gorgeous landscapes are more diverse than its name suggests, with the woodlands of the Lune Valley ascending to the wild moorlands of the Bowland Fells. The new Eco Escapes initiative connects them with local food producers, pubs and B&Bs by public transport, meaning it’s never been easier to explore the region in an eco-minded way. 

What to do

JRR Tolkien is known to have written much of The Lord of the Rings during visits to Stonyhurst College, in the south of the Forest of Bowland. It’s not hard to see how the rivers, woodlands and rolling farmland of this countryside could have inspired the more rural corners of Middle Earth, and the Tolkien Trail, a six-mile walking route, is a gentle way to familiarise yourself with the landscape. Highlights include handsome Cromwell’s Bridge, marched across in 1648 by Oliver Cromwell and his army, and the sylvan oak and ash forest of Over Hacking Wood.

To go further and faster than any hobbit could, rent an e-bike from the riverside village of Dunsop Bridge and set out to explore the surrounding fells, forests and villages. Head south to Browsholme Hall, a Tudor country home set in acres of wooded gardens, or make for Gisburn Forest, where bike trails wind through woodlands rich in birdlife, including lapwings, oystercatchers and ravens. Make it a multi-day adventure by pitching a tent at Gisburn Forest Hub to take in the wonders of the cosmos in an accredited Dark Sky Discovery Site.

Where to eat

A wonderfully revived cotton mill in the heart of Clitheroe, Holmes Mill is now home to the fantastic Bowland Beer Hall — complete with one of the longest bars in the country — and the Bowland Food Hall, selling goodies from producers across the region. The Inn at Whitewell, meanwhile, showcases the very best of Bowland’s produce, whether it’s smoked salmon from Wellgate or confit lamb from Burholme Farm, in a 17th-century building. 

Don’t miss 

The most notorious chapter in the Forest of Bowland’s history concerns the witch trials of 1612, a storm of hysteria and suspicion that resulted in 10 people — eight women and two men — being put to death. Follow waymarkers with silhouetted, broomstick-riding witches along the Pendle Witch Trail, which connects the historic villages associated with the trials through picturesque, hilly countryside, and stop at the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford, which contains exhibits about the Pendle witches.

We like

Located at the foot of Beacon Fell, Goosnargh Gin infuses prize-winning gins with botanicals foraged from the Bowland countryside, such as meadowsweet, wimberry and gorse flower. The distillery also hosts gin-making classes where attendees sit before a miniature copper gin still and choose from a wide selection of botanicals, including more exotic flavours like cardamom and rose petal, while owners Richard and Rachel Trenchard talk about their own gins, lovingly crafted to reflect the character of the Forest of Bowland.

The Coach and Horses in Bolton-by-Bowland.

The Coach and Horses in Bolton-by-Bowland.

Photograph by Coach and Horses

Where to stay

In Bolton-by-Bowland, ivy-smothered stone cottages cluster around two village greens. The heart of village life is the Coach and Horses, a classic country inn where rooms have a gorgeous traditional look. Expect superb food, too. From £175, B&B. 

The lifelong passion project of owner Janet Simpson, Gibbon Bridge is housed in a beautiful country estate. It has lovely spacious rooms, and its trad-decor doesn’t feel dated or stuffy; the eclectic architecture includes gothic stonework from an old church. From £100, B&B. 

More info

Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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