11 Unique Things To Do In and Around the Forest of Bowland
Updated: Jul 26
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England is well known for having an abundance of beautiful national parks to choose from, with some being a lot more popular than others. Despite there being many things to do in the Forest of Bowland, it's quite often overlooked by tourists, who prefer heading to the nearby Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales. The Forest of Bowland is situated in Lancashire (and a tiny part of Yorkshire), and covers a large area of the Ribble Valley. It actually sits very close to Burnley, which is another overlooked location in Lancashire. Many people opt to go hiking or camping in the Forest of Bowland because of its beautiful landscape and incredible views, but for those of you who aren't into outdoor adventures, there are plenty of quaint little villages in the Forest of Bowland to visit, as well as a few interesting historic attractions too.
Don't let the name fool you - the Forest of Bowland isn't actually a forest in the modern sense of the word. Yes, there are some areas that are covered with trees, but this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is for the most part filled with miles and miles of rolling hills and farmland. This area was given the title of the Royal Forest of Bowland in the medieval period, when the word forest actually referred to hunting rights, which would have prevented people from clearing and cultivating the land, and enabled the king and his court to hunt deer and other wild game. You can also find evidence of Roman and Norse habitation in the area as well. As you can imagine, there are some fantastic things to do in the Forest of Bowland other than hiking and camping, so keep reading to find out what interesting attractions I came across!
1. Go castle hunting in Clitheroe
One of the most popular villages near Preston to visit is also home to one of the many unique castles in Lancashire. The ancient market town of Clitheroe sits just outside of the Forest of Bowland, and dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period. It's a beautiful town to walk around, full of quaint shops and places to eat, but its main feature is its 12th century castle. Clitheroe Castle is said to be the smallest Norman keep in all of England, and offers great views of the village from its outer walls. The hole in the side of the castle was actually put there on purpose in the 17th century, so that it wouldn't be used against the crown. If you're looking for a day trip from Manchester, Clitheroe is only an hour away by car, and is under 90 minutes from Liverpool too.
2. Walk around Slaidburn
While visiting Slaidburn may not be at the top of the list of things to do in the Forest of Bowland, it's a charming historic village that is well worth stopping at for a brief walk around it. The history of Slaidburn dates back to around the 14th century, but there is evidence to suggest that it was inhabited as early as the 10th century. The village itself has remained untouched since the 19th century, and its biggest attraction is St Andrews's Church which largely dates back to the 15th century. Many tourists come to Slaidburn to join the many walking trails that pass through it, but it's worth taking some time to walk through the village itself too!
3. Explore the ruins of Whalley Abbey
Not too far from Clitheroe, nestled between the Forest of Bowland and Pendle hill, is Whalley Abbey. This 13th century ruin was once home to Cistercian monks, who were granted permission by the Pope to move away from Stanlow Abbey because of the relentless flooding they endured there. In the early 16th century, King Henry VIII oversaw the destruction of many monastic buildings across the country, including Whalley Abbey, and some of the stones from the abbey were used to construct other local buildings. Whalley Abbey is completely free to enter, and is a fantastic historic attraction in the Ribble Valley to visit. The gardens are very well maintained, and the ruins of the abbey cover quite a large area, so you could easily spend an hour or two here. From the abbey, it's a very short walk into the village centre, but if you're really desperate for something to eat or drink there is a small cafe on site as well.
4. Hike or drive through the Beacon Fell
One area of the Forest of Bowland that you won't want to miss is the Beacon Fell. It's one of the oldest country parks in the country, and is a haven for walkers and hikers. Luckily, if you're not into hiking, there are a few roads that pass through part of the Beacon Fell, so you can still enjoy the views! This is also where you'll find the Bowland Visitor Centre in case you need help with the trails or want to learn more about the wildlife in the area. We passed through Beacon Fell on the way to our hotel and it was stunning.
5. Visit Chipping
If you're looking for things to do in the Forest of Bowland besides hiking, a visit to Chipping is a must. This picturesque village is located next to the River Loud and gets its name from the Old English word meaning market. Chipping was actually mentioned in the 11th century Domesday Book, making the village at least a thousand years old. There are some great historic attractions to see in Chipping despite its small size, such as the 15th century St Bartholomew's Church and Brabin's Shop & Tea Room, which is the oldest continuously running shop in all of the UK! In my opinion, this is one of the best villages in Lancashire to visit if you're looking for hidden gems.
6. Step back in time at Browsholme Hall
One of the top historic attractions in the Forest of Bowland has to be Browsholme Hall. It's located very close to Chipping and the gorgeous luxury hotel we stayed at - Gibbon Bridge Hotel. This Grade I historic Tudor house was built in 1507, and has been lived in by the Parker family ever since. The hall and gardens are open to visitors (£10 per ticket), but since the house is still lived in it doesn't look like your usual museum. At the entrance to the complex you'll also find a unique glamping site as well as a cafe. In terms of things to do in the Forest of Bowland, Browsholme Hall makes for a great half-day trip, especially if the weather is nice!
7. Stop at Sawley Abbey
Sawley Abbey is another monastic building that felt the wrath of King Henry VIII. It dates back to the 12th century, and was inhabited by Cistercian monks. After it was dissolved in the 16th century, it was completely plundered of all of its valuables, and the stones that made up the abbey were used for cottages and farms in the area. These ruins are free to walk around, and although not as extensive as Whalley Abbey, are still worth stopping at if you have the time.
8. Visit the centre of Great Britain at Dunsop Bridge
If you ever find yourself running out of things to do in the Forest of Bowland, I would recommend a quick drive to Dunsop Bridge. This is probably the smallest village you'll come across in the Ribble Valley, and there isn't much to do here in terms of attractions (it's a great area for walking though), but it just so happens that Dunsop Bridge is the very centre of Great Britain! It also sits at the entrance to the Trough of Bowland, which is a very popular section of the national park that offers amazing views of the landscape.
9. Check out Stonyhurst College
Stonyhurst College is perhaps one of the best known private Catholic schools in the country. As a school, Stonyhurst dates back to 1593, but some parts of the building that the school is housed in date as far back as the 13th century. It's a beautiful building to look at, but since it's a school you're unable to access it during the teaching months. A big claim to fame that Stonyhurst has is its connection to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings author visited his son quite frequently at the school and his love of the Ribble Valley and its landscape inspired him to write the follow up of The Hobbit. If you're looking for a very unique thing to do in the Forest of Bowland, and like to be outside, you can hike along the 5.5 mile Tolkien Trail which explores the parts of the Ribble Valley that inspired him in his writings.
10. Stroll through Downham
Considered to be one of the prettiest villages in Lancashire, Downham lies at the foot of Pendle Hill, not too far from Clitheroe. It's a very popular area for walkers, and its main historic attraction, St Leonard's Church, has a tower that dates to the 15th century, with the rest of the building dating to the 19th century. If you make your way up the hill to the church, you'll get an amazing view of the lush landscape in the distance! The Assheton Arms is the village's acclaimed gastro pub, and sits opposite the church, so if you're looking for food while you're in Downham this is a great option.
11. Follow the trail of the Pendle Witches
For those of you not familiar with the Pendle Witches, in 1612 twelve people (men and women) were put on trial for the murder of ten locals using witchcraft. They were all from the area surrounding Pendle Hill and most of them were tried and executed in Lancaster, in what's known as the Lancashire witch trials. It's one of the most famous witch trials in English history, and you can follow the 45 mile trail from Barrowford to Lancaster, crossing the Forest of Bowland, either by car or bike. The trail would have been the route the witches were taken to Lancaster on, and it passes by some beautiful scenery along the way. There are plenty of villages near Pendle Hill to explore as well!
Where To Stay in the Forest of Bowland
If you're planning on staying overnight, or for a few days, in the Forest of Bowland, you'd be hard pressed to find somewhere nicer to stay at than Gibbon Bridge Hotel, which is only a few minutes drive from Chipping. And behind every great hotel is always an interesting background story! The hotel was opened in 1982 by Janet and her mother, who after years of hard work on the family farm, running their baked goods stall at Blackburn market, and eventually opening their own shop, saw their vision realized.
Gibbon Bridge Hotel originally opened as a bar and restaurant, with six bedrooms available, and eventually expanded to 30 rooms. The hotel's owner, Janet, is always adding to the hotel and loves to incorporate reclaimed pieces of architecture and statues into it, which is very interesting to see as you walk around the inside and outer gardens of the hotel! It's now one of the most popular places to stay in the Forest of Bowland, and is a fantastic venue for weddings, family get-togethers, and anything else you can think of really. It's also a dog-friendly hotel, so you can bring your furry friend with you too! We spent 3 nights at Gibbon Bridge Hotel and had an amazing stay, and we hope to return very soon.
During our visit to Gibbon Bridge Hotel, we stayed in one of their twin/double bedrooms. It was a very spacious room, with a comfortable sitting area and an incredible view of the hotel's garden from the window. The bathroom was spotless, with luxury toiletries and a whirlpool bath - ideal for relaxing after a day of exploring the area! We were also treated to some homemade biscuits which are made in the hotel's bakery. The price for this room is £180 per night based on two people sharing, and includes a full English breakfast.
For anyone visiting the hotel with a disability, they also have two fully accessible ground floor rooms with their own parking spaces. For £200 per night you can stay in one of their luxurious split-level suites, which have recently been decorated and each have their own unique style to them. You can also treat yourself to one of the VIP suites for £225 per night, or you can go all-out and upgrade to the Staple Oak Suite for £300 per night, which is ideal for romantic getaways or if you just want to treat yourself! All of these prices include breakfast, but dogs are only allowed in some rooms, so please double check before booking if you're planning on bringing your dog.
Gibbon Bridge Hotel is also home to an amazing restaurant, which uses produce from its own gardens, as well as from locally sourced suppliers. And since they have their own bakery on-site, all of their bread and desserts are made here too! They offer lunch and dinner, and you can also book in for afternoon tea, and even treat yourself to some al fresco dining, all within the hotel's beautiful garden. We had dinner at the hotel each night, and were far from disappointed with the quality of food we received. They have vegetarian options available, which I sampled and thoroughly enjoyed, and can cater to any dietary requirements too. The large windows in the restaurant provide you with a stunning view of the garden and fell as you dine, and if the weather is nice you can also enjoy your food as you bask in the sunshine.
The restaurant is also where you'll come for breakfast. Due to the pandemic, the food was served for you at the buffet, but you could go back as many times as you wanted and there was a large selection of hot food, cereals, and fruits available. The staff are all more than happy to help, so if you need something that isn't on display just let them know. Don't be surprised if you see Janet (the owner) popping out from the kitchen from time to time, as she likes to get involved with all aspects of the hotel!
Gibbon Bridge Hotel is not only a beautiful hotel in the Forest of Bowland to stay at, but it also offers a number of other facilities that are open to everyone. The garden at the back of the hotel is beautiful to walk around, and you can sit out on the terrace with a drink from the bar or something to eat from the restaurant and enjoy the scenery. The garden is also where you'll find the bandstand, which is a very popular wedding venue in the Ribble Valley. Both The Cavalier Room and The Orangery are also perfect for indoor weddings. The Orangery was actually one of my favourite parts of the hotel because of its stunning layout and its open-air access to the main terrace and garden.
Just around the corner from the main garden are several al fresco dining facilities, which can host both small groups and larger events. All of the outdoor dining spaces are covered and heated in case the weather isn't ideal, and each one is unique within itself. Gibbon Bridge Hotel offer covered pods for smaller groups, picnic benches covered by umbrellas that sit next to the children's play area, and three other private outdoor dining spaces which have been uniquely designed and offer a warm and cozy atmosphere. For outdoor catering events, there is a barbecue area complete with a pizza oven, and an outdoor kitchen too, so your food is brought to you nice and fresh. So, whether you're planning on staying at the hotel or not, you can still have a great time in their al fresco spaces!
Unique places to visit in Lancashire don't come much better than the Forest of Bowland and the Ribble Valley. With its beautiful blend of quaint villages, rolling hills, and of course historic attractions, it's the perfect destination for people wanting to get away for a few days. With so many interesting things to do in the Forest of Bowland, and so many interesting places to visit too, you'll find yourself wondering why you've never been before.
Do you have any recommendations on where else to visit in the Ribble Valley or the Forest of Bowland? I would love to hear from you in the comments section below. And if you have any questions about hotels in the Forest of Bowland, or things to do in the Ribble Valley - please get in touch! Don't forget to follow my travels on Instagram too!