The summit of Beacon Hill
Charnwood Forest is an upland tract in north-western Leicestershire, England, bounded by Leicester, Loughborough and Coalville. The area is undulating, rocky and picturesque, with barren areas. It also has some extensive tracts of woodland; its elevation is generally 600 ft (180 m) and upwards, the area exceeding this height being about 6,100acre. The highest point, Bardon Hill, is 912 ft (278 m). On its western flank lies an abandoned coalfield, with Coalville and other former mining villages, now being regenerated and replanted as part of the National Forest. The M1 motorway, between junctions 22 and 23, cuts through Charnwood Forest.
The hard stone of Charnwood Forest has been quarried for centuries, and was a source of whetstones and quern-stones. The granite quarries at Bardon Hill, Buddon Hill and Whitwick supply crushed aggregate to a wide area of southern Britain.
The forest is an important recreational area with woodland walks, noted for their displays of bluebells in the early spring, rock climbing and hillwalking. Popular places with public access include Bardon Hill, Beacon Hill, Bradgate Park, Swithland Wood and the Outwoods and Stoneywell Cottage (National Trust ).
The area of hills and open land known as Charnwood Forest has no jurisdictional boundary. (The Borough of Charnwood covers roughly two thirds of Charnwood Forest, and the eastern half of the borough is not part of the forest). Furthermore, despite its name, Charnwood was never a royal forest, and was never subject to forest law. So although it is an ancient and well established locality, it has only recently been officially defined, by the Natural England national character area (NCA) process, which takes a somewhat wider definition than many previous attempts to define the area.
Many of the craggy rocks of Charnwood Forest are of volcanic origin and are very old, dating back through 600 million years to Precambrian times. It was the site of the first ever recorded discovery of Charnia masoni, the earliest known large, complex fossilised species on record. It was discovered in 1957 by a local schoolboy named Roger Mason (thus masoni) who, with friends, was exploring a quarry near the Charnwood village of Woodhouse Eaves. The rocks of Charnwood Forest remain the only place in Western Europe where these Precambrian fossils have been found. Along the western edge of Charnwood Forest the rocks are mainly Precambrian igneous Diorites. These formed from molten lava deep within the sedimentary rocks, cooling slowly to produce hard, blocky rock with large crystals. This is extensively quarried for roadstone around Groby, Markfield and Whitwick, and is known as granite (formerly also called Markfieldite). The central area of the forest has older rocks still. These are sedimentary and are very variable in character, They were formed by material from volcanoes, settling in deep water, and it is in these beds that the fossils are found. Uplifting, tilting and erosion have produced the distinctive jagged exopsures found across the highest parts of Charnwood. On the eastern side, a much more recent series of rocks are found. Again igneous Diorites, that formed deep underground, but these are Ordovician, from a mere 450 million years ago. These are extensively quarried in the areas near Mountsorrel.
The earliest form of the name Charnwood is probably derived from cerne woda, from the Celtic carn, meaning cairn, and the Old English wudu, meaning wood. Some sources give cwern as the derivation, meaning a tool used to grind grain and other materials by hand. The area was a source of stone for these tools, called quern-stones.
Archeological evidence has shown that the area was inhabited as far back as the Neolithic period, approximately 4,000–2,000 BC. Beacon Hill is the site of a Bronze Age hill fort, dating from between 600 BC – 43 AD. This forms one of the last surviving visible features in the landscape known to the Coritani, the tribe who occupied most of the East Midlands area at the time of the Roman Conquest.
According to Domesday Book, there was only one settlement in Charnwood Forest in 1086, at Charley whose name would appear to come from the same root, with the suffix -ley denoting open land, rather than forest.
In the 200 years after the Norman conquest, newly created settlements took major areas of land out of the forest for use in agriculture. Quorn was established between 1086 and 1153, and all the land up to Woodhouse had been reclaimed from the forest by 1228.
There were comparatively few major changes in land use in the post Medieval period, until the demand for timber and charcoal for the early Industrial Revolution contributed to a further loss of woodland. By the end of the 18th century, most of the woodland had disappeared leaving large areas of moorland and pasture.
The area was the inspiration for "Charnwood Poems", a collection of poems by the author, playwright and poet Albert Francis Cross (1863–1940). It is also the setting for the speculative fiction novel "Some Kind of Fairy Tale" by Graham Joyce (2012), in which it is depicted as a possible portal to the realm of fairies.
Wildlife and geological sites
Charnwood Forest covers approx 67sqmi of Leicestershire, split over three local government districts: Charnwood Borough, North West Leicestershire District and Hinckley and Bosworth District. It includes a national nature reserve (NNR), 19 SSSIs (Some subdivided in the list of sites below), 4 GCR sites of international geological importance plus a further 6 GCR sites, 13 Regionally Important Geological Sites (RIGS), five local nature reserves (LNRs), seven Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust (LRWT) nature reserves, and 1 Woodland Trust woodland. 17 sites have open access to the public. Footpaths and bridleways give views and limited access to the other sites listed, and to the rest of the Charnwood Forest landscape. Over half of Charnwood Forest is included within the English National Forest. It is also crossed by two waymarked long distance walking routes – the Leicestershire Round and the Ivanhoe Way. The 45 sites listed here include sites with statutory wildlife or geological designations, plus other sites included in published lists of notable sites. On both the map and table, green denotes a site open to the public, amber denotes a site with limited access or restricted by permit or membership. Red denotes a site with no public access except by special arrangement with the owners.
Plants found within the woods include Digitalis purpurea, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, Sorbus torminalis and Vaccinium myrtilus.
Map No. Site Name Status Access Location and map link Area (ha) Habitat Ownership and details
1 Breedon Cloud Wood and Quarry SSSI(B&G) & RIGS Restricted 63 Ancient woodland and limestone quarry Breedon Cloud Wood is owned by LRWT. Permit needed. Cloud Hill Quarry is owned by Ennstone Breedon Ltd.
2 Shepshed Cutting SSSI(G) Partial 6.1 Old Quarry with Galena of a type unknown elsewhere in the world. The quarry is crossed by a disused railway cutting of the Charnwood Forest Railway which is now a path and cycleway and of the short-lived Charnwood Forest Canal.
3 Morley Quarry, Shepshed LNR, GCR & RIGS Open 3 Disused quarry Charnwood Borough Council. Car Park off Iveshead Road. Cliff faces show the oldest of Charnwood's Precambrian rocks and the Triassic unconformity.
4 Newhurst Quarry, Shepshed SSSI(G), GCR & RIGS None 9 Quarry currently being used for waste disposal Landfill site managed by Biffa. GCR listing for Mineralogy significance.
5 Holywell Wood Woodland Private Woodland Private. Public footpath runs along its northern edge from Snells Nook Lane.
6 Longcliffe Quarry, Shepshed RIGS None Quarry site Midland Quarry Products: working quarry.
7 Ives Head GCR(I) & RIGS Crocker, J and Daws, J, 1996 Spiders of Leicestershire, p.207 Partial Old quarry and craggy hilltop Privately owned disused quarry. A public bridleway passes 500m south of the summit (201m).
8 Blackbrook Reservoir SSSI(B&G) & GCR Partial 38.6 Open water, wooded banks, wetlands Severn Trent Water. Access to the viaduct and wooded slopes via One Barrow Lane.
9 Grace Dieu And High Sharpley SSSI (B&G) Partial 89 Heathland and Carbonifierous limestone outcrops Private owners. Adjoins National Forest access land and Grace Dieu Priory site.
10 Cademan Wood Woodland Partial Mixed woodland with rocky outcrops De Lisle family. Public footpaths and informal open access. Spectacular outcrops that formed very close to a Precambrian volcano.
11 Snibston Country Park and Grange Nature Reserve LNR Open 40 Woodland, meadow, marsh and ponds Leicestershire County Council.
12 Nature Alive! Coalville LNR Open 6 Regenerated scrub and wetland on former industrial land North West Leicestershire District Council. Valuable site for dragonflies.
13 Whitwick Quarry RIGS None Quarry site Midland Quarry Products
14 Mount St Bernard Abbey Abbey Partial Cistercian Abbey Visitors to the Abbey and grounds are made welcome. The crags around The Knoll show steeply dipping Charnian tuffs.
15 Charnwood Lodge NNR, SSSI(B&G) & GCR Restricted 193.5 Acid and heath grasslands with some mixed woodland LRWT, permit needed for parts. Timberwood Hill and Warren Hills are accessible under the right to roam.
16 Jubilee Wood, Woodhouse Lane Public woodland Open 10 Mixed woodland and rocky outcrops Leicestershire County Council.
17 Loughborough Outwoods, Woodhouse Lane SSSI(B&G) GCR (I) Open 44.6 Mixed woodland and rocky outcrops Charnwood Borough Council. Free car park.
18 Woodbrook and Deans Wood Stream and woodland Partial Charnwood stream and woodland Permissive path from Jubilee wood to Deans Lane.
19 Charley Woods Nature reserve Open 28.8 Oak woodland LRWT, open to the public.
20 Bardon Hill Quarry SSSI(G) GCR and RIGS None 79 Quarry. Precambrian Igneous Rocks Aggregate Industries.
21 Bardon Hill SSSI(B) Partial 13 High moorland, highest point in Leicestershire (278m) Private land. Access to the summit, via public footpaths with expansive views.
22 Beacon Hill, Woodhouse Eaves SSSI(B&G) GCR & Ancient Monument Open 135 Heathland, rocks, woodland hillfort Leicestershire County Council.
23 Broombriggs Farm and Windmill Hill Farm Trail Open 55 Farmland and heath Leicestershire County Council. Pay car park.
24 Buddon Brook Stream Partial Stream habitat Private farmland. A public footpath runs beside the stream.
25 Buddon Wood SSSI(B&G) and RIGS None 89 Ancient Oak woodland, now mostly quarried away, Private – including Lafarge Aggregates.
26 Main Quarry, Mountsorrel SSSI(G) & GCR None 14 Quarry site Lafarge Aggregates. Largest manmade hole in Europe.School visits are possible.
27 Swithland Reservoir and Brazil Island SSSI (B&G) and RIGS Partial 98 Open water, wooded banks Severn Trent Water. Limited road and footpath access. Excellent views from Great Central Railway, which crosses the reservoir via Brazil Island.
28 The Brand, Swithland SSSI(B&G) & GCR None 18 Oak woodland, grassy heath and old slate quarries Private (Martin family). Occasional open days.
29 Roecliffe Manor Lawns SSSI(B) None 1.2 Species rich grassland with rare fungi Private (Cottingham family).
30 Swithland Wood SSSI(B&G) Open 61 Ancient Woodland and disused slate quarries Bradgate Park Trust. Pay car parks.
31 Benscliffe Wood SSSI(B) None 10 Mixed woodland Private wood. Particularly rich in lichen species.
32 Ulverscroft Nature Reserve, Whitcroft's Lane Nature reserve Restricted 56 Mixed woodland, marshy grassland and meadow NT, managed by LRWT (NT members need LRWT permit).
33 Rocky Plantation, Nr Markfield Nature reserve Restricted 3.4 Mixed woodland and rocky outcrops NT, managed by LRWT. Open to Wildlife Trust and National Trust members only.
34 Lea Meadows, Ulverscroft Lane SSSI Open 12 Meadow LRWT, open to the public.
35 Billa Barra Hill LNR & RIGS Open 20 Old quarry, grassland, mature and recent woodland. Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council. Open to the public. Car Park on Billa Barra Lane.
36 New Cliffe Hill Quarry RIGS None 243 Quarry. Precambrian Rocks Midland Quarry Products: working quarry (A tunnel links this to Cliffe Hill Quarry).
37 Cliffe Hill Quarry SSSI(G) GCR (I) and RIGS None 37 Quarry. Precambrian Rocks Midland Quarry Products: working quarry.
38 Altar Stones, Markfield Nature reserve Open 3.7 Rough heath grassland with rock outcrops LRWT, open to the public.
39 Hill Hole Quarry, Markfield Nature reserve and RIGS Open 5.4 Flooded quarry, rock faces and grassland Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council. Open to the public. The old quarry faces show the youngest of the area's Precambrian rocks.
40 Cropston Reservoir SSSI(B&G) None 55 Open water, wetlands Severn Trent Water. No access but with good views from Bradgate Park.
41 Bradgate Park SSSI(B&G) GCR(I) Open 340 Bracken heath, rocks, river, woodland, ancient oaks Bradgate Park Trust. Pay car parks.
42 Sheet Hedges Wood, Newtown Linford SSSI(B) Open 30 Mixed woodland Leicestershire County Council. Free car park near Groby Pool.
43 Groby Pool SSSI(B) Partial 28 Open water, wetlands Amalgamated Roadstone Corp. One side has good roadside paths and access with a large nearby free car park.
44 Groby Quarry RIGS None Working Quarry Amalgamated Roadstone Corporation (ARC)
45 Martinshaw Wood Public woodland Open 102 Mixed woodland Woodland Trust.
Abbreviations used in the table:
National nature reserve (NNR). Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) (B=Biological, G=Geological). Geological Conservation Review (GCR)(I=of International importance). Regionally Important Geological Site (RIGS). Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust (LRWT). National Trust (NT). Local nature reserve (LNR).