Improving access to Scotland’s forests
The National Forest Estate is a magical place to visit, boasting everything from rare species of animals, to stunning views and exciting activities to take part in. One of our aims is for all visitors, whatever their age or ability, to experience and enjoy the benefits offered by woodlands, so we embarked on a project to review how accessible our trails and visitor sites were.
We worked closely with the Fieldfare Trust and other specialist accessibility advisors to review recreation on the National Forest Estate, focusing on opportunities for disabled visitors.
Over 200km of trails were surveyed at key visitor sites on the National Forest Estate and 18 phototrails were produced. We used these results to make improvements in trails increase the number of seats and rest areas along trails and introduce accessible parking bays at key sites.
An important focus for the surveys was the network of forest trails that were already badged as ‘accessible to all’. We wanted to identify which of them met current specifications for Accessible Paths, and which might have fallen below the standard through time or erosion.
Here we look at two trails, the Waterfall Trail in Aberfoyle, and the Yew Trail in Falkirk and share our experiences of creating new all-abilities trails. You can read more about our work on other sites across Scotland to improve access.
Waterfall Trail, the Lodge, Aberfoyle
One of the challenges we faced when planning an accessible trail here was the location of some of the sites attractions, including a waterfall which meant negotiating gradients in excess of 15%.
We also looked at feedback from the visitors which identified that a large proportion of the site’s visitors – not just disabled visitors – were unable to access some special areas of the forest, or did not feel comfortable using parts of the trail network. The trail network was complicated, with a number of disparate links to individual features of interest. Some routes had relatively accessible sections, but none were fully accessible and most of the forest’s key features could not be accessed on a single coherent walk.
Kevin Lafferty, Access, Health and Recreation Advisor for FCS explains: “Creating a new route at a very well-established site would be a significant challenge and our goal for the Waterfall Trail went beyond just providing a physically accessible trail. We wanted to offer full accessibility to the site’s most attractive individual feature, while connecting a number of its other highlights.
“We worked with a specialist accessibility advisor to examine route options. The plan for the new route was to incorporate aspects of the visitor experience such as the waterfall and the Lumber Jill statue, and to integrate them with sections of the existing network. This would enable the obvious trail head to be kept close to the visitor centre and would mean a mix of completely new path construction and upgrading work on some established paths.
“The trail is now successfully integrated with the path network and adds value to the site. Local access groups, who were among the key target audiences of the project, have been very supportive and now use the trail as a benchmark for good practice.”
The trail has delivered many benefits for visitors to The Lodge, including:
- a clear primary trail, which has encouraged further development and the addition of environmental play, art and interpretation;
- a trail head integrated with a superb new visitor centre;
- a very significant increase in accessibility for a huge diversity of visitors;
- making the very best features of the forest accessible to many more people;
- a trail with real longevity that requires relatively minimal on-going maintenance; and
- accessible parking bays at visitor centre and new trailhead.
Callendar Park Woodlands Yew Trail, Falkirk
Our work in the woodlands had previously opened up new paths, carriage drives and improved the woodlands, but the forest offered little for people who needed easier access: the trails were often narrow, and several had steep gradients or cross falls.
Kevin explains: “We came up with a plan to upgrade the woodland trail closest to Callendar House, including a link path not on FES land that joins the trail with Callendar Park. The park is run by Falkirk Community Trust and we worked with them to include the link path, meaning the upgraded trail was fully integrated into the site.
“We were keen to involve potential users in planning the trail, so we invited the Falkirk Area Disability Access Panel to discuss the path when the initial grading was done, as well as close to the end of the works. They asked for longer bays next to the benches along the trail than were suggested in the Countryside for All standards, to allow easier access for wheelchairs and mobility scooters. We were able to accommodate this by extending the bays and placing the benches at the end of each one.
“The existing path had reasonably gentle rises and bends, but the transitions at both ends of the trail, from the
woodland path to the parkland, were particularly challenging. We had to re-align the existing path, and develop the new route through careful survey work and planning. Surveying the route, and measuring gradient and cross fall, helped to identify the best line.
“Another challenge was the need to install culverts with head walls to take rain water underneath the path at resting places. Features like this are essential if the path is to work and can save money on annual maintenance, but they’re easily forgotten.
“The finished trail is quite long for an easy access route and is a beautiful route through the woodland for users who were excluded before, allowing people of all ages and abilities to enjoy the forest.”