There’s something magical about standing in a woodland surrounded by wild and native bluebells. The delicate blooms and their heady fragrance last just a few precious weeks each spring, but the sweeping displays can take hundreds of years to bulk up, making their awe-inspiring display a colourful indicator of undisturbed, ancient woodland. In the south of the UK, they start to bloom from April into May, while further north, they follow about four weeks later. Sweet violets, lily of the valley and primrose flowers make an appearance in woods at this time, too, with birds including swifts and swallows returning to the skies. A pair of binoculars can come in handy for your walk.
According to folklore, the bluebell wood is an enchanted place. It’s where mischievous fairies gather and lead humans astray — they assemble when the bluebells ring and lure away anyone picking the flowers. The old tales were a word of warning for walkers tempted to pull up the plants, but the message is still important today — the native English bluebell is a protected species in the UK, so be mindful to keep hands away and stick to marked paths, to avoid trampling them.
Did you know? Wild English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are rare and can be tricky to find. Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are actually the most commonly spotted variety. They were introduced to the UK in the early 20th century and escaped from gardens into parks and woodlands, becoming invasive. Look out for flowers hanging from just one side of each stem and the presence of a perfumed scent to correctly identify the English bluebell.
1. Highgate Wood, London
Visitors can escape into a woodland wonderland at Highgate Wood — just by Highgate Tube station — which has a history that stretches back thousands of years. Footpaths of varying lengths offer winding routes around the 70 acres — but the entrances via Granley Gate or Bridge at the north and west end of the wood respectively provide the most direct routes to the bluebells. Refreshments are available at the cafe at the centre of the woods, while for younger visitors, there’s more entertainment at the children’s playground, at the southern end. Lovers of ancient history should head to the northern end, too, to spot the remains of earthworks, thought to be evidence of medieval deer enclosures.
2. Rode Hall Gardens, Cheshire
For bluebells with a side of grandeur, Rode Hall Gardens, a Georgian country house with a Grade II-listed park and formal garden, is the spot to visit. Visitors can wander through the Old Woods for a 40-minute stroll to enjoy carpets of wild English bluebells, then take in the exotic colours of the rhododendrons and azaleas in the rest of the gardens. Children can enjoy spotting the willow animal sculptures around the grounds, and a visit on the first Saturday of the month (except January) coincides with the farmers’ market, which is also on site. The day can be rounded off with a trip to the tearoom to enjoy homemade cake and other light refreshments.
3. Woolley Wood, South Yorkshire
Tucked unexpectedly next to the M1 and situated just over three miles north of Sheffield city centre, Woolley Wood’s tranquil ancient woodland bursts into bloom with bluebells each spring. Hundreds of bluebells create a glow of colour up and down its undulating slopes, creating a peaceful space for enjoying nature. Next to the woods is a park with a playground, providing a reward for young visitors after a walk spotting the blooms. The circular walk starts at the playground and is signposted in blue. It’s about 2.5 miles long – be prepared to walk over uneven ground and cross a golf course.
4. Kinclaven Bluebell Wood, Perthshire, Scotland
This site of ancient woodland is located in the middle of a bend of the River Tay — the longest river in Scotland — and offers a circular walk for bluebell fans. Starting in May, the wild bluebells at Kinclaven open up and create a field of colour surrounding the trees. The signposted route takes about an hour, is roughly one-and-three-quarter miles long and is hilly in parts. Nature lovers should keep an eye out for great spotted woodpeckers, red squirrels and pine martins. Meanwhile, history fans can also look out for the nearby ruins of the Kinclaven Castle, which was burnt down in 1297 by William Wallace, while he was fighting for Scottish independence.
5. Long Wood, Cheddar, Somerset
Somerset Wildlife Trust’s oldest nature reserve, Long Wood, offers walkers a stunning view of bluebells in an idyllic setting. The bluebells are wild and native, growing alongside the white blooms of wild garlic. Visitors start their walk at Black Rock and pass Long Wood as part of a three-mile circular hike that heads up to the nature reserve Velvet Bottom and back, taking in the views over the Mendip Hills. The walk involves moderate climbing, is uneven and can be slippery. The Swan pub in Wedmore is a 20-minute drive away and offers good, hearty meals, while local shops provide the opportunity to purchase cheddar cheese, which as the name suggests, originates from the village.
6. Abermawr, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Climbing up from the remote and rural pebble beach at Abermawr provides access to a hidden wood of wild bluebells. The 30-minute walk is of moderate difficulty and about one mile long, and there’s a good spot for a picnic along the way. The circular walk starts at the coast but takes walkers inland to enjoy the unspoilt woodlands situated above and overlooking the sea. It’s also possible to see the preserved tree stump remains of a forest on the beach, swallowed up by the sea 8,000 years ago, at low tide. There are a couple of nearby pubs and the area is also known for its woollen blankets, providing a handsome gift to take home.
7. Castle Ward, County Down, Northern Ireland
The National Trust site Castle Ward features an impressive 18th-century mansion and offers a range of scenic walking routes, all featuring vast swathes of wild bluebells. The so-called ‘Mountain Wood’ stroll is a gentle walk inland and lasts about 25 minutes. Alternatively, there’s the option of a slightly longer, appetite-building 50-minute walk and, finally, the ‘Grand Tour’, which runs along the shore and takes about an hour and half, offering rewarding views of the historic sea loch Strangford Lough. Game of Thrones fans may be interested to know that the castle was the location for Winterfell and several more settings in the first season of the series. A map marks the various locations. Mobility scooters are available to book, and the Stable Yard tearoom offers light refreshments.
8. Hole Park Gardens, Kent
This private estate offers both formal gardens and wooded parkland to wander through, so walkers can fully immerse themselves in the most floral season. The family at Hole Park have been welcoming public visitors since the 1920s, and now even welcome dogs — although they must be kept on short leads and owners must clear up after them. An online bluebell barometer is regularly updated by the owners to help visitors know when to visit and enjoy the spectacular blooms at their prime — it’s a photographer’s dream. Light lunches including local beer and wine are available, with much of the food homemade, including the popular coffee and walnut cake. Maps are handed out upon entry and the bluebell walk takes around 40 minutes. It’s mostly wheelchair and pushchair accessible.