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The Forestry Commission was interested in understanding more about how its visitors to Bedgebury use both the area covered by the Pinetum and the wider forest. Forest Research social scientists carried out a study to investigate the experiences and opinions of visitors to Bedgebury through a series of focus groups and trail walks with participants through the forest. Bedgebury Forest in Kent is managed by Forestry Commission England (FCE). It is a large site offering miles of trails for cycling, mountain-biking, horse riding, walking, and running, as well as Go Ape and play areas. It also includes the National Pinetum which is recognised as one of the most complete collections of conifers on one site anywhere in the world, and is a centre for international conservation.
A lot of the reasons for visiting, and activities that people engage in at Bedgebury, relate to being active in the forest. A strong motivation for visiting was to spend time with family and friends. People highlighted that learning can also be part of a forest visit, and they described seeking out information on tree labels and interpretation boards. There were many references to things visitors like to see in the forest. People were curious about the diversity of trees, and for those visitors with children, that curiosity included an interest in different leaves, the shape of trees, conkers, spiky leaves, logs and holes in tree trunks.
People talked about feeling at ease and finding it very peaceful in the forest. There was a sense that it was a place to come to feel connected to other people. Overall, this study illustrates extremely well how a place such as Bedgebury contributes to well-being, through enabling people to be active, connect with other people, be curious about the natural world around them, and be aware of how it makes them feel.
Participants were encouraged to talk about their impressions of Bedgebury and the facilities on-site. There was much praise for the play areas. The visitor centre received unanimous praise. The aspect of the infrastructure that received the least positive comments was the car park. Generally the groups were positive that there was a mix of footpath surfaces that included some stretches of path that could be used in all weathers and all seasons, with or without children, and with or without buggies.
The Forestry Commission at Bedgebury was interested in how people viewed the on-site interpretation through the forest. People praised the small labels on individual trees and also appreciated the larger interpretation boards. For those with children old enough to read, understand and be interested, they were felt to be a valuable learning resource. Overall there was a sense that the on-site interpretation that is currently found at Bedgebury is mostly suitable and informative. However, while people positively engage with the learning materials, and the process of learning, they admitted they do not always retain the information and increase knowledge.
The Forestry Commission at Bedgebury will use the findings from this visitor study to consider how best to promote the site, encourage greater use of it, and provide additional activities, facilities and information of interest to visitors. In particular, the important work of the Pinetum may receive greater publicity to raise awareness of its global significance to the conservation and preservation of coniferous trees.
Members of Forest Research Social and Economic Research Group worked closely with Forest Enterprise England staff to develop and carry out the research.