Gloucester is a city with plenty of options in terms of things to do. Surrounding the area you can experience the Cotswolds, the Severn Estuary and the Forest of Dean. Closer to Gloucester itself you can experience the ornate cathedral, the docks and it’s Roman past. Certainly the options are plentiful if you want to find things to do when staying in Gloucester.
This guide will explore some of the top things to do in the Gloucester area. Some will be in the city itself and others you’ll need to travel a little further afield. From country walks, to historical adventures and diverse art experiences these are all well worth the time.
Things to Do in and around Gloucester
Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail
Established in 1986 the Forest of Dean Sculpture trail currently contains 16 permanent works with temporary exhibitions. Set within a working forest there are a number of trails taking around an hour to three hours to complete. Works along the way are set within a forest setting and are a combination of sculpture and installation art. Using the environment around them, each piece invites the viewer to come to their own conclusions as to their meaning. Many over the years have evolved to become a greater part of the landscape.
Only a 40 minute drive from Gloucester the area of the sculpture trail also includes a play area, popular cafe and a Go Ape. For the 35th anniversary of the trail a shorter temporary series of 8 installations called ‘Forest to Forest‘ was included. Much shorter than the permanent trail. It contains 8 pieces and has been designed to uplift visitors after lockdown by helping to further reconnect with nature.
The historic docks of Gloucester have recently undergone a major renovation. The most inland docks in England they would have served as a crucial supply hub taking cargo from the Severn estuary and transporting it inland. The first dock was built as part of the impressive Sharpness to Gloucester canal. Once the broadest and deepest canals in the world it’s sheer scale was designed so that ships could sail straight into the historic city. Opening in 1827 it could take craft of up to 600 tonnes and was the catalyst for the quays we see today in Gloucester.
Now the historic docks are mainly used for leisure traffic though there are still working dry docks for boat repair. The old warehouses which once would have stored cargo have been renovated and turned into housing. The addition of a modern shopping centre has also ensured that the area has become a popular place to visit. Gloucester quays also plays host to the National Waterways Museum and the Soldiers of Gloucester Museum.
Gloucester is packed full of history. Founded by the Romans it has always held a strategic importance due to it’s location at the crossing of the River Severn. It takes it’s name from Glevum, the old Roman name, and was established around AD48 when a fort was built at Kingsholm. Eventually it grew and it became a Colonia. This was an important outpost which would be at the centre of a newly conquered region. Today hints of it’s Roman past can be found all around and archaeologists still regularly find evidence of this formative time. Sections of the old Roman wall can be seen in the museum and nearby the City East Gate can be seen under glass by the Boots. A Roman tour of the city can be booked here.
After the Romans, the city would still maintain its strategic importance. In particular the city became known for it’s association with Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great. She spent much time fortifying the area in a period of constant danger from Viking attack. It is thought that much of the present street layout of Gloucester dates from her time. Later the city became important for William the Conqueror and his eldest son Robert Curthose is buried in the cathedral. His brother, the then king Henry I, had imprisoned him in Cardiff Castle but fulfilled his wish to be buried in Gloucester. His tomb can be seen in Gloucester Cathedral today. Another notable tomb is of Edward II who died in nearby Berkeley Castle.
Harry Potter at the Cathedral
The cathedral of course is magnificent and a jewel in the crown. Famed for years it has always been an important pilgrimage and location. More recently it received world wide fame as one of the locations in the first three Harry Potter films. The cloisters of the cathedral doubled as the cloisters of Hogwarts in the first three movies. Elsewhere there is also the Black friars Priory and the remains of the Greyfriars. St Oswalds Priory founded by Æthelflæd and the church of St Mary de Crypt as well as the nearby Llanthony Secunda Priory can all be seen. Gloucester’s museum is a good start to learn about it’s various stages as is just spending some time exploring the city.
A few miles south of Gloucester on the Stroud road is Painswick. A stunning village filled with houses made from Cotswold stone and a place steeped in history. The view from the nearby Painswick beacon also gives some fantastic views out across the Gloucestershire countryside. The beacon itself was also once an iron age hill fort and the fortifications can still be seen in the landscape. Within the village itself Painswick was once a booming centre of trade and some of the buildings testify to that. It’s church of St Mary is also Grade I listed and the churchyard boasts a fine selection of tomb monuments which hint at it’s former glory. Elsewhere in the churchyard a line of yew trees line the entrance to the church.
Painswick was at one point at the centre of the areas wool and cloth industry. It is that with provided such wealth to the wealthy landowners of the area. The legacy we can still see in the buildings. Historically the village of Painswick is also known for it’s role in the siege of Gloucester. King Charles I camped here during the English Civil War after his Royalists failed to take the then Parliamentarian city. It is said that some damage was done by his troops. Scars from small cannonballs can be seen on the church tower.
Going a little further back in time there is plenty of evidence of the area been inhabited for many years. The Kimsbury Hill Fort dates from the Iron Age and is at the nearby Painswick Beacon. The village first appeared officialy in the Domesday book as ‘wiche’. This became Painswick through Pain Fitzjohn a one time Lord of the Manor.
Purton Ship Graveyard
Heading south towards the Severn estuary and and in between the villages of Purton and Sharpness is the Purton Ship Graveyard. Old hulks of vessels ranging from the late 1800’s to mid 1900’s litter the shoreline. This is where the Severn comes closest to the side of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal. The intention in scuttling the boats here was to protect the canal from erosion caused by the Severn. The line of ships provided a kind of barrier. It would be allowed to silt up and in doing so shore up the bank.
Now the vessels can be seen via a short walk from Purton or Sharpness. The hulks can be seen overgrown and sunk into the landscape. Skeletons of old wooden hulls peeking out of the mud. Old rusted metal innards can be spotted standing alone where the rest of the ship has rotted away. In some cases the only sign that the boat is not fully part of the foreshore are little elements of their uncovered hulls seen only from the estuary itself.
Railway Bridge Disaster of 1960
The area is steeped in history. A little further down from the Purton Ships Graveyard stands the remains of the Severn & Wye Railway Bridge. The subject of a major disaster when on 25 October 1960. It was struck and partly destroyed when two tankers, the Arkendale and the Wastdale hit the substructure. This fatally undermined its integrity. Five people lost their lives from the tankers with three survivors. The bridge was since fully dismantled. Now the only memory to it is the pillars of the former section which once spanned the canal.
The high point of Robinswood Country Park, Robinswood Hill looks out over the cathedral city of Gloucester. Situated just a few miles south of the city itself. A walk up to the top will give some amazing views all around. From the top you can see as far as the Severn Bridge, the Malvern Hills and the Black Mountains. It’s an easy walk or a drive from Gloucester itself to get up to Robinswood. The summit reaches to 198 metres above sea level.
Covering over 100 hectares Robinswood Country Park was defined as such in 1972. Within it there are woodlands, orchards, meadows and ponds. Historically ancient flint from neolithic times have been found and it’s old quarry is a site of special scientific interest with strata from the Jurassic Period. A walk up to the top won’t take that long with a series of well defined paths. In terms of taking a break the Robinswood Country Park also has a handy cafe with plenty of parking.
Street Art in Cheltenham
Just a short drive from Gloucester is the spa town of Cheltenham. An unlikely highlight of which is in the fine selection of street art murals. The result of four consecutive years of Cheltenham’s Paint Festival, artists from across the UK and the World have painted murals here. it has left a legacy of high quality street art which lovers of urban art can explore. From the Brewery Quarter it spreads out around from the town into the outskirts. Murals can be found in surprising locations and exploring them is certainly a good way to get to know Cheltenham.
Gloucester was visited during August 2021 and all the places in this list were explored during this time. For more information on what to see in the area take a look at the ‘Visit Gloucester‘ and ‘Gloucester BID‘ websites.