In a different life I was a primary school teacher and gave it all up to be an odd job man. I finished working in education after 18 years as part time co-head of a small independent primary school in Lewes, which had it’s high and lows! The school trustees dissolved the jobshare and my options were to apply for the headship full time or go back to class. At that point neither option was what I wanted. In reality I’d had enough and it was the push I needed to hand in my resignation and buy some new tools, which is always a pleasure. Anyway, that preamble has nothing to do with this post. Whilst at the school I worked with a woman who bought a woodland. She asked me if I wanted to buy into the scheme but, at the time, I lacked the necessary £10,000 (young kids, mortgage and slightly precarious employment situation) so had to decline.
She knew that I’d really have like to have had a plot so offered me the chance to use her 10 acres whenever I wanted. ‘Go out and wander round, find yourself a patch to call home.’ All she wanted in return was a spot of help clearing old tree guards and a spot of pruning to improve the habitat for the pearl bordered fritillary (a butterfly so hopeless that it doesn’t like to fly through patches of shade to the next bit of sunshine, effectively cutting itself off from possible mates. No wonder it’s endangered). On her online obituary friends were asked to leave comments and messages about her life. My wife wrote that her offer was probably the single most meaningful and generous act that anyone has ever done for our family.
‘The Woods’ as it is known to our family, relatives and friends became host to days out, birthday parties, camps, work days (these involved small groups of men arriving late on a Friday, eating, boozing and waking in the morning having slept out round the fire with no appetite for anything, particularly work…) and teenage ‘gatherings’ (that’s a party, right?). The camping is pretty feral, it’s just a woodland, and after a while shoes are abandoned and pyjamas are de rigueur. We cook over an open fire, mostly fry-ups in a sooty old paella pan.
From 11 years old I lived in the country. First a spot of ‘Good Life-ing’ in Wales in the late 70’s and then rural Gloucestershire as a teenager, where I learnt to drive in a Land Rover and spent days on tractors circling fields with a hay cutter in the sunshine. Both my kids have grown up in Brighton. They are townies. The woods gave them an opportunity to explore and ‘be in’ a natural environment and they love it. One day, whilst taking off old tree guards, a hibernating dormouse fell onto the leaf litter. My daughter held this tiny creature in her equally tiny hand as it quivered in its sleep, its tail curled over its nose whilst I hurriedly made it a new nest under a log. We wondered what it dreamt during this experience.
We’ve seen adders, black and copper coloured, glow worms, slow worms, dragonflies, damsel flies, flies, slugs and wood fleas (unseen but felt). Fungus that glows in the dark and fungus that doesn’t which can be eaten (with care).
My favourite time in the woods is spring. I’m not that into bluebells but prefer the fresh green-ness as the silver birch emerges from dormancy and the tiny shaving brush like fronds appear on the pine trees. We’re currently tending a hundred or so saplings planted earlier this year that are struggling in the dry conditions we are experiencing. What with that and the deer it’s amazing they survive.
I like to do a spot of natural history reading and my favourite author, previously mentioned, is Roger Deakin. In Wildwood he tours the UK and the world exploring the human connection with woodland, which doesn’t always make it a comfortable read. It’s a good way for me to be at home and in ‘The Woods’.