At five years old I walked to school on my own through Oxleas Woods. Actually I used to run as fast as I could, keeping an eye out for wild beasts, bogie men and hobgoblins hiding in the trees. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Oxleas Woods, in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, is one of the few remaining areas of ancient deciduous forest, parts of which date back 8,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age.
At weekends I played in the woods with other children, damming rivulets with twigs and stones, making little houses of moss among the tree roots and creating dens in the thickets. It was a time dappled with the light and shadow of imagination. There were Silver Birch, Hornbeam and Wild Service trees. I didn’t know these names, but remember the silvery bark stretching up to the sun, the smell of the leaf mould and the feel of the rich dark mud next to the water that lit up dark places under the trees.
In the centre of the woods was a café on a hill in a clearing. While our mothers sat here drinking tea, we children rolled down the grassy slopes and played in the rhododendrons at the foot of the hill. We came across tramps sleeping rough in our dens but didn’t tell on them.
Last weekend I was in East Sussex visiting my daughter and family. We took Hattie and Hugo (aged 3 and twenty months) to Wilderness Woods near Heathfield and, while we drank tea in the café, the children played in the mud kitchen and climbed on the carved toadstools in the woods. This forest school has been created for children to experience what I took for granted as a child. There are giant chairs to climb on, bug hotels and swings. Amongst the woods are tree stumps that have been decorated by children with feathers and fir cones.
The following day we visited the Wood Fair near Ringmer. It was a misty autumn morning with dream-catcher webs festooning the long grasses. We all trudged happily through deep mud watching log-cutters, wood-turners, blacksmiths and other craftspeople. In the woodland were groups of people dying fabric with natural pigments, stirring cauldrons of bubbling liquid. There were deer created from twigs and berries, supervised tree-climbing and basket-makers working with local willow. Hattie stroked a Tawny owl and Hugo searched for ‘wiggly worms’ in the mud. Lucy’s Forest School had a pitch promoting their enterprise.
Seeing my grandchildren connecting with the natural world in this way, not only reminded me of my own childhood, but gave me hope that the future generation will take this love of nature into adulthood.