silver birch

A child in the woods

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.

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Season of mists . . .

Early morning and the thatched roof looked as though it was covered in tiny muslin handkerchiefs – spiders’ webs. Grey mist, and a grey squirrel dashed across the road. Fog lay in the valley like an army blanket. In the distance, sea merged with sky. I can’t walk for spiders’ webs – feel as though I’ve been wrapped up in a grey cocoon, trapped like a fly ready for eating.

Three silvery trees, next to Horse chestnut trees, brown leaves ready to drop. My grandson showed me shiny conkers he’d collected. The weather has been good and we can’t let go of summer.

A bright green dragonfly whirring like something dangerous around the garden. Moving too fast to be seen clearly, mechanical and varnished like a strange missile on a mission. Two house martins dipped in a fly-frenzy, so absorbed they hadn’t noticed the rest had gone.

I headed for the coast through a soft-focus landscape. The sun was up there somewhere waiting for a gap in the mist. As I reached Burton Bradstock the fog fell away revealing a bright blue sky feathered with jet trails. Chesil beach was the colour and texture of an ice cream cone. Creamy foam curled on the edge of a postcard sea. I couldn’t believe it was the beginning of October.

Two fishermen had hauled their boat up the shingle and were sorting their nets. Beside them, a blue bucket of plaice, their orange spots looking quite frivolous in the sun against the dark grey skin, but an effective camouflage on the sea bed. The fishermen kindly gave me two for supper.

The tide was out and I walked towards the sandstone cliffs which looked soft and friable in the low morning sun. There have been many landslips, yet people still picnic beneath the crumbling rock faces.

Along the strandline was a trail of bright green gut weed intermingled with hundreds of white feathers – possibly the results of the autumn moult from gulls. There were no dead birds and hardly any litter after the recent calm weather. A few mother-of-pearl shells, the occasional mussel shell and one or two cuttle fish were dotted amongst the seaweed which meandered as far as I could see. Toothed wrack and kelp entwined with what looked like coral weed creating a scrawled line like copperplate writing on the parchment sand.

Different types of pebble glistened at the water’s edge, some marbled pink, characteristic of the coast at Budleigh Salterton in Devon, others grey striped with white – all perfectly polished by the sea, but lack-lustre when dry. Traces of fossils could be seen here and there. I once found a small ammonite lying on the beach, but most are hidden inside rocks like embryos in an egg. The forecast is for storms so I shall go back next week when the strandline will be written in a different language.