tawny owl

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.

Kingcombe, Dorset

I first saw Kingcombe in February 1987 when it was a hamlet untouched by time. There was a traditional thatched Long House and other farm buildings and cottages – all in a semi-ruinous state. The whole valley of 600 acres had always been farmed organically and had been in the ownership of one family since the beginning of the twentieth century. This unique landscape had never been touched by artificial fertilisers, pesticides or any chemicals and was rich in wildflowers, birdlife and mammals. In 1987 it was bought by a developer and then auctioned in several lots.

Luckily the majority of the estate was bought by a man who was passionate about nature conservation, and he set about creating the Kingcombe Wildlife Centre. The buildings were sensitively renovated and the unique landscape preserved. The Dorset Wildlife Trust now owns and runs the Centre.

Today I set off down the narrow lanes leading to Kingcombe. A filigree of copper-coloured ferns edged the single-track road and, as I plunged deeper into the valley, water was running down the centre of the twisting track – rural Dorset as Thomas Hardy knew it. I arrived at Kingcombe and parked outside the visitor centre. Racks of Wellington boots were ranged outside the door. Inside, the tables were covered in a display of fungi found on a foray at the weekend.

A blackboard showed the wildlife sightings – kingfisher, kestrel, tawny owls, heron . . . and a vole (found in the chicken run), lizard, dormouse, woodmice and Colin the Crayfish! There was a map of the area showing the names of different fields – Cowleaze, Scutlers, Lord’s Mead, Adders Hole, Pound Plots, Yonder Cowleaze, Barn Mead, Bushy Ground . . . each name telling a story.

I wandered past the hen run, through the organic kitchen garden and down to the wildlife pond and river. The gentle music of birdsong blended with the sound of the stream, creating a peaceful environment far from the noise of traffic. Hedgerow plants were seeding, straggling, tangling together in a natural tapestry. There were no tidy edges or straight lines – everything had been left to decay without interference. Old stumps and fallen trees were covered in moss, providing ideal habitats for all sorts of insects.

Two green woodpeckers took off and disappeared into lichen-covered branches. A deep leaf litter covered the boggy ground. The old well with a stone surround was partially hidden behind a jumble of weeds, but a carved S was visible (the land was owned by the Sandwich family until 1918). A rutted track curved away up the hill – part of the ancient Wessex Ridgeway.

I was acutely aware of how people and nature had lived in harmony here for hundreds of years. There couldn’t be a greater contrast to the huge hedgeless fields of commercial agriculture. This place is an oasis for wildlife – a small homespun patch in the sterile garment covering most of our countryside.

Autumn’s mood board

When the wind is in the east – that’s when spiders spin their webs. So the saying goes, and the wind has been easterly for a while. Outside our front door, a garden spider is digesting a fly in the centre of a splendid web. As I walked through the village, I noticed several houses were being painted and it occurred to me that autumn, like spring, is a time of renewal. The dust and frippery of summer is being shed, leaving bare structures and neatly packaged seeds in storage.

The hedgerows were like a decorator’s mood board of texture and colour – the nuts and bolts of a bigger structure starting to emerge. The bare timbers and scaffolding of the countryside yet to be outlined against the sky in midwinter. In the meantime plants were beginning to reveal their geometry – the stark radial spokes of hogweed, lacy dock leaves, intricately designed seed pods and high-gloss berries, horse chestnut leaves damaged by the leaf miner moth, leaving blotches of paint-chart colours. A frieze of wild hops wreathed sprays of elderberries and swags of blackberries.

Flowers were still blooming halogen-like among the shrivelling leaves – the sugary-pink of Himalayan Balsam, retro-yellow ragwort and dandelions, daisies, mauve stripy mallow, clover and tissue-paper bramble flowers. I walked along through an intermittent shower of things falling to the ground – sycamore propellers, drifting feathers, curled leaves like peeling wallpaper and sandpapery beech nuts. A speckled wood butterfly zigzagged in the shade.

The low sun shafted through the trees on the lane and everything felt silent and restful. A group of workmen sat drinking coffee beside their van emblazoned with the word ‘Inspired’. I walked on to my special place near the old way. Suddenly a tawny owl hooted – a moonlight sound in the middle of the afternoon. Thirty seconds later a train echoed the hoot on the nearby crossing.

Swans decorated the margins of the chalk stream and a trail of litter was caught in the grass verge – piece of paper with the headline ‘Forward to Seeing’ and a concertinaed newspaper like a giant butterfly, wings spread on the tarmac. Squashed wild cherries and damson made red and yellow splotches on the pavement. Burdock in various stages of growth showed either burgundy centres or wire-brush seed heads.

The hedgerows were stippled with exquisite seed heads the colour of brown paper, but with finely drawn patterns and shapes like stencilled stars. Bright yellow lichen curled like flakes of paint on a twig. I saw wads of thistledown caught in the branches along with feathers, spiders’ webs and tufts of sheep’s wool, giving the illusion of an old mattress disintegrating on a dilapidated bedstead of rust-coloured hogweed.