Words: Emma Howarth / Photographs: Jessica Cresswell
Emma Howarth meets the families who are retreating into nature and embracing their wild side with woodland living
When even eternal party girl Kate Moss is hugging trees (see Sadie Frost’s Instagram) in her spare time, you know the forest is having a moment. It makes sense. We’re already down with mindfulness, buying organic and detoxing our digital lives, and it didn’t take long for 2018 to be declared the year of self-care. In a world where wellness has gone mainstream, reconnecting with nature is the obvious next step.
It’s an important one, too. No matter how much we think we have our best interests covered with YouTube yoga sessions and meditation apps, the impact fast-paced modern life has on our wellbeing is impossible to ignore. You’ve noticed how much better you feel after a long Sunday walk in the great outdoors, right? Or how much calmer your children are if they’ve spent the day making mud pies in a field? We all know that time spent outside is time well spent, but somehow that woodland stroll often ends up at the bottom of the To Do list below the work calls, the school runs and the never-ending trips to the supermarket.
Well, not any more. Re-wilding and forest-bathing are fast becoming legit school-gate conversation topics, forest schools are booming and more of us than ever are wild-camping, joining woodland stewardship schemes and even buying small patches of woodland to call our own. We don’t need Kate Moss to tell us it’s time to get back in touch with the trees.
One family doing exactly that are the Cresswells (Jessica, 35, Paul, 36, and their four-year-old daughter), who manage, live and work in a beautiful 25-acre (part of a larger 700-acre wood, which has been divided up) woodland plot in Kent. The family originally bought the plot, which already had a few buildings located on it, in 2007 as a space for Paul to set up workshops for his oak-frame building company, but were thrilled when they received planning permission to turn an existing office building into their home in 2013. For Jessica, a former graphic designer – who now writes about wellness, slow-living and her family’s outdoor lifestyle on her blog, The Woodland Wife – it’s a childhood dream come true.
“I’d always dreamt of raising a family somewhere with plenty of outdoor space,” she says. “The building we live in is tatty, but we love nothing more than living in the woods and the feeling of being connected to the environment and the seasons. Seeing our home and woodland through our daughter’s eyes, and watching her develop an understanding of the natural world is just fascinating, too. It’s a magical place for her to grow up.”
One look at Jessica’s Instagram account, all crisp leaves, crackling fires and sunlight streaming through the tops of trees, and it’s easy to see why she is so captivated by the life her family has made in the woods. After she takes her daughter to school, Jessica spends her day tending to the family’s hens, walking the dogs, writing and taking photographs for her blog, and keeping up with repairs and maintenance.
“Friends often question why we rarely go away on holiday or for long weekends,” she says. “But the reason is that we adore where we live. There’s always something new to discover or create. We love nothing more than a weekend outdoors fixing things, walking or clearing up the woods.”
Of course, her daughter’s school friends like being invited over for playdates among the trees. “They all disappear to explore the ‘fairy houses’ dotted around the woods or to mess around in the playhouse,” she says. “It’s lovely watching them enjoy the environment around them.”
It’s not all plain-sailing, playdates and dreamy photo ops, though. “It’s taken years of hard work, determination and sacrifice to get to where we are now. Owning and maintaining a woodland isn’t a job or a hobby, it’s a vocation and an all-encompassing lifestyle choice,” she says. “We have to work hard to maintain the wood properly and that includes thinning and felling areas of trees, something we are sometimes criticised for. But working the wood in this way is actually what keeps it healthy. A felled chestnut coppice might look horribly bare one year, but within a few months, it’s full of new life and growth. It’s a lot of work, though! We do sometimes talk about the amount of time involved and whether we’d ever return to life outside the woods, but we always arrive at the same conclusion… we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The woods influence every aspect of the Cresswells’ family life and parenting style. “As parents we are very much focussed on outdoor living, encouraging imaginative play and giving our daughter the freedom to explore all year round,” Jessica says. “Naturally, she’s sometimes a little more reluctant to get outside in the middle of winter, but it’s never long before she is totally immersed in her imagination. Living so close to nature, we are also much more aware of the impact our choices have on the environment around us.
“We’re careful about everything from the clothes we buy to the products we put on our skin. And our daughter is very well informed when it comes to environmental issues. She takes herself off on ‘plastic patrols’ around the woods at weekends.”
The Cresswells aren’t alone in their desire to raise environmental awareness and to connect to nature by taking ownership of our native woodlands. A quick look at woodland ownership site Woodlands.co.uk reveals numerous small woodlands for sale across the UK, with prices ranging from £25,000 for just under two acres in Devon to £85,000 for five-and-a-half acres in Hampshire. And more people than ever are looking into making their own woodland ownership dreams come true. Ellie Batten, 42, was delighted when the opportunity arose to buy an acre of ancient woodland (part of a larger plot of land owned by a friend) near her home in Kent recently. The experience of looking after and spending more time in the woods has proved massively positive for both her and her nine-year-old son. “It’s actually led us to start home-educating,” she says. “I’ve realised I want my son to be able to connect with the natural world, something I don’t think traditional schooling provides.”
Ellie, who works as a volunteer helping refugees, also knew she wanted to use her patch of forest to give something back. “I think time outdoors is so important for young people,” she says. “I wanted to use my woodland to host community events allowing local children to spend more time in nature. I do fear that nature deficit disorder is a real problem for this generation, and if I can help children and adults reconnect with it in some small way then I’m happy!”
Her first free community event in 2017, an after-dark Father Christmas experience, was a massive success. “I wanted to do something that really showed community spirit in the hope that others may follow. And they did. Many brilliant people – who were strangers to me until they offered their services via Facebook – volunteered their time,” Ellie says.
This might just be the start of Ellie’s stewardship journey but she is already well aware of the responsibility that goes with owning a wood. “The fact that the woodland is so old is quite humbling,” she says. “I feel an immense responsibility to maintain it and help it flourish for generations to come.”
Of course, not everyone is in a position to buy up their own patch of woodland – and, even if you do, actually living on the land can be tricky (see our ‘Woodland for Sale’ box, below) – but there are still numerous ways to make time among the trees a regular part of life.
First up, find out where your nearest woodlands are and whether they’re publicly or privately owned. Many privately owned woods – Wilderness Wood in Sussex is a great example – are run with community access and engagement in mind.
“The combination of trees and community is what makes Wilderness Wood tick,” says owner Emily Charkin. “Community engagement is essential if we want to preserve our woodlands for future generations. If you want people to care about the woods they need to experience being in the woods.”
Investigate your local wood further and you might find that, like at Wilderness, there’s a membership scheme, stewardship sessions or regular forest-based activities you and/or your children can get involved with.
Another great way to show children the wonder of the woods is to enrol them in a holiday or extra-curricular forest school. There are some brilliant outfits across the country teaching children how to build dens, light fires and look after the world around them.
If what you had in mind was more the occasional stroll in the sunshine, the Woodland Trust is a brilliant source of information on the most inspiring forest walks in the UK. Many woodland spaces, such as Leigh Woods in Somerset or Creech Wood in Hampshire, also have brilliantly imaginative natural play areas to help enthuse any flailing small folk.
However you decide to play it, any increase in time spent outside appreciating and taking care of the natural world is a step in the right direction. Here’s to fresh air, muddy knees and taking care of the trees, not just for our children but for their children too.
What is Forest School?
An innovative approach to outdoor learning that teaches children how to problem-solve, co-operate with others and appreciate the natural world.
What do children do at Forest School?
Den-building; tree-climbing; plant, tree, animal and insect identification; bush craft including fire-lighting/cooking; outdoor art and crafts; games, singing and treasure hunts
Woodland For Sale
INTERESTED IN BUYING A WOOD? HERE ARE SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER
- It’s surprisingly easy to buy a wood, with far less red tape than property purchasing.
- You’ll need planning permission to build anything more than a storage shed in the woods – check your local planning regulations first.
- If your wood is subject to a tree preservation order, you’ll need to ask permission before doing any work.
- There are restrictions on the amount of wood you can fell and sell each year.
- Check whether sporting rights are included or you may find others have the right to shoot on your land.
- Owning a woodland involves a lot of work and responsibility. Be prepared.