Wooden Heart

12th April 2008

It’s 18 months since Geraint Jones first wrote in Optima about the temptations of owning a piece of woodland. Here he revisits a green dream.

I spent many months agonising over whether my strange desire to buy a piece of woodland was the onset of madness, the beginning of a mid-life crisis or merely a good idea.

The ‘Mr Sensible’ in me kept delivering lectures about how I would probably never ever visit once the novelty had worn off, how I would be saddled with this useless tract of land that no right-minded person would want and consequently I would never be able to sell.

He's pretty persuasive, my Mr Sensible, so it was something of a shock when I ignored his warnings and bought myself a four acre patch of beech wood in the Chiltern Hills.

I have become a landowner, a member of what the news-papers and magazines tell us is a growing band of people who have decided to own a small piece of woodland purely for ‘recreational purposes’.

But what exactly does that mean? I don't plan to hunt, shoot or fish in it, or to sell its timber, and it seems quite unlikely, at least at this early stage, that I will turn my hand to what are termed woodland crafts. You know the sort of thing I mean, the baffling ability to produce beautifully carved objects from a lump of wood and a trusty old knife. Paintballing is also out, now I come to think of it.

So what will I do with my wood? Having owned it for a little while, I feel able to give at least a partial answer. As the sale was completed in mid-December I think it fair to say that I have experienced the place at its worst, when the trees are bare, the days short and much of the wildlife hibernating or living it up in warmer climes.

I have camped out there in sub-zero temperatures and not perished, been snowed on, rained on, blown about a fair bit and endured long winter nights shivering beside camp fires of saturated wood that habitually refused to raise themselves above a dull glow however hard I tried to cajole them into life.

I can hear Mr Sensible coming though in that last paragraph so let me redress the balance. I have also woken to beautiful sunrises, watched hares gambolling around a frost-encrusted field in the early light, gazed at terrific starscapes and enjoyed the business of spending time doing not very much. That is one thing which has certainly struck me in my early days as a woodland owner – how it is possible to spend two or three days on end there and not actually do anything, or at least anything in the accepted contemporary idea of doing things.

Of course, there are always chores to perform. You always need firewood, so you have to be constantly scouring the wood for suitable fallen branches and chopping them up with an axe before hauling them off to camp. Then there is the cooking which is a good deal more time-consuming on an open fire than you expect it to be. At this time of year it is also handy to make sure you finish preparing your meal before it gets dark, which means you have to time the wood collecting and firelighting correctly.

As for the rest of the time, I find it surprisingly fulfilling doing nothing more than what I can best describe as absorbing the place – its sounds, the changing ambience of its light, its smells even. I bought a portable radio, thinking that I would need entertainment in the evenings, but I find I rarely use it, preferring what the wood can offer instead.

I also find I am becoming rather protective of the place. During the recent storms I sat in my centrally heated home listening to the gales outside and trying to imagine how the wood was coping with all this rough treatment.

Actually it fared pretty well, apart from one tree that came down across the public footpath that runs through it. So, armed with my axe, I went up there and spent a day clearing the obstruction and building up a handy stock of firewood to boot. If there is anything more invigorating than chopping wood on a cold, sunny March day, I've yet to find it.

That is as far as I have come as a wood owner. Now spring is here, there is plenty to look forward to, not least the bluebells which are sure to look spectacular when they bloom. I plan to invite friends up there, too, for grand communal lunches once the weather warms up a bit.

But most of all I am looking forward to summer in my wood, to long, hot days and cool evenings doing not very much.

Find Your Local