Updated: Oct 16, 2019
I’ve always had a fancy that fairies and elves are afoot wherever trees are found. I read a lot of Enid Blyton as a child and woods and forests have never lost their magic for me. My favourite woods are those with big, tall, higgledy-piggledy trees, that cast shadows and shade over the ground below, perfect places for wood anemones, celandine and bluebells to live. I like the snap of fallen twigs and the crunch of autumn leaves underfoot and the smell of damp earth and growing things. I believe a wood becomes a thousand times more enchanting if there are babbling brooks and- this is my very best thing- wooden walkways and simple bridges connecting secret paths. I love hearing birds singing from their lofty perches and watching squirrels mischievously chasing each other into the canopies (I think of The Sword in the Stone every time I see a squirrel chase… anyone else, or just me?) I like to imagine that once the last human has gone home, the wood wakes up and the badgers, foxes, rabbits, mice, voles, elves, fairies, goblins and nymphs and all the tiny mini-beasts get busy living their best and most secret woodland-folk lives.
When we were little my sister and I were lucky enough to spend weekends with our Dad outdoors in the woods, on country walks and on the East and West Hills in Hastings… and sometimes at those medieval fayres at various English Heritage castles, the ones where grown-ups try stuff like horseradish on crackers and kids run around in felt Robin Hood hats, shooting little wooden bows and arrows… fun times… anyway, the point is that on those weekends we were wild and free. We’d spend our time rolling down the grassy banks of the East Hill with our step-sisters, exploring the three bears’ caves in the cliffs, having picnics, building dens, searching for chestnuts and identifying mushrooms (yep, we ate horseradish on crackers and identified mushrooms… W. I. L. D.), playing games and climbing trees. Our very favourite tree, the most magical tree in all the land, was a very old Sweet Chestnut which lives in the middle of an old Quarry in Fairlight Country Park in Hastings, East Sussex. Dad would pile us all- five little girls, which later turned into five not-so-little girls, two little boys and a baby- into the bright green VW Camper van that had no seat belts and off we’d go, on an adventure to the Quarry Tree.
When we got there it was always the same- a picnic of French stick and cheese, apples and other goodies and then a trek down into the Quarry to play the ‘stick game’ where we would split into two teams- one team hid somewhere in the Quarry, leaving a trail of arrows made from sticks, or stones, or drawn into the earth for the other team to find. We’d play this game for a few hours and then go to the tree and sit in its branches and climb- Dad included. I say ‘we’, but I’m no climber. My sister and I have both inherited ridiculously long toes (thanks Dad), perfect for tree climbing, but the climbing gene bypassed me completely and my sister got it instead. So, she would swing through the branches with our Dad, all monkey toes and fearless energy while I’d happily sit on the bottom branch and look up, thinking about fairies and other woodland folk who might live in that beautiful old Sweet Chestnut tree. She was always the fearless one and I was the worrier, but now we have our little Henry, I’m the one who encourages tree-climbing and wild adventures and she’s the one who worries. I think that's the beauty of being an Auntie.
Years may have gone by, but the Quarry is still one of my favourite places in the world, because of those wonderful memories we made there as children. Driving over the cow grates, the incredible smell of the gorse, the first view of the Firehills, miles and miles of green fields and then the sea from the clifftops…. my heart beats a bit quicker just thinking about it. As I’ve gotten older, I like to revisit the places we used to spend our weekends- Guestling Woods, the East Hill, St Helen’s Wood, Pett Level, Bodiam Castle… so many places. Don’t get me wrong, I have a big dose of my Mum in me too and I love a trip to Laura Ashley too- lifelong, die-hard fan right here (thanks Mama)- but there’s something about being outdoors, in the fresh air, in old familiar places that is just so… exciting and nostalgic. Everything is the same, just older and I find that comforting.
Now I have a dog and a small boy, who both love being outdoors, so I get to relive all those wild memories with them. The first time we took Henry to the Firehills he was about four months old- we had a picnic where I picked daisies and buttercups for him to look at and clutch in his fat little baby fists. He’s three now and asks me if we can ‘go to The Wild’ and it fills me with joy that he seems to love being outside, having adventures and making memories. He helps me in our garden, digging and planting seeds (pumpkins and sunflowers), watering and using his ‘took kit’ to fix the wheelbarrow (his ‘tool kit’ is a Gruffalo garden set with a trowel, fork, rake and watering can and a spray bottle brush and chalk. He loves it and feels very important carrying it around) Earlier today he helped me look after a worn-out bumblebee by giving it some sugar water in a spoon as well as doing some litter picking in the park. I hope he grows up loving nature as much as I do. And yes, I have taken him to the Quarry Tree. We’ve climbed the sandstone ‘mountains’ and looked out across the trees all the way to the sea, we’ve looked at the flowers and found out what they’re called, we’ve nearly fallen down rabbit holes and wondered if anyone is home and we’ve climbed the sturdy old branches of our dear Sweet Chestnut tree and came home feeling like adventurers.
I wrote this post for Friends of the Earth, who contacted me and asked if I would share a tree story for World Environment Day (which is today), to support their campaign to double tree cover in the UK by 2045, in a bid to counteract climate change.