During the first months of owning the wood we made ourselves at home. We made a table, coat hooks in the trees, sorted out the toilet facilities (a composting system), established a couple of fire sites and tied a set of seven empty flare canisters along a tree branch to act as waterproof storage. They hung, eye catching in yellow and red, like bulbous tropical fruits. We had our base. Now it was time to explore.
We started with an old map we had of the woods from 1965. In the few hours I had free while Amos was at nursery three mornings a week, I would scoot up to the wood and search for the old paths marked on the map. It was so exciting to rediscover the old charcoal burners trails through the trees, so obvious once I could see them. I wondered how we had managed to miss them before, and using them the wood became more accessible and spatially ordered. Some of the trails were beautifully engineered, such as the one which allowed charcoal to be moved down the cliff to a small dock where boats waited on the estuary to take the charcoal away. It seems bizarre to see it now. No water has lapped at the based of these cliffs for over 150 years, ever since the railway embankment was built to carry trains along the coast then across the estuary, so enclosing square kilometres of then salt marsh. The knowledge that we were walking on tracks that are likely to have been trodden for hundreds of years gave me a strange feeling. It made me conscious of the passing of time, the longevity of the woods and the short span one individual will walk in its shade. It made me think of the itinerant families who treated this place as home. This wood wasn’t just fun for them, but neither was it for us; the wood was essential in a different way as it continued to give us the respite we needed.
Everything we built at the wood we had to bring in ourselves. Piece by piece we carried up a sandpit for the children, a trampoline. We built swings. We gave Melody and Amos hammocks for their Birthdays; Amos would lie in his hammock , sometimes for an hour at a time, watching the clouds and the leaves above him. To begin with, we made sure the children had whistles so if anyone got lost they could blow their whistle and we could send out a rescue party. It happened once or twice, but as time went on and we spent more time in the woods, the children became more confident and familiar with their surroundings – and so did I. It’s so liberating to feel able to allow the children their own space to explore, to allow them to go off on their own in relative safety. I feel my heart beating in my mouth when they are climbing high up in the trees, but I’m not worrying about cars knocking them over, other children bullying them, I don’t have to worry about how our family are impacting on other people and there are little things too – it’s nice not to have to keep yelling ‘mind the dog muck’, or asking the children to let people past, or apologising as one of my crew has barrelled into somebody in their exuberant enjoyment of life.
We discovered trees that are hollow all the way up, trees twisted like corkscrews, a natural theatre that Peta and Joe cleared so all the children could perform plays. We suddenly had somewhere with enough space that we could ‘entertain’. The children could have friends round; Mark and I could have friends round. The wood opened up a whole new world for us. Within the safety of the trees we have a place where we can be ourselves – no labels, no observers, no criticism – and that for me is one of the greatest gifts I could ever be given.