What do you play in the woods?
Do you play with your kids in the woods? For the past two months I’ve had the first Saturday after the General Election barbed wire for a special treat for my family
, writes Nicola Baird, author of the soon-to-be-published book, Homemade Kids: thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children.
I wanted to take my daughters to see huge swathes of bluebells and reckoned the place to go was woods where coppicing happens regularly (usually in very old woodlands). Norsey Woods, near Billericay in Essex, seemed like the ideal place. It’s an ancient woodland run by Basildon District council, more info about the site from the society of friends and also reachable if you take the train to Billericay.
There are lovely woods close to where I live in London but none that I know of with really impressive bluebells.
From way back woods equals playtime to me – hiding, building dens, pretend trails, getting lost and then navigating back to safety, lots of picnics and startling wildlife. But shockingly during my family’s three hour wander we saw no other children. In the car park a regular stream of drivers were unloading dogs for a walk (admittedly our bluebell mission involved an 87-mile round trip driving in the car club car)* but not kids.
Yes it was raining, but with the right clothes and such a huge tree canopy from the sweet chestnuts and hornbeams it’s hard to get that wet in this wood if you stay on your feet. My girls are 9 and 11 so all they needed was waterproof jackets and wellies to keep them dry. Toddlers would be better kitted up in all-in-one waterproof suits. The Norsey Wood bluebells were astoundingly lovely – and there were so many. Zoe, one of the brilliant mums quoted in Homemade Kids,sent me this pic of her son Pip, 3, in fleece and waterproof trousers busy exploring spring woods, but in a different county.
But back to our Essex adventure: we picnicked on the fallen trunks of a coppiced hornbeam, with bluebells, wood anemones, town hall clock, yellow archangel, wild gralic (ransoms) and sweet woodruff, closely overseen by a robin whose territory we were obviously invading.
What a shame Essex children get to miss out on the loveliness on their doorstep – although they could have been down the road at the primary school in Stock’s summer fair with plate smashing, plant stalls and pony rides.
Find your nearest bluebells
1 You can enjoy a free supervised tour (remember to accompany under 16s) on Saturday 29 May at Norsey Woods (Essex) nature reserve from 10.30-12.30 – see more at the council website here
2 In spring many gardens have a few bluebells. Get your children to look for the thinner, drooping-to-one-side violet flowers if you want to see traditional English bluebells. If they are sturdier and more upright, then you’re probably looking at the Spanish bluebell.
3 Bluebells and other woodland flowers are at their best between April – May and will grow in damp, shady places (eg, along hedgerows, verges, smaller woods). However bluebells are thought to give their best display the second year after coppicing, due to the amount of extra light hitting the woodland floor. If you are going for a walk with children see if you can find a woodland where bluebells grow – and then maybe encourage the children to think up their own special name for it. You could also try counting how many bluebells you can see (or how many types of different flowers) to help start off your child’s first nature diary.
NOTE 1: It is illegal to pick flowers at Norsey woods because it is an ancient woodland defined as an SSSI (site of special scientific interest). Leaving the law aside never bother to pick a bluebell as they wither and die almost instantly – an important lesson to teach even the youngest children. You can always take photos/film if memories and the heady scent are not enough.
NOTE 2* – You can have great days out near to your home, just pack a picnic and rug and off you go, but this outing was meant to be a special family treat after a burst of electioneering (for the Greens, just so you know). So we also went on an Essex family history hunt visiting the village where the girls Granny Fiona used to live with her step father; and the farm on their paternal side that their Grandad Dennis rented from the council.