Posted tagged ‘woods’

In praise of a day in the woods & other microadventures

January 21, 2016

What did you do at the weekend? Or more challenging: what did you do after school? The same as you always do? Or something which makes your heart sing – either doing it, or remembering it? This post takes my family to a pub-crammed village famous for inspiring artist Stanley Spencer and Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame in Berkshire on a micro-adventure. Nothing too strenuous happened – you might just as easily call it a day trip. For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see

Impressive den in Quarry Woods near Cookham. This area inspired Wind in the Willows writer Kenneth Grahame.

Impressive den in Quarry Woods near Cookham. This area inspired Wind in the Willows writer Kenneth Grahame.

Big adventures are fun, but they are often hard to organise, and expensive. Of course you don’t have to cycle the Alps to have an adventure. You can have them in the UK, but as so much of British outdoor life is weather dependent getting a party together (especially of mixed ages) to do something on a set day you can all make can be easily spoilt by grey skies, a stiff breeze and a downpour.

And so micro adventures were born.Big adventures are fun, but they are often hard to organise, and expensive. Of course you don’t have to cycle the Alps to have an adventure. You can have them in the UK, but as so much of British outdoor life is weather dependent getting a party together (especially of mixed ages) to do something on a set day you can all make can be easily spoilt by grey skies, a stiff breeze and a downpour.

The name appears to come from Alastair Humphries, see his website here.

But a micro adventure can just be going somewhere different, or going somewhere you know well and really exploring it in a different way.Instead of going on mega trips occasionally – he was 24 when he decided to ride around the world by bike (which took four years!) – he goes on little ones, often. I love this idea. I need my adventure quotient topped up, ideally outside. For me one exciting walk a week is enough, but I also try to keep bigger adventures on the go in case I lose inspiration. At the moment my family is finishing off the New River Walk (approx. 30miles from Hertfordshire to London along a stream that is neither new, nor a river). We just do a short stage when we fancy. I’m also planning to walk a lot more of the Thames Path.

The shelter we put up... view from our fire! Learning skills at Conkers in the National Forest. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

A shelter Nell and I put up while learning outdoor survival skills at Conkers in the National Forest – lighting a fire in the rain and then toasting marshmallows on it. (c) homemadekids/nicola baird

Alastair’s website is all kids in sleeping bags roughing it without tents – you can do that in a garden too, it doesn’t have to be a super glamorous overseas location. His current challenge is to get people to commit to spending one night a month under the stars for a year. It’s a lovely idea and you’d learn so much from it. I’m thinking about it… but rather suspect that I won’t.

Alastair is super creative (he funds his blog by asking people to shout him a coffee – the £2.50s add up and as a result he’s got a fab site). His adventures are incredibly varied and I am sure would be happy to spend a day climbing a tree to really develop a sense of what that particular oak is really like, and which little critters and birds visit it.

My micro-adventures tend to focus on taking the dog for a walk in the woods. There is nothing I like better. Although if you can throw in an art gallery and a nice cosy pub I’ll be extra happy. So visiting Cookham in Berkshire (the train from London goes to Maidenhead, then you change for the 10 min ride to Cookham) was perfect.

Coming down the chalky side of Winter Hill some teenagers were playing on the shallow flooded meadows. it was icy and couldn't hold their weight but they were having such a fabulous time 'moon walking' and sinking up to the top of their wellies. it looked a lot more fun than spending the weekend on your phone.

Coming down the chalky side of Winter Hill some teenagers were playing on the shallow flooded meadows. it was icy and couldn’t hold their weight but they were having such a fabulous time ‘moon walking’ and sinking up to the top of their wellies. it looked a lot more fun than spending the weekend on your phone.

I followed a 7-mile walk through Quarry Wood and up steep Winter Hill then down a chalk hillside for a last one and a half mile stroll along the River Thames back to Cookham and the Stanley Spencer art gallery in the old Methodist church.

Cookham, or “village in heaven” as the crabby but talented Stanley Spencer called it. His art is full of portraits of the locals and local scenes. I love the way flowers twine themselves into his pictures and the majority are making Cookham the ultimate destination.

To improve a micro-adventure it helps if there are options for all your party. So my husband, Pete, went on the Stanley Spencer guided walk around the village, my teen daughter turned up late for a quick tour of the gallery and then met me and Pete in the pub. We stayed on for tapas and another cheeky drink while she took the earlier train back to London for a David Bowie tribute gig…

There are at least six pubs in Cookham, and all seemed to serve food (there’s also the Teapot Tea shop in the high street which had delicious looking cakes). We tried the lovely old Bel & the Dragon, an old coaching inn. But a glass of white wine cost £9!! So for the next round we went to the Old Swan Uppers where for £7.50 I got a half of good beer, an even better glass of wine and a packet of crisps. Both were dog friendly, and both had lovely staff and roaring fires. My family wanted to talk about Spencer – his art and wives. I managed that, and was also happy to talk over my route which had included a quick detour to see the house that Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame lived in while writing the book. Behind is Winter Hill’s thick wood (and beyond that Quarry Wood), both very obviously the model for his book’s scary Wild Wood – home of Badger and those evil weasels who go on to take over Toad Hall. The house is now a prep school, Herries.

Just being outside was incredibly reviving. When I got back into the warm I felt tired and content – happy to go along with my family’s suggestions. And the dog just lay down and slept. My plan this year is to keep a day a weekend as free as I can so that the micro-adventure habit can blossom. Perhaps what I like best about this plan is that anyone can come along, but it’s still fun if you’re the only one who wants to head outdoors.

  • Walk route was in Country Walks near London by Christopher Somerville. I used the 1994 edition, but this links to a much newer version. Somerville is my favourite walk guide -his routes are great because you don’t have to have your nose in the book. It does help if you can bring an OS map too though.

More ways to love woods

September 24, 2012


This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. This post suggests it’s time to get out in the woods, or just listen to a tree. For more info about my book Homemade Kids, with lots of ideas about parenting click here.

There’s a little park near me – just 4ha that used to be a railway coal sidings. It now boasts a woodland, a large pond and enough scrub to guarantee a place to find sticks. Last Friday it offered a wild places workshop for any age so pensioners could pond dip and tots could try following a nature trail. My youngest and her friend, both 11, went along and were transfixed by the tree listening opportunity. Now, I wasn’t there, but I understand a tree is found, a bunch of head phones are attached to the branches (the canopy) and then anyone who wants to listens in. Turns out trees make pops and rumbles as water passes through cells. The genius man – Alex Metcalf – who runs this workshops has lots more info here, and though I long to find out more, and hear for myself, regrettably I can’t get his audio link to work.

Trees guarantee a good time with kids, if you aren’t in a hurry, and especially as autumn creeps nearer. I normally take the dog for a walk on Hampstead Heath (because we live in London), but today popped on to the mainline train to a Hertfordshire station called Bayford just 30 minutes away from the metropolis.

It is so quiet at Bayford station when the train’s gone it’s spooky. There’s a bridleway near the station which provided a fabulous place to picnic and whittle sticks, lots of crazy routes for the dog to run  around and the opportunity for Nell to build a fairy palace and Lola and I to stare up at the tree canopy- still green and lovely. Pix above of Lola and Nell with dyed sticks, Lola and Billie practising for Hogwarts with their wands, Nell and a den, Lola enjoying the view of an oak.

And on the way home we picked blackberries to freeze, guzzle and use in crumble.

The following week our visit to the woods was all about staining wands a fiercesome red – use blackberry or elderberry juice – and tree climbing. It’s hard to be at a loss what to do when you are in the woods, and especially if you have a friend with you.

Autumn book: for grown ups: Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders – makes you feel like you can do anything if you’ve got the timber (except choose the right husband). It’s a bit sad.

Autumn book for kids: The Stick Book: loads of things you can make or do with a stick by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks. This is a fab crib book which distracted both my daughters and made us all long to get to the woods. Great tips on how to hollow out elder, make fire lighters, cook trout on a stick, play pick up sticks etc, etc. Would make a fabulous present for most ages.

What do you play in the woods?

May 9, 2010


This book is published on 1 July 2010

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.

Pip explores an Oxfordshire wood.

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.

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