Thursday, 22 September 2011


I've just returned home from an amazing outdoor adventure with two very special friends. My clothes and hair smell of woodsmoke and citronella, but I'm in absolutely no rush to wash it out because whilst it lingers I can make believe I'm still camping under a starlit sky, in a small woodland, in the wilds of Kent.

Although I was only away for a couple of days, and we didn't really 'go' anywhere or 'do' anything as such, the time we spent together was so full of exciting sights and magical happenings that I could probably write a whole book about all the wonderful things we saw, heard and experienced over the course of just one single weekend.

Actually, I am in the process of writing a book. It's all about my 'journey back to nature' and is an attempt to share some of what I'm learning as I spend more and more time rediscovering my relationship with the natural world. My blog is a little taster of how it will read so I hope very much that its readable/informative....otherwise I'm back to the drawing board!

"A friend is one of the nicest things you can have, and one of the best things you can be" - Douglas Pagels

When your friends live in different areas of the country and you're all busy with your own individual lives it can be quite difficult to arrange 'get togethers'.  Carol,  Anne-Christine and myself have been trying to arrange a get together for well over a year, so when Carol suggested we meet in mid-September to spend a weekend in a woodland, away from the hustle bustle of everyday life, Anne-Christine and I both jumped at the chance. We packed plenty of warm clothes, blankets, waterproofs, cake and, of course, my kelly kettle - and off we headed.

After negotiating the M50, M5, M4, M25 and M20 (so many motorways!) we finally reached the part of the journey that included directions like "pass the pub on your left" "take the right hand fork after the postbox" and "follow the track past the little pond till you reach the white gate."

It's amazing, at this stage, how all your thoughts and senses change from being in the heightened and stressful state of "I must stay alert and concentrate on the traffic otherwise I'll have an accident" to the more relaxed and enjoyable state of "Wow, this countryside is just amazing!"  "I never realised before that Kent was this beautiful" and "Goodness me, I don't think I've ever seen so many Sweet Chestnut trees in one place...."

Kent is, indeed, a very beautiful county and once we left the major trunk roads we were able to slow down and take in our surroundings. The closer we came to our destination, the narrower the roads became and the more we were able to notice and admire the local flora and fauna. When you're on a motorway you are barely able to take in the cloud formations, let alone the surrounding landscape, but when you're travelling at less than 20mph along a country lane, you start to notice and recognise the different trees, flowers and grasses growing in the hedgerows; have time to admire the kestrel hovering above the side of the road (always facing into the wind); exchange a friendly nod with the rider exercising her horse and even manage to identify the odd bumblebee or two.  It's like being on a different planet.

Shoes off 

When we finally arrived at our destination the very first thing I did was throw my shoes off so I could walk barefoot on the grass. There's something basic and primeval about walking barefoot - and something very odd about the fact that we spend so much time with our shoes on even when we don't need them for protection. The feeling of your skin touching the surface of the earth is one of the most amazing and instant ways to reconnect with the land - and it's something I don't do often enough.

After we'd hugged and greeted each other - and the land - we spent a little time exploring our immediate surroundings. Carol, who is a seasoned bushcrafter and leader of wild food forays, had already set up camp at the edge of the field near a small woodland that is often used for bushcraft meets. The setting was just perfect.

In the woodland, behind the tent, there was a clearing amongst the trees where the bushcraft folk had built a fire pit and a number of different outdoor cooking structures. There was also a covered area in case it rained, and firewood aplenty provided by the previous night's high winds.

From the entrance to our tent we looked down towards a field full of recently cut hay bales, a couple of old farm buildings and a small apple orchard. The view to our left was almost 'otherworldly' as it meandered up a gentle slope to the brow of a hill where someone had pitched a couple of tipis on the horizon. I love tipis!

On the opposite side of the field was a well established hedgerow, and Carol, who had already tuned in to the local sights, sounds and smells, called our attention to the call of a great spotted woodpecker as it broke cover and bounced from one part of the hedge to another. It felt like we were being welcomed with open arms and we knew, as you often do when you give yourself up completely to the natural flow of all things wild and wonderful, that we were being accepted unconditionally into the magical realm of nature. Nature has a constancy often lacking in the world of humans. She is always there for us; nurturing, sustaining and blessing us with as many of her bounties and secrets as we care to receive.

Trees, trees, trees

After gathering sufficient wood to keep us going till the next day, we headed off on a walk to see what we could find for supper. It was mid September, a time of great abundance, so we were hoping to find an assortment of edible fungi, some edible leaves and maybe some hazel nuts if the squirrels hadn't eaten them all.  Carol had already spotted a damson tree so laden with fruit that one of it's branches had broken, so pudding was going to be easy picking; and the hedgerows were dripping with haws, blackberries and rosehips to help balance the sourness of the damsons with a little sweetness.

As we walked along the footpath at the edge of the field I couldn't help noticing how many oak trees there were in the hedgerows. It was also interesting to notice that even where the hedges had been taken out in some of the fields to make way for heavy farming machinery, many of the mature oaks had been left standing....and they were all absolutely laden with acorns.

There are quite a few different species of oak growing in the English countryside, including Turkey Oak, Holm Oak and Red Oak, but our two native oak species are 'Sessile' and 'Pendunculate'. The easiest way to tell these two oaks apart is by looking at how the acorns and leaves are attached to the branches. On the Pendunculate  (think 'pendulous') the acorns hang from long stalks and the leaves have short stems, whilst on the Sessile the acorns grow on very short stalks and the leaves on longer ones.

Acorns are rich in nutrients and an extremely useful source of protein and can be used to make an acorn meal for baking or (as was common during the second world war) a coffee substitute. However, as they contain large amounts of tannin that needs to be removed by lengthy soaking, they wouldn't be suitable for supper that day.

The oaks we saw may well have been laden with acorns, but we were very concerned to see signs of a disease that has recently begun to threaten both of our native British oaks. Acute Oak Decline (AOD) is a bacterial infection whose symptoms include 'extensive stem bleeding' which takes the form of a dark fluid seeping from small cracks in the bark and running down the tree trunk. AOD can kill an infected tree in just a few years.  It would be an absolute tragedy if we were to loose our mature oaks to this disease - so I hope very much that its causes are discovered soon and that whatever funding is necessary to understand the cause(s) and to combat this disease is forthcoming.

On a more positive note on the 'tree front', there are huge quantities of healthy looking Sweet Chestnuts growing everywhere in the Kent landscape. From a foraging point of view it was too early for us to harvest the chestnuts, but it looked like there'd be a bumper crop later this autumn. Carol explained that one of features of traditional houses in Kent is 'timber cladding'. As sweet chestnut provides a perfect timber for weatherboarding (as well as being one of the best timbers for fencing) I imaging that would explain the prolific planting of this species of tree in Kent. Great pickings for wild food foragers later this autumn!

When you meet with friends you haven't seen for a long time it's inevitable that you will become distracted from what you're supposed to be doing. In our case, our 'foraging for supper walk' had turned into a wonderful exchange of information about all things tree related. With Carol's knowledge of wild food, Anne-Christine's knowledge of wild medicine (she is training as a medical herbalist) and my own interest in ecology and the Celtic Tree Ogham, we soon realised that we had been walking for well over an hour and hadn't gathered a single leaf, fruit or nut for our supper. Time to refocus!

To be continued.............


Harvesting wild acorns -
The Celtic Tree Ogham -
Acute Oak Decline - 
Oak -