When on long walks with my kids, I’ve found that a good way to keep them motivated and to stave off the incessant calls of ‘my legs are tired’, ‘have you brought any snacks?’, and the most irritating of all, ‘I’m boooooored!’ is to keep their minds busy with talking games. Sometimes we choose a topic and have to go through the alphabet naming things in the category (a is for aardvark, b is for bear, c is for camel…etc.), sometimes we play ‘animal, mineral, vegetable’ and most recently, we’ve started playing ‘Would you rather?’ Whilst my children tend towards grisly dilemmas (would you rather be eaten by a bear or run over by a car, was one recent example), I like to try and stimulate a little more conversation through my questions. So, whilst wandering through Hembury Woods on a hot and languid Sunday afternoon recently, I asked ‘Would you rather go on holiday to the most beautiful beach in the world or the most beautiful woods in the world?’ I was expecting indecision and talking around the pros and cons before they reached a decision but without a moment’s thought, they all declared ‘the woods’!
And of course, I agreed. Because, really…is there anywhere more magical and simultaneously relaxing and interesting to be than in a good woodland? I’d argue not! And this is why, all summer, whilst the sun has beaten down it’s glorious rays upon us, rather than heading straight to the beach, more often than not we’ve taken to exploring the plethora of wonderful woodlands on our doorstep. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a beach day out as much as the next person. But there’s only so much rock-pooling and lying on scorching sand that can be done before I’m craving the cool shade of the trees and the rush of a winding river and all the intrigues and mysteries they bring.
This summer, we’ve discovered three in particular that have captivated us that we plan to revisit time and time again. In our house, wild swimming is a shared loved and common past-time. We know many of the best beach spots within a 45 minute drive but we wanted to find some more inland areas to swim. The first, introduced to us by a friend, turned out not to be successful for adult swimming but Pullabrook Woods (managed by the Woodland Trust), just outside Bovey Tracey offers a very child-friendly route along the river, through the woods and even features a ford and old stone bridge which usually leads to a much-longer-than-planned stop for paddling and a picnic. It’s a sweet spot and an easy way to get out and stretch our legs if we’ve spent too much time inside at any given point.
The second was much more successful in terms of grown ups swimming. Whilst asking a fellow keen swimmer for recommendations, she directed us to Hembury Woods, just outside of Buckfastleigh. And oh, what a find! This National Trust owned area contains an Iron Age hillfort which is fun to visit but more importantly, the most amazing stretch of river for wild swimming. There’s a natural pool just before the river splits into two which is deep enough to dive into and long enough to feel like you’re doing lengths. The woods here are ancient, full of mature oak trees, fungi galore and it feels like stepping back in time as you wander the unmarked trails, forging your own adventures, often without spotting another soul for the duration of your visit.
Finally though, is my absolute favourite. We had set out to find the illusive and infamous Sharrah Pool, a pilgrimage many wild swimmers make and were absolutely delighted to find that in order to reach them, you have to walk a 2.5 mile route through some of the most magical and diverse woodlands I’ve seen. Holne Woods, also managed by the National Trust, are almost indescribable. The trail meanders up steep paths with the river raging far below you and then sweeps down with wooded gorges rising up beside you, so high you can’t see the sky above. The trees are majestic, full of character and perfect for exploration and play. The little legs in our group were further fuelled by the abundance of blackberries, beautifully ripe at this time of year. And that’s before you even come to the Pool itself which is worthy of a whole post of its own somewhere else!
What all these woods have in common though is that they are owned or managed by organisations committed to preserving our native woodlands and managing them in a way that is sensitive to the habitats and wildlife within. If we want to protect our local woodlands, then there are two things we need to do. The first is to support these organisations, either by word of mouth, through volunteer days or financially. But the most important thing we can do is to visit them and to visit them often. No matter what time of year, the woods are accessible – just make sure you’re wearing appropriate clothing and footwear! A bracing walk through bare woodlands on a frosty morning is every bit as rewarding as a lazy stroll amongst leafy green trees in the height of the summer. By visiting these woods and enjoying the freedom and beauty within, we are telling those in power and those with the funding, that these areas are valued and important to local communities.
And of course, with our term-time activities about to resume in our own woodlands around Devon, you can always come and share our love of being in the woods by joining us for Toddler Clubs, Home Education Groups, Birthday Parties and Holiday Clubs in the October half term (which believe it or not, will be here before you know it!) So why not head to the trees this Autumn (be it with us or by yourselves) to create your own adventures, find your own relaxation and soak up the gorgeousness that comes from exploring all the woods have to offer.
Find out more about our forest school sessions and head to the trees with us!
Author; Hannah Durdin, Forest School Leader, Parent and Home Educator