WE COOK by torchlight on an outside stove, a gale raging all around us. Viscerally immersed in our surroundings, we retreat to our cabin to eat, huddled in front of its warm wood-burner. We retune into the wind and rain, comforted by gooey marshmallows toasted on the fire, before conversation turns to how friendly the local badgers might be if a night-time visit to the bathroom is required.
It is October half-term, and I have brought my 17-year-old daughter deep into Laurie Lee country, a short walk from Lee’s beloved Slad village, to stay in a cabin with striking Cotswold views (and a fabulous outdoor camp kitchen and bathroom) for a weekend of no-screen-wholesome-outdoorsy activity. It’s a risk, bearing in mind the lack of WiFi, but one that is well worth taking, as it turns out.
The Slad Valley is one of many folds of limestone that characterise this part of Gloucestershire. The area feels remote as a result of its geology, and yet the scale of the valley — the rolling beechwoods and grassland dotted with sheep, and apple- and mistletoe-laden trees — is comfortingly human.
We had arrived in rain and intense darkness, picking our way down a long stony path, stressed from the motorway roadworks that had delayed us. The lights of Stroud and the Severn Valley far below hinted that we were high up on a hill.
And what a hill it is. Lee wrote, in the 1960s, of silence “which, like true darkness itself, is a natural balm of which man is now almost totally deprived”. Time spent enveloped in this landscape delivers a peace removed from modern life in the city.
The physical and mental-health benefits of spending time in woods is increasingly being understood, and access to woodland in the UK is also increasing through organisations such as the Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, National Trust, and local Wildlife Trusts. But we are way behind the Japanese. In Japan, there are more than 50 forests accredited for the purpose of “forest bathing”: literally, basking in the well-being that trees offer.
According to our host, the cabin in which we have made our weekend home is popular for people coming to “rewild”: to be surrounded by nature and to get away from the pressure of cities, towns, work, and school. Families come wanting to spend time outside with their children, minus technology — walking, building fires, and making dens.
Of what is to be found in the area around where we are staying, we’re told: “There are some beautiful woods in our area of Gloucestershire. It’s a magical mixture of surprise turnings, deer, rabbits, squirrels, buzzards, green canopy overhead, and the odd view across to a field in a distant valley.”
My daughter and I walk to Laurie Lee Wood and Frith Wood, areas of ancient woodland both managed by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Visiting in autumn is magical: fallen leaves from beeches and other natives soften our steps, and we are immersed in the heady scent of leaf mould and sprouting primeval fungi — and in the sounds of unfamiliar birds, and stillness.
Part of the fascination with woods is knowing that you are scratching only their surface. The recent discovery of the “wood wide web” by the ecologist Suzanne Simard, at Yale (that trees communicate using networks of soil fungi), seems only right when you spend time ensconced in a wood.
The cosy interior of The Fuselage
Climate change has brought its own threats to our trees in the form of disease. our woods are vulnerable to seemingly small changes in our climate. For Oliver Rackham, the outstanding botanist of his generation, trees should be seen as characters in a play, and not “merely part of the landscape”. Is rewilding, perhaps, part of the solution — where we rediscover our relationship with trees, to help save both the woodlands and ourselves?
W. H. Auden wrote in his poem “Bucolics”: “The trees encountered on a country stroll Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.” After more than a century of exploitation and destruction, it seems that we are beginning to treasure our trees again beyond their economic value, as shown by a number of successful tree-planting campaigns, and the annual Tree of the Year Award.
Our weekend in the woods proves deeply enriching — not just for our own sense of well-being, but as a glimpse into how we can see life differently. Freed from our phones there is no FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, a condition born out of the advent of social media) about what friends are up to elsewhere; we share stories about our lives, take photos for my daughter’s A-level art, and breathe in deeply.
As the Irish poet John O’Donohue wrote in “Eternal Echoes”: “The tree is wise in the art of belonging. The tree teaches us how to journey.”
We stayed at the Fuselage at Lypiatt Hill, Stroud, Gloucestershire, so called because of the cabin’s aviation-inspired design. For more details phone 07900 698616; or visit www.lypiatthill.com. Canopy & Stars (www.canopyandstars.co.uk) offers all kinds of woodland holidays, including shepherd’s huts in park grounds close to Kielder Forest (Hesleyside Hall, Northumberland); an eco-cabin with woodland hot tub (Culbin Edge, Morayshire); off-grid tree houses in a mixed wooded valley (Living-Room, Powys); and a handmade cabin away from phone reception (Turners Woodland Suite, Devon).
Other woodland stays
Low Wray Campsite, Ambleside
Tree-top tents available (weather permitting) at this National Trust camping site in the heart of the Lake District.
Danish Cabin, Cornwall
Cornish seclusion in a cabin built on stilts in the woods near Tintagel.
Forest Garden, West Sussex
A range of yurts close to Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, aka the Ashdown Forest. Woodland craft courses are also available.
Comrie Croft, Perthshire
A range of accommodation with walking and biking trails near by, including in a birch forest that is under regeneration.
Jolly Days Glamping, near York
A selection of huts and tents set in 200 acres of woodland, 20 minutes outside York.