The bluebells are beginning to show at Brewers Wood, a stretch of ancient woodland deep in the Weald of Kent. Gillian Leddy regularly travels from her home in Ilford, Essex, to visit the woods, admiring the wildlife, the forest-floor plants and, of course, the fine trees.
But Gillian is not just a daytripper. In 2010 she bought 16 acres of Brewers Wood and has since found herself on a steep learning curve, discovering how to manage and improve her little slice of the Garden of England — and even how to use a chainsaw.
"At first I was looking for an investment — I had some savings and I looked around at what the banks were offering and I thought I'd like to do something more fun with it," says Gillian, a medical herbalist.
A quick internet search brought her to www.woodlands.co.uk, which specialises in the sale of small plots of forest. Gillian paid £6,500 an acre for her share of Brewers Wood, which is about a mile from the beauty spot of Sissinghurst — the castle and home of the Sackville-Wests, featuring Vita's fabulous gardens.
The trees on the land Gillian bought need regular coppicing but she has struck a deal with a firm to do the work in exchange for the wood it produces, so maintenance costs become minimal.
© Andrew Hasson
Gillian and two colleagues are doing a plant survey on the site. She has also built little boxes to encourage wildlife, such as dormice, and she enjoys walking in the peace and quiet of her own wood. During the summer she camps among the trees with her three children and is now looking forward to exploring this secret haven with her little grandchildren. "It gives us very cheap holidays," she says.
Rules of the forest
As Gillian's experience shows, there is plenty you can do as a woodland owner. There is, however, much that you cannot do. Bob Liles, of www.forests.co.uk, another website offering plots of woodland for sale, says: "A lot of people would like to go and buy a woodland and then live there but it is highly, highly unlikely you would ever get planning permission to build a house."
You could build a "forestry store" (think shed) to keep equipment in, and you are free to camp in the wood for up to 28 nights a year. You are allowed to clear and flatten space big enough to pitch a tent, and you can drive your caravan on to the site and light a camp fire, which would give you a very exclusive caravan site.
If you are feeling generous you can lend the woods to friends to roam in by day, or to stay overnight in, but if you intend to charge them for it, there will be tax implications — and if you want to use it for more than those 28 nights a year you will need planning consent.
The biggest resource woodland offers is, of course, the timber it produces. Trees need to be managed but you could follow Gillian's example and get any work done in exchange for the wood. If you can do the work yourself, you can take home the wood to burn, but if you try selling it, remember the tax implications.
Who sells woodlands?
Most of the woods currently on the market have historically been in private hands, sometimes for generations. "We have people who have owned the woods for years who are moving away and can't use them any more," says Liles of www.forests.co.uk. "Sometimes families inherited them but can't be bothered with the upkeep. And in this economic climate there are some who need the money for other things and are forced to sell."
In other cases, private firms buy a large tract of woodland and split it up into plots to sell. But be wary of these firms as some have been known to make false claims about the possibilities of planning permission being granted.
Buying woodland is an opportunity to own something beautiful and ancient — especially appealing to Londoners who have no garden. And it has the advantage of not attracting any inheritance tax in most circumstances. The potential for capital growth is uncertain. You should not buy a wood to make a fast buck.
Both the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and Catherine Penman, head of research at agents Carter Jonas, believe woodland prices could hold firm in the South East but there is not a huge potential for rapid capital growth.
However, Andrew Shirley, head of rural properties and research at Knight Frank suspects values will grow in line with property prices. "As confidence returns to the housing market there will be more confidence in land generally," he says.
George Jewell, an associate at Knight Frank in Surrey, says woodland tends to be cheaper than open land because there is less you can do with it. Expect to pay £5,000 to £10,000 an acre.
Back at Brewers Wood Gillian is blissfully unconcerned with financial matters. "As far as I am concerned my woodland has paid for itself a thousand times over in the enjoyment it has given," she says. "Every time I come here I feel like I am going on a very special holiday."
The wood keeps me in Mum's good books
Every morning Matt Marples likes to take a walk. He strolls through his garden and into the adjoining eight acres of mature woodland, in which he invested about £80,000 for his family's enjoyment.
Matt's life has changed dramatically over the last three years. Until 2010 he was living a frenetic London life, working in the advertising agency he founded. He lived in Earlsfield with his wife, Margareta, 37, and their two daughters, Madeleine, four, and Matilda, six.
When he sold the business the family relocated to Hailsham in East Sussex. "The opportunity to buy the wood came up at the same time as the house and I have always loved woods," says Matt, 43. "It gives us somewhere for the children to play and the dog to romp and the grandparents to spend time with their grandchildren. It is a fantastic way for a family to live."
There are also some practical benefits. "It gives us wood fuel for the house — we have got two wood burners — and I can also give logs to my mother, which keeps me in her good books," he says. Upkeep is minimal — in autumn brambles must be cut back and in winter fallen and diseased trees need to be removed, but the summer months are all about family fun.
"It is not like a herbaceous border where if you ignore it for a month it starts to look terrible," says Matt. "Things change very slowly in a wood."
He became so enthused in his purchase that he now works as a regional agent for woodlands.co. uk, covering East Anglia. He believes buying a wood is a safe investment.
"Prices have not gone down for the past 30 years," he says. And of course the fact he has extended the grounds of his property will also have a significant impact on its overall value. Experts say adding acreage can add up to 10 per cent to the value of a country house.
"It is also a pretty tax-efficient way to invest your money, but nobody I have ever sold a wood to has done it purely as an investment," says Matt. "You can buy a wood for £25,000, which is the same as a decent car, and you get so much out of it."