Rejecting all wise counsel to buy a flat in London, just over two years ago I signed on the dotted line for 100 acres of land, home to more than 10,000 trees, along a ridge in Gloucestershire with a small but liveable two-bedroom stone cottage. The price was more than £800,000.
I bought a wood in a moment of unregretted madness — I had only been looking for a modest bolt hole somewhere up the M4 — when I came across it on a property agent’s website.
Now, almost every weekend, I take the train to the Cotswolds market town of Stroud, 85 miles from London where I work, to pick up my car, drive to my wood, put on my wellies and begin a weekend, rain or shine, of clearing out streams clogged with leaves and putting felled wood through a logsaw.
Next on the to-do list is building a beehive, then finding someone local with a mobile sawmill to plank a whopping ash that came down in the spring storms.
We hosted 15 horse loggers — used for pulling felled trees from within the wood — for their annual dexterity competition last weekend.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF THE WOODS
When I bought the land I didn’t know much about trees. I was just smitten by the lush greenery and the mud. But two years on I’m beginning to learn the language of the woods, and how to tend to them.
A local forager, Matthew Sell, has walked me through my wood, pointing out that I’ve got a feast of greens growing at my feet: wild garlic here, coltsfoot there.
And as for the trees, after trialling a few locals, I found a horse-logger, Kate Mobbs Morgan who, with her Ardennes working horses, thinned out a couple of acres for £1,500 last winter, removing younger trees of up to 10 inches in diameter to give the rest more space to grow. There’s now a stack of logs drying out, ready for use or sale next winter.
When there’s felling to be done, I call an expert with a chainsaw, but I was given a vintage axe as a present last year and used it myself in December to chop down a yew, for the house Christmas tree.
When there’s bracken-trampling to be done I co-opt nieces, nephews and other people’s children who think they’ve just been invited up to play in the woods for the day.
As a Londoner, it still seems strange to me that one can own trees. But really they own me. I’m just looking after them. The stout old beeches on my land may well have been there since the wood was in the estate of Henry VIII.
Nowadays, owning woods has become rather more democratic. Thirteen per cent of Britain is forested. The Government, the Woodland Trust and private estates have swathes but over the past decade, larger woods have been subdivided into plots of five to 15 acres and put up for sale at £5,000 to £10,000 an acre, with larger woods for less.
Of those who’ve bought, many are city-dwellers craving an escape, to spend weekends tinkering with chainsaws and identifying fungi. We swap tips in forums such as the Small Woodland Owners Group and Arbtalk, and share photos on Instagram with full-time foresters. Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands is our collective bible.
English and Welsh forests are heavily protected, rightly. So unless there’s already something there, the chances of building on woodland are virtually zilch. I got lucky by having a cottage already on the land. But there are still 28 days when you can pitch camp or roll up in a caravan, and morph back into some more primal woodman version of your 21st-century self.
While you can make woods a full-time job, it is also possible to do very little other than sling up a hammock between a couple of beeches, light up a campfire and just hang out. I have weekends like this.
Though it was not my initial interest, the investment has grown. Land value has roughly doubled over the past 10 years, there are some tax breaks, and trees do have a natural tendency to get larger each year. In the old days, when a large estate was running out of money for repairs, for instance, they would either sell a painting or chop down a fat old oak that could fetch thousands.
The money I get from selling wood just about covers the cost of maintaining the woodland. However, if you have read this far, it won’t be financial gain that has intrigued you about woods. Owning and tending to them becomes a life in itself and your quarterly dividends will be the pleasure of seeing the seasons change and your woodland flourish.