Bags Don’t Grow On Trees, You Know?

We are in the process of trying to explore the possibility of – perhaps – attempting to persuade our local authority if they would like to, one day, conditions permitting, sell us a small plot of woodland.

My partner has always wanted to own and manage a patch of woodland, and I have to say that the idea appeals. Whenever we drive to meet relatives high in the Northumbrian hills we pass the same patch of woodland, with a “For Sale” sign plastered to it. It prompts benign day dreams of us buying it every single time. I don’t know what to do with such a thing, but she does and that’s good enough.

We fell upon a similar plot the last time we popped down to North Yorkshire for a break. We sat in it for an hour or so, pondering how to get rid of all of the nettles from the site. Well, that and trying to keep the dogs away from the nettles. Dogs in pain were the deal-breaker for that bit of woodland.

But the idea obviously still holds, for I was asked last week if I would mark the location of the slice of woodland in question on an OS map. It piqued my interest: what had she been doing, looking up this small space we have often walked the dogs past? Has she been researching buying woodlands?

I say “woodland” and you’re probably imaging what I would describe as more of a plantation: lots of trees, all arranged in an orderly pattern, occupying a good size of countryside. This is not that. These trees look like they may have occurred naturally, such is the variation in space between any given pair of them. I could have scattered a handful of marbles on the sand and the pattern would match.

And I do mean small. This is an urban space, flanked on both sides by houses: one Victorian terrace, much like the one I live in; a relatively modern, protected, estate for old people to live out their safe days in. And between the two: trees. Not just trees: a few of the trees also have black bin bags full of liquid suspended from them. There are also varying densities of brambles coating all surfaces.

If there were no trees on the land I would have called it “wasteground”. It is the kind of plot which comes about in the gaps between the purchasing, development, disposal and probate processes which befall any piece of urban land over the course of several centuries. It’s the kind of piece of land I associate with sitting next to railway lines, on which I played as a child. Rubbish gathers.

Thinking about buying a piece of land brings with it a whole host of peril, at least as far as I’m grimly concerned: finding out who owns the land in the first place; public liability insurance; the cost of clearing the site of bags of piss and rafts of brambles; building a fence to stop ruffians ruining the place; uncovering several dead bodies in the undergrowth; I am not cut out for it. But we wants it.

The costs start to mount as soon as you start to think about doing this. Above I mentioned public liability insurance: this is part of the reason the local authority will likely want to “dispose” of the land in the first place. Imagine one of the trees – it’s winter, so we cannot determine which of the many species they may be as yet – fell down and hurt a house. We’d have to pay for that, you see?

Then there is the cost of maintenance. At present there is a metal fence along the public facing side of the plot. It’s not very high: I can look over the top of it at every point. I can see that people have used this lack of height to dump unwanted shit there. Because it looks fresh, and some of the trees tended to, I suspect that this accumulates constantly, and that I would be tasked with removing it.

That said, I know that I could have a fire there. I am a man who loves fire. It would bring with it all of the joys of actual camping with none of the privations. My bed is a four minute walk away, there are great cafes nearby, for the purchasing of victuals, and if I got really bored, there’s a real ale pub around the corner. I can see myself sitting by a fire, stitching leather as the world passes by beyond.

I am not an outdoorsy person, but I have always loved being outdoors. Except when I haven’t, which is rather a lot of the time. It’s been a complicated relationship. I suppose I often forget that outside and the great outdoors exist. I have a comfy chair and a TV. Thing is, as long as I am appropriately clothed and appropriately shod, I actually do rather enjoy it all once I am out there amongst it all.

As long as someone takes me to a tarn in the lake district I am very happy to have a walk around it. It’s the same with forest walks and meanderings through valleys, especially to coffee shops with their associated tourist trapping retail opportunities. The getting myself to a place is too often a barrier to getting out there. Having our own woodland on our doorstep may well ease some of that.

My eldest daughter has partaken in a number of Forest School sessions over the years – they put school-age kids in woodland, minimally supervised, giving them the ability to play and learn and take risks and have fun in the outdoors; they have to respect the woodland, and never do anything to make the place worse; I like the ideas: we did similar things in Scouts – and I think she’d benefit from closer access to a wooded area. We often have to drive just to mess about in the woods. Not good.

And yet, in Scandinavia, this is the absolute norm for all children: they get out in to the woods – with the appropriate supervision, as minimal as it should be – and they have lots of fun, exploring their natural environment. We chose the primary school for our children partly based on the fact that they had and used a woodland. I played in woods, with knives and fire, when I was young. I loved it.

At the minute there is uncertainty as to whether we will be able to even consider asking the council if we can try and buy the plot. I think they want to spend less on maintaining it, but that makes me think I’d have to spend a lot. I am unsure about that, but I know that we – as a family – would benefit.

n.b. Six months after this post was first published we completed on a patch of ancient woodland, and it is a delight.

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