I love the New Year - a fresh start and new adventures to plan! After the gluttony and excess of Christmas, it always feels so refreshing to clear out the old.
This year has started with a difference. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a coppicing course with one of my favourite eco-heroes, Ben Law, accompanying volunteers from the very excellent Kindlewoods CIC, a project that manages woodland and delivers woodland wellbeing programmes for people experiencing mental health challenges. I love what Kindlewoods is about - it's one of the things I'm most grateful to be involved with and well worth a moment of investigation.
We arrived for our stay, at the Sustainability Centre, late at night - too late to see much at all - but we had a warm and comfortable bed and in the morning we were able to investigate a little more that it had to offer. The site is large and home to a variety of habitats and some beautiful timber buildings. Everything is geared towards showcasing environmental gains - our heating was provided by a biomass boiler, all the food provided was organic and Fairtrade and there were posters and information sheets displayed throughout. Short days meant less exploring that maybe we could, but it's on the revisit list!
If you know of Ben Law, it's most likely through his appearance on Grand Designs. Ben has lived in the woodland, managing it to provide an income, for decades and successfully gained planning permission (with huge conditions attached!) to build an off-grid, timber framed home, from materials in the forest, for his family. The building is stunning, and even more so 'in the flesh.' I had goosepimples just seeing it!
He's incredibly knowledgeable, but I was struck by how freely and generously he shared what he knew. We started with a tour of the forest, where he explained exactly what coppicing is, how it's done and the many benefits, particularly to wildlife, by this particular type of woodland management. Ben coppices sweet chestnut and hazel mainly, and uses this for anything from firewood to building, so his house is accompanied by a series of workshops housing tools and machinery to accomplish any task. His land is also on the radar of several conservation organisations, who monitor populations of butterflies and birds - it's a haven for wildlife, unusual flowers and lichen.
The all-important lunch break was shared in Ben's outdoor kitchen and around a campfire (we were grateful for its warmth, despite the relatively balmy January day!) after which Ben showed us the tools of the coppicing trade, pruning saws and billhooks, and then we were off for the afternoon learning our practical skills.
It was tough to step away. The forest was beautiful and tranquil and coppicing felt like it was the right thing to be doing. I was struck by the feeling of being cocooned by so much wood, whether it trees or buildings, and the slow pace of Ben's lifestyle, in harmony with nature, emphasising at every stage how to work with it, and the longevity of his future plans, some of which he will never see to fruition, was humbling and, above all, incredibly relaxing.
We returned to our lodgings reluctantly, but a shared dinner and excited conversations brought cheer. After dinner we watched the excellent film documentary Tawai, telling the tale of the threatened nomadic tribes of Borneo and how their knowledge, built over thousands of years of living in the forest, is being lost. It seemed appropriate and poignant, but uplifting.
Leaving our temporary but wonderful Hampshire home was hard, and being back home, is harder. The tranquility of the forest is missing, the fresh air gone and the noises are loud and oppressive. But I've arrived back with a new and refreshed set of aspirations for 2019, a head full of ideas, an arsenal of skills and knowledge I didn't have and most importantly, a set of wonderful friends that have reaffirmed all that is wonderful about the people I share the planet with. I'm not sure anyone could ask for more from a weekend break!
Happy New Year!
Treading Lightly is simple living, within your means and the means of the planet, and making a minimal impact on the Earth. Find out more here about Catherine, of Barefoot Solutions, does this from day to day.