* As National Tree Week gets under, here’s a more recent piece about appreciating our forests and natural landscape. Follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for more update.
My two little girls read about forests in their storybooks.
We go walking and play at Goldilocks. But we’re not exactly living off grid in urban Chester and, while we enjoy days out in the forest, we know little about the woodland ecosystem. Let’s just say that Bear Grylls is not exactly watching his back for the Atkinson clan yet.
That’s why, with school holidays kicking in, Maya (seven), Olivia (three) [pictured above in Cumbria with my dad] and I have come to Whinlatter Forest, a Forestry Commission site in the Lake District with healthy communities of Red squirrels, Roe deer and nesting ospreys, for a back-to-nature weekend of forest trails, Lakeland views and heaps of fresh air.
Whinlatter, England’s only mountain forest, opened a group of family-friendly trails a few years ago to introduce children to basic navigational skills, learn about the forest and interact with nature.
By looking for clues or collecting answers along the trails, it encourages even very young children to interact with the forest and find their own way from one interpretation panel to another.
On a sunny day in July, we opt for the Squirrel Scurry Trail, a moderate, one-mile hike around eight interpretation points. The girls have to read the panels and answer questions along the way, writing their answers on the trail map to win a squirrel badge.
It’s a trail suitable for easily tired toddler legs and also accessible by buggy.
Adrian Jones, Recreation Manager at Whinlatter, meets us at the Visitor Centre for a crash course in map reading and compass points. “I feel free in the forest,” says Adrian, leading us towards trailhead marker of a carved red squirrel.
“I first started going to the woods with my father and grandfather as a boy,” he adds. “That’s how I became hooked.”
As we delve into the deep, dark coniferous forest, Olivia decides we’re going on a beer hunt. After all, we are walking through a shaded woodland glade straight out of a story by Anthony Browne or Michael Rosen.
“We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it,” she sings. “We’ve got to go through it.”
Maya, meanwhile, is taking charge of directions, folding out the map and scouring the horizon for waymarking posts as we head north. “This way,” she says, “Follow me.”
The woodland copse feels deliciously cool away from the mid-afternoon sunglare and we savour the sensory forest feast with pine combs crunching under foot, birdlife in the trees and wafts of wild flowers drifting by tantalisingly on the summer breeze.
As we climb towards panel three, a viewpoint known as The Comb, the full widescreen panorama opens out before us. From our vantage point some 1,000ft above sea level, we gaze out across Keswick and Derwentwater below, and Helvellyn to the south.
Maya locates the panel and makes light work of the questions while Olivia busies herself collecting daisies and buttercups from beside the scrunchy, gravelly trail. By the time we move on, we’ve all learnt that grey squirrels were brought to England from America in the 1870s and baby squirrels are called kittens.
We head towards an intersection of walking and mountain biking trails, where Tarbarrell Moss, one of the more remote sections of Whinlatter, leads deeper into the forest.
Maya decides we need to turn left for the next leg, dropping down through Western Red Cedar and past tree-hanging squirrel feeders, stuffed with nuts, corn and seeds, to duck under a squirrel rope bridge between the treetops.
Maya confidently leads the way, map in hand, along the final stretch. Even Olivia is finding her bearings as I carry her for a higher-level view of forest life, attempting to point out species of trees along the way and revealing my decidedly patchy knowledge in the process.
Memo to self: download the ForestXplorer app with the tree identifier before the next trip.
By this point I’m ready for a slap-up dinner and a pint of Jennings Cooker Hoop but the girls have got other ideas. After a round of ice creams at Siskins Café next to the Visitor Centre, we head back to the WildPlay Trail, Olivia making a beeline for the Fairy Kingdom section.
We finish the afternoon leaping between toadstools, opening concealed-bark doors in the tree stumps to reveal fairy goodies and playing in a tree house, Olivia having set up an al-fresco café to sell Maya’s foraged ferns, leaves and berries from a makeshift hatch.
Bear Grylls shouldn’t start sweating just yet. But, after a weekend of squirrel trails and fairy dust at Whinlatter, we’ve come to appreciate the fragile beauty of the forest and the time we spend together exploring it.
This story first appeared in the Guardian in 2013. Liked this? Try If You Go Down to the Woods Today.
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