A world of my own

In a ‘mo­ment of mad­ness’ jour­nal­ist Joy Lo Dico bought a 100-acre wood­land

London Evening Standard (West End Final B) - ES Homes and Property - - Become A Landowner -

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.

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 city­d­wellers 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.

Back to na­ture: Joy Lo Dico spends week­ends tend­ing trees on her land, once part of Henry VIII’s es­tate

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