IF YOU go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise . . . you’ll find children insect hunting, a group of new friends laughing and a reporter building a rather impressive rustic shelter.
Well that’s what you would have found on the day I visited The Woodland Skills Centre in Bodfari, just over the border in Denbighshire, which was running a ‘family week in the woods’ course.
The centre is the brainchild of Rod Waterfield who, 27 years ago, bought 21 acres of neglected woodland in the Wheeler Valley which cuts through the Clwydian Range, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
At first Rod’s intention was to use the woodland as a place his children could play and he could enjoy a different lifestyle away from his job as a teacher in Queensferry.
“The woodland had been used for rough grazing until about 1945 when it was allowed to revert to woodland as the trees which were on the old hedge banks seeded onto the bare ground,” said Rod.
“Most of the new trees were sycamore which were overstocked, so the first job was to remove most of the sycamore and plant a range of native hardwood trees with the aim of creating a coppice with standard woodland.”
As the woodland became productive Rod said he became interested in coppice and greenwood crafts, prompting him to attend number of courses.
In 1997 he decided to give up teaching and turned his hobbies into a full time career, buying an extra 30 acres of adjoining woodland.
“As the biggest producer of charcoal in North Wales, I was asked by people who wished to find out more about charcoal burning if I would run some courses,” he continued.
“Then some people from the courses asked if they could come back and do courses on other woodland topics, particularly coppice and greenwood crafts.”
Today the centre is flourishing and offers full days and even weeks in the woods with courses like bushcraft, basket making, timber frame building and chair making.
So, having ditched my heels and designer trenchcoat for wellies and waterproofs, I followed Rod to an area called Warren Woods where a number of families had been camping on site for a few days.
I was greeted by people milling around the woods, the kettle on the campfire just brewing and children running around with two excitable dogs.
They all looked at ease with their new outdoor life and it was great to see the children, who ranged from three to 14-years-old, enjoying the countryside in the school holidays.
Sylvia and Steve Foster had come from Brighton with their children Alex, 10 and Jack, 7 while Denbigh teenager Jacob Muse joined the course on his own but decided he was having such a good time he wanted to also camp overnight.
The first task of the morning, led by Rod’s son Alan, who has now taken over the running of the centre with sister Helen, was a mini beast hunt.
Alan, 32, talked the children through how to collect and examine the insects with the microscope and handed out a checklist for the youngsters to tick off what they found in the woodland, pond and field areas.
While the youngsters went out to explore, others stayed behind, engaged in other tasks.
Nick Dalby from Merseyside, visiting with his children, nieces and nephews, was busy carving out stool legs with a draw knife.
Oldham couple Sue Godwin and Steve Caulcott were simply enjoying the chance to swap city life for a stunning country setting.
With lunchtime approaching, the minibeast hunters returned and Alan and assistant Leah began preparing lunch while Rod took the group through what every outdoor survival expert needs, a shelter.
He demonstrated a small scale example made out of tinder, branches, leaves and moss which the group then eagerly began creating a lifesize version of.
I have to say that our shelter effort was quite impressive and even looked quite snug. If only I had acquired this skill before my last camping trip where I broke my tent on arrival!
We had certainly worked for our lunch and so we gathered around the campfire for piping hot woodland fare.
The rest of the group’s day included making and decorating willow rings, cutting birch and a treasure hunt.
Rod said he is keen to run Welsh crafts where possible to keep the traditions alive.
This year 100 courses have been run at the Bodfari site, 20 of which were off site, including one at the Glastonbury festival.
Rod added: “There was no intention to have it develop the way it has, I had no vision but it was clear by last year it had gone way beyond what was appropriate for a one man job.”
For more details visit www.woodlandskillscentre.co.uk.
See full story in the Leader