Tag Archives | woodlands

Family walk through Penn Wood

One of my favourite times each month – the opportunity to guide a few families through a local woodland in the Chilterns. Blessed with wonderful sunshine, it was a lovely May afternoon to be exploring Penn Woods. Managed by the Woodland Trust, it is one of the largest ancient woodlands in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) totalling over 435 acres!

Tree hugging - using our senses to recognise a mighty oak

Tree hugging – using our senses to recognise a mighty oak

We started our woodland walk from the church car park – heading out along the main foot path past the beautiful flint clad church and the newly installed Woodland Trust signage, welcoming visitors to the woods. Our first stop, stinging nettles – a plant that so many fear and yet, it wasn’t long before everyone was keen to look at them closer, especially the children.

Having demonstrated how to pick them without getting stung, I quickly showed how to juice the doc leave, the green liquid being used to relieve the inevitable stings! Many of the children were keen to try, the younger ones being guided to the doc leaves and the older ones picking nettles and then applying doc!

Tips for using stinging nettles

  • Always pick vibrant, healthy nettles, avoid areas that may have been polluted or fouled, be that by dogs being walked, farm run-offs or similar and gather the nettle tops – the top 4 to 6 leaves are usually best
  • To pick them with bare hands – seize the nettle, hold it firmly, should you be tender handed it will sting you for sure – gloves are probably a good option
  • Cooking will kill off the stings and stop them from stinging you
  • There are lots of vitamins in stinging nettles (more here)
  • Nettles make a lovely earthy tea – I like them when they are green, but you can dry them if you wish
  • They are good stirred into a classic risotto or as a vegetable, a soup or gazpacho
  • Stinging nettle tempura – I was serving them up at the recent Great Missenden Food Festival

Tree hugging – developing a relationship with a tree

My favourite tree, the mighty oak. I love it’s strength, the way it spreads its limbs out wide, reaching out across the sky. There’s the deep furrows in the gnarly bark and the beautiful curvy leaves that look like clouds as you hold them against the sky. A wonderful tree and great to see the children giving it a big hug.

Amazement at the amount of pond life - loving the tadpoles and water boatmen

Amazement at the amount of pond life – loving the tadpoles and water boatmen

We spent time looking at the many beech trees. Most of the buds have burst open to reveal their soft new leaves, oval in shape with a little tail and hairy around the edges. They are good to add to a woodland salad and a few were sampled by the children and their parents.

Fascination with the water boatmen

There was excitement around the pond, as one-by-one many tadpoles were spotted in the water, and then fascination with the water boatmen, as if by magic, they were skating across the surface of the pond.

Exploring the pond at Penn Woods

Exploring the pond at Penn Woods

Whilst some of the children explored the other side of the pond, keen to get closer to the waters edge and find routes that would just about support them, we climbed across the newly formed log-jetty. It was more solid than before, with the end staked to hold the logs in place. Still we didn’t want the children falling in – it’s not that deep but they would have got very muddy (none this time).

Identifying trees - using smell to recognise the fallen cedar

Identifying trees – using smell to recognise the fallen western red cedar

Climbing in the trees

One of the large western red cedars had fallen, not far from the pond, it had lost a huge part of its trunk which had crashed down on the surrounding trees. The children were quick to spot an opportunity for climbing and enjoyed playing along the long branches now just a foot or two above the ground.

Here was a great opportunity to engage our sense of smell to recognise this cedar – the foliage was crushed and the citrus smell revealed, just one of the ways to get to know this wonderful tree. Western red cedars have with a deep red-brown bark that is relatively soft to the touch, almost sponge like, a deep green foliage, and they tower above other trees, like a lesser version of the great American sequoias.

Identifying plants - checking that it's wood sorrel before eating!

Identifying plants – checking that it’s wood sorrel before eating!

On our return journey through the woodlands, we spent time getting to know the lovely larch – it’s foliage in little tufts, that are soft to touch. Unlike the spruce, fir and pines, the larch looses its leaves in winter, leaving the characteristic little stubs along the twigs.

Getting to the heart of wood sorrel

And then in an opening along the woodland path, there was an abundance of wood sorrel. Another opportunity to engage our senses. Many of the children recognised it’s shape as being similar. We carefully examined the plant, looking at the three heart shaped leaves and the lovely white flowers, with faint pink lines within. Then it was time to taste a few – first checking each one was the correct plant and not eating to many, just in case the oxalic acid (found in many plants) unset the stomach – moderation is a good thing!

More woodland walks

Thank you to the families who join me on this lovely May walk in Penn Woods and for granting permission for a few photos – much appreciated. If you’d like to join one of my family friendly guided woodland walks with your family, please check future dates and register here!

Freshly baked sweet chestnut bread

It’ll come as no surprise to those that know me, that baking bread is something I love to do. Whilst you can certainly bake a good loaf in your oven at home, baking your bread over a campfire is something really special. For me, it’s the process that brings such joy: The gathering of firewood and kindling, and the lighting of the fire, that brings the expectation of the bread to be eaten.

Foraged sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnuts pan roasting

Sweet chestnuts pan roasting

With such a hoard of sweet chestnuts, and some nice big ones to boot, I needed to do something with these lovely, sweet and tasty nuts. Ah ha I thought, how about a sweet chestnut loaf! The best ideas come when sitting by a campfire – that’s for sure!

The first task was to roast those chestnuts – you need to make a small cut into the shell to avoid them exploding. Yes, they really do explode! When roasting some recently, one escaped being slit and exploded with an almighty bang. Because, it’s a little late for foraging chestnuts, I wanted to ensure they were all good to eat and no dodgy ones would spoil the bake. So, I halved all the chestnuts and chucked out any that didn’t past muster.

The roasting was done in a small cast-iron pot, it has a lid, which was used. A little olive oil was poured into the warmed pot, the nuts added and stirred to coat them in the oil. Then a little hot water from the kettle was poured in and the pot sealed with the lid. I roasted them for about 20 minutes and then, well, I just had to taste a few!

Bread making and baking…

Sweet chestnut bread - baking in Petromax Dutchoven

Sweet chestnut bread – baking in Petromax Dutch oven

I warmed some water for the yeast and mixed up a classic-loaf with strong bread flour, a little salt and that yeast once it had frothed nicely. I used a spoonful of sugar and a pinch of flour to feed the yeast. With the dough well mixed, those sweet chestnuts were added and rolled in with a glug or two of olive oil.

The well-kneaded dough was put in the warmed Dutch oven to prove. I tend to keep it suspended above the campfire, at a height that means it will keep warm but not start to bake. 30 minutes later – I check, it’s risen nicely, I knock it back and we go again. After the second prove it’s time to bake – the oven used is a Petromax. The oven is lowered and embers put on the top to bake the bread. Dutch ovens have a rim around the lid to stop the embers falling off!

Sweet chestnut bread part-baked

Sweet chestnut bread part-baked

On the first check, the loaf was pale and under baked. It had been baking for 25 minutes, which with a hot oven would be fine, but today the weather was very cold, so back in it went. This time the oven was placed directly on the embers and the ember-glowing log-ends placed on top. Care is needed doing this, because with the intensity of the heat there is a possibility of over-baking and burning the bread.

Sweet chestnut bread - finishing the bake

Sweet chestnut bread – finishing the bake

The reveal was 20 minutes later, with a nicely browned loaf. Tapping the bottom provided a reassuring hollowness and confirmation that the sweet chestnut loaf was baked and ready to eat!

David’s top tip for baking with a Dutch oven

Dutch ovens are fab for campfire cooking. The cast iron dissipates the heat throughout the pan, but there is still a possibility of the bottom getting to hot and burning the contents. For baking, place the dough in a separate pan inside the Dutch oven, supporting it on a few green sticks or stones. This will raise the dough up from the bottom of the oven, allowing hot air to circulate (as it would in a conventional oven), and provide a more even bake without burning its bottom!

Sweet chestnut bread - the freshly baked loaf

Sweet chestnut bread – the freshly baked loaf

During the winter months baking will most likely take a little longer due to the colder weather – but don’t let that stop you, your fresh bread will still taste great – Happy Baking!

Oh yes, the folks I shared that sweet chestnut loaf with, thought it tasted rather good. Join me on a Campfire Bread Baking course and have fun baking and eating a variety of tasty breads.

Find out more and book Campfire Bread Baking

Natures Detectives – Woodland Walk in June

Hodgemoor Woods in June - guided woodland walk

Hodgemoor Woods in June – guided woodland walk

Thank you to the families that joined me for this guided woodland walk – it was great to see the youngsters engaging in being natures detectives, they did rather well too.

The aim of these walks is to educate, help youngsters and adults to identify plants and trees. Sometimes it’s nice to go for a brisk walk through the woods, perhaps for exercise, to keep fit and breath in some fresh air and relax. Today, we were doing things slow, stopping and taking a close look at plants, noticing the shapes, textures and smells and comparing them to others that at first glance may seem similar.

Here are a couple of clues to help you identify the hornbeam; the clusters of seed pods hanging below their leaves, the hornbeams distinctive bark, this is a particular ‘deeply cut’ example, more commonly, you will just see a flow of vertical lines up and down the truck of the tree.

Lovely shapes on this hornbeam, note the vertical flow of lines

Lovely shapes on this hornbeam, note the vertical flow of lines

Clusters of hornbeam seed pods, ready to fly away later in the year

Clusters of hornbeam seed pods, ready to fly away later in the year

We often think of a thistle as just being a spiky plant, that should be avoided, but take a closer look (click on any of the images to see the bigger picture) and see it’s beautiful structure and lovely flowers.

We can probably all recognise a buttercup, but have you sat down next to one and studied it for a while?

Getting up close to a buttercup

Getting up close to a buttercup

A spiky spear thistle, lovely colours with vicious spines

A spiky spear thistle, lovely colours with vicious spines

As we walked along the woodland paths, in a damp shady area, there were many tracks and trials, here is a clear example of a squirrel track. By contrast, there was a beautiful iris, almost certainly an escapee from a garden – perhaps fro the Polish community that lived here after the Second World War!

Squirrel tracks by the side of a muddy path

Squirrel tracks by the side of a muddy path

A beautiful iris, perhaps an escapee, rather than wild

A beautiful iris, perhaps an escapee, rather than wild

Honeysuckle grows through much of Hodgemoor woods. It winds its way up the trees, growing around the tree trunks and across out-stretched branches. We were busy looking at the early honeysuckle growth only to be greeted by a single flower making the most of the sunshine.
In the damper, shaded areas of the wood, we find what remains of the ransoms or wild garlic. The smell is still distinctive, the leaves less are less vibrant in colour, but with the flowers withering you can clearly see the clusters of three seed sitting on top of the flower stems.

Honeysuckle the first flower in June

Honeysuckle the first flower in June

Ramsons gone to seed by June - note the seed clusters

Ramsons gone to seed by June – note the seed clusters

We did plenty of tree hugging, feeling the textures of the bark, comparing one tree with another. The yellow lichen on the silver birch was such a bright yellow, it was growing on many of the trees. The downy birch, again if your get up close you will see its beautiful colours and see how its bark was peeling back. It is this paper thin bark, packed with oil that makes a wonderful tinder for starting a fire.

Downy birch its bark peeling back

Downy birch its bark peeling back

Silver birch with orange lichen

Silver birch with orange lichen

Sometimes it’s good to push a few plants back to see what else is growing. In amongst the long grasses, nettles and ground ivy was a few stalks of bugle. There was also a few stems of greater stitchwort with its five white split-petals!

Bugle in June

Bugle in June

Greater stitchwort in June

Greater stitchwort in June

Along a track, there was a lot of burdock, none had put any flower shoots up as yet. The bluebells have just a few signs of their withering flowers, but now are putting their energies into producing seeds for next year!

Burdock growing well, as yet not putting up any flowers, a ladybird looking for food in the middle!

Burdock growing well, as yet not putting up any flowers, a ladybird looking for food in the middle!

Bluebell going to seed

Bluebell going to seed

Thank you again to everyone who joined this guided woodland walk – the aim is to do these walks regularly and provide the opportunity to learn about the plants and trees throughout the seasons.

By all means take a look at the events calendar to see when the next walk will be, you are welcome to bring along friends too!

If you would like to arrange a guided woodland walk for you and your colleagues,  a youth group or perhaps a school class or any other group, then do get in contact here – thank you.