Would you go on holiday to work? What if we’re not talking about taking your laptop, but helping to manage a beautiful woodland and being part of a unique community? That’s what’s on offer when you visit Wilderness Wood – part forest school, part workshop, part outdoor stage, occasional wedding venue, host of pizza nights and owners of what they claim to be the “best swing in Sussex”. Staying at either of their two cabins means a short spell pitching in with one of the regular activities, meeting the team and seeing the community at work. It’s an approach that’s made them one of our Community Champions, non-profit or charitable organisations who exist to give back to their area. While it feels as if it’s sprung up from the woods naturally, it’s taken owners Emily and Dan Morrish, along with a host of others, years to create.
It began in 2014, when Emily and Dan were in search of something different. Dan was an architect itching to build and Emily’s dissertation at the Institute of Education had got her thinking deeply about the failings of modern schooling. They decided that they needed a space. A space to create, to innovate and explore how education, community and life could be done differently.
It was a wonderful idea, but finding the right spot for the venture wasn’t easy. After years of travelling, dreaming and inspecting at least 100 woodland plots up and down the country, they stumbled across the 62 acres at Hadlow Down in Sussex. The woods had been managed for 40 years by a forester, who had always intended to sell for a building project. To Dan, the timing, the state of the site and the availability of sustainable timber felt like nothing short of a miracle. As soon as they took possession, they got to work. Dan threw up some simple structures and living spaces, but always had one eye on the chance to spread his architectural wings.
Over the years, a resident crew of artisans and craftspeople gathered in the wood. Crowd funding and a pioneering family membership scheme found the funds to build barns, kilns, shepherd’s huts and whatever the community needed. Finally, Dan felt it was the right time to do something special. He set about creating Yaffle and Dumbledore, two cabins that would enable Wilderness Wood to welcome guests in style. Like members, guests can get involved in the site management at events like Stewardship Saturdays, and anyone is welcome for sociable music nights, whittling workshops, outdoor feasts or just to browse the shop stocked with an incredible array of local creations.
While Dan was busy building, Emily never forgot the educational drive that had started it all. Now, in any given week, 50 home educated and flexi-schooled children and teens go there instead of school and Wilderness Wood not only hosts courses and classes, but takes projects out into the wider community too, bringing a little of the friendly woodland vibe to anyone who needs it.
If you’re lucky enough to stay at Yaffle or Dumbledore, your role is simple. Primarily, you’re there to enjoy that vibe yourself and see what harmonious, careful land management can achieve, but getting involved will give you so much more. All you need to do is ask what’s going on during your visit and spend a couple of hours working with the Wilderness Wood team. The feeling of reciprocal care, of having given back to nature in the most direct way possible, will stay with you for a long, long time.