Sophie van den Bergh
Sophie is the Project Officer for Building the Links for Rockingham Forest, the Heritage-Lottery-funded project to link people to the habitats and wildlife of Rockingham Forest.
In her role Sophie wears quite a few hats and one of them is to engage with a wide audience of people, telling them about Rockingham Forest and encouraging them to get involved.
As a fully qualified Forest School leader she relished the recent opportunity to be in the Ancient Woodlands of Corby, introducing families to the idea of Forest School.
On 21st August 2023 I set out to deliver free drop-in Forest School activities for Corby families, together with my colleague, Corinne Muir from the Nene Rivers Trust, and Claire and Jo from Root and Branch Out CIC,
I for one was very excited and enthused about this event – just my “cuppa tea” – a day in the woods, connecting to the local community and nature.
Our aim was to get Corby families out into the Ancient Woodland of Hazel and Thoroughsale Woods, having fun and connecting to the nature on their doorstep. It's all part of the Building the Links for Rockingham Forest Project – engaging with a wider audience and supporting their well-being.
We decided to hold the event in these woods because of its central location, which meant that people could access the event easily, even if they didn’t have a car. We wanted to include everyone, and we know that lack of transport can be a real barrier. A big shout out here too, for the team at North Northants Council who allowed us to use the site and made sure it was in tip-top condition – paths cleared, a log circle created, etc. It is a wonderful wood with a perfect area for delivering a host of forest school activities as well as for exploring.
We also wanted the Forest School taster day to be easy to attend, so we made it a drop-in day with no booking needed! As the day approached, I must confess to being rather nervous, thinking to myself – “would it just be me, Corinne, Claire and Jo sitting in the woods, or perhaps with only one man and his dog!”
However, as the start time for the morning session approached my fears were allayed. By 10a.m. about 80 people had arrived, all excited to come for a taste of Forest School. In the afternoon session, we surpassed this with approximately 120 people! A fantastic turnout from Corby.
With this number of people, we decided to divide into 3 groups – so everyone could rotate around the activities and have a go at everything. I felt very much like a teacher again, organising the groups. Thank you to all who came for being so helpful and patient with this!
So now it was time for the activities to begin. Corinne led the bug hunting, Claire and Jo led on a variety of bush crafts – hapazome (leaf bashing with a hammer to make a print) , elder beads, whitling etc, and I took the lead on fire lighting.
It wasn’t long before I saw whole families wandering and exploring the woods, bedecked with woodland jewellery they had made, using a variety of tools. These necklaces and bracelets were made from elder and ash, both native trees to the woodland. Later, I saw children carefully clutching their whittled marshmallow toasting forks made from hazel, another native species to the woodland. It was fantastic to see the focus and concentration of both children and adults as they learnt the skills of whittling, leaf bashing and how to use a palm drill – not that easy!
Whilst all the above was going on, Corinne was exploring the woods bug hunting. Armed with bug-hunting pots and ID guides she set off with her groups, having allayed any fears and highlighted the importance of “mini beasts” in our eco system. The main discoveries of the day were – spiders, woodlice, worms, and a few beetles!
In the meantime, I was teaching some survival skills, in particular fire-lighting. We started off with a discussion about fire safety and why it was important to know how to set up and light a fire correctly. I was so pleased that as well as being concerned that we didn’t get burnt, many of the children knew we needed to be careful to protect the woodland and all the creatures in it.
After that it was time to find some fuel. We were only making starter fires- so they needed to find small bits of dry materials. There was an abundance of dry Cleavers (also called Sticky Weed or Goose Grass) and Cow Parsley, both excellent tinder. Again, it was important that we knew only to take a small amount and only what was needed.
Next came the exciting part – learning how to make a spark with flint and steel. It was fabulous to see people’s faces, as I showed them how they worked to make what I call a “dragon’s sneeze!” There was intense concentration as people practised this skill.
With all the above elements of fire lighting covered, it was now time to try to light a starter fire. Fire lighting is one of those activities that takes quite a lot of practice and perseverance but when achieved is very satisfying and produces great pride in children and adults alike.
It was wonderful to witness this on the day itself and I have a clear memory of one girl, who was getting so frustrated. But she kept going with encouragement and by the end of the session she was sharing her advice with her group on how to succeed.
To round off each of the sessions – we gathered around the fire pit and I lit a fire that we could sit around and toast a marshmallow or two. Personally, I don’t like a regular marshmallows but there is nothing quite like the taste when they are toasted to a crispy cinder on your own toasting fork in a beautiful woodland. What’s not to like? I enjoyed quite a few!
Whilst sitting around the campfire it was great to have an opportunity to chat with those who came and to get some feedback. It was very positive and without exception everyone would like to return to the woods again for more Forest School.
I’m going to end this blog article with a quote from one girl who came. When I asked her what she thought about the day, she replied – “ I loved it and you should do it every single second.” Let's hope so.
A huge thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the players of the Lottery . Without this essential funding, we wouldn't be able to deliver these free-to-all Forest School sessions. So thank you and here's to more Forest School.