After a 400mile car trip, three slightly more enjoyable train journeys and a few stops at some relatives along the way, I’ve arrived at the Woodland Edge. Setting up my blogstation earlier on it was a bitter-sweet feeling of relief when I plugged in my dongle wireless device and discovered I was still connected to the world-wide-web somehow… I was kind of hoping the thing would fail on me so I could make the most of this unusually brilliant English weather, but there was no such luck today. According to this 3G coverage map below, the only place I’m likely to escape internet access is in the deepest darkest forest.
So here I am in Somerset, shacked up in my own little tepee, blogging away into the ether with a nice pint of local ale sitting by my side. Having moved into my new home for the next few days I’ve already made a new friend – it’s a daddy longlegs, and it’s taken quite a liking to the white glow currently emanating from my laptop. I’m hoping it doesn’t attract anything scarier than that though cos I’m possibly the last up by now. Fortunately however, a local volunteer has constructed a wooden sign to go outside my makeshift office which reads “BLOGGER’S TENT”. If that doesn’t warn the Exmoor Beast off I’m not sure what will.
You can see some of the goings on from Neroche Forest today in the slideshow I have put together here. I’ve already met many interesting characters, but Gordon the tree-dowser stands out as a definite highlight. I’m not sure what he’s been up to exactly, but the trees tonight are now glowing a variety of different colours and beyond them the stars out in force. I just came back from the campfire where most of the new conference arrivals have retired for the evening, having been treated to a fairly hefty dinner and some freshly roasted chestnuts. It seems things will kick off early tomorrow so with limited shower water available I should probably get to bed.
Preparations for the conference are well underway now, and there’s a real buzz developing as the event draws near. The site is being prepared, with paths being mown amongst the high wood sedge in the magical woodland where much of the conference will take place.
The conference site is on the edge of a 150 hectare expanse of Forestry Commission mixed woodland, some of it ancient, some plantation, and some open space (the latter being grazed at present by the Neroche herd of longhorn cattle).
There is a grove of huge veteran oaks on the site, remnants of a medievaldeer park, and these immense trees are looking down on the proceedings and offering a great atmosphere for the event. A local tree dowser has visited the oaks and dowsed them to find out if they’re happy with the event taking place – thankfully, it seems, they are!
We have three fire pits taking shape in the woodland, one central one which will be the focus for the evening activities, and two smaller ones which will provide venues for some of the workshop discussions – weather permitting! The main covered space for the event, which will be brought onto the site very soon, includes a huge three-domed Kata tent, like a triple tipi; a circus big top; and a large yurt.
From the woodland edge, the view south up towards the Blackdown Hills scarp is fantastic, and the whole location is quiet, a long way from roads or settlements, and feels very special. A band of volunteers will be invading that solitude over the next two weeks as the preparations continue, but we will be careful to hold on to the very special atmosphere we have here – because that is what will give this event its most important ingredient.
I’m intrigued, not only because the Woodland Edge conference will somehow be happening within the forest itself, but just a stones throw from Taunton Racecourse. I’ve a loose affiliation with this place and a grey memory of photographing some hardy punters there one very breezy February afternoon. I learnt two things that day… 1. If your trains heading due north to Cheltenham, you’re going to the wrong race meeting 2. Having a camera round your neck can be a passport to generous hospitality, but a compass is a more reliable source of direction. I’m expecting something quite different from the Woodland Edge to what I experienced in the Members Enclosure a few years ago and I reckon that’s a positive. Wishfully, I’m hoping there’ll be a lovely stew simmering away in Camp Neroche to guide me in off the M5 when I make my way down from Edinburgh in a few weeks time (that was part of the deal yeh Gavin?)
Call this work?! Overlooked by the oaks on the edge of the woods, the team try to get down to timetable planning
If you don’t know the precise whereabouts of the event, from what I understand you’ll need to aim for a pub called the Greyhound Inn and then go north-west for a bit. I might claim to know something about what the venue looks like by peering down at it from space, but I prefer to let Gavin Saunders’ photos fertilise the roots of you’re imagination. After browsing the fruit’s of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme’s website, I can’t help but speculate on the possibility of glimpsing a wild boar in the undergrowth or listening to the damp chorus of rooks homing in for the night. Having spent the last two months in Edinburgh putting up with whiny seagulls at my window like something out of a Hitchcock film, Michael Palin’s desire to escape the confines of his pet shop for something wilder feels quite pertinent.
Considering I was only introduced to Monty Python a few weeks ago by my flatmate, Alex Mitchell’s cartoon was completely lost on me when I received it back in August. First impressions can be deceiving, in haste I had initially mistaken Neroche as the event’s corporate sponsor. Having done some research on the matter though, I realised it was actually the name offered to the forest site in the 13th century when it was kept as a royal hunting estate. According to this nifty leaflet ‘Neroche’ is derived from the Old English nierra and rechich, meaning “the camp where hunting dogs were kept”… I guess a lot has changed since it’s royal days I will have to wait and see. Unless the racecourse now doubles up as a greyhound track during the week, I probably don’t need to worry too much about being savaged by dogs in the darkness of the night.
The conference planning group sit in the sun at the conference site, dreaming of the day when all the tents and people start arriving...
Over the next 2-3 weeks I will try to report back to you bits and bobs of what I see, hear, smell and eat from within the Woodland Edge as the event unfolds. So with 120+ attendants and delegates expected to land on Camp Neroche from all over the UK later this month, be sure to grab yourself one of those last remaining pairs of tickets as we announce the line-up here. As the leaves begin to fall, volunteers have been out and about crafting seating areas for participants over the weekend. I can just imagine myself sunk into one of these rustic creations now, lazily sipping on some local cider and reflecting on the days proceedings in front of an open fire. To top that off, I guess all we need is one of those better-late-than-never Indian summers…