Into the woods…

““Fraxinus excelsior!” Bushcraft guide David Willis flourishes a stick in an impressive display of wand-craft.  His Harry Potter like incantation is the Latin name for the Ash wand he’s waving.  The Guardian recently selected David as one of the top woodland walk guides in the country.  He runs Bushcraft courses and free guided family walks in Bucks.  The ‘spell’ is just one of the ways he bewitches groups of children, and adults, into learning some of the magic of trees.   

Harry Potter’s wand seller Mr Ollivander maintains “It’s really the wand that chooses the wizard.”  But it’s not always easy to pop in to Diagon Alley.  So if you’re looking for a spot of magic in the woods, or simply in the market for a new wand, how can you be sure which tree is witch?  I spent a morning in the woods with David to pick up a few tips.”

Had the great pleasure of chatting to Bushcraft expert David Willis, who very kindly provided a guide to easy tree ID for an article I wrote about tree fact & folklore for Buckinghamshire Life Magazine – Which Tree, Witch Tree.

Lovely interviewing him in his office in the woods, with an old-fashioned kettle coming to the boil over the campfire, as he shared his knowledge & enthusiasm.

The Guardian picked David as one of their top ten winter walk guides, but he’s a man for all woodland seasons – delighting in the springtime froth of elder flowers, which he makes into tasty doughnut-like fritters, the bright berries of autumn and the sculptural branches of a winter oak outlined against a  crisp sky.  There are some of his top tree tips, alongside some tree folklore in the article: Tree Fact & Folklore, Buckinghamshire Life

David offers various bushcraft courses for adults & free guided nature walks for families as well as working with community groups and giving workshops at festivals: Bushcraft courses calendar  Highly recommended!

“I leave David setting up for a wood carving course and carry away a lingering scent of wood-smoke, like a trace of enchantment.  Whatever type of wand or woodland magic suits you, the trees are waiting to cast their spell, if you know how to look.”

Bruce Munro, Art in the Landscape & a Giant Prawn

“Sculpture gains by finding a setting that suits its mood and when that happens there is gain for both the sculpture and setting.” – Henry Moore

I was treated to a preview of Bruce Munro’s  ‘Winter Light’ exhibition in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor recently.  Flamboyant light installations in a formal Victorian garden.  So here’re some pictures from ‘Winter Light’ and a few other bits and pieces of art in the landscape that I happen to have enjoyed.

Winter Light

Beacon by Bruce Munro at Waddesdon Manor
Beacon by Bruce Munro at Waddesdon Manor

Beacon was originally constructed in 2013 on a hill at Long Knoll near the artist’s home, to raise money & awareness for breast cancer charity Cancerkin“This hill and surrounding countryside has long been my ‘canvas’,” Munro explained. “I lost a dear friend very young to breast cancer. By illuminating the night sky for a brief moment, I hope to send the message ‘you are not alone’.”

Bruce Munro’s Moon-Harvest at Waddesdon transforms hay-bales in their black plastic wrappers into a galaxy come to earth.

Enjoying the Moon-Harvest
Enjoying the Moon-Harvest

The exhibition is on till 4th January 2015, illuminating from 4pm.  Here’s my little piece about it in Buckinghamshire Life Magazine: Bruce Munro

The Crow Road

Fence-post crow guarding the path up to the ruins of Dinas Bran castle in North Wales, near Llangollen.  Dinas Bran has been translated as Crow Castle or The Hill of the Crow.

Dinas Bran

 The Great Storm

One of a series of sculptures by Jill Watson around the Berwickshire coastline, commemorating the Great Storm of 1881 in which 189 fishermen were shipwrecked.  This one is at Eyemouth, figures forever looking out to sea, hopeful their friends and families might yet come home.


Henry Moore

Loved the fantastic 2007 exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures at Kew Gardens.  Henry Moore is back at Kew, his Reclining Mother & Child in the gardens described by Kew as – “This bronze beauty will perfectly illustrate the clear synergy between Moore’s delight in the natural world and Kew’s celebration of nature.  Having his works perceived within a natural setting was crucial to Moore’s vision.”

Henry Moore at Kew 2007
Henry Moore at Kew 2007

RHS Wisely’s Henry Moore Arch is away as part of an exhibition, but his King and Queen have taken up extended residence over the winter.

“Landscape has been for me one of the sources of my energy… The whole of Nature is an endless demonstration of shape and form.” – Henry Moore


“Bid men of battle build me a tomb fair after fire, on the foreland by the sea that shall stand as a reminder of me to my people, towering high over Hronesness so that ocean travellers shall afterwards name it Beowulf’s barrow, bending in the distance their masted ships through the mists upon the sea.” – Beowulf

Part of the charm, for me, of standing stones and burial chambers is the way they sit like ancient sculptures in the landscape.

Peacocks & Soldiers

Hughenden Manor near High Wycombe has annually changing sculptures in the grounds.  In 2014 commemorating its recently revealed secret history as a WWII map-making base, code-named ‘Operation Hillside’, with Watchmen – tree-trunk soldiers by Ed Elliott.

tree sculpture

The year before saw jigsaw-pieced mirrors of peacocks and red kites by Emile Jones.



The Lost Gardens of Heligan‘s Mud-Maid, a giantess asleep in the snow.


Bonus Material

And a few odds and ends, because what’s not to love about a giant prawn on the quay and a shark in a roof.

Christmas Ostrich

Autumn Delights

“The mellow autumn came, and with it came the promised party.” – Lord Byron, probably one thing you could trust him on was to spot an opportunity for a good time. And surely autumn is the best of times. Glowing leaves, crisp skies, bright berries urging us to get out there and snatch the last golden days before the winter dark. New England may have ‘leaf-peeping’ hotlines, but the beech-woods of Bucks have their own enchantments. Even when it rains.

I love autumn, so was delighted to be asked to pick some places to enjoy autumn in Bucks (even if it rains) for Buckinghamshire Life magazine.

Here’s a PDF of the full article – Bucks Autumn or it’s on Buckinghamshire Life’s website

And here’re links to the places featured in the article –


For fairy-tale grandeur and innovative art installations

Waddesdon Manor
Waddesdon Manor
Bruce Munro art installations for the 'Winter Light' trail through the grounds
Bruce Munro art installations for the ‘Winter Light’ trail through the grounds

Waddesdon website

Chiltern Open Air Museum

For being open at night-time on Halloween, harvest traditions and stories by the fire in the roundhouse


Chiltern Open Air Museum website

Hughenden Manor

For all things apple and for being a secret WWII map-making base, codename ‘Operation Hillside’

Apple Day - 57 varieties grown at Hughenden
Apple Day – 57 varieties grown at Hughenden
tree sculpture
One of Ed Elliott’s ‘Watchmen’ sculptures commemorating the top-secret WWII map-makers

Hughenden Manor


For neoclassical elegance and a pumpkin hunting trail through the grounds

Autumn Colours at Stowe The Palladian Bridge at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire Chatham Island


Wendover Woods

For the Rothschilds creating a trackway through the woods for their zebra & cart, but mainly for the Gruffalo….


My niece making friends with the Gruffalo at Wendover Woods
My niece making friends with the Gruffalo at Wendover Woods

Wendover Woods

‘The secret of freedom is a brave heart’ – WWI pacifist ambulance unit

I’ve always loved the Quaker Meeting House in Jordans village.  Sure, it’s a beautiful seventeenth century building, all herring-bone brick floor and diamond-latticed windows, old wooden tables with vases of wild-flowers and so forth, but more than that, it has an air of tranquility – maybe that’s what you get from centuries of people meeting somewhere to sit together quietly. Or maybe it’s just in a nice setting.  Either way.

Out of this tranquility came passionate pacifists, brave enough to stand by their beliefs during the First World War, yet go to the front-line anyway as the ‘Friends Ambulance Unit’ – praised by the Red Cross as “one of the brightest chapters in our history”.

For the centenary of the First World War, I wrote an article commemorating the Friends Ambulance Unit, ‘Friends in Deed’, for Buckinghamshire and Berkshire Life magazine, which is just out now to coincide with an exhibition at Jordans Meeting House.

Friends Ambulance Unit

On 21st August 1914, barely 2 weeks after the First World War began, Philip Noel Baker put out a call to fellow pacifist Quakers for volunteers to “form an Ambulance Corps to go to the scene of active operations.”  Adding, “It is possible that it would in various ways involve some personal risk to members of the Corps. But it would probably result in the saving of a great many lives.”

Philip Noel Baker is the only person ever to be awarded both the Nobel Peace prize and an Olympic medal – silver in the 1500m in 1920.  His Nobel Peace prize citation begins, “Frequently when the storm clouds gather the world is made aware of the forces of good, rallying to meet the threatened danger.”

He set up a training camp at Jordans for the ambulance volunteers – “A rather motley band of lawyers, doctors, students, engineers, surveyors, accountants, businessmen and workers in arts and crafts” – as they described themselves.

Volunteers camping in the orchard at Jordans training camp
Volunteers camping in the orchard at Jordans training camp © Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

Over a thousand men, and some women, worked in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War.  Twenty-one were killed. Ninety-six, nearly one in ten, were awarded medals for bravery.  Their achievements were one of the reasons the Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In accordance with the Friends Ambulance Unit motto – ‘Go anywhere, do anything’, they established and staffed hospitals, founded orphanages, set up and ran recreation rooms at Dunkirk – The Pig and Whistle and the Cat and Fiddle, to boost troops’ morale, provided civilian relief, including 27,000 typhoid inoculations when an epidemic threatened near Ypres, worked on hospital ships and by the end of the war had transported over half a million patients across France on ambulance trains.

The work of the Friends Ambulance Unit prompted one historian to recall the Ancient Greek advice – “The secret of happiness is service and freedom, and the secret of freedom a brave heart.”

As part of my research I had the great pleasure of meeting local Quakers Sue and John Smithson, who both had relatives who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Sue and John Smithson at Jordans Meeting House
Sue and John Smithson at Jordans Meeting House

John’s father Michael drove an ambulance on the front-line, aged only seventeen.  At the end of the war he came to work at Jordans where the Quakers had established a convalescent home.  He’s pictured here at Jordans in 1918, seated fifth from left:

Friends Ambulance Unit volunteers at Jordans
Friends Ambulance Unit volunteers at Jordans © Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

Sue’s Uncle, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of The Washington Post, Felix Morley also volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit.  When Sue became engaged to John, Felix recognised John’s surname and realised he had worked alongside his father Michael on an ambulance train in France during the war.

memorial to the Friends Ambulance Unit was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in 2013.   The Society of Friends, as Quakers are more properly known, have more information about the Friends Ambulance Unit and kindly permitted use of some of their library photos in the article.

And huge thanks to Sue and John Smithson for chatting to me about their inspirational relatives.

With Sue Smithson at Jordans Meeting House

Archive photos © Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014