It is that time of year when I take what is becoming an annual excursion into deepest Kent where, in amongst the trees there, underneath the sun and stars of the clearing and thereabouts, the younger children who gather with their families play. A couple of weekends ago we were there, and it’s good to be off-grid for a while, despite all we think of and seem to need the modern world, and the after effects of being there are still lightly buzzing around in me. This place, this Feast in the Woods, is each year something small and special.
Children, regulars, come year after year. Of course, their parents make the decisions about this bank holiday break, or so I suspect, but a part of me wants to believe that some of the children must remind those parents about going. It is, you see, a somewhat free place to play. Sure, there are possibly parents who keep their children closer to hand but what I saw, and see each year, are marauding, free-ranging mostly under-8s making their own ways in and out of the forest, down to the lake, having had possible adventures.
This year there were new children to these trees and place. Some were in my travelling party. As we drove out of London, it amused me as the children in the back seat excitedly spotted cows in the fields! When we got there, along a long country lane, and after pitching up, the children stayed relatively close by as we explored a little. By the next morning, they were navigating the woods on their own. Later, as I sat in the sun, a bunch of boys marched into and back out of the clearing, armed with self-made bows and arrows. A group of girls concealed themselves near our tents (seemingly oblivious to the fact that adults were nearby and could hear their machinations): they plotted how to track the boys.
Seeing how these children shifted their play in amongst the trees, the regulars and the new children, was something special. It reminded me, in a light way, of that old stereotype (which is true though) of how we, my generation, would go out to play on hot summer days and only come home when we were hungry. I realised that, when the new children were confident enough with the landscape and with their ranging and working out of geography, when they said they were just going to or just having been to the lake, they were on a personal excursion: they may have found their own routes that took them off of the path down the hill, around the field used as a car park, and on. They may have found shortcuts through the trees. I didn’t know for sure. It wasn’t really my business.
At night something quite special happened. A few things quite special happened for city children, maybe: first, as the light slowly faded, one by one the stars came out. We looked up and guessed the names of some stars, and looked at the Plough and Orion’s Belt, and saw satellites zip by and the slowly flashing lights of far-off planes. Later the sky filled more. A little later still, I took a short night walk with the new children. They had torches but I said, ‘Hey, turn them off for a while. Let your eyes get used to different things.’ The children weren’t so sure at first. ‘Trust me,’ I said and I told them something I always remember my dad telling me: there’s nothing there at night that isn’t there in the day. Well, shush, maybe there are a few extra nocturnal animals, but you get my drift. The children held hands, and mine, firmly. They trusted but negotiated with me to turn the torches back on on the way back up the lane. That lane we walked was lit every twenty or thirty yards or so by a candle in a paper bag, placed on the ground. It really was a beautiful experience because everything was utterly dark but for the little smudges of candlelight. The city children made the candle-lit walk. The next night, they asked to do it again. This time they didn’t hold on so closely. We said, ‘Shall we just stop for a little while and listen here?’
One morning, I got up not so late (an hour or two after the babies on site seemed to emulate the dawn chorus). The first thing I always need on struggling out of my tent is coffee. I unzipped my doorway to the world, thinking about how to get my fix, unfolding myself out into the early morning air. One of our city children was already up and about, crouching down on her haunches, listening and watching intently as the older woman who’d camped next to us was explaining to this focused six year old how a storm kettle worked. It takes a village to raise a child. I shuffled myself off to the main grill and cooking area to investigate coffee-making possibilities.
The children spent their days in the trees, their hours in the clearing smearing layers of face-paints on far too trusting adults; they jumped in the lake, played drums, danced, cart-wheeled, ran around as Zombie T-Rex food, and so on. (Being a Zombie T-Rex is, for this Zombie T-Rex, amusing for a while, with a six year old on board growling in his ear about hunting ants before turning on the other fodder, but advisable, in retrospect, only in short bursts!). One of our city children, back in the city a few days on, brought the catapult he’d made out of a Y-shaped stick to show me. Something in me was mightily impressed and humbled by this keepsake.
There is, I’m finding, a certain come-down to being off-grid, in amongst the trees and freedom of play there. It’s taking a while.