Tales From The Forest
The Found Outdoors Blog
Year One at Found Outdoors
Having spent years finding the right piece of land there was definitely a lot relief and happiness when the sale finally completed. However, it turns out there's quite a lot more work than we had anticipated to create a space that you can actually run a business from. Especially if you have chosen to walk the line of minimal intervention.
Owning land takes some getting used to. And our first year began eight months into the pandemic!
It very quickly became apparent that there was quite a lot to do before we could start to run any kind of business. There's a path used by a small number of dog walkers despite the private signs, which - to this day - impacts the way we can use the site. Then theres the issue of literally no infrastructure of any description - not even a clearing. And as we soon came to realise, 54 acres is simultaneously a lot of land, and (in the grand scheme of things) not very much at all.
Initially we spent a good few weeks just walking the land, tinkering and planning, and our year one plan began to formulate. This might sound like we sat on our hands until this point, however the reality of owning the land (and what needs doing) is considerably different from the theory. For a start it's a lot bigger than we'd ever imagined owning, and it has fields. Fields were never part of the plan, and neither was the barbed wire fencing that came with them.
The Plan, version 1
After a lot of deliberation our plan looked something like this:
- choose a business name
- set up the business (chose a legal entity, get bank accounts etc)
- build a website
- make some business cards etc
- remove as much barbed wire and fencing as possible
- create a 'basecamp' area with a fire pit
- get planning permission (for change of use, to run a business, build the car park)
- clear the entrance
- create a car park
- find a forest school teacher
Nothing about this is rocket science, but there's a lot of tasks, and sub tasks, and a lot of research required. And there's only two of us and not a huge amount of money.
EVERYTHING is a first!
Our learning curve was (and remains - as of year 3) very steep. We had a lot of questions, needed to find out who to ask and needed to know what other questions we should be asking.
The first winter turned out long and cold and wet. The land gently slopes downhill and is a kilometre from end to end. It's pretty marshy in places and we spent a lot of time removing, coiling and transporting old barbed wire by hand to the top of the site.
The first thing we decided to build was a base camp area. Luckily there were some old vehicle tracks which, although overgrown, did define a path and led to an area that would work. With the help of a strimmer, rake and garden saw we were able to clear it relatively easily. We literally had no proper forestry tools so made do with gardening tools to start! Base Camp turned out to be a great focal point in an otherwise overgrown woodland with a fire pit, logs to sit on and a small wood store.
We did loads of research into legally changing the business use class of the land. We'd done some work on this while buying the land, but plenty more was required. Eventually we conceded we needed the help of a planning consultant.
We wanted to understand what was living on the land so needed to find an ecologist.'
We had to register with DEFRA, get a farmers number, transfer the land parcels and grants entitlements from the previous owner. This turned out to be complex and a moving target. Due to Brexit the UK is coming to the end of the previous land subsidies system and the new system is a long way from being ready to go. We learned that you need permission to access grants and get permission to fell trees you need a woodland management plan (WMP) so we needed to find a forestry person to help us with that.
Facing the Outside World
Our first bit of luck was that our preconceived worries about 'what the neighbours might think' come to nothing. We met two sets of very friendly and enthusiastic neighbours. This was a huge bonus. The chair of the Parish Council was also very much on board with our ideas and we had some really useful conversations with the council and the local primary school who were already invested in the forest school ethos.
To get started we decided to push on with the ecology report and woodland management plan. Through more good fortune we found two people via the SWOG (small woodland owners) Facebook group. Pete and Leo - ecology and forestry respectively - are adept and a really good match and we agreed to work with them to produce the reports.
We were also introduced to a local digger driver who was happy to create the car park area if we cleared the saplings. Following a lot of research into creating forest tracks and parking areas and a surprisingly simple call to the council we were allowed to create an area of hardstanding off the main road. This was definitely aided as there is a pre-existing drop curve and a well established entrance and access track shown on historical maps for over 100 years.
With the car park finished we chose some gates and learnt how to fit them. We also designed our signs, found a local printer and erected them at the entrance. This turned out to be extremely beneficial, as passers by started to show an interest in what 'the happy woodland folk' are up to!
While all this was going on we got some cards printed in case we needed to do some networking! This had been a big unknown - how do you network an idea when you've no experience and your plan is changing almost monthly as you learn more and more. As it turned out, all you need to do is put some signs up and everyone comes to you.
Planning Consent and a Forest School
As well as interested local residents, we were incredibly lucky to be approached by a forest school teacher AND an architect! Hannah, it turned out, was looking to step back from her teaching role and setup a new forest school, and Jonny liked what we've been doing and offered to help us with the planning submission. This was a dream. We will never know what would have happened if we hadn't got this lucky.
The previously bewildering planning system was suddenly not an issue and Jonny skilfully negotiated everything we needed - change of use, two small wooden barns and two compost loos.
This dovetailed perfectly with Hannah's forest school plans and we took her on to provide some starter sessions for her new business, Wild Hearts Forest School.
Meanwhile, we met more interested parties, mental health practitioners, artists, bushcraft folk etc.
Throughout it all we've tried to photograph and document everything as much as possible. Social media is a great tool for a project like this. For us it's important to show rather than tell. We want to encourage others to have a go at this stuff and be as realistic as possible about what's involved. It's hard to show the more difficult aspects - the doubt, decision making, endless research and one-way financial stream. We're spending a lot of money and there's no realistic chance of turning a profit in the foreseeable future!
The Youth Adventure Trust
Thanks to some previous film and talk events we attended in Bristol, we found out about The Youth Adventure Trust who Fiona was now mentoring for. YAT are a Wiltshire based charity who run a multi year programme for disadvantaged young teens in local secondary schools. It just so happened that, in the depths of the pandemic, they needed a new venue to run occasional day events with the children, and hold a few meetings across the year. They are a great fit for us and we planned in a number of days for them to use the site.
Our First Public Event
In September we hosted the Inch By Inch travelling exhibition featuring sculptures by eleven artists. It was our first public event and as such required a lot of wrangling. The artists were great and it was a real pleasure to put the show on. We had to work out a refreshments system, car park ticketing, host a workshop and mini talk as well as create an art trail. The stress of potential poor weather definitely took the shine off in the run up, but when it's sunny on the day all our worries dissipated into the trees.
We learnt a lot. Not least of which is that our 'car park' is wholly inadequate. It worked for the exhibition but will significantly reduce the size of events we can hold.
As the year progressed it started to become apparent that renting our spaces in the woods was not likely to work as we envisaged. You either need a lot of footfall (which is incompatible with our light touch approach) or you have to run fancy events with a high ticket price. We spent a lot of time pouring over the spreadsheets working out how to improve things.
All the while we did a lot of talking and planning and meeting people. This, it turns out, is probably the most important - and enjoyable - thing we do. People regularly get in touch to tell us what they do and ask about what we're doing. We invariably meet, walk, chat and have a 'campfire' coffee. There's no expectation of having to do something immediately, but it helps us get a really good handle on what is out there and what people want to use the woods for. Networking AND market research!
We only had a couple of weather issues with inadequate shelter, but it's all good practice, and helps us understand what is required to host people without fear of the weather interfering too much. There's always going to be rain, but you can make it as dry and warm as possible while you're sat or stood still.
As the year drew to a close Fiona started her occasional 'Womens Walk' group for friends and acquaintances to gather in the woods and walk and talk. I manage the fire and wrangle hot drinks - which turns out to be another aspect we discover we need to level up!
Throughout the year we hosted 17 events, registered our heronry, did two moth traps, added 80 people on our mailing list, got a decent understanding of rural payments, got planning permission to run the business, created a car park and tested out a lot of new things.
It was busy year with many ups and downs, and lots of doubts and questioning ourselves. This stuff isn't always easy (it's the hardest work I've ever done) but it's a privilege and the end result is always worth it. We're incredibly lucky to have this opportunity.
Published on January 6, 2023