‘Imagine yourself lying on a beach or swimming in the sea, or anywhere your mind wants to go.”
Archery instructor Katie was trying to get me to switch off, mentally, so that I could snap back into the zone when I shot my next arrow. All well and good, but I was in rather a lovely wood in Devon, and my mind insisted on making this attractive grove its happy place. At least that’s the excuse I gave myself as my arrows thwacked merrily into all that white paper surrounding the colourful target.
The wood that was doing its best to distract me is a five-hectare affair amid fertile farmland a little to the south of Exmoor. It’s home and livelihood to owners Anna and Pete Grugeon, who came to live in it 10 years ago. They have rescued what was a badly degraded wood and turned it into a nature reserve called the Bulworthy Project (it’s on the crest of a hill known as Bulworthy Knap), and have earned a crust from the traditional practice of charcoal-making.
Now they’ve also built an off-grid cabin within its sylvan canopy, which is where a friend and I had a two-night break. The money from our visit helped maintain the wood, too: the couple pledge they’ll plant a tree for every night their cabin is booked.
In this spirit of eco-friendliness, we had decided to travel by train and bicycle, a move which also gave us the opportunity to explore Bulworthy’s rural hinterland. On the 15-mile ride from Tiverton Parkway station we had chanced upon a National Cycle Network route that had us bowling happily along the Grand Western Canal towpath for half the journey. (And at the end of our all-too-short sojourn, we returned home along quiet country lanes to Eggesford’s bijou branch-line station, where we ate a fine alfresco lunch at a recently established trackside cafe, the Eggesford Crossing Cafe.)
Once settled into our new micro home-from-home, we’d ambled through the trees to join our hosts for a guided tour of their wood, something they offer free to all guests.
“When we moved in 10 years ago,” Pete said, “this was all dense conifers.”
He went on to describe a wood in a very sorry state. The neglect had been exacerbated by a previous owner, who had erected a deer fence that the local red deer had had no trouble in vaulting from an adjacent embankment. Once they’d got in, they found the fence was too high for them to leap back over, so scores of them had been trapped. The couple’s first task on buying the wood was to usher the captives out.
A decade on, the impenetrable walls of spruce have been largely replaced by a variety of trees, including oaks, birches, beeches and hazels. We wandered together along winding paths and an ancient narrow track on an embankment, whose gnarly beeches formed an enchanting tunnel. It was easy to see why Anna and Pete had chosen this wood after years of dreaming of living in one.
“We try to be as self-sufficient as possible,” said Anna as we greeted the couple’s chickens and pigs, also woodland dwellers. There are ceps, chanterelles, wild raspberries and hazelnuts aplenty and Anna has become quite the winemaker too – that night we sampled a bottle of her elderberry wine, left for us in the cabin.
The couple are an inspiration to anyone who feels they can’t follow their dream because they lack the relevant formal training. Not content with teaching themselves woodland husbandry from scratch, they also became proficient amateur builders. “We put that up that first,” said Pete, as he pointed to an already venerable-looking shed. “And having learned from that, we built our house.” Like you do.
After that, constructing the cabin must have seemed like child’s play. They used a fallen oak for the frame, cherrywood for the window ledges, and fashioned a bedhead from a section of holly tree. The effect of all this timber was that when we went inside, it didn’t really feel like we were leaving the wood.
Sadly, for most of our stay the gods of the English summer had set their faces against us. However, a woodburning stove made the cabin cosy and also proved an efficient heater of water. A fire on our first evening was still helping provide hot showers two mornings later in our spacious en suite.
Solar panels supply power for the electric coolbox, all the lighting, wifi and a phone-charging point (though why anyone staying here would want to keep in touch with the outside world is a mystery). A well-stocked kitchen has gas hobs and running hot-and-cold water, and just outside the porch where we ate our breakfasts, we found a hammock, a barbecue, and a firepit with its own a tree-trunk bench.
Unsurprisingly, we were reluctant to leave our sanctuary. We were content, however, to make languid perambulations: hunting for orchids or scanning the branches for marsh and willow tits. We did drag ourselves away one evening, riding the short distance to the village of Rackenford. The Stag, its former drovers’ inn (“One man here remembers driving his sheep into the front room,” co-owner Oliver told us), is claimed to be the oldest pub in Devon. Oliver showed us its witches’ marks: small holes burned into the ancient woodwork to trap evil spirits that came down the chimney. He also introduced us to Psychopomp, a Bristol micro-distillery whose moreish gin was served with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.
Back at the wood, Anna and Pete hold occasional courses in charcoal- and bow-making, and have teamed up with a neighbour who gives lessons in clay shooting and archery. That neighbour happens to be Katie Cox, who has represented Devon, England and Great Britain, and whose prowess at various forms of clay shooting has already won her a heap of trophies and a European bronze medal. Aside from the fascinating insights she gave us into the psychological rigours of top-level sport, she proved as good a teacher as she is a shot: by the end of our session I was thumping arrow after arrow into the target’s golden heart. I had arrived at Bulworthy a mere fan of woodland. I left it the new Robin Hood.
To celebrate their first decade at Bulworthy, Anna and Pete are holding an open day on Saturday 31 August (10am-5pm, admission free). Attractions range from chainsaw-carving to have-a-go archery, with lots of locally produced food and drink to sample too.
• Accommodation was provided by the Bulworthy Project. Its cabin (wheelchair accessible, no dogs) sleeps two from £200 for two nights. Archery tuition was provided by Katie Cox clayandtargetsdevon.co.uk. Rail tickets were provided by GWR, which has singles from London to Tiverton Parkway or Eggesford from £24.50
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