"When you walk into the wood, think of it as a community: walk with a feeling of reverence, a bit like going into a church,” says Alistair.
It’s a clear fresh morning, and we’re standing inside Butcher’s Wood, the first stop on Sensing the Land, a guided woodland and downland walkshop that we're doing around Wolstonbury Hill and the South Downs, in Sussex.
Butcher's Wood is a small patch of ancient woodland that’s just a few minutes walk from Hassocks station and quite close to the London to Brighton railway line.
As we stand here, Alistair explains that ancient woodland means it's existed continuously since 1600. "Before then, planting of new woods wasn't common, so a wood existing in 1600 is pretty likely to have developed naturally," he says. "Although in most ancient woods, the trees would've been cut down from time to time as part of its management. That means ancient woodland doesn't necessarily contain very old trees... but provided that the area has stayed as woodland, it's still considered to be ancient."
As we listen, Sunday morning light is filtering through the trees, giving the wood a golden glow. It feels like we're in a realm where time is suspended, just for now.
We walk on, following a wide path through the wood. It’s very muddy and to avoid the worst of it, we cut a few corners, inadvertently stepping on a few bluebell shoots. An older lady, visibly irritated, stops to tell us off. She’s the woodland manager and is keen to make sure that groups don’t trample the bluebells before they come up.
We leave the wood suitably chastised, through a wooden gate, and stroll across a meadow towards Lag Wood, where we’re stopped by its owners, who happen to be passing.
They also give us a bit of a lecture, but we reassure them that all we are doing is some gentle exercises, and they let us pass, at last.
The path going in to Lag Wood is also very muddy, and we gingerly walk into a wide, and more muddy clearing, where a few large hornbeams spread their multi-trunks staking their claim.
We are here to do some centring and grounding exercises.
We gather in a wide circle, and Alistair talks us through breathing into various parts of our bodies. I feel the group settle and quieten down, becoming more present, and starting to be more aware of the sounds and smells of nature around us.
We gather and play in Lag Wood around the Hornbeams
We follow this with an exercise in peripheral vision - a kind of wide angle seeing - a technique that changes your brainwaves, and encourages a meditative alpha state that has interesting effects.
"It makes everything more vivid,” says Irene. "The colours are deeper, and there’s a 3-D effect," says Romeo.
“Amazing isn’t it,” says Alistair, “that just changing the way you see can have such a profound effect!"
We play with it for a bit, and then try out fox walking: a slow, careful walk, placing the front foot down, ball first, that makes less impact on the ground, and also slows the mind down, bringing us ever more into the present moment.
Malex finds it quite emotional, “It’s like your feet are your eyes,” she says. Others report similar experiences.
I’m noticing that I’m becoming more aware of movement, and different sounds in the woods. The rustle of leaves, dogs barking in the distance, and birds calling to each other, as we play with this slow motion walking combined with peripheral vision.
"It feels like we’re a part of this wood,” says Peter.
I walk towards a tree on the edge of the wood that’s thick with ivy on the trunk. It's surrounded by clematis and branches of honeysuckle, holly, and thick green undergrowth. Inexplicably I feel my heart opening in my chest and I try to understand what is going on.
Alistair calls us back. We talk about our experiences.
Leaving the wood, via a stile, we walk along a narrow lane that emerges by a road, and cross into a field, where we stop for lunch.
There's an old Saxon church in front of us, and when we've eaten, we go in and have a look at the 1,000 year old murals - all neutrals, and ochres - that cover most of one end. They've recently been restored.
We leave and walk past Hassocks railway tunnel with its gothic towers, along the track towards Wolstonbury Hill.
Hassocks railway tunnel
The path is bordered by trees, and runs alongside a field of sheep with bells round their necks.
Just as we reach a point where the path starts to climb, Alistair stops us and gets us to fox walk with peripheral vision all the way up the hill.
One by one we set off.
I am at the back and enter a bit of a trance, as I slowly sway from side to side up the muddy chalk track.
As I feel the mud, or the chalk, under foot, I notice how much my feet prefer firmer ground. And how much my senses are heightened to the sounds and smells of nature. As I sway from side to side, the trees seem to sway with me.
Half way up I swear I can smell gas. I’ve smelt it here before. Not everyone has noticed. It’s a strange smell out here in the woods. I wonder if anyone has reported it.
We’ve walked up one by one with a good 20 foot gap between us, it takes a good half an hour.
Andrea tells me afterwards that although we’re far apart, she feels very connected to everyone, to the group.
I haven’t fox walked for that far before, and it’s a surreal experience.
At the top, it is very windy, and as we leave the cover of the wood onto open downland, to walk up to Wolstonbury - the rain starts to fall, stinging our faces and anywhere that’s not covered. It feels very elemental, but passes quickly.
It’s a curving walk round to the top of the hill, and still very windy, so we drop down onto the north side, out of the wind.
We sit on the hillside looking out over the plain in front of us towards the Weald and the north Downs.
Alistair has planned this moment, and takes us on a guided visualisation of the history of the South Downs, starting 100million years ago, when the land stretching infront of us was all under water. He takes us through millions of years of history: from when the waters make way for a chalk dome, which is eroded by ice and water, trees grow, and people arrive.
The people live along the top of the Downs. They're very connected to the trees and the forest. They clear some of the land, they manage sheep and there's lots of diverse meadow.
It's fascinating and informative.
And then we have to go. We walk back down, and take a different route back to the station for the train back to home.
The next Sensing the Land event, called Poetry of the Land is on Tuesday 21st June, 2016.
Details on School of the Wild here.
Author & Curator
Nigel Berman is the founder of School of the Wild.