Summer Solstice in my Local Forest

 
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When I was at primary school and term finished for the summer, my mum took me to holiday club at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, just down the road from our home in Petersfield. Like most parents, she had to work a normal job and I needed somewhere fun to spend the day, and for as long as I’ve lived, nature and animals have been my favourite things (I remember once cutting out and saving a Country Crisp cereal packet because the back was illustrated with woodland animals). The QECP holiday club, then, was my ideal place to go in the summer, when the hedgerows were in blossom and the forests were full of birdsong. Each day was themed around a craft or activity - drawing, pond dipping, owl pellet dissection - and I would spend the summer doing every lovely nature-based thing you can possibly imagine. I had a great childhood, but even today, when I think back to my happiest times, I’m always drawn to those summer holiday clubs at QECP, running around in the forest and bringing home badger skulls and homemade bird feeders.

Having chosen to move back to Petersfield after a few years away at university, I love how close I still am to my favourite childhood places. In my new book Dark Skies, I’ve written about the peace and sanctuary I find on Butser Hill, one of the highest points in the South Downs, just across from QECP. Being able to visit QECP and experience the same sounds and smells as my childhood is a wonderful thing, so today I marked the summer solstice weekend by walking six miles around the forest with my dog, Pablo, who rolled in fox poo as soon as I let him off the lead. Lovely stuff.

Queen Elizabeth Country Park contains 1,400 acres of open access woodland and downland within the East Hampshire Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Today, the land is owned by Forestry England but the site is managed by East Hampshire District Council. The majority of the forest was planted in the 1930s, and it now consists mainly of beech trees which create beautiful dappled carpets of wildflowers across the woodland floor. I recently read in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees that beech canopies allow only 3% sunlight through to the forest floor, which is why beech forests are often home to clever little flowers and orchids that can survive with very low levels of light.

By the end of our walk, we had covered six miles through the forests of QECP, getting lost once or twice but finding our way back by cutting through a few clearings. One of them was empty except for a small deer that hopped off as soon as we arrived, leaving us alone with the lone foxgloves that had popped up in the few bright pools of sunlight. Elsewhere, there were lots of song thrushes and nuthatches in the treetops and hundreds of butterflies in the grassy banks along the edge of the paths. Sleepy from the fresh air and warm sunshine, we finally headed back to the car and returned home for coffee in the garden with the sparrows.