Sunlight filters through the trees, the scent of woodsmoke fills the air and somewhere overhead a cuckoo calls. But the enthusiastic chattering in a woodland clearing belongs not to magpies, but a group of children from Hertford Heath junior mixed infants school, near Hertford. They are taking part in an ancient woodland crafts day, organised by the Countryside Management Service.
Bencroft Wood, an ancient hornbeam coppice and nature reserve near Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, has been a managed woodland for more than 1,000 years. In its time, it has supplied firewood for London, charcoal for gunpowder and fuel for the malting industries of Hertford and Ware.
Many of the trees are hundreds of years old and one important message of the CMS, which manages the woodland for Herts County Council, is that trees don't have to be felled to be useful. In woodlands such as Bencroft, periodic coppicing - cutting back trees in a different section of wood each year - provides a regular crop without the need for cutting trees down.
But for some children, the biggest surprise is to learn that everyday items such as chairs, tables, broom handles and pencils are made from trees. "Children are so distanced from the environment these days that they don't really know where wood comes from," says Catherine Cox, a CMS project officer, who has come along to demonstrate the craft of besom broom-making. She's also found that East Hertfordshire children know more about tropical rainforests than about the woodland on their own doorsteps.
"They've been so influenced by rainforest propaganda that they think we are destroying woodland by using the trees for wood. So we have to explain that what we're doing is a process of continuous regeneration," she says.
The aim of the craft days is to enable local children to enjoy their woodland, observe its flora and fauna, hear how trees are looked after and try their hand at woodland crafts such as basket-
making, pole-lathe woodturning, hurdle fence-making and charcoal burning.
The visit starts with a stroll through woods, guided by countryside ranger Diana Richards. She identifies the trees (hornbeam, oak, silver birch and hazel), discusses the properties of each (soft, hard, bendy) and suggests what they might be used for.
Silver birch for instance, is ideal for broom heads, oak for furniture and ships, hornbeam for charcoal and chair legs. Having told the story of how woodlands such as this have been sustained and managed over the centuries, she takes the children to a sunlit glade, where crafts people (a mix of volunteers and CMS employees) have set up displays.
In one corner, civil servant Francis Rogers shows how to make charcoal by burning wood slowly inside an airless metal barrel, so it becomes charred on the surface and completely dry. At the pole-lathe, operated by foot pedal and a pulley slung over a branch, CMS project officer Richard Monk gets children to pat their heads and rub their bellies before attempting the simultaneous hand-and-foot actions needed to shape a piece of wood while turning it. A few yards away, Sian Reid shows how traditional baskets are made from willow, while Patrick Norris makes each group a simple wooden gate to take back to the classroom. To prove how strong it is, he lets them use it for a tug of war.
For David Smith, headteacher of Hertford Heath, it's a fruitful day out. "Our school is in a village surrounded by woodland, but the children aren't really aware of it because, like all kids, they look but don't see," he says. "It's useful for national curriculum work on growth and, of course, the crafts are an important aspect of history. Children tend to think people have always gone to Homebase when they needed an item for the home. Here they see that, once upon a time, if you wanted something, you made it."
A group of children with moderate learning difficulti es from Pinewood School, in Ware, near Hertford, will later use some of these craft techniques for a classroom project on basic technology in wood. During their stroll around the woods, they admired the coppicing and hedging work of a group from Pine-wood the previous winter.
"We have a good reciprocal partnership with the CMS," explains their technology teacher, Chris Bunton. "We bring groups to work in the woods for a week during the coppicing season and they make useful items to bring back to school, such as tools
and wood ash for pottery glazes. They love it. It ties in with various youth award schemes and
community service modules and goes towards accreditation in key stage 4 work."
Dave Batley, a craft lecturer at Hertford Regional College, considers Bencroft Wood an invaluable resource for a wide range
of students with learning and behavioural difficulties. Seventy Pinewood students with severe learning difficulties work regularly in the woods, but the class for the craft day are children
who have been excluded from normal school and are doing a GNVQ in land and environmental industries.
Mr Batley regularly brings groups of what he terms "naughty boys and girls" to work in the wood. He says they respond well. "They do physical work for the CMS and make craft items to take home. But they really like the freedom of being here, with no one to tell them off. They can sit round the fire, smoke and cook sausages."
The craft days are just one aspect of Hertfordshire's Countryside Management Service, which works all year round to conserve, protect and improve the countryside and encourage local people, especially town dwellers, to use it. "We hope the
children will remember today for the rest of their lives," says area countryside manager Simon Walsh, "and that it will encourage them to see the woods in a new light. An event like this brings
the children and their own countryside together."
Further information from the Countryside Management Service (Eastern Area), Little Samuel's Farm Widford Road, Hunsdon, Ware Herts SG12 8NN. Tel: 01279 843067