There are times in life when you fancy a good walk. There are times in life when you fancy spotting wildlife. And there are times in life when you’re savouring the great outdoors and you become overcome with hunger. In those moments anything will do – one of those dry nutty seed bars, an old toffee, perhaps even a grey squirrel.
If you’re a regular Countryfile viewer, you’ll know I munched on a grey squirrel in Prickly Nut Wood in West Sussex with woodsman Ben Law. He’s an impressive man who lives off the land. His cruck-framed home in the woods is a Grand Designs favourite and was so popular that people still want to come and have a nosy, eight years later. It cost him £30,000 to build – a true testament to what you can do with some elbow grease and a positive, forward-thinking attitude.
Ben bought Prickly Nut Wood back in 1991 for a tenner and slowly converted it from a pretty but disused woodland to an oasis of bountiful trees, charcoal-burning drums, fungi-rich earth and wildlife pockets. A lot of his land is used for coppicing; he uses the wood for roundwood timber framing and making his sought-after furniture.
As well as being adept with his hands, Ben is also an inspiring communicator, attracting eager students from all over, keen to learn and pass on his skills and shed the 21st-century chaff by acquiring a naturally attuned lifestyle. His courses run throughout the year, but tend to fill up pretty quickly.
Ben is based near the village of Lodsworth is as English and pretty as they come, nestled on the slopes of Bexley Hill overlooking the Lod Valley. It has a community spirit that’s catching; the villagers are so proud of their quiet patch of West Sussex, especially with people like Ben handy to build the village shop, as he did last year.
Constructed in just four months, Ben built the Lodsworth Larder almost as prettily as his timber house, with sheep’s wool from the Black Mountains stuffed in the walls to keep it snug during winter.
Lodsworth is set in gently sweeping Sussex landscape, which makes for excellent walking country – I can amble along the countless back lanes and pub-to-pub paths for hours, whistling a cheery tune and smelling that fruity, autumn air.
One of the best paths here is of course the South Downs Way, a 100-mile path that stretches from Winchester, following ancient routes and droveways to the chalky cliffs of Eastbourne. It’s a colourful vista, fed by the rich chalk grassland sprouting strangely named flowers such as squinancywort and autumn ladies tresses (an orchid). There’s also the lesser-known 64-mile Serpentine Trail, which winds past the stately 17th-century Petworth House and crosses the River Rother.
On my visit to Prickly Nut Wood, Ben and I spent the day making charcoal, chopping wood and foraging for mushrooms. Then Ben took me hunting. Grey squirrels cause untold damage to coppice in his woodland and the only way he can control them is to cull them, which he is a dab hand at.
And he doesn’t believe in waste. He cooks them, with a bit of chilli infused olive oil and some wild garlic. They are finger food in the true sense of the phrase – nibbly, fiddly, but somehow wholesome and filling.
Ben would like to see grey squirrels stocked in supermarkets, but I think I prefer watching them scurrying about, like my old pal Mr Red in Northern Ireland.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Southampton, exit the
A3 onto the A272 and continue until you see left hand turning
FIND OUT MORE
Prickly Nut Wood
Lodsworth GU28 9DR
Ben Law runs woodland courses and hosts regular open days.
He also sells timber products
such as garden furniture, fences and treehouses.
The Hollist Arms
Lodsworth GU28 9BZ
At the heart of the village, this favourite local haunt has a good selection of real ales and delicious food. There is also a beautiful horse chestnut tree out front.
Manor Farm, Tortington
Sleep in luxurious canvas bell tents, dine under the night sky and toast marshmallows around the communal camp fire.