Hot, smoky, crumbly roast chestnuts: a moreish autumn delicacy sold on street corners on misty mornings
However, you can also forage for your own among the dank leaves carpeting woodland floors at this time of year. Sweet chestnuts – not to be confused with inedible horse chestnuts (conkers) – are found across swathes of south-east England. And during October in Wilderness Wood, a 2,000-year-old, 62-acre award-winning working woodland, they are celebrating the chestnut with a specially marked Chestnut Trail.
During a one-mile ramble through the ancient chestnut coppice, boards pinned to gnarled tree trunks tell you about the history and uses of the sweet chestnut. You can also gather a few of the spiky, green-shelled nuts to take home and roast.
The Barn, the rustic woodland café, has warming chestnut soup, chestnut ice-cream and moist chestnut cake on the menu – and you can try your hand at working with sweet chestnut wood.
This is a sustainably managed woodland and you can buy everything from garden furniture made on site to bird boxes, chestnut fencing and logs and kindling. Chestnut wood works well for outdoor furniture as it splits easily along the grain and contains high levels of tannin, protecting it from rot.
As you tramp through the tangled undergrowth, you’ll learn that the sweet chestnut tree or Castanea sativa is not native to Britain. Originally from Greece, it was brought over by the Romans, probably for its nuts – and possibly to provide poles for grapevines. Today, it is one of the few broad-leaved trees to thrive in the acidic sandstone soil of the High Weald.
Wilderness Wood was bought by Anne and Chris Yarrow back in 1979. They built the timber-frame barn that is now the visitor centre and café (roofed with more than 5,000 chestnut shingles) and began coppicing the sweet chestnut trees. Coppicing (cutting back to the ‘stool’ or stump, which then re-sprouts) every 15 years to harvest a crop of poles allows a wide variety of wildlife and vegetation to flourish on the woodland floor.
The sweet chestnut is the most common tree in the wood but there are also Scots pine, beech, Douglas firs, western red cedars, holly – and a Christmas tree plantation. You can choose your own tree in November and come back in December to cut it down. If you want to learn more about the history of the woodland, the wildlife (owls, squirrels, fallow deer for starters) and forage for fungi, you can hire a ranger.
Or you can just traipse along the shady paths, breathing in the pungent woodland smells as children clamber over the rustic playgrounds and build shelters from fallen branches and twigs.
HOW TO GET THERE Wilderness Wood is in the village of Hadlow Down on the south side of the A272, five miles north-east of Uckfield. Buxted train station is three miles away. FIND OUT MORE Wilderness Wood Hadlow Down, near Uckfield TN22 4HJ 01825 830509 www.wildernesswood.co.uk Open all year 10am-5.30pm or dusk if earlier. Adults £3.95, concessions £3.25, children (3-15) £2.45, family £11. EAT The Barn Wilderness Wood www.wildernesswood.co.uk Try the chestnut soup, ice-cream and cake, as well as classic ploughman’s lunches and cream teas, in this woodland café. STAY THE GRIFFIN INN Fletching, Near Uckfield, East Sussex, TN22 3SS 01825 722890 www.thegriffininn.co.uk A 16th-century inn in a postcard-perfect village, which got its name from the soldiers fletching their arrows (adding features to stabilise the arrow) in the village on their way to the Battle of Lewes in 1264. NEARBY Ashdown Forest www.ashdownforest.org Play pooh-sticks in the home of Winnie the Pooh. Within the 6,000-acre forest, you’ll find the famous 100-acre wood.