By Dedra Montoya (the grandma who took her grandchild to where the hobbits play)
As an American elementary school teacher and a grandparent of a very lively two-and-a-half-year-old boy, I had become fascinated with the “adventure forests” I had heard about in the U.K.. These are places where play isn’t restricted to ground level, where children can run with sticks and build hobbit dens in the woods, where they can hobnob with friendly farm animals in storybook settings, where little imaginations and curiosities grow into wandering wonder, and where the ever so slight hint of danger tantalizes and challenges little ones while giving their parents a bit of a fright. When I travelled to England to visit my daughter and her family who live there, I knew I had to seek out some of these magical-sounding places. So, off we went, Jax and Lauren and I, to find Wonderland.
Thetford Forest is Britain’s largest lowland pine forest, straddling the north of Suffolk and the south of Norfolk, both eastern counties. Inside this mystical forest on the Suffolk side is High Lodge. No ordinary playground this! High lodge is a child’s wonderland. Natural woodland paths and trails—some dark and mysterious, some dappled with sunlight—meander through tall quiet pines and lead to enchanting spots that beckon children to stop and play.
Sticks picked up along the trails become pirates’ swords, and leaves and flowers become fairy laurels. White teepees hidden randomly amongst the trees and obscured by the hazy morning fog invite children to explore a different time and place. My grandson, Jax even spotted Gruffalo, a beloved British storybook character, standing guard on the trail.
Branches and logs scattered about the forest floor provide building materials for constructing forts and hobbit dens…in any way a child’s imagination sees fit. Many dens are ready for occupancy. Hobbits, perhaps?
There are even musical play structures—artful and filled with whimsy—to discover along the forest trails. Jax delighted in bouncing on the little path of puffy black “pillows”, giggling at the honks and whistles that escaped from them. Weathered brass gongs hanging in grids within a tall sturdy wooden frame begged to be banged, their deep sustained chimes carried on the woodland breezes. Wooden planks lying piano-like on the ground made music as Jax jumped from plank to plank.
There are silver saucers to tumble in, dangling musical ropes to dangle from, and rolly things to roll on—each a test of balance and coordination.
For older children and their adults there is Go Ape, the U.K.’s number-one forest adventure. Look high into the treetops and you will find zip lines, Tarzan swings, climbing nets, and challenging crossings—all high above mossy views of the forest below.
You will not find the standard plastic playground equipment at High Lodge, Thetford Forest. What you will find for your children and grandchildren—and for yourself—is a fairytale setting offering freedom and high adventure (literally!) integrating play, exercise, music, challenge, imagination, creativity and discovery.
Located near Ipswich, Suffolk in idyllic English countryside where sheep graze, lambs frolic, and pheasants nest on the ground is a 100-acre farm that could be the setting in a storybook. Families are given free rein to wander throughout the farm, feeding the animals along the way. There are numerous rare breeds of donkeys, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and chickens to get up close and personal with, and even emus and rheas peer over their fences to welcome curious children whose eyes gape back in wonder. Ducks splash in ponds, (we think we spotted Jemima Puddle Duck), swans glide through cattails, and butterflies of all sorts flit happily about in the Butterfly House.
A huge bubble-like trampoline built into the ground tempts children to stop and take a hop before exploring more of the farm. When we finally lured Jax off of the colorful slippy-slidy thing, we continued on our way along an idyllic rural path where we discovered, tucked beneath a grassy hill, a hobbit house made of sticks and stones and remnants of green bottles. We stepped inside. There was a tiny hearth and fireplace dusted with ashes. Shelves with pewter cups and plates lined the log walls, and a little sewing machine sat on the opposite side on which some hobbit had surely been busily mending socks.
One intriguing trail on Jimmy’s Farm wanders into an eerily beautiful ancient forest of sweet chestnut and hawthorn trees. Tucked in among the trees are hobbit dens made from fallen branches and logs, some high up in the trees, some nestled in at ground level. Here children play and pretend to their hearts’ content and even build more dens. In springtime the forest is awash in the vibrant blue of bluebells.
Nature trails throughout the farm lead children on quests to find and identify various creatures and their habitats. Science festivals during the year challenge children’s curiosity with the wonders of nature, while food festivals on the farm promote locally grown organic foods. When tummies start to rumble while exploring the farm, there’s an award-winning restaurant in the restored 200-year-old barn (where the food is yummy), or the outdoor field kitchen located in the herb garden, both of which serve up locally sourced produce. There is even an outdoor theatre where pastoral plays such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be seen.
Jimmy’s Farm is truly a storybook place where children and their families can get back to nature and in touch with their imaginations. A gentle adventure that is sure to charm even the oldest hobbits.
What’s that hiding over there in the boggy swamp? It’s some hairy Boggles, and they’re welcoming you to BeWILDerwood, where little Twiggles will have the time of their lives!
Tucked away beyond winding narrow country roads bordered in hedgerows, the magical realm of BeWILDerwood is set unassumingly in forested countryside outside of the village of Hoveton in Norfolk. It takes some good g.p.s.ing to find it, but once you’re inside this fantasy forest world, you may think you’ve entered Rowlings’ Hogwarts or Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but you haven’t.
The curious creatures that inhabit BeWILDerwood are based on those who live in the English children’s storybook series of the same name, written by local author Tom Blofeld. They are strange and weirdly fun and invite children to run, play, climb, swing and laugh. And, they do! Jax did not walk, he ran from one adventure to the next, giggling all the way. And so that children do not get lost, there are signs that point the way with such helpful information as “This way” and “That way”.
There are whimsical tree houses to climb up, up, up to; zip lines to zip through the treetops; high-up climbing nets that look scary but aren’t; and sky mazes that have children scratching their heads over how to get back down from the forest’s canopy. (And yes, Jax and his mom were up there in the nets while I took pictures with my feet on terra firma!) The slides spilling out of tree houses are incredibly slippery and steep and elicit happy screams from all who dare to come down from the trees that way. Wobbly jungle bridges and rope walks intrigue and challenge, and dreamy boats drift slowly along the murky river. Watch out for Mildred, the Crocklebog who you’ll spot on the other side of the misty “Scaaary Lake”!
But there are a few activities that stop children in their tracks. Puppeteers and storytellers gather children and their adults in the dappled shade of the trees for some engaging story times featuring BeWILDerwood characters where children become part of the act. And there are plenty of restful places in which to stop and have some lunch before adventuring on and building hobbit dens in the woods.
How many children wish they could step into the pages of the books they read? In the natural setting of the forest, BeWILDerwood offers just that.
In a world where technology has crept into every part of daily life—including perhaps a bit too intrusively into playtime for children—it’s refreshing to know there are places where children can play that revere the simplicity of nature, the value of imagination, and the pure magic and wonder of childhood. In England these play spaces—sometimes referred to as adventure parks or adventure forests—incorporate the natural surroundings of the forest so that children are playing in the woods…not merely in a playground. These are three adventure experiences where the purity of childhood is celebrated and reminiscent of our own childhoods…set in the forests and countryside of misty, magical England.