Maddy Irvine

Maddy Irvine for web

‘I had a wonderful childhood, born and brought up in Virginia Water in Surrey, which seemed at that time to be like a real village. My dad was a baker, and his shop, Wentworth Patisserie, was one in a parade of shops that also included a butcher, chemist, ironmonger and greengrocer. My young life revolved around my horse and my donkey, Pip and Misty, and that meant that I spent most of my time outdoors. Whatever the weather we’d ride our bikes to see to the horses, maybe go for a ride, or swim in the river, all brilliant fun. My sister is 6 years older than me, so when I inherited her horse I was aged 10, the horse was 15 hands, and unable to tighten the girth sufficiently I’d slowly topple sideways as the saddle slipped round. Determined and headstrong, it was one of the ways I learned how to sort things out for myself.

There were big transitions taking place at that time in the ’80’s, and a supermarket opened nearby which changed our parade of traditional shops into estate agents and nail bars, and as a family we became very disenchanted with the area. My Dad’s business finished, which had also employed my Mum, sister, brother-in-law, aunty, and cousin. As the smallest, it was my Saturday job to clean the inside of the oven. It was a very difficult time for them when they finally sold up and moved to Sidmouth in Devon, where there’d been many happy holidays, and I went to university in London having been advised to do “Media”, a newish subject then. I wasn’t the most committed student—but in the second year got a work placement in a film PR agency in Soho and found myself, aged 21, flying around international film festivals, in a hilarious, ridiculous, but completely bonkers world. After 3 years I loathed it. I made some lovely friends, but many of the people were to say the least unreal, and some decidedly warped. A few years on, one job led to another, and I found myself in the press department at MTV Networks, beginning to wonder what on earth I was doing with my life, writing endless press releases about Kylie’s bottom.

In a fit of generosity MTV gave me a sabbatical, and I went to the Amazon on a jaguar tracking project. There’s no other way to say it, but it was amazing, and transformative, and made me determined to do something with my life that I was proud of. I soon realised that there were many sides to the story of the threat to jaguar survival; it wasn’t just evil people killing them. The abject poverty brought about by deforestation and environmental destruction meant for some people they could earn more from a jaguar skin than in a whole year of farming.  I also met local people, poorer than we westerners can imagine, who were as excited as we were to find a paw print of this creature which has such spiritual significance for them. I knew then how lucky I was to have this experience, and when I got home I gave in my notice, got a job with an environmental charity called Earthwatch in Oxford as a communications officer, and started studying towards a Natural Sciences degree. I was married at the time, but sadly it only lasted a year—a lovely guy, just not the right guy—and then moved back to London to work at a youth charity and be nearer my pals. Vic and I got together a year or so later, having known each other since school, and always been in the same crowd. Our son Arch arrived very soon after that. Having a baby, as it does with everyone, completely changed my whole horizon. I still wanted to save the planet, wanted to wake everyone up to how wonderful nature is, but now I needed to make this little person’s life as amazing as possible too.

An ambition grew to buy a piece of woodland and bring people to it, to camp in beautiful surroundings and experience nature close up. Then my sister introduced me to John Blaney who was pioneering the concept of forest schools, inspired by what he’d seen in Denmark. He had observed their five to seven-year-olds, outside all day in woodland, exploring freely, which seemed to be such a breath of fresh air, so different to the UK where we wrap our children in cotton wool. I realized this was a model for what I’d always wanted to do, and so headed off to the Peak District, when I was five months pregnant with my daughter Amabelle, to do my forest school training.

At that time Vic and I were living in Sunningdale. For a long time I’d wanted to live in the West Country, and leave the Home Counties behind. On a return trip from a friend’s wedding in Dartmoor, we came through Cerne Abbas where Vic had spent time on holiday as a child. It was love at first sight. In 2008 we bought the Mill House at auction, a truly terrifying but ultimately fortunate process. Having landed here I thought I’d find a job in a local forest school. There didn’t seem to be any in Dorset, but joining my local Forest Education Network introduced me to an inspiring group of women including Helen Day, Deb Millar and Hannah Aitkin, who mentored me through the process of translating the training into becoming a practitioner.

At Forest School the children range from pre-school to teens, and now my partner Jill Hooper is working with adults with dementia, which is going fantastically well. The ethos is to get people holistically involved with nature by introducing a range of activities and challenges to find that individual spark of engagement—which can be beneficial for all people, not just children. In an environment which is risk aware, not risk averse, we set small achievable tasks with the same group, in the same bit of woodland, over a period of time. We set a safe foundation first, with boundary games, learning how to light fires and cook on them properly, and use tools safely; we model how to behave towards each other when playing outdoors, and how to care for the woods. Watching individuals’ confidence grow, interest deepen, and resilience build is pure joy. It’s like sowing seeds of interest and watching them blossom. Some of it is as basic as learning how to be comfortable outside; wearing appropriate clothing so that you’re warm and dry, feeling sufficiently fuelled with good food, and thirsts quenched, all contribute to feeling safe and enjoying the outdoors. Some parents have to learn those things too—wellies with thin socks in winter is torturous!  Once we’ve started a forest school programme, we observe improved attendance and attitude to learning, and as well as instilling an affinity with nature, children’s communication skills have been seen to develop due to the multi-sensory nature of a woodland.

Working with the education system has changed massively since we started because we now have to find our own funding. The South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership with the Dorset AONB has been instrumental in enabling us, by the end of 2018, to work with 35 schools in the area, and I’m very proud to be part of that.  I appreciate it’s hard for schools to find time to fit Forest School in their busy timetables—however, I have seen where there is a will, a way is found. My dream is to set up a full-time, free-access nature school which has a Forest School ethos, which has core curriculum subjects, but has dedicated time for experiential learning and developing manual skills like basic building, animal care, pottery and woodwork; literacy and numeracy can be easily woven subliminally into practical tasks. And it would allow time and space for children to be explorers and adventurers. We need to balance their screen-time with tree-climbs.’