Hazel Hill is a magical 70-acre wood near Salisbury, which I have owned since 1987. It has been an amazing catalyst for vision, healing and lots more, for me and many other men over the years, so I’d like to share the story with you. This will build on the previous section, and show you in more depth how Nature can help you on your journey. To get these benefits, you don’t need to own a wood: come and enjoy mine!
In 1987, aged 39, I was still in the thick of my workaholic business career, but knew that I needed to move on, re-invent myself and expand. I had just received a chunk of capital from share options in the business I was running, and wondered what I could do with this money that I’d really enjoy. Out of nowhere came the idea, you could buy a wood. I was inspired by the idea, and after a few months of research, bought Hazel Hill.
Since the mid 1990s, Hazel Hill has been a conservation woodland and retreat centre, with lovely wooden eco-buildings, diverse wildlife habitats, and a fascinating range of groups using them. However, I didn’t start with a vision or a business plan for any of this. I followed a strong inspiration to buy the wood, and everything else has unfolded, slowly and organically, through listening to the wisdom of the wood. The catalyst for all this was vision questing: in 1992, when my kids were entering their teenage years, I wanted to do something to help adolescents approaching adult life. Vision quests are a rite of passage also relevant for maturing men: you can read more about them in the section below.
I started co-leading vision quests for teenagers at Hazel Hill in 1992 These awoke me to the dialogue which I and others could have with the wood, with individual trees, with nature and the spiritual world, so that Hazel Hill is a kind of gateway to these deeper connections. Stewarding this wood has been a profound education in sustainability. For a start, you have to think long-term: in Wiltshire, pine trees take 60 years to mature, and prime hardwoods like oak or beech take well over a hundred. Changes happen slowly, and you have to think about posterity: many of the benefits of our current forestry and conservation work will be felt far beyond my lifetime. Secondly, the wooden buildings used by groups are low-impact and mostly off-grid: we have PV electric systems, composting toilets, reed beds for grey water, and visitors have to sort, take away and recycle all their rubbish. When you’re at the wood, your impacts on the environment are visible, so it’s a great place for learning about sustainable living
The more time you spend in a special landscape, and the deeper your relationship, the more it can support you when you need it. When my wife finally called an end to our marriage struggles, I was shattered. It was the wood which gave me the most comforting and parenting through this shipwreck: I recall spending three days there in shock and grief, partly alone, partly with a couple of close friends from my men’s group.
If you go into a church or mosque, you feel a special atmosphere: this is a place set apart from everyday life, where generations of people have come to make a spiritual connection. The same is true for landscapes, but in a different way: here, you’re open to the sky, the stars, the sun, and direct contact with all the beauty and wisdom of nature. I’d say that Hazel Hill has become a sacred landscape, through twenty years of people being here with this intent. It’s worth finding a landscape which feels sacred for you, or creating one.
Here are the main roles which Hazel Hill has played in my journey through the maturing years. I hope you can find places that do the same for you.
One-off men’s weekends: I have co-led many weekend workshops and retreats for men at Hazel Hill, and they have been some of the deepest I’ve experienced. Being out together on the land gives men a unique sense of fellowship, perhaps recalling our primitive times as hunting bands. There’s also a quality of safety, being able to open up and share deeply, which comes from being in a men-only group, out in a sacred landscape. I’ve seen many men voice painful feelings which they had carried alone for years, finding healing from being witnessed and accepted, not judged, by a company of men. Growing from this comes a stronger, happier sense of self, realising that who you really are is ok.
Solo quests: Hazel Hill has been used by myself and numerous other maturing men, and I highly recommend the wisdom quest for all men beyond 50. See more in the Section below.
Conservation work: Michael Meade, one of the pioneers of men’s development in the US, says that men of all ages connect best shoulder-to-shoulder, not face-to-face: meaning that when men work together on a physical task, this creates a setting where it’s easier for them to open up. The men’s groups at the wood usually include conservation projects, and they’re a great catalyst.
Seasonal celebrations: The Celtic and many other native traditions, celebrate each turn in the year’s cycle out on the land. Having organised seasonal celebrations at Hazel Hill for many years, we now have a rolling community of people who come together for a weekend at the eight main festivals: this means the Solstice and Equinox points, and the cross-quarter festivals between them. The wood provides a superb mirror and guide for people, helping them to move through the seasons of their year and their life.
Men and women: Hazel Hill is an important place not only for men, but also for women, and for their relationships. The wood enables sharing wisdom between men and women, and exploring sacred relationship. My wife Linda and I initiated our relationship here, and got engaged with a handfasting ritual at Hazel Hill.
Ongoing conversation: As well as being at Hazel Hill for many of the groups, I spend a night and day there alone every couple of weeks. This gives me relaxation, renewal, healing, and whatever insights I need. As everyday life gets more speedy, complex and technical for most of us, getting back to Nature like this becomes more and more crucial.