Posts Tagged ‘Hazel Hill’

The Wisdom Quest: A Rite of Passage into Elderhood

Jun 07 2013

Rites of passage are activities and rituals to recognise, enable and celebrate the move from one life stage to another.  We can see a faint vestige of this currently for teenagers finishing secondary school.  Traditional tribal cultures placed great importance on rites of passage, and I believe modern society would benefit too: including the start of elderhood.

The Vision Quest is a traditional rite of passage for adolescents moving towards adulthood, and I have helped lead several of these at Hazel Hill.  Central to these is spending 24 hours or more alone in a natural setting, with the support of older guides to prepare for and come out of this time.

hazel hill wood quest image

Hazel Hill Wood


Since 2011, I have led several groups for older men and women, and have been working on my book, Out of the Woods: A Guide to Life for Men Beyond 50.  This has led me into a lot of pondering about rites of passage for the move into elderhood.  I’ve concluded that this is a very different process than approaching adulthood.

The initiation of teenagers into adulthood is typically led by older men or women, and includes instructing them in the norms, values and codes of adult society.  Whereas my sense of initiation into elderhood is that it should be more a self-guided, gradual process, which a mentor can support rather than direct.  There are many other differences: for example, a teenager may seek a vision around personal fulfilment, whereas new elders are often moving towards being, presence and enabling.  And in a Wisdom Quest, the level of physical challenge/comfort can be tailored to each person.

My main ally in exploring this is Jeremy Thres, who is the best guide I know for Vision Quests, and similar processes.  We have coined the term Wisdom Quest to describe a rite of passage for elderhood, and we are offering the first of these at Hazel Hill Wood on July 3 – 8. 

The maximum group size will be 8, so that we can tailor the event closely to the needs and life situation of the participants.  We are intending to have a solo time of up to 48 hours as the heart of the event, and the wisdom and healing of Hazel Hill Wood will undoubtedly play a big part.  Our intent is to create a process suitable for men and women approaching elderhood, entering it, or already well into it.  Facing our dying to enrich our living is also likely to be an important part of the event, and is a major theme which Jeremy and I have already worked on.

WisdomQuest pic

For more information and bookings:

contact Alan on 07976 602787 or,

or Jeremy on  07717 853967 or  You can see more details about the event here.


Hazel Hill Wood: A very special place for men

Mar 13 2013

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.

How to enjoy a wet May

May 11 2012

Finding your inner fire when the sun won’t shine

I am writing this at Hazel Hill Wood, sitting at the foot of my favourite beech tree, with a struggling campfire.  It has been raining heavily for days, now it’s merely a light drizzle pushed along by a strong South-Westerly wind.  This seems to be the shape of May 2012.

Early May is my favourite time of the year, especially at Hazel Hill: the bluebells are usually abundant, the birdsong is intense, and there is new growth everywhere.  As you may guess, this year it’s all pretty subdued.  Many bluebells haven’t even flowered.  The wood is damp and chilly like early March, and yet the Spring growth is here.  The green of young beech leaves is brilliant, almost electric, even in this weather.  But the lack of sun has shown me how much I, and probably most people, depend on Spring sunshine for our own sense of growth and renewal.

I know many organic farmers and gardeners who say that it’s best not to water and fertilise your plants too much.  Their approach forces the plants to root deeper in order to find water and nutrients.  There’s a useful parallel here for humans in a wet Spring.

The silver lining in these clouds is the chance to strengthen your will and intent, and dig deeper in yourself, in order to find the inner fire to fuel your Spring growth.  It’s like cycling instead of driving a car: not so easy and convenient, but it makes you fitter, stronger, less dependent on outside support.

How to do this?  Robert Osborn, who co-leads some Men Beyond 50 groups, offers this method: Find a quiet place outdoors, and sit comfortably on the earth.  Now imagine you are like a tree, and that your spine extends into roots below the ground, and branches with leaves above your head.  Visualise drawing deep red fire, the physical vitality of the earth, up through your roots.  Then combine this with drawing white fire down through your leaves from the sky, the inspiration of spirit in whatever form you conceive it.

Nature remains one of our greatest teachers.  Even in a dismally damp May, the trees’ roots are reaching into the warmer earth below ground, their leaves are finding whatever light there is, and they are growing with the season.  To quote from a song by James Burgess:

 By the fire that is under the earth,
 By the fire that is over the earth,
 By the fire in the heart of heroes… 

Hazel Hill: Autumn Equinox

Sep 30 2011

The Autumn Equinox was September 21. This year, I’ve had time to go deeper into the meaning of this time by exploring it at Hazel Hill Wood, the magical 70-acre woodland retreat centre which I run near Salisbury.

An Equinox is a balance point in the year, and it can help us find balance in ourselves: between light and dark, active and receptive, masculine and feminine…However, the Autumn Equinox has a very different flavour from the Spring: it’s the threshold of the darker months, the slope down to Midwinter, the time of decay and dying back.

Nature can be a great teacher, and in very specific ways. As I walk slowly around the wood, in a mood of observing and meditation, I can still feel the full flush of summer, the abundant greenery: but mixed in with it are big patches of autumn gold, and the patter of leaves falling. It’s like a beautiful woman who is a bit past her best: you have to work to see beauty in the first wrinkles. And all this is reflecting on me, bringing out my own feeling of being past my peak, on the downslope towards winter.

We have weekend workshops at Hazel Hill celebrating the eight Celtic seasonal festivals, including the Autumn Equinox. I’m here with people I know, and two of my favourite teachers, Robert and Marta. They invite us to embrace the increasing darkness, and on the Friday evening they snuff out all the candles in the group room to help us to face this. I realise I am fearful of the dark, clinging to the light. Later that evening I go out alone into the wood, to meet the dark and face my fears.

Many men find it hard to face the dark, in themselves and around them. It links to a need for control, a fear of letting go, of meeting the unknown and unconscious. You can see a lot of men burying themselves in depression, addictions, or manic activity to avoid facing this. If you’re in this position, seek out Nature as your teacher, especially a benign wood like Hazel Hill.

On the Saturday, we are asked to go out alone into the wood on an Omen Walk. This means walking or sitting where you feel drawn to, and observing what you see, what comes up for you. In my case, I am walking with the request for help with my fear of the dark.

At the end of the a long path, I see another man from the group, let’s call him Tony. He’s in his late fifties, and he’s deeply lost: that’s not just my projection, it’s his own take too. He sold his house, tried to start a community, which didn’t work, and last year’s promising relationship has petered out. As I look at him this morning, I feel a deep pain of lostness: but is it his or mine? As I walk on, I get what I’d call an insight from the wood: being lost is a great state to be in, a place of possibilities. It may be scary, but it’s positive too. I’m great at conjuring up bright visions, shiny clarity: being lost more often would be good for me…

My connection with Nature through Hazel Hill has been deepening for over twenty years, and trees play a big role in this. My experience is that you can have a dialogue with individual trees: it’s a slow, non-verbal conversation, but it’s a real two-way contact for me. So on this Omen Walk, I sit with a beech tree where I’ve spent many hours on vision quests. It’s a few years since I visited this tree: it has spread some low branches, which are shading out small hollies and hazels trying to grow beneath it. I realise that when this beech tree decays and opens up space, the seedlings will benefit.

By the end of the morning, I have slowed right down, dropped layers of stress, and feel positive about going into the dark nights, in myself and in the season ahead.