When I was a child, the trees and grassy area behind our house was a wonder to me. Myself, my sister and our two friends next door called it ‘the big forest’ and it was like Narnia to us. A woodland world beyond a locked gate. In reality, the ‘big forest’ did have a suitably fairy tale past; it was the servant’s entrance to Thurso Castle, which is now a ruin. (Incidentally, there’s a small stone shed in my parent’s garden that we used as a playhouse, which was once an office for the castle. Also, the previous owners of the house kept goats in it. I’m not sure which of those two stories is cooler).
Despite the locked gate, we got in many times, and much of our childhood summers were spent in there. There were many escapades, often involving livestock, as the Big Forest was occasionally used to keep cows or sheep in. Sometimes Big Boys would turn up and attempt to build tree-houses which we would then claim squatters rights on, but mostly we had the whole place to ourselves and we made up countless games and adventures. We were barely a minute from our back garden but it felt like we were in another world.
It had been years – going on twenty years – since I had last been in the Big Forest, so on a sunny Sunday in April I roped Adam into taking a walk with me, under the guise of collecting sticks for our compost bin. I felt like we were Hansel and Gretel; me with my pack for collecting wood, and him arsing about with giant boughs that were clearly never going to fit in the compost bin, even if he could drag them back.
I wondered how it would be after all those years, now that I’m a grown adult and I know that fairy wonderlands don’t exist. But you know what? It was a magical as ever.
It was a beautiful, hazy day with bumble bees bouncing from dandelion to dandelion, and the rubbery sycamore leaves were just starting to poke through. The trees were full of songbirds but it we listened carefully we could hear the sea crashing against the shore, just beyond the the large wall along the left hand side. That same wall has a small watchtower which I was delighted to see we could still access.
Just before the tower, the trees thin out, and beyond it, someone had recently been cutting the grass. Leaving Adam to try and haul out a giant branch, I ventured up to the entrance to the castle gardens. Although the castle itself is ruined, the gardens are maintained as the current Viscountess lives in a house attached to it. The lawn mower was sitting in the garden so I didn’t venture any further although I managed to get a couple of sneaky photographs. It felt so illicit, and I felt so fearless; I swear in that moment I could have been ten again. I then turned and ran – actually ran, it was so exhilarating – back to where Adam was, and where I’d left the bag of branches. He barely noticed I’d gone, so I felt like I’d been on a mini-adventure of my own.
I intend to go back some time in the hope that there’s no lawn mowers about and I can get a proper look in the castle gardens. We rarely ventured up that far when we were children, for fear of being told off. I’d also love to go inside the castle but I suspect its well beyond that stage. The Big Forest was as much fun as it had ever been, and I was delighted that it still had that fairy tale feel. This afternoon was the best day I’d had in ages; we were barely in there half an hour but it felt like hours had gone by. Just like it felt in my childhood. This was a great reminder to me to slow down and enjoy life. There’s a lot to be said for rediscovering your youth sometimes.