Nigel Lowthrop had never stayed in one location for more than five years — until he arrived at Hill Holt Wood, two decades ago.
The task facing Nigel, now 64, and his wife, Karen, was not insignificant. Large swathes of the ground were covered in rhododendron which, if left unchecked, would have spread across the entire site.
Originally part of the Norton Disney estate, the area was previously owned by a timber firm, which meant part of the couple’s initial task was to lift piles of wood off the floor.
Working weeks of 100 hours were not uncommon. Nigel and Karen were also living in a caravan, which would be their home for the next decade.
Over time it became a successful social project, and the wood is home to several protected species, including barbastelle and leisler’s bats.
“I felt we as a country weren’t doing a very good job of managing the countryside,” said Nigel, a biologist who has worked in land management since 1970.
“I believed you could manage it both sustainably and economically.
“The basis of Hill Holt Wood came after the Rio conference of 1992, which involved a social, environmental and economic legacy.
“The whole basis (for us) was to apply all three, to mutually benefit each other.”
The couple eventually moved out of the caravan, built a beautiful lakeside home which — apart from a telephone line — is completely off-grid (self-sustaining in terms of energy production) and developed their 12-acre portion of the site.
The remaining 22 acres of the wood, and the organisation itself, are now owned by the Hill Holt Wood charity.
Employing 40 staff, it offers educational, social and health programmes, and The Woodland Trust uses it for management training and conferences. Hill Holt Wood even has its own sawmill.
Although severing a link to an organisation that the couple founded was not easy, there were significant reasons why this was the right time to leave.
“Moving away means there won’t be a negative situation with us and the charity — we don’t want to be the grumpy neighbours,” said Nigel.
“Hill Holt Wood may grow in different ways, so the best thing is to start afresh.
“It’s better for us to move before we needed to move. Both of us have been pretty ill in the last few years so I couldn’t have coped with this place deteriorating around me.
“Management of the place requires a lot of effort, as I spend two to three long days a week keeping paths open and clearing bramble.”
While he is preparing to leave behind his home of 20 years, Nigel remains passionate about the founding principles of the project.
“I don’t think most planners understand sustainable,” he said.
“One of the things that would take years to overcome after we first moved here was the planning. They seemed to be against things that were outside towns and villages.
“The Government has changed the planning rules so that there should be a presumption of positive response to sustainable development — but there is no definition of sustainable.
“I don’t think planners understand sustainable (and) we need more houses to be built to exacting standards that are sustainable.
“Now, we are thinking about talking to a university about a project where we take on a wood and build a house using materials from that wood.”
The couple’s property and grounds, currently on the market for £650,000, are the model of self-reliance. They are also proud of their achievements since setting up Hill Holt Wood.
“We have had solar panels for 20 years and all of our water is purified rainwater,” Nigel said.
“Our house is heated by a stove and a woodburner.
“When our son went to university he immediately noticed a difference when he tasted water from the tap — and he didn’t like it.
“During our time here we have worked with unemployed people as part of Labour’s New Deal, we have run a lot of projects in schools and we have run projects for the elderly and isolated, and we have had only one year where we didn’t make a profit.
“Over time we have had opposition from local councils, foresters and conservationists — but slowly I think we have won them round.”