On paper Estelle gives me Snow-White but keeping-it-real vibes. She sits under her tree canopy boiling a blackened kettle on a log fire: ‘I have a grab bag ready with me to make tea at any time.’

I sit across from her, hold my cup on my lap and look up. Oak, ash, beech, birch, elm and sycamore standards arch over. The forest floor is busy with greens, bluebells and pokey little hawthorns sticking up. The whole place is burgeoning. The spring beech leaves, recently unfurled, are unblemished and giving off a green that looks too perfect a green to be so.

Estelle brings me back. ‘Did you know, you can eat them as a salad?’

I pick one and have a nibble; it’s rockety and grapefruit like.

Great British Life: The beech canopy in the woods at Avening, Gloucestershire. Photo: Jools KellyThe beech canopy in the woods at Avening, Gloucestershire. Photo: Jools Kelly

‘We have stoats now, just under there!’ she gestures, beaming, towards a log pile behind her; a tiny flapping sign asks us not to disturb them. ‘And we have a rabbit warren over here and a squirrel dray up there. It’s like living next to KFC and Burger King for the stoats!’ And, in the same breath, ‘Look, a bullfinch!’

Last year Stel rescued a clutch of baby rabbits who had sportingly made their home under her charcoal kiln. ‘The soil under it is dry and, if you’re a rabbit, lovely to dig through, nest and pop out your babies.’ She screws up her face: ‘their little rabbit noses covered in dust going “pthst, pstht” coughing and wiping their faces with their paws. So Cute! I stuck ’em in a bucket and took them home to hand rear.

‘You know we have hares here, too?’ I cross my fingers, praying one will pay us a visit whilst we drink our tea. It didn’t. Probably because I was there. I imagine on their own Stel and this elusive hare would sit alongside one another, the hare grooming its ears.

And the rabbits? Half escaped and half didn’t survive.

Great British Life: Estelle St John Smith. Photo: Jools KellyEstelle St John Smith. Photo: Jools Kelly

Estelle is the custodian of the wood’s animals for now and speaks about them earnestly.

‘I am actually always super anxious at this time of the year. It’s the buzzards; they go quiet. They are incubating their chicks, I hope. But I always think; “shit, where’s the buzzards gone?”’

It matters to her.

But Snow White she isn’t. I can just hear her say, ‘Thank f*ck for that!’ Estelle has been a groom, a farrier, a veterinary nurse, herdswoman, dairy farmer and now a forester. She laughs, ‘My one admin job, I hated. And one day, I was looking out the window at a gorgeous sunny day thinking I want to be out there. So, I just got up and went to my boss and said, “I’m off.”’

And she was! It seems every change in work she has made she sees a postcard with a job ad on it and thinks, “yeah, I’ll have a go at that,” and people snap her up, just like the woods have. She is a pragmatist, but one who also allows herself space to wonder.

‘Come on, then, let’s go see,’ she whispers excitedly, bouncing up to show me around.

Great British Life: New life springs forth from the woodland floor. Photo: Jools KellyNew life springs forth from the woodland floor. Photo: Jools Kelly

A walk about

We walk into the woods with beech nuts popping under foot and spot a buck staring at us.

‘I was up here the other day with my mate (he’s a deer stalker) – he goes to me, “Why the f*ck do they always stop? ’Cause that’s when I bloody shoot them… so keep f*cking running!”’

The deer springs off as though he had heard her.

‘Yeah, so that was our little buck from last year… I think it’s the same one. He hasn’t introduced himself formally.’

I just love the gentle affection she has for them all. ‘I like to leave the woods to them at night.’

Estelle and her husband bought the place in 2017. It is on the site of an ancient woodland that had been clear-felled during the 1930s to provide timber for the war effort. They had wanted to use the woodland for wild camping, however they didn’t get planning. ‘We tried to find a field originally, but round here getting a field for sale is like finding rocking-horse shit. I didn’t know a bloody thing about trees when I bought it.’

They settle with using the woods under the 28-day rule where she or guests use it for things other than forestry, but only for 28 days in a year. ‘I’m glad about it now that we didn’t get planning. It’s less impactful for the woods having fewer people in it. But now and again is OK.’

I suddenly realise I am almost certainly crushing something precious under my feet. We both look down and say “deer poo” in happy unison. I was genuinely chuffed to see it, a big poo between our boots. Stel points; just in front of me a lily-like beech sapling with its first leaf atop, poking its optimistic head up above the leaf litter. We wish it luck and carry on.

‘Ohh, a chiff-chaff.’

Great British Life: Estelle is supported by the woods by the charcoal kiln and logs from coppicing. Photo: Jools KellyEstelle is supported by the woods by the charcoal kiln and logs from coppicing. Photo: Jools Kelly

How do the woods support her in return?

‘The charcoal kiln and logs from coppicing got us through COVID,’ she says. ‘Without it, we’d have had to sell the woods.’ They host a few weddings and wild glamping stays a year, but take care that their guests respect the woodland.

I got married in Estelle’s woods a few years back; we planted a little oak tree in a clearing for the ceremony. I reminded myself to keep an eye out for it whilst we were walking. ‘I do find bits and bobs when everything dies back in autumn. A wine glass here and bit of rubbish there… not too bad. Actually, it’s the buzzards that leave the most mess, apart from the poachers; they have heaps of skulls and bones on the ground under their nest!’

We wander to the kiln which was made by a local blacksmith. Sustainability is central to what Estelle does in her woods. This is extended to those who makes things for it and also who works here. Wispa, Estelle’s horse, will soon join the forest staff moving and clearing logs. ‘She needs to bloody well start doing some work!’

Stel talked about the magical moment when charcoal “happens” after meticulous loading and packing of the wood, sealing it with earth from the forest floor and lighting it. The kiln and its precious contents are cherished. ‘When we light the kiln, we have to stay here overnight.’ The burn is a delicate process, needing a parental eye to oversee it.


There, on a tree trunk, a mouse with a wood anemone in its dainty mouth is sitting as though she had paid it to be there. ‘That’s bloody made my day, that has.’ We whisper and giggle. Squeaking with excitement.

‘Oh, remember your lovely little wedding oak tree? Well, the tree we are sitting on came down in a storm and squashed it.’ We snigger, hoping it’s not a bad omen. But that’s the thing; the woods and all its life aren’t bothered by human sentiments. Life goes on. Apart from, perhaps for our little oak.

Estelle speaks of experiencing a calmness when crossing the threshold of her woods. It is as though we have no choice but to sling our stresses to the outside of the dead hedging.

‘It’s just gotta be good for your mental health, hasn’t it?’ The place begs you to notice it rather than yourself. Our conversation is rambling, but the woods themselves punctuate and steer our thoughts towards something outside of us. A third person along for a chat.

Stel points out some ash trees, rising, twiggy over the beech, their branches bare and diseased.

‘They’re next to come down and become charcoal.’

We look at another: a tree in pieces, scorched and blistered where a lightning bolt had struck it. The sap had been instantly boiled, splitting the tree violently in half. Some boughs were left dangling and some lifeless and lying on the litter. ‘I saw a thrush using that log the other day to smash a snail to bits!’

Great British Life: Jools KellyJools Kelly

And the future?

Estelle dreams of the place becoming an ever-richer habitat, ‘with a wider variety of trees in it and with a lot more life.

‘Did you see that tree creeper?’

I didn’t. She points towards something fidgeting in the leaves. ‘I do my family’s heads in, pointing stuff out that they have no chance of seeing.’

We head back to the fire and stick the kettle back on it.

‘Do you want to come help load the kiln next weekend?’

I almost bite her hand off. Of course, I will come! I don’t know if it’s Estelle’s laconic and comforting way, or whether it is the woods that is the draw. They are one in the same at times. I know for certain, though, that I must come back.

Jools Kelly is a blogger based in rural Gloucestershire: pleasetellmemore.co.uk

Instagram photos and videos: @pleasetellmemoreblog

Estelle: wildwoodlandcelebrations.co.uk