Joining bushcraft guide David Willis on a journey of discovery

PUBLISHED: 11:00 16 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:00 16 May 2017

David in his woodland camp

David in his woodland camp


Venetia Hawkes joins bushcraft guide David Willis on a magical journey of discovery in our local woodlands

“Fraxinus excelsior!” David Willis flourishes a stick in an impressive display of wand-craft. His Harry Potter-like incantation is the Latin name for the ash wand he’s waving. The Guardian recently selected David as one of the top woodland walk guides in the country. He runs bushcraft courses and free guided family walks in Bucks. The ‘spell’ is just one of the ways he bewitches groups of children, and adults, into learning some of the magic of trees.

David grins broadly as he stands up from his campfire, where a kettle over the flames is coming to the boil. “’If I was going to have a wand what would it be? That’s easy, oak,” he says, walking over to a nearby tree, lovingly patting the bark. “I love their strength. And the sense of history. Imagine the stories it could tell from the hundreds of years it’s been here.” It’s easy to see why oaks were called the King of Trees, sacred to Zeus, Jupiter and Thor, groves of them chosen by Druids as a place of worship.

David silhouettes an oak leaf against the sky: “It’s shaped a bit like a cloud. So you can remember the bark is knobbly like the leaf. Oak bark is full of cracks and fissures, mostly vertical, with a few horizontal ones breaking across to make the texture cracked like a dry river bed.” He has taught tree ID at night, with children joyfully discovering they can distinguish trees purely from feeling the bark.

To demonstrate, he crosses to a tree the other side of the glade, “On an ash the fissures in the bark are like waves running up and down the trunk”. He points out the ash’s distinctive black leaf buds as a further clue for nature detectives. Ash’s charms, according to British folklore, are to provide protection and healing. Placing the leaves under your pillow was said to inspire prophetic dreams.

Beech was also believed to have healing properties. Water collected in the hollows of its branches was supposed to help skin complaints. And stuffing a mattress with beech leaves was thought to speed recovery from illness. Crunching our way through last year’s fallen leaves, David stops to tap a finger-tip against the surprisingly sharp point of a copper-bronze beech leaf bud. “They’re like miniature spears,” he says. Those spears unfurl into the freshest green leaves in spring, eventually becoming the magical Chilterns sight of a golden autumn canopy. Carving your wish into a beech stick was meant to make it come true, and carrying a piece of beech in your pocket might bring luck and success.

If it’s protection from witches you want, red berried rowan with its creamy froth of early summer flowers and smooth silvery-grey bark belongs in your front garden. Its other common name is mountain ash, a clue that its pinnate leaves look a bit like ash; rowan’s distinguished by the edges... fierce teeth to keep witches away.

For protection at the back of the house turn to elder. The smell of its leaves repels flies, as well as witches, making sense of placing elder by kitchen back doors and hanging linen on its branches to dry, to protect food from being spoiled. Like white blossomed rowan and hawthorn, elder was associated with fairies and goddesses. Many an unwary folk tale traveller has encountered fairies under an elder branch, especially on Midsummer’s Eve. Traditionally you should always ask the spirit of an elder tree for permission before picking anything from it. As Harry Potter discovers, an elder wand is a powerful thing.

Washing your face in dew gathered from elder flowers was believed to enhance a woman’s youthful beauty. The bark is “knobbly like warts,” David cheerfully points out, “and rubbish for firewood, because it’s hollow.” The flowers though are a delicate springtime lace, heady scented umbels made up of fairy-sized florets. Good enough to eat. You can transform them into elderflower champagne or David’s speciality – deep fried in batter and dusted with sugar. “They capture the essence of spring, those flowers,” he says. Clusters of black autumn berries, hanging from purple stems, can be made into elderberry wine or syrup, packed full of vitamins, to magically ward off colds.

David halts at a hazel, pointing out its helpful habit of growing lots of vertical shoots: “Wonderful for crafts, fences and poles.” It’s easy to pick out hazel in early spring when tassels of yellow catkins jangle brightly in hedges. The tiny red flowers ripen into hazelnuts, reputed to bestow wisdom – if you can get to them before the super smart squirrels.

David leads the way to a silver birch, its pale trunk glowing in the shady woodland. He explains that the bark peeling off the trunk is full of oils, excellent for outdoor fire-lighting. Not advised for indoors, as the oils tend to get stuck to the chimney and set it alight. Birch, with its delicate heart shaped leaves, is a pioneering tree – one of the first to colonise new areas. This habit of renewal is reflected in folklore, with bundles of birch used to drive out the spirits of the old year. Babies’ cradles were once made of birch, symbolising new beginnings.

The evergreen yew has a more sinister reputation. Every part is poisonous, from its needle-like leaves to the toxic pips of its bright red fruits. “Don’t picnic underneath one!” David warns. And, of course, Harry Potter’s nemesis, Voldermort, has a wand made of yew.

Heading back to camp, David collects fallen logs for the fire. He halts at a rather runty looking tree, twisted and spindly and shows the tiny thorns prickling along the stem – a hawthorn. It’s also know as May, named after the month when its scented white flowers turn roadsides and field edges into cappuccino foam. You can scatter the petals on a salad: “They don’t taste of much, but they look pretty,” he says.

Then there’s blackthorn’s much larger and more brutal thorns. So big “they’re sometimes used as fishing hooks,” David remarks. On blackthorn, unlike hawthorn, the flowers appear before the leaves. The white blossoms on bare branches prompted the phrase ‘A Blackthorn Winter’ for the cold snap that can come in early April, the frost on the fields mirroring the blackthorn blossom on the hedges.

Blackthorn was associated with spells of protection. An escaping hero might throw a twig of over their shoulder for it to magically shoot up into an impenetrable thicket to delay pursuing enemies. Anyone who has picked sloes will attest to the deterrent those thorns can be. But they are worth braving for the winter warmth of home-made sloe gin.

After coffee made over the campfire, I leave David setting up for a wood carving course and carry away a lingering scent of wood-smoke, like a trace of enchantment. Whatever type of wand or woodland magic suits you, the trees are waiting to cast their spell, if you know how to look.


Go down to the woods

For bushcraft courses, including whittling and woodcraft, campfire bread baking and The Art of Fire, or to arrange private family or group sessions, visit or contact, 07956 650 404

David’s free guided family walks (booking required) are the first Sunday of the month. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Woodland Trust guide to finding local woods:

Latest from the Berkshire Life