'The prevailing mood was that people got in the way of forestry. I wanted to change that.'
For centuries closed to the public and then plundered by a timber company, Hill Holt Wood in northern Lincolnshire has, in barely a decade, been turned into a cherished and much visited civic amenity that has bonded the local community, provided work and training for excluded youngsters and is a shining example of living with nature.
Not only that but it is also a thriving business. And it is all thanks to the vision and tireless efforts of Yorkshireman Nigel Lowthrop and his Irish wife Karen.
In the process they have also achieved their dream of living exemplary green lives by being completely off-grid for power, water and drainage in an age when cutting carbon footprints is the main battle cry of governments.
The holistic Social Enterprise model they have developed could be, according to Lincoln Business School head Ted Fuller, a blueprint for the new economic model that needs to be built out of the ashes of the current one.
'The main theme of what I did between 1970 and 1991 was environmental. It was that experience that showed me we were destroying our natural environment. Eventually I got so frustrated that I had to do something. Out of that was born Hill Holt Wood,' said Nigel one cold winter's day earlier this year in the timber house he built in the wood near Newark.
Leaving Nottingham University in 1974 aged 22 with a degree in Zoology, Nigel did various part-time jobs before going to South Georgia with the British Antarctic Survey where he stayed until 1978. Returning to England he got a job as a ranger on the Three Sisters park in Wigan before setting up his own fencing business which he ran until he sold it in 1993.
Into the woods
With a knowledge and deep love of nature and with a job that took him outdoors into the wilds virtually every day of the year, Nigel was made aware on a daily basis of the environmental destruction being wrought all around. 'I wanted to manage the countryside in a different way, and I realised that to do that you had to get the local communities involved,' he said. 'We looked around for a couple of years and then hit on Hill Holt Wood.'
The wood at that stage was owned by a logging company that had taken pretty much all the trees from it that it was allowed to by law and which therefore was happy to sell up and move on. Initially Nigel and Karen tried to make their wood run as a business remotely from their Derbyshire home, with him hacking out the footpaths and generating a small income from selling the resulting firewood. But after a year they realised it didn't work so they moved into the wood with their year-old son Harry.
With no amenities on site it was a caravan or nothing. Nigel promised Karen it would be for a year at most. 'We ended up living in that caravan for 10 years,' he said with a sheepish glance across at Karen.
'The idea was to get local people involved and to open the wood to them for the first time. In the almanacs of Norton Disney, the local parish, it is known as the wooded parish. But local people had never had access,' he said, explaining that the wood had always been private property and therefore out of bounds to members of the public.
'My aim was social forestry. The prevailing mood was that people got in the way of forestry. I wanted to change that - to prove that it was wrong,' he added.
Partly to help sell the firewood and partly to start getting the local communities involved, Nigel began writing in the local parish magazines about what he was trying to do.
By 1997 there was enough local community interest that a meeting was called to try to thrash out a more formal arrangement to replace the rather ad hoc cooperation that had by then grown up between Nigel and Karen and representatives of the local parishes. At that meeting in the home of local organic farming activist Isabel Wright the seeds were sown that resulted in the creation of Hill Holt Wood Management Committee.
During the next five years and as more of the local community began to get involved they also started to generate the first serious income from the wood through the government's New Deal environment task force for 18-25 year old young offenders, teaching them forestry skills and trying to give them a new sense of self-worth.
At the same time, at first out of curiosity and then for pleasure, people began to visit the wood which by then had nature trails and picnic areas. There is now even an outdoor classroom, an organic garden, a resident sow, a giant tepee and wood statues.
In 2002 Hill Holt Wood Limited was created out of the management committee and that took over running the wood from Nigel and Karen.
By then they had dropped the New Deal scheme and instead adopted two other government youth schemes - Solution 4 for 14-16 year olds whose behaviour had resulted in them being excluded from school, and E2E Entry to Employment for 16-18 year olds on the cusp of entering the labour market but with police records and few reading or writing skills.
The wood's income at this stage was about £150,000 a year. It is now around £600,000 thanks to a combination of money from government schemes, selling timber and hand carved wood products from egg cups to memorial benches, hosting eco-conferences and community clean-up contracts.
Most of the wood and metal working is done by the learners, taught their new skills by the wood's group of rangers-cum-mentors.
'Most of the kids we get are at the bottom of the pile. They are not going on to higher education. So you look at what their future employers are likely to want - turn up on time, dress appropriately and be polite with the public,' explained Karen. 'Many of the kids who come to us are social outcasts. When they leave here they are motivated and self-confident.'
The house that Nigel built
The sustainability theme is epitomised by the house that Nigel built after a battle to get planning permission and with Karen finally running out of patience after a decade in their somewhat cramped caravan quarters.
The two-storey house is built of Arctic pine with insulated cavity walls and heavily-insulated floor and roof. All the windows are triple-glazed as is the norm in Scandinavia from where the windows come. Heat is from a wood-burning stove set into a pillar of concrete to provide thermal mass for radiated heat at one end of the property with an air duct that circulates the warm air around the house.
A boiler run on bottled gas helps solar panels provide hot water and run a radiator in the shower room. It also powers the cooker. All light bulbs are ultra low energy three watt units producing the equivalent light to that from a 25 watt incandescent bulb. Electrical appliances like fridge and freezer are likewise ultra low energy.
All power to the house comes from the 'energy hub' across the lake which is roofed in solar photovoltaic panels which charge an array of batteries providing constant power to the house. At night or when the sun fails to come up with all the necessary goods, a diesel-powered generator kicks in to help out.
The water supply is rain harvested from the roof and stored in a 6,000 litre tank buried under the house. This passes through two charcoal filters and an ultraviolet light before being used for drinking, cooking or washing. Waste water from the shower and sinks is piped to reed beds around the house where nature does all the cleaning before the water passes out into the lake again.
Human waste is taken care of in a waterless urinal and earth composting toilets where sawdust from the wood's saw mill scattered over solid waste takes care of the odour and enhances the composting process. After a suitable passage of time the solid waste compost is ready to play its part in soil improvement. Vegetable food waste is put in the wormery, fish or meat left-overs go to the cats and dog and everything else is recycled.
The Hill Holt Wood offices are as sustainable as the house and the business. They are built of straw bales clad in plaster and heated by wood-burning stoves that blaze away like little blast furnaces. The fuel, of course, comes from the surrounding trees. Hill Holt Wood is also a multiple award winning operation, with awards for environment, business and enterprise dotted around the straw bale building offices.
By 2004 Nigel decided that the only way for the business to operate as the fully-fledged environmentally-centred social enterprise he had originally planned was to sell 21 acres of the wood to Hill Holt Wood Ltd while keeping the remaining 11 acres for the family home.
They eventually settled on £150,000 - double the amount Nigel had initially proposed - and a figure that meant that not only had Nigel and Karen recouped the cost of the whole wood but they also had a large chunk left for themselves and more than enough money to build their eco-home.
From nature to nurture
'Ours is a new business model. It is sustainable not exploitative. There is a holistic business plan with perpetual development managing resources for the future - and that applies equally to human development. The trick is not trying to do more but to do it better,' Nigel said.
It is a sentiment that Lincoln Business School head Ted Fuller endorses.
'The aim of Hill Holt Wood is not to maximise anything but to optimise everything. It is a holistic approach that other businesses could do well to learn from as a model for a possible new economic future,' he said.
'Put simply, Hill Holt Wood explicitly designs and operates practices that create social, economic and ecological value simultaneously, and rejects practices that do not do so.'
Hill Holt Wood now employs a full-time staff of 20. Pay scales are on the so-called 'Ben and Jerry' model with the top earners getting no more than three times the pay of the lowest paid.
'This is about activating people. The younger graduates tend to move into the senior ranger positions with the older downsizers under them. But they don't mind. At one point we offered the staff a choice of cash bonuses or time off. Almost all went for the time off. This is about quality of life. It is an idea that broader business should look at,' said Nigel.
Apart from learning forest management skills and how to put up buildings and learning social skills for - in some cases - the first time, the learners are also given classroom reading, writing and IT lessons.
'When I first started here I was just doing the forestry side which was what I knew. Then I moved over to run the off-site contract services where I then had much more responsibility for and contact with the learners,' said head ranger Steve Donagain. Hill Holt Wood offers a range of community services off site including litter collection and gardening.
'My job is as much a forester and manager as mentor and social worker. I certainly didn't set out to do this. I just grew into it. It is very rewarding. Everybody wants to be in the off-site group. It is more challenging, gives more responsibility and more satisfaction. They get a lot out of it and there is a lot of competition to get onto the team,' he said with a grin.
For Karen it is a question of creating worth in the individuals that come to and pass through the Hill Holt hands.
'We want young people - many of whom have been rejected by society - here to learn to live in a community and even to like themselves again. We are an outcome led organisation not an output led one like most schools are,' she said.
'We had a visit from an OFSTED inspector a while back and I overhead him asking one of the learners 'How has Hill Holt Wood changed your life?' My heart sank when he replied "It hasn't". But then it lifted again when he added "It has given me a life."'
Jeremy Lovell is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental and climate change issues