Finding the forest

Children enjoy making a den in Epping Forest
Children enjoy making a den in Epping Forest

Helen Bigham reflects on how nature can play a part in Waltham Forest’s year as Borough of Culture

This year we celebrate Waltham Forest being the first London Borough of Culture. A definition of culture is: “The ‘way of life’ of groups of people, meaning the way they do things… the outlook, attitudes, values and customs shared.”

I like this description as it encompasses more than just ‘high culture’ such as the arts. Of course, we should be excited about the many artistic events on offer – my personal favourite being the E17 Art Trail. They all rightly hold a place in the Borough of Culture legacy.

However, I hope that experiences and new places local people are introduced to during the year will not be one-off. For me this also means recognising the importance of making full use of the woodlands in our borough.

One project encouraging people to enjoy the outdoors is the Suntrap Forest Centre’s work with secondary school students in Walthamstow, exploring their own imaginative response to Epping Forest. Through the ‘Great Place: Creative Connections’ scheme (funded by Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund) the team will be running fun practical activities to help young people discover and learn more about our diverse local heritage and natural environment.

The free outreach sessions will be full of inspiration, ideas and advice aimed at providing the perfect guide to develop a deeper understanding of their local area. Big Creative Education, a creative college in Walthamstow that specialises in the creative industries and provides creative focused apprenticeships and training, has taken up the offer for their ‘Wild about Art’ programme.

Speaking to a friend while showing them around Suntrap, they explained that although they work in the borough, it has never occurred to them to stay on the train and get off at Chingford to experience the forest. They described it as “eye opening” and wanted to encourage everyone to take advantage.

We talked about the Forestry Commission’s bid to tackle the lack of diversity in the worlds of both conservation and British nature writing; one strategy has been the appointment of writer-in-residence Zakiya Mckenzie. She’s committed to increase the involvement of black and minority ethnic communities in the environmental sector and has talked about her feelings as “the only black face in the forest”. This was something my friend also identified with and I hope that when our year as Borough of Culture ends, part of the legacy will be a change in this viewpoint.