Fri. Dec 3rd, 2021

How much wilderness can we handle? Not as much as we think? Many of us crave to leave the paved road and throw away our accessories. Then we find ourselves chaffing at the bugs and the weak cellphone signal and asking if there is anywhere near to watch the Arsenal game.

This tension weighed on me as I sat outside in Suffolk, a wood fire smoking on one side, a bright night sky above. Along with two dozen other journalists, I was on a trip to try a bonfire festival at the big name Wilderness Reserve.

Let’s be straight: the Wilderness Reserve is a wilderness like Frank Ocean is an ocean. Straightforward, this is not one. It is part of an 8,000-hectare estate that consists largely of saturated countryside. Built by John Hunt, founder of British real estate agents Foxtons, it excels in the tame aesthetic that many English people expect from their landscapes. Capability Brown designed it in the 18th century. Sheep and cows kept much of the soil up to a few inches of grass. Staff drive around in Morris Minors. Delusions of Downton Abbey flow from their exhaust pipes.

Wilderness – in the sense of space beyond human influence – is an impossibility in Britain, and perhaps every other country as well. It did not stop it from becoming a fashion brand. There’s the Bucolic Wilderness Festival at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire. There is a digital marketing agency called Wilderness, based in the well-known uncharted lands of Shoreditch. Restaurants manage to make almost any ingredient more enticing by placing the word “wild: in front of it. It taps our desire for the natural world without the inconvenience.

The Suffolk Wilderness Reserve, where the number of bird species identified has risen from 38 to 150 over the past 27 years

In Suffolk, the Wilderness Reserve has at least embraced nature restoration. It has planted more than 1m of trees in the last 27 years (after thinning out there are a few hundred thousand left). Identified bird species have risen from 38 to 150. This wildness hardly affects a visitor’s experience. The estate’s premier lodge is a luxury candy store. You can sweep the gates in a jeep, and spend your entire visit without getting your shoes dirty. “This is a Suffolk wilderness, not an African wilderness,” explained one of the architects. To the untrained eye, it is a super large garden.

Map of Suffolk, UK highlighting Wilderness Reserve

When Hunt acquired the land, he found more homes than he knew what to do with (Foxtons customers might want to grit their teeth). The houses have now been restored, and are available for rent. The most popular, Hex Cottage, is on the wild end of the spectrum, without electricity.

Others are luxurious, with built-in spas – designed not only to avoid the discomfort of cold water swimming, but also the ritual in a typical hotel when you enter the elevator in a bathrobe. I stayed in The Farmhouse, a pink cottage with six bedrooms and a neat wooden interior. The reserve offers a catering option. It’s been explained to me that it’s handy, “especially if you do not have a chef at home.” I nodded seriously.

Aldo Leopold, the great American naturalist, would probably despair over it all. Leopold, who died in 1948, saw wilderness disappear, but hoped that certain related values ​​could be preserved, represented by “the primitive art of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing”. For him, these activities were the basis for a sustainable relationship with the land.

Many of the lodges on the reserve are luxurious, but Hex Cottage has no electricity

In contrast, Leopold lamented that “Europeans do not camp, cook or do their own work in the forest if they can avoid it.” This is not entirely fair – the pandemic helped a camping revival – but we do have what naturalist Benedict Macdonald called “ecological cleanliness disorder”. “What people have forgotten is that there are meant to be a thousand pairs of swallows in a town, not one,” Macdonald says.

He is head of nature restoration at the newly formed Real Wild Estates Company, which aims to restore 100,000 hectares of Britain within 15 years, an area twice the size of Balmoral. It plans to recover its investments through ecotourism as well as the sale of companies’ carbon offsets. The target market extends to those who are happy to embrace camp, and those who want something less effort. The vision for the country includes more large wildlife, including ospreys and golden eagles. (For Leopold, wilderness was synonymous with predators such as wolves. Macdonald makes it clear that no wolves are planned; British landowners do indeed tolerate rare beavers).

Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge cooks on a bonfire

The bonfire festival menu included fish. . .

. . . and meat

At Hunt’s Wilderness Reserve, the main animal attractions are still edible. We were guinea pigs at a Bonfire Fire Feast – a sumptuous quarterly event in the woods, hosted by a chef whose restaurant has a Michelin star. Before the festival, we learned to throw axes at a wooden target. It vaguely made me feel Viking. The meal itself, which was cooked by Tom Kerridge, involved large plates of pork belly, chicken, beef, lobsters and something called “wilderness lamb”.

After the festival, I waited to get home. But the guides disappeared into the night, along with many guests. Only a few laggards were left. The Swedish candles – burning logs that lit our way – have now been extinguished. The absence of light pollution no longer seemed to be an advantage.

Throwing is one of the activities at Wilderness Reserve

We depart in the vague direction of The Farmhouse. It was November. We got lost and got cold. We did not feel the risk of death or relaxation. We avoided a ha-ha, opened an electric gate and stumbled home.

I was torn. Being left in the woods seemed like poor service. But it was the closest to wilderness that the experience came. I decided I could handle it for sure but about.

The next morning, our hosts offered all visitors a swim in a lake, the temperature of the water in single digits. Two dozen of us slipped in. Maybe we’re ready for nature – as long as a jeep waits to take us back to the comfort of home.


Henry Mance was a guest of Wilderness Reserve ( where one bedroom rental homes cost from £ 387 per night, six bedroom homes from £ 921 per night. Dates and prices for the quarterly fire festivals with star chefs have yet to be confirmed; private bonfires can be arranged for Wilderness Reserve guests for £ 100 per person

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