The stillness and silence actually began on the bus. Winding our way out of the suburbs only mildly disturbed by the 80s pop tunes favoured by our driver, we shuffled off the M11 onto narrow country roads and broadening views of wheat and barley (well, that’s what I told Dave it was), and after a couple of false dawns (“is this it?”) parked up at the end of a lane leading off into nowhere – just where we were meant to be, according to our trip leader, Lucy Wood.
The whole point of Wilderness Day, of course, was to get away from “devices” (connotations of medieval torture), and the mad world of groups of people in close physical proximity cut off from one another by their aptly named screens: for a few hours pinging alerts, selfies, ten-second vids of performing pets, influencers, and right-wing ranters were quietly put aside and the students were invited to open their senses to their surroundings.
I think everyone was gently taken aback by the beauty of the wood – a mixture of younger and older tall trees, spaced a few feet apart so the eye was led off into the distance; fallen twigs, leaves and soft earth beneath our trainers, bird calls, and a sense of water nearby. With a winning sincerity and sense of purpose, the Wilderness Foundation staff coaxed our urban teenagers into casting off their protective layers of cool and playing together like children –making bivouacks, exploring the woods in games of hide and seek, and consecrating mandalas made from sticks, stones and flowers in gratitude for their luck in being alive. It was great for us teachers to see some individuals take the lead in a way they might not in the classroom, to co-operate with evident pleasure in something new and to enjoy themselves in quite innocent fun between their end of year exams and thinking about university. Yes, there was the odd moment of cynicism or impatience (they wouldn’t be teachers – sorry – students, otherwise), but on Wilderness Day, by some distance, a more natural connection was the winner.