Want a break from the rat race? Then how about becoming a landowner. By Fiona Brandhorst
Frequent trips down the A21 from London to Kent led the O'Brien family to make an unusual addition to their property portfolio just over a year ago. Intrigued by boards advertising woodlands for sale, Carol and Nigel called up the number on their mobile, expecting to find the cost way beyond their reach.

But, after visiting on an open day, they were hooked. "It was a case of want, want, want," remembers Carol, who was pleased to find that the other owners they met were not "snotty aristocrats".

The O'Briens' land comprises 11 acres of broadleaved woodland surrounding one acre of south-facing grassland with an open view, and it cost just over pounds 14,000. Were they nervous about their investment? "I've always had a bee in my bonnet about our daughter, Eve, growing up in a central London maisonette without a garden," says Carol.

"To upgrade to an address near us with a garden would cost a lot more. If we can't have a garden, why not a wood where we can learn about nature together? It sounds like a cliche, but it's our wonderful little haven of tranquillity."

The O'Briens took out a personal loan to buy their wood. "It was the first time the bank had lent on woodland, and they were very interested in the idea; even my solicitor had never come across it, but it was a fairly routine process."

They try to visit every weekend; but can you maintain woodland on a part- time basis? English Nature and the Forestry Commission have been helpful, and the O'Briens made contact with locals and other woodland owners who help with jobs such as coppicing (in return for the timber) or making paths.

"There's a great support system, we've learnt so much already," says Carol, who keeps a diary of the seasonal changes in the wood so as not to miss out on anything from year to year. "The bluebells should be out in a few weeks, and they really are breathtaking."

Split ownership of land has meant that hunts have to gain permission from more people to cross their land. It is also a chance for anti-hunting supporters to really have some say. Carol had a phone call from the leader of a hunt wanting to cross her wood. "He was very courteous," she says, "but I had no hesitation in refusing him permission."

Over the past 50 years, half of Britain's broadleaved woodlands have disappeared and been replaced by conifer plantations, agriculture and other developments. The spread of Dutch elm disease has also contributed to the decline.

The O'Briens bought their wood from Woodlands For Sale, started by Angus Hanton in 1988 when the "great storm" was still fresh in people's minds. He was looking for a small wood to buy for his family's enjoyment but ended up buying 100 acres of woodland in Kent with a view to selling lots on to others.

"Having found it difficult to find a wood ourselves, we wanted to try to make it easier for other family buyers," says Mr Hanton, whose company now has about 1,000 acres of woodland for sale in Sussex, Kent, Surrey, Cornwall, Devon and west Wales. "It's not a cash-generating business," he adds. "It's our policy to give people more choice. Any profits are reinvested."

In this way Mr Hanton and his co-manager Richard Scholfield are able to justify carrying out some work on the woods before selling them on. "We cut paths and clear fallen trees to give people a better idea." He stresses that you don't need any specialist knowledge. Being "enthusiastic, open-minded and taking the many sources of free advice" is a good start.

Buying woodland is, however, not a money-spinning investment. Planning laws restrict the use of woodlands. Camping is allowed but limited to 28 days a year, as is clay pigeon shooting. The only buildings permitted - for storing tools and timber - are size-restricted.

Typical woodland owners are a couple with young children buying to have some fun on their own piece of land where the children can really be at home and where they can do their bit for conservation. "It's an alternative to an extension on their house or a new car," says Mr Hanton, whose own parents bought their first woodland more than 40 years ago. "It's not just a feeling of ownership, it's the flexibility - planting trees, creating paths and gathering around the camp fire."

Most of Woodlands For Sale's lots are from six to 15 acres and cost from pounds 15,000, the most popular being within a two-hour drive of London.

Stags, the West Country-based estate agent, also has a number of woods for sale, including Woodcroft Copse, a small woodland in an area of outstanding natural beauty near Honiton, in east Devon. It covers less than an acre alongside a quiet lane and including frontage to the river Wolf. Shooting and hunting rights are included in the guide price of pounds 5,000. David Fursdon, of Stags, believes owning woods is a "romantic thing".

"People want woods for different reasons: walking, painting, birdwatching, camping, making charcoal. Small woods up to 20 acres should hold their value."

For a more community-based idea, The Woodland Trust's campaign Woods on Your Doorstep has created 120 areas of woodland since its launch last year.

There is still time for members of the public to suggest sites from one to 20 acres within walking distance of where people live. If suitable, they will be purchased by the trust with the help of a pounds 6.5m grant from the Millennium Commission, although local fundraising is expected to meet half the cost of the wood.

The O'Briens have renamed their wood Eve Wood, to the delight of their four-year-old daughter who leaves buns and sweets for the woodland fairies. Carol is constantly making new discoveries. "Our wood is big enough to be interesting but not too big to be unmanageable."

Woodlands For Sale: 01435 883360, www.woodlands.co.uk; English Nature: 0171 831 6922; Forestry Commission: 01223 314546; Stags: 01404 45885; Woodland Trust Millennium Hotline: 01476 581149