Tension was brewing. Just a little further, then it’s halfway... downhill after that. “Didn’t you say it was five minutes away 10 minutes ago?” a voice protested as we marched along the hillside then turned a corner to face a particularly steep incline, known locally as Grandfather’s Steps (perhaps because of how they make you feel once you’ve made it to the top). We were winding our way up Chase End Hill, the most southerly of the Malvern range, and the sky – which had been as blue as a sapphire when we’d set out – was falling in line with the mood of certain factions of our gang. “Nearly there now!” came the rallying response from the front as we panted our way up.
I’d brought nine of my closest female friends and family to this crossroads of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, a dramatic junction that spread out beneath us as we crested the top of the hill. To the west, a cascade of golden sunshine poured down on the Black Mountains, chased by menacing clouds that rolled ever closer towards us from the Cotswolds.
We sat down to quench our thirst with flasks of herbal tea brewed with red clover, greater plantain, mugwort, meadowsweet and nettles that we’d foraged along the way, as cool rain started to fall gently on our sweaty limbs – and there wasn’t a stripper, feather boa or willy-straw in sight. Not an average hen weekend, but given the mood of some members of the group, I was starting to wonder if perhaps that might have been a better idea.
Founded three years ago in Devon by Hetti Dysch, Babes in the Woods (yes, really) offers “champagne hen nights, with a touch of the wild”, the first word of which had mollified my sceptical city-dwelling troupe in luring them into the wilderness for the weekend. The Malverns outpost opened this spring with a cluster of four geodesic domes pitched in the woods on the Bromesberrow Place Estate.
Our adventure had begun by abandoning our cars by a field just off the M50 near Ledbury, where we were met by Hetti and her co-host, Mel. Our bags were offloaded into their 4x4 and we set off on foot through the bucolic estate – past the magnificent 18th-century Greek-revival Bromesberrow Place, flocks of sheep and a herd of rare-breed White Park cattle – into the woods.
The camp comprises two sleeping tents, a lounge tent where the cooking and eating take place and a bathroom tent. “Is there anywhere to charge an iPhone?” a hopeful hen enquired. Not only is the camp off-grid, but the bathroom tent turned out to be little more than a couple of porcelain bowls, flasks of heated Malvern spring water and some flannels; the loo was a compost long-drop. This was going to be interesting.
Another expectant few emerged from their tent clasping cans of cider, but we were off hiking. Mercifully, activity is interspersed with plenty of eating – a wholesome lunch of tomato soup, salad and quiches fuelled our Chase End Hill ramble. While there was a busy programme of activity planned for us (and a rota for washing-up, keeping the tents clean and taking charge of the camp fire), nothing was enforced.
Similarly, when broken up with foraging, picking wild cherries in the woods, drinking our herbal tea – and one hen letting slip that we’d be joined by male company that evening – the walk felt nothing like as long as two hours; we arrived back at camp just minutes before a deluge ensued, the hiking naysayer suprisingly jubilant at having conquered the hill.
The tree canopy provided an extra filter for the rain as we learnt to build a survival shelter from dead wood and fallen ferns, covering our timber frame with a layer of “thatch” to stave off hypothermia, the biggest threat in an exposed environment. Naturally it fell to the bride-to-be to test out its capabilities – Ray Mears, you wouldn’t be impressed.
If lost in the wilderness, the second and third survival priorities are rehydration and building a fire, which were addressed for us back at camp, where champagne and a wood-burning stove awaited. After a hearty dinner of chicken tagine followed by cheesecake and crumble, the hen activity ramped up with the arrival of spoon-carver and folk singer Tom. While he wasn’t the stripper that I’d been dreading, I can’t say that I was overly enthusiastic about being serenaded by a whittler of kitchen utensils. However Tom entered into the proceedings in good spirit (a gang of 10 girls gone feral in the forest is a formidable prospect, after all).
An hour later, he’d somehow managed to carve a salad spoon out of a tree trunk, which the girls all engraved with their initials. More drinks were cracked open and the night passed in a blur of singalongs and convulsions of laughter – we crawled into our beds with aching ribs as the rain continued to fall like crackling firewood on our tents.
We slept through the morning yoga session and woke to blue skies, the smell of frying bacon and strong coffee – a far more enticing prospect – still giggling about the night’s antics and the image of one of the girls waking up to find a slug dangling by a thread of slime just inches from her face. It was safe to say we’d all acclimatised to life in the woods, so the informal session of mugwort smudge-stick binding (a New-Agey sort of incense stick made from bundles of herbs) and meadowsweet-syrup making were carried out with as much enthusiasm as could be mustered after a night of partying.
But it was the fire workshop that really mustered our inner Girl Guides. Once we’d been shown how to use a steel fire striker, some cotton wool and Vaseline to get a bundle of twigs burning, the race was on to see who could build the quickest and most robust fire. Suffice to say that my team triumphed and enjoyed the spoils of our win (marshmallows on twigs) with self-righteous abandon.
We gathered around the smoky twigs to talk about what we’d enjoyed most – for some, the achievement of walking for longer than 10 minutes; for one, learning how to build a fire and being able to teach her daughter how to do the same. More poignantly, we all felt that we’d accomplished Hetti’s mission for women to mark this rite of passage by reconnecting to nature and each other. This disparate group of urban cynics had been won over by the woods. Most importantly for me, I’d spent time in good company that I’ll actually remember, rather than a night in a bar, passing by in a drunken flash. And I’ve got my wooden spoon to remind me of it all..
Babes in the Woods (020 7193 8633; babesinthewoods.co.uk) operates in Devon and the Malverns from 1 March to 31 October, for groups of between eight and 20 hens.
One-night weekends start at £217 per person, including accommodation, all activities and meals. Stays can be extended to two nights for a supplement of £35 per person.