Forget the property ladder – there are just as serious gains to be made reacquainting ourselves with Britain's woodlands by building a den. Spending a night under the leaves is a fantastic way to get a new perspective on the world.
A simple A-frame debris shelter can be constructed without tools in almost any deciduous wood. Choose a spot on flat ground free from any large branches overhead, in case they drop in the night. Then find two sturdy metre-long sticks that end in a forked "Y" shape, and a long straight piece to sit on top of them, at least 50cm taller than the occupant. Interlock the "Y" pieces with one another to make an equilateral triangle with the ground, and place the straight piece on top to create a stable elongated tripod. Make sure you can get your body inside the frame, with your feet comfortably upright at the tapered end.
Now collect lots of sticks to lean along the spine so they fill its flanks like ribs. Once the frame is covered, it's time for the fun part. Head out across a wide area, and gather great armfuls of leaf litter to pile on top. A depth of around 40cm should waterproof it and the insulating effect of the leaves will give you a lovely cosy feeling when it's time for bed.
Our attempt began with sunshine overhead in Morwenstow, north of the coastal town of Bude. But there was a stiff wind blowing in from the Atlantic, which furrowed the fields like waves.
Even before we had fashioned our shelters, the Cornish woodland felt less exposed: a curious halfway state between indoors and outdoors. From the outside it seemed an impenetrable green mass, but stepping through the bordering thickets of holly and hawthorn revealed concealed space, like a natural Tardis. There was a sense of closeness very different from being in the open. It was as though we'd walked in on the beech, sycamore and oak in intense conversation, our footsteps hushing them into whispers.
Nothing brings an appreciation of the beauty of our woodlands like the process of searching for and carrying the logs and dead branches to use for a den. One moment we were measuring the floor space, looking up at dizzying canopies melding into one another like a kaleidoscope, the next hunting for sticks through glades awash with bluebells.
Piling the leaf litter on took the longest, and the afternoon stretched into evening by the time we'd finished. People pay a fortune for a room with a view and ours was spectacular. We lay on our bellies as the sun descended through the trees to the west. Being inside a woodland den is like secreting yourself inside the earth itself. It is surprisingly warm and quiet. The rudimentary rafters disappear down towards your feet in pleasing uniformity, interspersed with pockets of musty, brown debris.
Unlike a tent, dens look organic, blending in perfectly with the surroundings. When morning broke, we listened as the forest came to life again.
Following an afternoon building among the trees, and the deep sleep that only an active day outdoors can bring, few things can happily rouse a person from a lie-in. Luckily, one of them was close to hand in the village of Crosstown in Morwenstow: a late breakfast of scones with jam and clotted cream at a place called the Rectory. Perfect.
Top spots to build dens
Much woodland is private and you should check and ask permission to set up a den or camp. There are many courses available that teach the shelter-building skills. Here are a few places to start:
Ed Bassett Adventures Kent and South East
Expedition leader, ex-Army survival master and surely the fastest shelter builder in Britain, Ed Bassett runs brilliantly informative and accessible courses that cater for groups of all sizes and abilities in beautiful woodland across the south of England. Get in touch at ebadventures.com.
Forest Knights West Sussex
In 16th-century woodland near Arundel, expert Wayne Jones shows you how to turn humble wood into a "wiki-up" Native American shelter as part of his wilderness skills packages. Even a day with the team leaves you with a richer understanding and appreciation for nature. See forestknights.co.uk
Taste The Wild North Yorkshire
From their forest base near Boroughbridge Chris and Rose Bax run a hugely entertaining "Introduction to Bushcraft" course, explaining how to build a den for the right conditions and environment. With wild food foraging ongoing as you learn, you can be sure of a good meal as well as a comfy shelter. See tastethewild.co.uk
Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley's book describing their journeys around Britain will be published in spring 2012 by Hodder. For more information, follow them on their blog at getbackuk.com