A Magical Day in the Forest with Julia Donaldson on the Gruffalo Trail

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Every so often you get an invitation that is completely thrilling and last week we received one just like that - come to Whinlatter Forest in the Lake District and meet Julia Donaldson on the Gruffalo Trail - we immediately accepted and headed off on an exciting adventure! The Forestry Commission have teamed up with The Gruffalo to celebrate the book's 15th anniversary across it's forests. Now families can retrace the footsteps of the mouse and take a walk through 'the deep, dark wood' and search for the Gruffalo themselves.

Forestry Commission Gruffalo Trail #WeLoveForests Julia Donaldson

The Forestry Commission have recently opened a series of Gruffalo Trails across twenty eight forests in England. The Gruffalo trail is in place until October, when The Gruffalo's Child will take over until February. Each trail feature lots of informative and interactive boards for families to participate in. In June fifteen of the forests will see the arrival of wooden Gruffalo sculptures. The sculptures are seven feet tall and carved out of a solid block of wood. The Forestry Commission is inviting people to download a Gruffalo Birthday Party pack from their website and celebrate with family and friends in their local woodland on 7th June.

We arrived at Whinlatter Forest on Thursday just in time for lunch, which was eaten in the Siskin Cafe in the Visitor Centre. This was really lovely, with paninis for Ian and me, and mini pizzas for the children. Whinlatter is England's only mountain forest and is in a beautiful location overlooking Lake Bassenthwaite, North West of Keswick. I visited there about twelve years ago to see the Osprey nest cam and I was pleased, as was Bud, to see it again on our visit.

Whinlatter Forest Lake District Forestry Commission Metal Osprey Sculpture

 From there it was time to go and get a sneak peek of Whinlatter's Gruffalo. This has been especially uncovered for Julia Donaldson and us to meet. I can't share photos of it right now but I can say that the sculpture was delightful and captures the essence of the Gruffalo character perfectly. Each of the finished sculptures will show the Gruffalo in a different pose, why not see how many different sculptures you can see in different forests? On the way up we also spotted the fox and mouse from the trail.

After seeing the Gruffalo sculpture, which was then covered up again, ready for the grand nationwide unveiling, it was time to meet Julia Donaldson. Anyone with a child aged under 20 (ish) has probably come across her children's books. From 'A Squash and a Squeeze' which was published 21 years ago through The Gruffalo, Gruffalo's Child, What the Ladybird Heard,The Snail and the Whale, The Smartest Giant in Town and Stick Man, to name but a few, she has written more than 60 books available in bookshops, with an additional 120 for use in schools, including a complete reading scheme. Her books are amongst our favourites and we return to them constantly, we know many of them by heart. She arrived in the company of her husband Malcolm, armed with a bag of Gruffalo props and a two foot tall Gruffalo puppet! Within a few minutes introductions had been made and the children had claimed their different masks and accessories to become the characters from the story. Bud claimed the fox hood and wore it throughout the whole session.

Julia Donaldson on the Gruffalo Trail at Whinlatter Forest

The purpose of Julia's  visit to Whinlatter was to see the trail and sculpture for the first time and to be filmed for the BBC One show Countryfile. The production team joined us and we set off along the trail. This allowed us to see the information boards and sign posts for it which are laid out along the route and we also got to see the owl too. The boards are informative and encourage children to use all of their senses in connecting with the story. One of the boards encourages families to build an animal home and I know Bud would love to have done that if we'd had more time. We then assembled at a campfire area to listen to Julia read The Gruffalo to the children. She was absolutely wonderful, patient and engaging, it was amazing to see and hear the Gruffalo's creator read her own words to us. Bud was utterly entranced and sat beside Julia and listened avidly all the way through the story. We all loved Julia's Gruffalo voice as I suspect the parents there all have their own voice for him when they are reading to their own children.

Julia Donaldson on the Gruffalo Trail at Whinlatter Forest

After this there was time to have a few books signed,with 'The Snail and the Whale' for Bud, 'Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou' for Little Miss, and copies of the 15th Anniversary Edition of The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom as gifts for Bud's nursery school. The two stories are quite important there and each sees a week of focused activity so I am hoping they will be delighted by them. We were being filmed by BBC Countryfile during this time so tune in on Sunday 1st June to see if we make it to the screen.

Following this it was time for tea and cake back in the Siskin cafe. The lovely staff there (including a lady from Bolton like us) had made us Gruffalo cupcakes which delighted the children. We had time to sit and chat with Julia and her husband about her life and she was very interested in finding out about us bloggers too. She told us all about her university days, when she met her husband and they performed together, entertaining fellow students, through time spent working in local and children's theatre, songwriting and performing. She spent many years performing folk music with her husband, and worked for the BBC writing songs for childrens's television. It was so interesting to hear her talk about her collaborations with the  various illustrators and I was surprised to learn that this is a two-way collaboration. I imagined that authors write books and then seek an illustrator but, with her regular illustrators, a gap in the illustrator's schedule can be the catalyst for a new book and, sometimes, an illustrator will ask for a certain topic as that's what they want to draw. I could have listened to, and chatted to Julia all afternoon but sadly time passed and we had to part ways.

Julia Donaldson on the Gruffalo Trail at Whinlatter Forest Cupcakes

We decided to burn off some steam on the fabulous children's Play Trail before we headed home. This is a must visit if you're in the area with children. It features nine different, linked play areas along a 600 metre trail, incorporating climbing walls, an archimedes screw, fairy doors, sculpture, swings and a wooden castle, it kept our two entertained for over an hour and we had to virtually drag Bud back to the car.

Julia Donaldson on the Gruffalo Trail at Whinlatter Forest

Our day at Whinlatter was one we will find hard to beat. It was an unbelievable experience to meet, and spend time with, an author who is an integral part of our children's lives and one whose books are part of the fabric of their childhood. The Gruffalo Trail is an exciting way to get out into your local forest and learn more about nature and the 'characters' in the book and, from June 7th, seeing the fantastic sculptures will be the icing on the cake. Whinlatter itself is good for the soul, it's breathtakingly beautiful at times with unbeatable views, clean air and the ability to explore, learn and get your hands (and everywhere else) dirty. We will definitely be back there some time, and visit our more local Forestry Commission - Delamere Forest - very soon.

We were joined at Whinlatter by Andrea and her daughter from All You Need is Love and Cake and Susanne and her family from Ghostwriter Mummy, click on their blog names to see what they made of the day.

For more information about the Gruffalo Trail, to find your nearest forest and events taking place to celebrate The Gruffalo's 15th birthday please visit the Forestry Commission Gruffalo Trail site.

Disclaimer: We were invited to Whinlatter as the guests of the Forestry Commission and received expenses, lunch and a goodie bag. I have not been asked to write this post and all opinions are my own.