Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bushcraft in November…. are we mad?

A weekend of wild camping and bushcraft with my mates in November seemed like a fabulous idea…... in sunny July.

I don't get a lot of spare time, but when I do I like to fill it with different things, adding sparkles of excitement and adventure to break up routine. This summer I coerced 4 of my most 'up for it' friends to join me for an adventure, and a weekend of bushcraft was booked for our inaugural foray into the art of surviving in the woods...  Between us, we had ladies who had never slept in a sleeping bag or a tent, used a lighter, chopped wood, or even owned waterproof trousers.... What could possibly go wrong?!? 
With much trepidation we arrived in total darkness on the Friday night in the middle of nowhere to meet Gary, the owner of Jack Raven Bushcraft, and our fellow bushcrafters. Every pastime or sport has it's uniform and it turns out that bush-crafters are no exception. We stood staring at each other - them in earth colours with well worn, checked woollen shirts, carrying just a small rucksack - us ladies standing there in our brightly coloured coats, pink hats, cashmere scarves and carrying very large bags… it was clear to all that we hadn't done this before.
We set out to find our camp. "Bushcraft is about living like our ancestors in the forest, Gary explained as we walked up the hill through a muddy field and into the woods. I was tempted to comment that my ‘ancestors’ had actually originated from West Ham, but chose not to, given that they were clearly worried enough about us anyway. 

I'm not sure what we were expecting that warm July when we agreed that sleeping in hammocks in the woods was a good idea. Much hilarity followed as we were given a quick lesson in ‘mounting and dismounting’ a hammock. In true cartoon style we swung uncontrollably in the dark and performed numerous accidental dismounts in various orientations and with different degrees of elegance. I apologise to my friends for not helping much at this point, I was on the floor laughing. 
Curled up asleep in the hammock
The loo was described in the brochure as a self composting toilet. It was "hidden" in large camouflage shed at the edge of the camp and consisted of a raised wooden box inlaid with a toilet seat. Next to it was a metal bowl for lighting waste paper and some sawdust for 'flushing the loo'. Posters around the wall supplied ample entertainment and to my surprise I found myself staying in there longer than necessary in order learn about animal tracks and droppings. 

The next morning we awoke at dawn and pottered bleary eyed over to the main teepee, where we filled our mugs with hot tea from the massive iron kettle hanging over the fire. Bleariness quickly vanished as we set about out first task- using sharp knives and saws to make a honey spreader out of a log. If I was stuck in the woods I'm not sure how essential this item would be, but I really enjoyed the carving process none the less. The final object looked more like a cross between a wonky ruler and a helicopter propeller, but despite being terrible I was still very proud of it! 
chopping logs
The next task was making a flame and, being a non smoker, I soon realised that I had never grasped the art of striking matches outside in the wind. Thankfully matches wasn't the only option and we had a fantastic afternoon 'playing' with fire. There must be something deep in our code which aligns us with fire as I felt compelled to try every firefighting option from wire wool to vaseline to bark shavings, with flints and fire starters, gaining immense satisfaction when the combinations worked. 
making fire!
Next came shelters and we followed Garry into the woods to learn how to keep safe, warm and dry using the forest around us. He assured us that the debris shelter resurrected from damp leaves would be toasty warm even in rainy November. We decided that it felt more like a coffin and not half as fun or exciting as the swinging hammocks which the girls were excited to return to.
Debris shelter
Having been up at dawn, I returned to my tent exhausted for an early night - Confession time, being in the middle of a big training block I had chosen a tent over the hammock (coaches orders). I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, belly full of delicious chilli with earplugs stuffed in my ears to block out the noise of the rain and fell instantly asleep. Apparently it rained a lot in the night and everyone was a bit damp come morning. But no one seemed to mind- it all added to the adventure and hilarity of the weekend. Luckily the fire was roaring and the heat from the fire cooked comforting bacon butties and also dried us out and warmed us up. Foraging and tree identification had us traipsing after Gary, hanging onto his every word. There is something deeply satisfying about having to search for and spot a half hidden edible leaf or fungus (Shopping in Waitrose will never be the same again as all their food is just so obvious!). My anti doping catalogue doesn't have a section for "brown mushrooms that look like rubbery ears" or "leaves with stimulant effects", so I stuck to bananas foraged from the fruit bowl, just to be safe.  
Mushrooms that look like ears
The last challenge was to make a fire from nothing except the rather damp contents of the Forrest around us. It felt a bit like a reality TV show as we all dashed off into the woods to find suitable tinder and logs as Gary had shown us. Much to my amazement I actually managed to construct a fire which worked - as did all the girls.  I glanced around at my friends who somehow had lost the bright colours and cashmere. Somewhere over that short weekend we had turned into a group of earthy bush-crafters with knives hanging from our belts, looking slightly disheveled and tending our fires, happy and at home in the woods.  
Girls make fire!
We all agreed that, despite the weekend being off the end of our comfort zones, we had all had a brilliant time. Yes it would have been nice to do in the summer, but that would have been way too easy;-)
The Team



  1. This will be a hard act to follow Anne. A great piece. It perfectly captures our weekend away. Well done!

  2. This will be a hard act to follow, Anne. A great piece. It perfectly captures our weekend away. Well done!