On Friday morning I drove across to Sussex, to meet up with Damh the Bard in his recently acquired woodland to take part in a Bushcraft weekend. Damh, as Dave Smith, has been pursuing woodcraft skills for ten years, studying under Thomas Schorr-kon and Ray Mears, and is now presenting his own insights into living in the wild. I arrived at the designated site (a local publican had kindly lent out his overflow car-park) and carried my bags up the hill to the woods. By mid-afternoon there were a dozen of us, ranging from the quite experienced to the total novice (I was, I suppose, somewhere in the middle), settling in with basha’s, tents and hammocks as preferred. I got my basha erected quite quickly. Later on, following some guidance, I re-hung it correctly!
Although I’m more than familiar with ‘camping’, and even ‘roughing it’ with a small tent at music festivals and the like, I’d not spent much time sleeping in the woods overnight. Nor was I overly familiar with lighting fires and identifying a good space to set up in. I think I’m considerably wiser and more capable now than when I arrived, and therefore have to assert that the course was a 100% success! The real issue with woodland camping, bushcraft stylee, is that you really need a private woodland in which to pursue it. Camping in a public wood is possible but ill-advised, since the possibilities of being moved on, intruded upon, arrested for illegal fires (!) etc are real worries that would otherwise ruin the ambience you sought. Dave is blessed in co-owning a section of private woodland, sufficient in size to practice bushcraft and to feel ‘alone in one’s space’, and also surrounded by sufficient otherwise-owned woodland to encourage the diversity of wildlife that makes a wood come alive.
My reason for the weekends venture was to familiarise myself with the tools of bushcraft. Perhaps many of you picked these up in the scouts or some similar organisation. I never managed to dib-dib-dib, being ties to the family shop counter after school each (and every) day. And even then, having had ‘be prepared’ tattoo’d on your conscience, how many of you could go out into the woods and manage now, thirty years later, without a refresher? Thought so. My path leads me to seek some solitude in the woods; more so than is available from a sunny afternoon stroll in the local trees. Druidry is simple at home, in the book, on the Internet… But there’s a call to seek out another connection, a slimmer thread, that’s almost subsumed by the heat and noise of our modern lifestyle. It says ‘come, but not until you’re ready’. This weekend is part of getting ready. So… back to the weekend.
One of the first activities, and to my mind perhaps the most important, was a walk into the wood. In this we invited the wood to meet with us, to acknowledge our presence within it and for us to slow our own body-clocks from our normal frantic rhythm to a more natural, slower, more relaxed beat. It was, for those that chose to hear, a chance to commune with the spirit of the wood. We sought through guided technique to open our peripheral vision; to lose our normal narrowly focused scutinising eye-sight in order that we percieve motion across a wide arena. Similarly, we attuned our hearing to the sounds of the woods; working to achieve the same wide-band response – training our attention to the smallest of sounds; a footfall, a cracked twig, a bird’s landing on a far branch… Sniffing, in short fast intakes, we realised the ability to detect the various scents and smells carried upon the air. The smell of the bracken, the mould, the stream, the mud, even the ever-present yet faint smell of aviation fuel as the Heathrow flights went by overhead (the only real intrusion into tranquility, and that soon ignored). Finally, we concentrated upon our skin; that largest yet almost wholly undervalued sensory organ, and felt the gentlest of air currents as they passed by, felt the slightest moistening of the air as it passed over the stream and on in our direction. You can imagine that by the end of this activity we had all dropped down several gears, and were fully ready to appreciate the land we were in for the weekend.
The camp itself centred around a large yellow parachute, hung between trees, that served as our communal meeting area and classroom. I was greatly amused by the official looking flip-chart, built entirely from Hazel staves taken from the wood (I can’t say whether the paper was sourced from recycled stock! :P) Beside the parachute area was a semi-permanent gallery area, shrouded with camouflage netting and stocked with tea, coffee (Fair trade next time? :)) and all the accoutrements of eating very well indeed. Dave’s partner, Cerri, kept us marvellously supplied with hot baked potatoes, pasta, even porridge in the mornings! The toilets were a bit basic (the attempt at composting facilities having fallen to a high groundwater that insisted on backfilling every hole), and we eventually resorted to a chemical porta-potty inside a camouflaged teepee. I’m sure that will have been improved upon by the time of the next course or, if not, then a basic course in the use of the porta-potty might prove beneficial for some. I’ve mentioned that Dave and Cerri were co-owners of the wood. Another co-owner was Amanda, who also served by dint of her profession as our medical staff. I guess I ought to mention that her services were not only required (soon after the knife handling training, but not by me… lol) but skillfully applied too.
We were taught how to select a camp site, how to check for loose deadwood in the branches above us, to check the lie of the land and avoid setting up in a rainwater gully, to tie the right knots for the right function without needing a knife to release them later… The lesson on Natural Navigation was very useful, making us aware of the ways in which we might find our compass points both during the day and in the night-time. I have almost no sense of direction whatsover, and can get lost within a few miles (heh, metres!) of home, so I found this intensely interesting – especially the reasoning behind why we walk in circles when lost! We also took a walk around the woods, identifying the trees, plants and life-signs about it. I’m not confident I can recall everything taught, but I’m probably a little more knowledgable than I was at the start (that’s a tree… that’s a cloud…) and I managed to pass the test at the end without recourse to peeking at the others’ notes! Knives and saws were handed out, along with excellent guidance on how to use them and survive. We used these to select suitable staves from the surround wood, mostly Hazel that had been coppiced decades before being abandoned, and construct basic tent pegs, billy-can holders and bowdrills, as well as securing fuel for the fires from the dry deadwood scattered about. I don’t know how well Dave’s wood will manage to supply these staves and fuel-logs to future courses, as we were not frugal in our use.
Of course, the high point for me (and probably all those who had never felt the urge of the arsonist) was the wildfire making. We were shown, guided, then observed making wild fire from Birch bark scrapings, from Cramp Balls (small black fungi found primarily on dead Ashwood) and from Clematis and Reed Mace seedheads. We were shown how to build a fire, from tinder of various size and source through small and larger twigs to fuel sized logs, and were sent off to create our own later on, over which we cooked our own meals. Our wild fire was struck from different sources too: from Firesteels, and from Bowdrills. Dave’s colleague Garrick took the bowdrill section of the course, and despite my knackered back and inability to kneel and bow for any length of time without suffering intense discomfort, I managed to light my fire from the embers of my bowdrill hearth. In fact I managed to light mine before anyone else (which was lucky, as I was just about ready to quit it at that point!). Having an ember, created by yourself from scratch (or perhaps I ought to say from rub!), build into a handful of smoking straw then, all of a sudden, burst into fire in your hands is the most empowering feeling I’ve had in a long time. I’m very grateful for the experience, for the knowledge. I know I’m going to be doing it regularly now – who needs matches?! 🙂
Late nights were spent around the communal fire under the parachute, although it has to be said the days were long, we never had a bored minute in full, busy days and it wasn’t a noisy fire! I was soon to seek my bivvi bag! Sleeping out, under my basha and in my bivvi (so many new words!) I was amused by the falling caterpillars… Yes, the brutes climbed the trees during the day, only to throw themselves off the higher branches at night so that they fell like rain upon the basha sheet. We also had an insomniac blackbird that insisted on singing a dawn chorus through the night! Despite this I slept well (even if my adjacent team mates had to move site to avoid my snoring (I’m sorry! Ok?! LOL), only waking occaissonally as something with more legs (or slime) than I raced across my cheek…
All too soon it was time to break camp and seek the motorway. I’d known a couple of folk from the Internet, or from Druid Camps etc, and I’d made some new friends too. I’m usually ready to go home on the last day of any holiday, almost as if my subconscious changes gear for me, but I could have spent a lot longer in the woods. I left as about four. Coming home was a lengthy business; the M4 was closed between Chippenham and Bath, so I took the A419 from Swindon up to Cirencester and went across country home to Charfield, getting back at about seven.
I can’t stress enough the abilities of Dave and Garrick to teach Bushcraft. They made it both informative and interesting, and taught with safety in mind throughout. I certainly gained much during the weekend, and thank them both sincerely, as well as Cerri for looking after our food needs and keeping the kettles hot, and Amanda for supplying our first aid! The next stage in this teaching: The Bushcraft Intensive, is in the second weekend of October. at the moment that weekend is ‘free’ in my diary. Hmm… 🙂
Oh, PS: when I got home I found we had lost our third and last guinea pig, Flossie. I think she was about five or six years old, and seems to have succumbed to the heat and old age. Journey well, final little pig; I don’t think there’ll be a fourth now.