Last weekend I jumped in my Land Rover and braved the motorways to visit a great group of bushcraft enthusiasts in the Midlands.
The group are all active members of BushcraftUK and regularly get together at Rough Close Scout camp for social meets where they share skills and time in the woods together.
On waking up on Saturday, I have to say that I was stunned. There was a strange blue hue to the sky and everything was illuminated very brightly.
Not only had the group booked me to instruct them for the weekend, they also seemed to have booked perfect weather.
After a very damp April and early May, the sunshine was wonderful and we certainly made the most of our time in the woods over the course of two days.
I had visited the group last September and thoroughly enjoyed working with them - a very friendly, welcoming and genuine bunch of people. So when they suggested I came back again for another weekend, I was very happy to find some time in my diary.
Last time I visited we'd covered a broad range of skills including hand-drill, feathersticks, tree and plant identification, making fish-hooks from natural materials, as well as an evening talk on cold injuries and cold-climate clothing. Even though this seems a somewhat disparate syllabus, the advantage of a bespoke course like this is that people can be very specific about the areas they want to cover.
This past weekend was no exception - the guys suggested a range of skills they might like to address and in the run-up to the course we whittled it down into a workable programme that suited the entire group.
The main areas we agreed to cover were:
- Tree and plant ID with a focus on wild foods;
- An introduction to tracking;
- Natural navigation techniques and knowledge;
- An evening discussion around the campfire on expedition planning.
Tree and plant identification, tracking and natural navigation actually all fit together well. At the heart of each is keen observation of the natural world. This was a theme that I aimed to develop and highlight over the course of the weekend.
These subjects are also connected in various ways. For example, the more you know about local flora, the better you will be able to track in the environment; the better you understand how people find their way - as well as get lost - the better you can track people; the more you can recognise different trees and plants, as well as associate them with place, the more you have access to distinct woodland waymarks within an otherwise amorphous mass of tree-trunks and greenery.
Another reason why I look forward to visiting this group is the standard of cuisine. A particular highlight of my first visit were Bodge's Staffordshire oatcakes for breakfast. This time was no disappointment either.
Day 1: Wild Foods and Tracking
Fuelled by oatcakes and coffee, we started on Saturday morning with a walk in the woods. We stopped to look at many plants, most of which were edible. Along the way there were many interesting conversations about plant uses, folklore, history and the countryside. I always learn something new when this occurs - there’s always someone who knows something you don't.
On this walk we also came across various animal tracks, including badgers and muntjac. Many of these tracks were quite distinct in soil that had been rendered very damp by the recent rains. This provided a great opportunity to study the detail of the tracks.
Spending some time in the morning looking at tracks and sign led nicely into some systematic tracking training in the afternoon. After an introduction to some important concepts and considerations, we started with some straightforward tracking exercises.
As the group tuned in and gained confidence, I increased the difficulty of the exercises. One of the hurdles in teaching tracking to any group is getting them to mentally adjust to looking for the small details that are surely there but require concentration and focus to recognise.
While there were some challenges, everyone did very well with their tracking on this first afternoon. The fact that this group all take a keen and regular interest in the nature around them certainly helped get up the learning curve relatively quickly.
That said, by early evening, everyone was quite drained and ready for a break. This came in the form of a great campfire atmosphere and a fantastic stew prepared by Bodge and Sally.
After dinner we had an informal and interesting discussion about how to approach organising overseas expeditions with lots of experience and points of view shared.
Day 2: Natural Navigation and Tracking
Day two saw us get going with some core concepts of natural navigation. First we discussed how people remain oriented and how they get lost.
This included a practical exercise where the challenge was to walk in a straight line across a grassy field. Blindfolded.
Everyone veered off either left or right, clearly illustrating how people walk in circles in the absence of some form of reference.
We then made an examination of key principles of navigation via sun, moon and stars. This included a bit of maths which boggled a few people's minds. I'm sure, with time and a bit of reflection, it will all sink in!
After lunch we got stuck into more tracking exercises. Once the guys warmed up again, they were moving more quickly and with greater confidence than on day one. Then, with some extra processes for following the trail methodically, the individual tracking teams were able to cover more ground with increased speed.
By the end of the afternoon, eyes were starting to get a little sore and brains a little fuzzy but everyone had again done very well. With a long drive home still ahead for some of the participants, we called it a day with everyone feeling like they had gained new insight into the world of tracking.
It was also clear how knowledge of local flora and fauna, plants, trees and navigation fitted alongside in this mosaic of more advanced outdoor skills.
It certainly wasn't all serious, though. There was plenty of banter and laughter over the course of the whole weekend and the group were, as always, a pleasure to work with.
I've already been asked for some more dates to go back again and I shall very much look forward to it. This was another great couple of days in the woods and everyone had a great time. What with the food, weather and the company, it was anything but a rough weekend. Roll on the next one!
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