Five days in the wild with Woodland Ways
11 September 2017. Just back from a five-day course in the wilds of Leicestershire run by Woodland Ways. They call it an Intermediate course. With my bones still aching, I’d call it pretty advanced. And although I enjoyed the course, I’m still recovering as I write this.
The washing machine has been going full-time; everything, absolutely everything, needs cleaning. The water in the bath on Saturday morning (the first proper wash for a week) turned brown, and two days later my fingernails are still black.
Little did I think when I arrived at Belvoir Castle at 10 am last Monday morning, that by 2 pm I’d be butchering a deer carcass, and by 7 pm eating it. Or that the next few days would test my stamina to the limit.
The content of the course was clearly described beforehand, but even so I failed to realise fully just how physically hard, exhausting and just a plain bloody slog it would be to try and live in the natural environment for a week. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m not surprised that our ancestors did not live long; most of the time they must have been exhausted.
Nor had I appreciated the fact that many people on the course complete one or two weekend versions beforehand, so arrive with some experience. No, yours truly jumped straight in feet first, reasoning that general hardiness would be good enough to see me though.
It wasn’t, unfortunately. While reasonably fit, my age and level of stamina counted against me once I’d got wet and cold. It was my own fault, but it was a perfect illustration that life in the wild is unforgiving of mistakes. You get wet, then you get cold, mild hypothermia sets in, and you start making blunders.
Nothing too serious in my case, because the instructors kept an eagle eye on us. But I was aware that I was not performing well, and irritated because of it. One of our key tasks was to build our own shelter from natural materials. Because I was slower than the others at completing various tasks, the instructors let me choose one that was already erected, but still needed finishing.
The challenge was waterproofing, which involved walking half a mile to a field of bracken, gathering as much as I could carry, and staggering back. Imagine a moving drift of bracken and you get the picture. After doing this five times to gather enough material, I then had to thatch the shelter.
I thought I’d done a pretty good job, but the rain that night still managed to penetrate and dampen my sleep. It didn’t help that the open front of the shelter faced south, so if the wind got up in the night I gained an additional shower.
The other critical task, of course, was making fire. And I have to say that it is only when you are damp, cold and aching yourself that you really appreciate just how essential a thing is fire. We were taught how to start it using steel and flint; the fire-bow method was demonstrated, but it was judged too challenging in the damp conditions.
Even so, I found the reality almost impossible. I could get the initial flame on a piece of birch-bark, but in the damp, rain-sodden environment, no amount of shaved twigs could be persuaded to start a fire from that. I considered cheating, but the lighter failed to work and the matches had got damp. Poetic justice indeed!
Even a Kleenex still warm from my trouser pocket could not be persuaded to burn, so damp was everything. Only after fluffing it up with a knife could it be persuaded to take a flame.
Once we had fire, we had to cook the food we were given. A brace of partridge you say? Just the thing – I have it in restaurants every day! Except that it is another story when you’re handed the birds, and you have to start by searching for a piece of wood big enough for food preparation, and which can be sterilised in the fire without vanishing into flame.
And to prepare it of course, you sit on the ground. Dropped a nice partridge leg in the dirt, sir? Well what’s a bit of dirt between a man and his food? In the end the first meal at my own shelter was delicious …. or maybe I was just hungry.
But we were taught so many other things. That venison on the first night was wrapped in burdock leaves and cooked in an earth oven in the ground – served with carrots, parsnip and sweet potatoes it came out to perfection. At home I’d have had venison sandwiches the next day, here we just ate it all.
How to carve wood, what sorts of wood to choose for different purposes, even how to use sharp bushknives in a safe manner. Which woodland plants are edible, which can be used as condiments and which to dress wounds.
How to track animals, and my particular favourite, the ‘circles of silence’; how to tell the progress of another person (or large animal) through the wood by listening to the bird alarm calls. By the fourth day I was regretting that I hadn’t taken notes.
And we were absorbing the rhythms of the forest. Rise shortly after dawn, as there was much to do in the day. And to bed at last light; since firelight is inefficient and torches not handy. In any case we were normally ready for bed by then.
I was also managing to sleep, for most of the night. The shelter could cope with the weather, and there was no shortage of food. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice the lack of sweets or snacks at all – probably due to the huge amounts of protein we were putting away. I ate more meat in the week than I do normally in a month, and still managed to lose two kilos in weight.
Now I’m back enjoying the delights of civilisation I ask myself, would I do it again? Strangely enough, I think if the course lasted two weeks, I would settle right in.
Well, in the summer maybe, and in the south of the country, and on a sunlit slope rather than the forest. The Woodland Ways week was a fantastic experience, the instructors were first class, and I learnt a huge amount from it.
But I’ve also learnt that I’m no Robin Hood. Maybe next year ….
© Philip Hunt, 2017.