I checked the weather forecast on Friday morning; no change – rain, rain, and more heavy rain, but my enthusiasm for the weekend was not dampened.
Once we had gathered Leon the lead instructor led us deep into the dark wood to ensure that we had as authentic experience as possible of survival. Having two children I couldn’t help but be wary of Gruffalo’s lurking with terrible teeth and turned out toes… but the wood was Gruffalo free.
The rain was already falling heavily but all of us were looking forward to what was ahead. A male nurse, a solicitor, a warehouse manager, and an IT technician were some among the group and we all had an interest in bushcraft and had different levels of experience but what we all had was a desire to get stuck in and enjoy the course.
On arrival at the ‘campsite’ we had a warm mug of chunky lentil soup and got straight into ‘Fire by Sparks’. Using a Fire Steel we scraped sparks into a bundle of hay. For some this was picked up quickly but others took a little longer to get the technique. Afterward with a cup of hot nettle tea Leon explained the importance of the four cornerstones of survival (fire, shelter, water and food) and how we were going to cover each component in the morning. As the fire died down we turned in for the night.
We slept under a tarp (canvas sheet) with rucksacks as pillows and listened to the rain falling above. Camaraderie increased and we laughed into the night about what was to come and we soon felt at home with each other and shared stories.
We slept under the tarp on the first night during heavy rain.
Next day we were up at 7am to collect water from a nearby stream. Following it to the source we collected several litres which were then filtered through special canvas bags (later boiled too) next we went foraging for food. As we walked Leon showed us different plants, fungi and berries and explained that some are good if cooked (Acorns) and others will stop your heart beating within minutes (Foxglove). With this in mind nothing went into the tin without Leon giving it the nod… Other than the last of the blackberries we collected burdock, roots from bulrushes which taste like sweet potato, elderberries and some garlic bulbs from a river bank.
Back at camp we drank more nettle tea and made breakfast. Flour mixed with water and a sprinkle of raisins made bannock; a basic dough. When cooked it was absolutely delicious. Later we learnt how to gut and skin rabbits which resulted in lunch and dinner which were two very tasty meals added to the other things we had collected.
Once the rabbits were prepared we kept two for spit roasting and the other two were browned and added to a stew.
As the rain continued to fall Leon explained that it was now our turn to build a shelter. I pulled down a previously built shelter made by someone that clearly didn’t have much/any rain to contend with and started over. This was my big mistake. I should have placed new bracken and on the older more compacted leaves to increase the density of the roof covering rather than replacing it. By the time I realised it was too late and I just had to get as much bracken as possible which was very energy sapping.
As I unfolded my foam mat and sleeping bag (with broken zip) I feared the worst. I did have an ace card up my sleeve; a bivi bag – a waterproof covering for my sleeping bag so I felt as ready as I would ever be. I wiggled down into my bag hoping that I was the only thing with legs in my bag. Once I found a position that didn’t hurt I prepared for sleep. You yourself will know that point where you exhale deeply as you relax your body for the first time and prepare for a change in consciousness….. well it was at this time I felt a drip land on my forehead. It was only a drip so I wiped it off and still congratulated myself on the shelter I had built. Three and a half hours later with rain dripping from everywhere I could take no more! Fumbling to find my head torch I tried to get out of my sleeping bag which was stuck to me and struggled to pull on my wellies on which were behind my head…not easy in a 3 foot high shelter. I marched up to the tarp used the previous night and closed my eyes… ahhh the joy of a tarp… I quickly slept/passed out.
I opened my eyes…. at last it was morning, AND it wasn’t raining. With more bannock and nettle tea in my tummy we evaluated the success of our shelters. Leon then taught us about making ‘Fire by Friction’. After much effort with the bow and drill I tipped the orange ember into some dry tinder (hay) and teased it into a hot spark and then a flame. The sense of achievement and satisfaction was amazing. It was great to encourage others to keep persevering until they too had smoke then fire. Then we looked at how to turn stinging nettles into cord which I struggled with from the start, but others did really well.
The last cooking activity was lunch; a sea bream gutted, washed and then slowly cooked on a stick in the heat of the fire, this was fairly straight forward and tasted really good. Finally for the last hour we were shown how to make a wooden spoon using a piece of silver birch. Using a saw and a crook knife we all managed to create something that looked like a spoon. We chatted about what we had learnt and what we would do again and how and much we were looking forward to a hot bath!
You may have noted that I haven’t mentioned the toilet… well this was a survival weekend…. best left at that!