Bushcraft FireInspired by outdoor expert Ray Mears, Isabel Lloyd and family head to the wilds of Kent to learn how to forage, start a fire, build a shelter – and avoid aggravating the resident insect life

A confession: I have a crush on Ray Mears. Physically, he’s not my type – too roly-poly, too bossy and Baden-Powell-ish around the eyes. But there’s something about the way television’s apostle of the wilderness can knock up a des res out of two branches of fir and some wet willow bark that makes me go all cave-woman.

It’s my youngest son’s fault. He has made the whole family sit through hours of Ray’s dourly fascinating survival shows. Tom’s experiments building wobbly dens in the local park have developed into fire-lighting (and fence-burning) in the back garden and, most recently, a nasty moment when he decapitated several municipal saplings “to make ridge poles for a shelter”.

What would Ray do in this situation, I wondered as I ushered my son away from the furious park ranger? Would he confiscate Tom’s carefully collated backpack of bushcraft tools and tell him to go and play on his Game Boy? Or would he take the raw materials of his enthusiasm and model them, using only a sharp knife and a small piece of flint, into something vital and useful?

I think you know the answer. So it was that I tracked down one of the handful of UK companies that have sprung up in Ray’s sensibly shod footsteps, offering courses to families who want to learn basic survival skills. In our case this was Natural Pathways, which runs “wilderness camps” in private woodland outside Canterbury, just a lever-arch file’s throw from the University of Kent campus.

Initially it was meant to be a two-night course, but at the last minute Hannah – Natural Pathways‘ khaki-clad presiding genius – rang to say that all the other families had backed out, feeling that an outdoor weekend in mid-April would be just too cold. Hah. By the time we pitched up for our abbreviated one-night stay, temperatures had reached 21C, the woodland floor was tinder dry, and we didn’t even bother unpacking our waterproofs.

I’d imagined a gloomy, damp forest, full of underbrush and ivy, but the 65 acres of wood turned out to be more like a small child’s idea of a fairy glade: a light, sun-dappled place of slim, coppiced hazel and young oak, twined with honeysuckle and carpeted with the white stars of wood anemones. In its centre, Hannah had made camp: a beat-up 4×4 stood to one side, full of jerry cans of water and old tarpaulins.

Another tarpaulin made a temporary shelter over a couple of cool boxes and a folding table, where Hannah’s 10-year-old daughter was buttering bread. That was it. No showers, no Sainsbury’s. I’d brought a tent (for emergencies), our dog (for company) and sandwiches (for lunch), but other than that, we were clearly expected to Make Do.

First we sat in a circle while Hannah introduced herself and her helpers Judy and the suitably arboreal Leaf. Then Hannah asked Tom and his older brother Jack to think about life’s four basic needs: warmth, shelter, water and food. Both were surprised to hear they could last for weeks without so much as a Twix, as long as they kept warm and found something to drink.

Inspired by this, we began to build our shelters for the night. Hannah showed us how to find “standing dead wood” – as opposed to live saplings – to use for ridge poles. The idea was to rest these on two interlocked “Y-sections” (branching bits of wood to you and me). We then scuffled about collecting armfuls of dry sticks to lean-up against our ridge poles, making rough roofs. Finally, we covered our creations in about half a ton of insulating leaf litter – deeply aggravating a seething mass of ants in the process – and then filled the interior with a “mattress” of more dead leaves to keep the coldness of the soil at bay.

The results were varied. My narrow, single-man shelter looked like a hump in the forest floor with just a single, triangular opening at the front. The children had thought big, building a capacious two-man lean-to with sloping sides that opened on to a log fire. My husband, on the other hand, had made nothing. He had to be at work in the morning, he said, and would be leaving after supper. Not, I couldn’t help feeling, what Ray would have done.

Shelter arranged, we moved on to warmth. After the incident with the fence, Tom had had few opportunities to use his fire-lighting skills, so was thrilled to learn how to build a fool-proof “teepee fire”. Judy had spent the hours it took us to make our shelters collecting dead wood in five increasing thicknesses: matchstick, pencil, finger, “OK” and wrist.

We were shown how to arrange these in a pyramid with a hollow centre for the tinder, which consisted of nest-like collations of dried grass and woolly seed-heads called reed mace, ignited with the sparks from a tool called a firesteel and some scraps of black fungi. We sparked, swooped our nests through the air, blew, breathed, blew. Tom’s nest burst into life. Mine smoked nastily, then expired. I thought with longing of a box of matches.

By this time, I was starving. The programme for the weekend had promised to include foraging for wild food, but I’d already sneaked a look round while collecting leaf litter, and hadn’t seen much in the way of dinner. There were no rabbits for skinning and popping into a nice stew; no plump trout in the stream at the bottom of the wood. Then Tom and Leaf said they were going off to look for, well, leaves. Was the night’s menu to be solely salad? I began to think that maybe my husband had the right idea, particularly when Tom and Leaf returned with one very small handful of greenery: nettles, wild garlic and hawthorn tips, apparently.

But then the 21st century triumphed: Hannah did some rummaging under the sheltering tarpaulin, and out of a cool box came red peppers, cherry tomatoes, potatoes and, yes, a pack of chipolatas. We baked the potatoes black in the ashes of the fire, balanced vegetable kebabs on a log, and sizzled our sausages on sharpened sticks. Well, even Ray has been known to pull a salami out of his backpack in a survival situation.

Night loomed. The dog went feral, scratching himself a bed in the earth and turning a bit Rottweiler when he got a sniff of some foxes. My husband left, driving off with a cheery wave and the look of a man who knows he at least will be warm tonight. The children were grubby from head to toe, exhausted and exhilarated after a game of “Fire Stalk”, creeping on their bellies in the darkness to pin clothes pegs on unsuspecting grown-ups. It was time for bed.

I did try. Jack, Tom and I built another fire, this time between our two facing shelters. Hannah said good night, then disappeared off to her tent. I zipped the children into their sleeping bags, gave them a kiss in their nests of leaves, then inserted myself, feet first, into the coffin-mouth of my shelter.

I lay there, flat on my back, a pile of twigs and leaf-litter inches from my face. A stray ant, clearly still angry from the afternoon, bit me on the ear. My legs were warm, but my head and neck were freezing. I tried to wriggle a little deeper into my sleeping bag. Stuff fell on my face. If I moved too much, would the shelter collapse on me? Something feathery screeched, out in the night.

At 8am the next day, I went to fetch the children for breakfast: hot porridge, and eggs baked in their shells. They were still fast asleep, warm and dry, if a little ant-nibbled.

“How d’you get on, Mum?” asked Jack.

“Well, the dog got a bit cold, darling,” I said. “I thought it was best, in the end, if the two of us went in the tent.”

Ray, can you ever forgive me?


This article was originally published in The Independent.