So kit in hand, so to speak, we gathered in the vicinity of the parachute. Looking around I was mindful that I seemed to have one of, if not the, largest pack. Everyone had a 45 – 55l pack I don’t know how they did that and S insisted that he only chose the lightest of kit. Then J arrived with a Berghaus Cyclops with side pockets looking pretty full. Happy days. We set off led by Tom with Steve sweeping up the rear. It was really pleasant walk out and we hadn’t gone far before Tom stopped us to show us the first tree/plant. I was quickly overcome with the amount of info Tom had not just in identification but with uses and benefits of the tree/plant. I had not put my notebook in my pocket and lost out to making useful notes and identification points.
The walk continued with Tom leading, mainly following signposted paths throught the estate stopping now and then to i.d. a plant, tree, fungus. A thoroughly pleasant walk into the evening. We came into a plantation that was to be our bivvy overnight and Dave gave us a lecture about water safety as in making it safe to drink. This was pretty thorough and pretty unequivocal in that unless it’s been put through a purifier it’s not purified. We set off in our groups in the fading light to set up our bivvy, light a fire and cook dinner.
Dinner hmm, I can honestly say this is the only time where the food was not the best. Please note I have already said I was a fussy child with regard to food and I do not doubt I was precious. We had an individual packet of cous-cous, a packet of dolmio pasta sauce, a packet of rice, oat cakes, a packet of tuna and a packet of porridge oats. It was like the end of the quarter and ‘Pusser’ using up his out of date stores. I sincerely jest in my opinion on the food, lets face it if you’re hungry you’ll eat anything but it’s the last food I’d have chosen. Admittedly a few of us made the wrong choice, rice and dolmio, but cous cous and dolmio wouldn’t have been much better. This along with the stew we made, which was lovely, highlighted my usual choice of eating whilst outdoors, cold snacks, freeze dried or retort food, as being a lazy bonus.
The cooking following by cleaning, in necessarily austere conditions, is a pain. I would like to cook a stew when I’m out or learn to gather some ingredients and add them to something but the cleaning up afterwards is a pain. Again I’m precious.
So getting to our bivvy A and I opted to go and get water for the group. Dave had explained during his water briefing on where to find it. It was down to the end of the plantation, across the wall and at the end of the next field. By now it was dark and just across the field was in fact a long way, the field was the size of Hampshire, roughly. I got down to the water and filled everyones billy. I had brought one of my double hankies, two hankies sewn together to act as the initial basic filter. The next step in water purification as explained by Dave was to boil it. The long walk back up the field, passing Southampton, Winchester en route.
I set up my tarp and again struggled with the taut tarp hitch. I helped out a few of the guys with the prussics to tighten the tarp on the ridgeline. I got something akin to robust done on my own tarp and dinner was had. Enough said. We sat by the fire again chatting and had another wonderful discussion. I will say that I probably told a little too many sea stories and bored the team but I did feel comfortable and relaxed. We went back to our tarps and a decent nights sleep was had. I’m guessing a deer, fox, badger got a bit close to us over the night, realised it and made a hell of a noise getting away. Still I slept.
Waking up the next morning I was still a little grumpy, dehydration or not but I gathered myself and sorted my kit out. And I needed to sort my kit again, I really never got a hand on where I had put my stuff for most of the course, poor. Breakfast for me was Moma porridge it, unlike the porridge provided, it had skimmed milk powder in it already. My now ever depleting store of condensed milk did provide milk for tea/coffee for breakfast and some of the team had a squeeze in their porridge. Some of the guys replenished our water and we set about boiling it and gathering ouselves. After breakfast and striking tarps we gathered around Tom and Steves tarp and carved spoons or bow-drilled. The bow drill had an amazing affect and with a familiar flashing amber caption set about digging a cat hole at great speed. Returning to the group, refreshed and lighter we soon packed up our kit and headed off again.
It was a beautiful walk through some lanes and back towards our base camp benefitting from the depth of knowledge from Tom and Steve. It was a real pleasure talking to both of them, I felt they had a passion for what they do and certainly how they put it across. Reflecting back on myself as a trainer and specialist in my own field I feel that I have lost some of the passion they have whilst putting their own knowledge across.
As we got back to the base I was gagging for a brew. I’m usually a 4 – 5 mugs before lunch man so one at breakfast just wasn’t cutting the mustard. We stopped short of the camp and Steve gave us a lecture on navigation. Again a great demonstration of navigation using natural means. Some I knew others I didn’t, I have a bit of a passion for navigation land and sea, Steve’s lecture was well worth it despite me spitting feathers for a brew.
Getting back up to the parachute we were briefed that tonight was to be another bivvy night up the hill. The plan was to re-establish our sites, light a fire and lunch with our food. I pitched my tarp differently and went for essentially a closed A frame.
I see the benefits of the tarp but at times the security of an enclosure is pleasant. One of the team wanted the opportunity to light the fire and so I set off to gather kindling and wood from an area I hadn’t been since the start of the week. I gathered an armful of wood and brought it back to our pitch. As I walked back to the treeline something caught my eye. Red against the green and brown. My fecking firesteel with it’s red cordage! I was dancing, I had been there on the ‘stew’ night collecting wood and had obviously dropped it. I was so happy and felt, through nothing more than finding it, vindicated. The oatcakes and tuna was decent enough as we boiled water to make it safe and ate our lunch.
Gathering ourselves after lunch back at the parachute and the extinguished fire we were briefed on the plan for the afternoon. This was it, I wanted this so much, we were to fish for the afternoon! My dad had all three boys fishing from a young age. By his own account he wooed my Mum taking her fishing, Kathleen was a fair spinner. Alas none of it has ever rubbed off on me. I came to Scotland and with more time on my hands took up fishing again. Dad gave me lessons on fly fishing. I’ve seen navigation buoys laid with greater dexterity and less commotion than my fly fishing. I’ve caught a total of two fish in my time, both were in a stocked loch and I felt they had only given up out of sympathy for me. We made hobo reels and I have to say I was impressed with mine. It allowed some notion of casting and could, had I caught anything, acted as a priest. We all set off around the Loch after Dave had given us a wonderful lecture on how to fish and the different techniques used in the far north.
So we set off and fished. Hard. I achieved as much success as my previous attempts. However our resident Finn caught a beautiful brownie. Came over here, caught our fish, burned our wood and lit our fires! Well done S a pleasure to have met you. Thankfully for the rest of us Steve and Dave had a lot more skill and had caught a couple of brownies for the other groups, mine included of course. They gutted them for us and that was our dinner for the evening.
In addition Tom gave us a lecture on how to make a bannock. Fishing complete we set off back up the hill for our dinner of, in my case, cous cous, brown trout with the project of a bannock to do. As we gathered at the fire it was disclosed that R was a bit of a baker. Happy days the bannock was left to him with a plain bannock and fruit bannock to do. I ‘took charge’ of the trout. In all honesty it wasn’t hard to skewer it with a green stick and cook it over the fire. We gathered ourselves around the fire and again had a lovely night with the ‘bushcraft TV’ on full blast. I apologise to all if I started early with my sea stories but what a lovely night I had at least.
I was keen to get to bed I have to say I was tired, none of which was due to dehydration. I wrote up my journal and was quickly asleep.
Early the following morning I left tarp city for the pleasure of my own tent and a wipe bath. Honestly the joy of a wipe bath has beaten some showers I had when under water restrictions at sea. I’ll not say the resultant waste was pleasant but it was effective in its benefits to the mental and nostril realms. I had another breakfast of Moma porridge, for the win, before starting on the bowdrill again after breakfast. Ten minutes in flashing amber caption and I was off. Checked out the toilet tin and I was gone, safe in the knowledge that A had dug another trench the previous night. All I’ll say is great trench it was a pleasure to use.
Back to the bow drill. I had two things I wanted to do on the course fire by bow drill and cordage. So far fire by bow drill had eluded me. S (Finn), S and M had all made fire and a few had come close. I had made smoke, powder and a lot of noise. I think I was let down by my own fitness/strength as I felt that I lost posture when I was in the vinegar strokes of fiddle. Both J’s made fire that morning if I recollect I’m certain one did. Checking out my hearth that morning I noted that I was under 5mm left so a new hole was needed. Breath deep and a new challenge was called.
Quickly we gathered at the parachute for unknown task 1. We set off following Tom safe in ignorance of the plan. When we got to the location I was as happy as. A place full of nettles ready to be plucked and made into cordage. I have seen Ray Mears process nettles and read about it sceptical about the lack of stinging taking place. Hardy buggers I thought and watched as Tom demonstrated the stripping of leaves. Nothing didn’t even flinch, must be the hard forestry type skin I thought. In for a penny, in for a pound I thought and gripped the nettle, physically and metaphorically. By god no stinging took place. I had gloves ready at alert 5 but none was needed. Having been shown how to do the intial processing to cordage we set about it with varying degrees of complaint/swears and cries for a dock leaf. Chatting to S (Finn) they do not seem to have the often conveniently growing dock leaf near nettles. Processing underway we were stopped and moved onto the next task. It was definitely a business day.
With as little information as I’d come to expect we set off for the next task, 2, 3 and 4. Select a piece of dead standing wood with no knots about 30cm ready for processing. To what end I knew not. It wasn’t alone, next we set about uncovering some roots and finding suitable ones, about 5mm round and 1M long. I struggled and again grew exasperated through nothing apart from my own choice. I couldn’t find a suitable length of root, so a number of shorter roots were taken. I sought long and hard for a suitable length of dead standing wood and rejected a number due to the thunder shakes evident on them. I had no idea what I was to do with them but ruled them out due to the thunder shakes. We also had to collect a small piece of dead standing wood. The others overtook me as they returned to the parachute and I had no large piece of knotless dead standing wood. As Tom passed and he queried my progress he remarked that the thunder shake wouldn’t have been a problem. I growled, I’d like to think inwardly but honestly couldn’t guarantee it. I quickly selected a piece and was set.
Back to the parachute and it was all clarified to us. Tom demonstrated how to process dead standing wood and then how to create them into feather sticks for fire lighting. A key point mentioned above was the selection of log was to be knotless. Mine was not and it proved an issue later. Dave then came forward and demonstrated how to make a hook with a piece of green wood as the shank, small piece of dead standing wood and the roots for binding. I was exasperated and by the time we picked a piece of wood to process into the shank I was being lazy. Shamefully it paid off and I was realtively quick to process the birch into a suitable shank. Genuinely I was suprised I was able to create the right shape with the simple instruction given by all three instructors. A sure indicator that simple techniques taught correctly, with a check or two thrown in works. The binding of the hook was done by the split root and again I was suprised with the result I created.
So the projects on the go were, bow drill, spoon, hook, cordage. Tent pegs and billy can holder were done. I felt up against it with the project on the go before Tom demonstrated feathersticks. We set about our logs ready for the process. Remember that key requirement Tom mentioned that the wood was to be knotless. Yeah heres when I fell foul. Splitting the wood by batonning the wood no bother. Creating feather sticks, well that was a struggle and I can’t lay it all at the knots. I did however create something akin to feather sticks. I once say an comedic illustration of Finnish feather sticks, mine was more akin to Privates rather than junior officers so I was content.
We were left to our own devices as we worked on our projects to our own pace and calling for support or help within the group. The group support was great and was well utilised by most. There was a good bit of banter and laughter as we all set about the various tasks. The nettle processing was easy although my first stab left a few ‘woody’ bits aboard. Once stripped again I processed a decent lengh of cordage. As to it’s strength I don’t know but for a first try it was decent but more work on it will be needed.
It was round about now that Tom introduced the exam and assessment. WTF, I don’t do well in either down to nerves.
Unlike most of my school experience I really wanted to do well in this which added to my nerves. Head down and get on with finishing projects. My spoon at this stage was a roughly shaped piece of wood, bow drill on my second hole in the hearth, hook done (and I was quite pleased with it), cordage done and was happy with the process and know I can improve upon it in the future. In amongst it all Steve gave us a lecture and demonstration into snaring, how to use them, the legal side of using them and how to make one.
Again a fascinating lecture in how to be effective with snares and whilst it’s doubtful I’ll use one, I don’t have a permission on my usual ground, I enjoyed it and made up a decent snare.
Dinner this evening was something else. A ponassed salmon cooked over the fire by the instructors.
It was delicious and a great display. Throughout the evening we all worked on our projects with quite a bit of laughter and joking. There were lots of scraps of wood sitting around and it all needed to be carefully examined before adding to the fire. In prep of departing the next day I dropped off some kit to the car and brought back some boiled sweets to share around.
After a decent nights sleep in the tent I started on finalising my projects for assessment. I had another go at feathersticks but stopped when, digging too deep, shoved a large splinter up and under my thumbnail. Oww, a lot. Thankfully it all pulled out in one go but I set the feathersticks aside. We were to set up two fire lays, the woodlore fire lay to be lit with fire steel and birch bark the other made up of feather sticks to be lit by a match. All of our projects were to be laid out for assessment. But first the exam. There were two one on general bushcraft the other on tree and plant I.D. Not to sure how I got the suitable mark on the plants but I know it’s an area I really need to concentrate on.
Whilst waiting on assessment it was back to the bowdrill, this time no alert though! I had Dave do mine and all went as well as I could have though. Feathersticks were not great but I managed to lit the fire with a match. The woodlore lay, no issues it really was an effective way to light a fire. We discussed a few points on each of my items and all was done. Back to the bow drill but with no after effect this time. I had neared the bottom of the second hole in my hearth and it was time to start another. The end was here though and the results were in.
I had achieved a credit award. It goes Attendance, pass, credit, merit and distinction. I was happy with the credit and I didn’t know at least a pass was necessary to attend the Journeyman course. We dropped our shelters up top, had another great lunch before we gathered the rest of our kit and headed back to the cars.
It was a great week, frustrating at times but thats more of a reflection on me rather than the course. I met some lovely people, had some great instruction and a lot of fun, learnt bucket loads. Would I do another Woodlore course, yes. Do I have a better idea of what I want to learn, yes. Am I inspired to get out and do more, yes. I went to the course with some learning outcomes, making cordage and confident knife handling. I left with both, I also learnt how to erect a tarp effectively, a couple of fire lays, build an effective shelter and a myriad of other skills.
I’ve done a lot of courses in my life, long and short and the ending of a course was usually a celebration. I was glad to be going home but tinged with sadness that the week was coming to the end. I dropped a couple of guys at the train station and was home within an hour. The simple pleasure of sitting on white porcelain was an unexpected boon. If you’re thinking about attending a Woodlore course, go for it. My next plan is the Camp Craft course in 2019 and the Journeyman course in 2020. I need time to consolidate on what I learned, learn about trees and plants and become proficient in the bowdrill.