Bushcraft Day

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Thursday 15 May 2014

Bushcraft Day

Prior to postponing our wedding plans we had been planning out what we were going to do in the weeks that followed the wedding and had booked ourselves onto a Bushcraft Day with Woodland Survival Crafts based in Spring Wood near Melbourne, Derbyshire. As hiking and outdoor living is something Esther and I really enjoy, learning more about bushcraft and survival skills is something we've wanted to do for a long time and this taster day sounded perfect. Unfortunately when I got ill and we had to postpone the wedding we also had to cancel all of the honeymoon plans as well, including this Bushcraft Day.

However, Dave at Woodland Survival Crafts was brilliant and really accommodating and as luck would have it we found the perfect time last Monday 12th May to fit in the session on our way down the UK.

We said our goodbyes to my grandparents in Beeston after lunch and made our way in the motorhome through the countryside, arriving in Melbourne about half an hour later. We did have a moment of panic when we looked at the track down to the venue and thought, there is no way this van is going to do well on that! But we were lucky there was a campsite just 50m down the road and we were allowed to park there by the friendly site managers and we ran to the venue down the track arriving just a few minutes after the 3pm start time.The centre was a rough looking, round building made of wood about 10 metres in diameter with a big fire in the middle and lots of bushcraft tools, timber and things that looked as though they had been made right there.

We realised just how accomodating Dave had been when we realised he was running the session just for us. There were 3 other very advanced people there on a mentoring programme with Dave, but apart from when he had to check on them we were getting personal attention which was brilliant. Having had a tour of the natural, outdoor facilities we got straight into it with a introduction to the area.

Dave walked us into the wood and asked, "what do you see"? After a few moments we answered as best we could, "trees and plants". So Dave invited us to take a walk through the wood for a few minutes and try and think of as many uses of the materials we found as we could. When the time was up we summed up our relatively short list such as wood for fuel, sticks for possible building or weapons, being able to tie things together with some of the thin branches and maybe some of the plants were edible (we didn't know which ones though). All good answers we were told, but not as long as Dave's list which included lots of uses for wood, food and medicines. Bushcraft, he told us, was about attention to detail and starting to see the area around you in a different way.

Next up was shelter building. The wood close to Dave's camp had a fair number of shelters already built, looking like half tents with an A shaped opening which tapered to the ground along a long stick and covered in vegetation which had turned brown over time. Some of these we were told had been built more than 10 years ago and were still watertight and sound with occasional re-covering of patches. Dave left us to have a good look at the building principals and then to deconstruct one of the shelters to work out how it was put together. Destruction complete, we were asked to rebuild it in another spot. Esther had already shown really good attention to detail so led the way in putting the structure together using 2 long branches with forks in the end to grip the ridge branch that ran to the ground along the length of the shelter. Then we started to prop up the other covering branches, before weaving in smaller branches and sticks to then be covered with bracken and fir to keep the wind and rain out. As we were using old bracken which was dry and brittle we had to put a lot on to get a good covering but the outcome was something we were proud of and seemed to impress Dave as well. Overall the build had taken just half an hour, but we were starting with all of the materials stacked up next to us. Gathering the right materials to make the task easy would take a long time in a real situation. Attention to detail is what the task is all about. Normally when he runs longer courses up to a week participants would sleep in these shelters as well.

Next up we headed back up to the centre and Dave asked us to use some of the timber that was lying around to build a pot stand that would allow us to vary the height of the pot from the fire below. Our first idea was quite complicated involving 2 tripods supporting a pole which we hung the pot from using a willowy branch and then we could rotate the pole to move the pot up and down. Task achieved, Dave then asked us to build another stand using a completely different design, so that we weren't fixed on just one idea, telling us that one of the keys to bushcraft is adapting to what you can find. After scratching our heads for a few minutes the next design was much simpler. We made a single tripod of  branches and hung the pot straight off the peak. To vary the height we moved the legs in and out. Job done! We were getting a lot of satisfaction using our hands to make something real which is not something you get to do a lot of in modern life.

Having built a pot stand we were straight on to the next step - making a fire. Having introduced us to the principles of feeding the fire with different fuels and widths of sticks/branches Dave showed us one way to get the fire started using a fire steel. The first tinder we were given was cotton wool to see if we could get it to catch a spark. Once this was done to our satisfaction we went into the woods to gather tinder and sticks, Dave showing us to get good tinder from the bark of silver birch trees. We gathered fuel for a good quarter of an hour and then it was time to make a fire. Starting once again with cotton wool we got a spark going into a small flame and then fed it using our silver birch bark kindling followed by dry sticks and then some scots pine branches.

After 10 minutes of slowly building up the flame we had a good burn going and Dave fetched us a pot and asked us to pick one of our pot stands to boil water. As we continued to fetch fuel and feed the flame we soon had water boiling away. Where is a tea bag when you need one! One of the biggest things we had seen is the different ways that different woods burn based on type, size, age etc. There is so much experience to gather just in feeding a fire and we had only seen one tiny part.

As the evening started to draw in we took a woodland walk and Dave introduced us to some of the wild plants and trees in the area. We even got to taste some things which was good as I was getting hungry.

The final task we tried before heading off for the day was the well known fire by friction. Dave produced a 'kit' consisting of a flat plank of a non-resinous wood, a birch pole that was very straight, a short pole with a recess in it and a birch bow with a string across it. Dave told us the purpose of the 'kit' was to show us that with the right tools that starting fire with friction didn't need to be as hard as the TV likes to make it seem, as long as you could gather the right tools and most importantly understood the principles, the wood etc.

After showing us how to get a coal built up on his own we got to try some bowing together with me holding the plate and Esther driving the bow, then we started bowing together. It was heavy work but after about 60 seconds we had a good pile of embers which Dave took and gently wafted air over until it glowed. Then he showed us how to tip it into a bundle of kindling and let us gently blow on it until after 30 seconds the fire took and whoomph we had fire! The whole process had taken about 3 minutes, with all the right tools on a plate though.

So with a great sense of satisfaction the our bushcraft experience came to an end. Even in just a short time we had both started to see the surroundings in a different way and will definitely be looking to learn more as we travel Europe, keeping our minds open to the materials around us and their properties so we can think of ways of using them.

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