Bushcraft course: part one
As I walk through the darkness of the woods to my hammock I wonder if I’m going to be able to sleep. I’ve never slept outside before. I’m wearing a thermal top and leggings, a long-sleeved cotton top, two wool jumpers, a pair of fleece-lined thermal trousers, wool socks, walking boots, a waterproof coat, a wool hat, a head torch and fleece gloves. If I were wearing any more clothes I probably wouldn’t be able to walk. It’s a November night in England and, although I’m here with friends and they’re sleeping in tents and hammocks nearby, I feel very alone. It’s a chilly night but it isn’t freezing cold.
When I find my hammock I stand next to it and take off my coat, gloves, boots and trousers and put them with the rest of my stuff on a tarpaulin on the ground below. Above the hammock stretches another, larger tarpaulin. It’s due to rain during the night and I’m hoping that this tarpaulin will keep me dry. I think about my lovely bed at home an hour’s drive away. I can’t quite believe that I’m here. A short way away I can hear, but not see, some of my friends laughing uproariously as they try to get into their hammocks. I straighten out my sleeping bag and blanket on the hammock and make sure that my sleeping mat is zipped into the bottom section of the hammock. I sit sideways on the hammock and try to gently swing my legs up onto it and into my sleeping bag. Instantly I fall onto the ground on my back. I feel dazed and am not quite sure what happened. I steel myself to try again.
I eventually manage to get into my sleeping bag on the hammock with my friend Anne’s help. I zip up the sleeping bag around me and Anne kindly tucks my blanket on top of me. The hammock envelopes me and I’m surprised at how snug and cosy I feel. The air is fresh on the skin on my face but every other part of me is cocooned and warm. I like the feeling of the hammock swaying at the slightest movement. I drift off to sleep to the sound of laughter from different parts of the camp as people struggle with their hammocks.
I’m here because of Anne. Anne’s amazing, a kind of superwoman. My daughter and her son were in the same class at primary school and when I first met her Anne was into 24-hour endurance bike races. She can no longer cycle because of a back injury but is now a world champion canoeist. Back in June Anne asked me and some other friends if we’d like to join her on a Jack Raven bushcraft course in Kent in November. I looked at the Jack Raven website and saw a photo of a man lying in a shelter made of leaves and branches and another photo of two women crouching down next to a small fire in the woods. The images didn’t appeal to me at all but I have this kind of perverse belief that if I don’t want to do something then I should make myself do it. And Anne’s a very lovely friend. So I agreed to join her on the bushcraft weekend and then tried not to think about it.
I arrive at the farmyard meeting point on a Friday evening with my kit, much of which has been given to me by Mountain Warehouse. Once everyone’s arrived we leave our cars, put on our head torches and follow leader Gary Johnston on 15-minute walk through dark fields to get to the woodland campsite. Meanwhile Gary’s partner Nicola transports our kit in a four-wheel drive car. It’s cold and already dark when we arrive but a couple of bushcraft regulars are already at the site and there’s a fire lit inside a parachute tent. Gary gives us a tour of the site and shows us where we’ll be sleeping. He’s set up four hammocks and a tent around the site for me and my friends. Each hammock is suspended from two trees and Gary shows us how to get into a hammock. It looks easy. Which it isn’t, as I later find out.
I unpack my new sleeping bag, sleeping mat and blanket and squish them into the hammock, hoping that they’ll keep me warm and comfortable that night. Once I’ve made my bed I head back to the fire. Nicola is making our dinner on the gas burners in the covered kitchen area next to the parachute tent. I offer to help but she says that she’s fine. She shows me the candlelit yurt nearby where a wood burner is giving out some welcome heat. It’s a chilly evening and I’m grateful for this cosy shelter. I add my camping chair to the circle inside the yurt.
Some people in the group have brought their own tents and are busy pitching them in the dark. Once everyone’s ready we congregate at the yurt, Gary explains about camp housekeeping and I marvel at how organised everything is.
He shows us where the drinking water is and tells us that there’s always hot water in both the kettle on the wood burner and the pot on the fire and that we can help ourselves to tea and coffee. Between the yurt and the kitchen is a bench with two bowls of water, one for washing our hands and the other for rinsing them. At the back of the kitchen is the washing-up bench where there are buckets of hot water for us to wash and rinse our own crockery when we’ve eaten. Above the bench is a drying rack. Beyond the kitchen are the composting bins.
Gary then leads us to the toilet tent. As far as I’ve allowed myself to think about the woodland toilet arrangements (which is not very far at all) I’d assumed that there’d be a hole in the ground of some sort and that using it would be damp, dirty, smelly and uncomfortable. But the tent is a revelation. Inside it’s roomy and dry and there are motion-activated LED lights and a lock on the door. It smells of clean, dry wood-shavings. There’s a wide kind of bench at thigh height. At one end of the bench is a wooden toilet seat above the composting toilet. On the bench next to the toilet is a small metal basin. This, Gary explains, is where we are to burn our used toilet paper because it’s not compostable. There’s a lighter in a plastic box for this purpose.
We head back to the yurt and Nicola announces that dinner’s ready. She’s made some delicious leek and potato soup which is served with fresh bread and is just what I need to warm me up. We eat by candlelight in the cosy yurt as we chat and get to know each other. We’re a mixed bunch. Besides the leaders Gary, Nicola and assistant Bob, there’s my group of five women, a guy from London who comes here ten times a year, a police officer and a couple of guys who’ve come here together for one of their birthdays.
After dinner we sit talking for a while and then head off to bed. I’m feeling nervous.
In Bushcraft course: part two I’ll describe my night sleeping in a hammock in the woods in November and the bushcraft activities which I took part in the following day. Do let me know if you have any questions about the bushcraft course.
Jack Raven Bushcraft offers a range of courses for adults as well as some for families with children. I went on a two-day bushcraft course which costs £180 per person including meals, activities and a hammock or tent to sleep in.
Thank you very much to Mountain Warehouse who kindly provided me with some of my bushcraft kit: a very warm sleeping bag, a comfortable sleeping mat, a useful head torch, some cosy fleece-lined walking trousers and 15 metres of parachute cord.