A weekend with Celtic Britain
Last weekend we had the pleasure of hosting a private booking of our Woodcrafter Course at our ‘forest’ site near Clawdd Newydd. The students were all part of Celtic Britain, a living history/re-enactment group from The Netherlands. Their chosen period and area is early 14thC Scotland, but with heavy celtic influences from elsewhere in the British Isles.
So why were they coming to North Wales to live in a forest for the weekend? Well, let’s see…
The group arrived late on Friday afternoon. To allow them to have a last bite at civilisation before heading into the forest for the next 40 or so hours we met them in the car park of the supermarket in Ruthin before driving in convoy to our forest camp near Clawdd Newydd. Here we carried equipment, water and food along footpaths between Douglas, Spruce and Pine to an area we have prepared with a raised fireplace, table, benches and parachute shelter.
The course doesn’t technically begin until Saturday morning, so after a safety briefing on moving through the forest, working near the fire and how to lay out a bivvy bag I left the group to it and set up my tarp and hammock. I had a new camera to play with, and the faces lit by the flames were just begging to be captured, so the rest of the evening passed in conversation and long exposures…
Saturday morning was a different affair however – I rose with the first of the group, donned the polo shirt and branded gilet of the Original Outdoors instructor and set to gearing up for the first session. Wayne, the second instructor arrived on foot, drawn to our camp by the smell of woodsmoke and Dutch conversation.
Knowledge weighs nothing…
The first sessions are always equipment-heavy. There is a phrase often repeated in wilderness skills and bushcraft – “knowledge weighs nothing”. Another is “know more, carry less”. This is more or less true in every case – you can reduce the amount of gear you have to carry by learning and practicing essential skills. However, when teaching a wide variety of skills, there is a need to bring a reasonable amount of equipment to demonstrate a wide variety of techniques and methods.
We separate our kit into waterproof, tough boxes to keep things organised, and the first one I reach for to start a Woodcrafter Course (after the welcome, safety briefing and issue of kit) is marked ‘Firecraft’.
The ability to light a fire first time, every time in all conditions can at best mean the difference between a wet, cold night and a warm, dry one and, at worst, survival or death. The methods and reasoning behind building a fire varies slightly based on need, environment and resources but generally speaking the moments after the initial flame are the same. The method of creating that flame comes in as many flavours as Ben and Jerrys, and we try to teach the most reliable and demonstrate the more exotic. We cover:
- Ferrocerium Rod (fireflash, firesteel etc)
- Match (including how to strike it properly, you may only get one chance!)
- Lighters (including reliable wet-weather techniques, suitable for jungle travel)
- Fire Striker and flint (including charcloth)
- Chemical firelighting
- Friction (bowdrill etc)
From there we move to tinder and ways of transforming a spark or ember into a flame. We also look at ‘flame extenders’ – items or concoctions applied to tinder to extend the burning time of that initial flame.
The next part of this session is held on the other edge of the woodland. We start with selecting a suitable site (free from overhead hazards, wind direction, the dangers of the fire spreading), gathering the right materials and preparing the fire site. This last item is particularly important in coniferous forests, where you need to remove the ‘duff’ and dig down to bare, mineral soil (clay in this case) and remove any roots or buried branches that may dry out and ignite. The area cleared is often bigger than people expect – 2.5 times the radius of the expected fire size is a good start, and a couple of metres away from trees and major root systems. We go through the process of building a fire, different ways of stacking it and finally the moment of truth where tinder is ignited and the fire is born. We coached the students through their own firebuilding, helping them nurture their infant campfires and then helping them fully extinguish the fires, ensuring minimal disturbance and replacing any forest floor materials afterwards to disguise the fire site.
The rest of the day, with a pause for a lunch of soup and a quick session on campfire bread, covered:
- Shelters (emergency, planned and natural)
- Use of cutting tools (axes, saws and knives)
- Campsite organisation and camp sanitation (including a ‘mimed’ demonstration on how to deal with the big question – how to s**t in the woods!)
This leads into one of the highlights of the course for most participants – building a shelter from natural materials. The six students were split into two groups of three to save time and concentrate resources. After discussions on siting of the shelters, some models to demonstrate different techniques and some more on cordage the two groups both opted for open fronted lean-to shelters, with a mixture of spruce boughs, moss and leaf litter to thatch them.
A simple evening meal and an early retreat to bed in the new shelters finished the day off.
Early on Sunday morning Wayne and I set to reviving the cooking fire and preparing firewood for the next few hours. As the smoke drifted through the morning sunlight I couldn’t resist grabbing the camera to capture Wayne off on a firewood foray, the sunlight streaming down through the Douglas and Spruce and highlighting patches of moss. Moments like this are what trips into the wilderness are all about – where the pace of our lives slows down to match that of nature, and our energy rises and falls along with the sun over the hills to the South.
The first session this morning was on sharpening and care of essential tools, again from a pre-prepared kit with various options contained within. We also looked in greater depth at choice of equipment, and which items can be improvised using natural materials. We discussed which areas we wanted to focus on for the rest of the course, and foraging, cordage and cooking methods came so we picked some areas to work in and went through everything we could. A short walk to one end of the site found a good selection of edible or useful plants and trees, and gave us a chance to look at some basic tracking and movement skills. We gathered some more spruce roots for cordage, and some green withies to make pot hangers and a few other tools.
On Saturday afternoon we had arranged for six, freshly caught 2lb rainbow trout to be dropped off in a suitable coolbox and we gutted and prepared these for lunch, combining it with some rice, foraged plants and some wild garlic I had packed in with me on Friday afternoon. The trout were cooked whole, stuffed with wild garlic and wood sorrel and tied back together with spruce roots – no washing up! Perfect.
Over lunch we spoke about the preceding days, and reviewed what we had covered. We had modified the syllabus at the request of the group, to focus more on skills that were in keeping with the reenactment period and what would be available to a roving band of Scottish warriors. We would normally spend more time focusing on certain skills, and the psychology of survival. I could keep talking for days on end, but this weekend a ferry home to The Netherlands was due and time had run out. However, it looks like Celtic Britain will return in the future!
The way we run all of our outdoor courses, but particularly the bushcraft courses is responsive and flexible. We have a lesson plan and structure, and do say “we’ll be covering that later” if a subject comes up that would be better discussed later in the course. But a session on say, shelters, will also include information on clothing choices, sleeping bags/blankets, hypothermia and biting insects. Building shelters involves discussion on safe use of cutting tools and how to prepare branches and trees for use as building materials. Subjects such as bushcraft don’t lend themselves to rigid templates and ‘approved methods’ – each person learns and comprehends based on their own previous experiences, and experience is what wilderness skills education is all about.
On the back of our business cards there is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson –
“Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience”.
I chose this because I feel it matches our approach to teaching – every single time we run a course there is a different experience for the students and the instructors, and the pace of that teaching is dictated by many factors – weather, time, the students. With any kind of outdoor skill you cannot stand rigidly against nature, you must learn to bend and move with it when required.
You can find out more about the Woodcrafter Course HERE.