Natural Navigation Course Report, March 2015

On Saturday morning I once again wandered down through the fields and along the lanes to meet the group for today, this time for our first open Natural Navigation course of 2015. Working and teaching skills outdoors is one of the best jobs you can have (well, I would say that wouldn’t I?) and mornings like this are a big part of what makes it so good. It wasn’t the warmest of days and the sun was hidden behind a layer of cloud that turned the Vale of Clwyd into a secret valley, ringed by low hills on three sides and distant Welsh coastline in the north. The trees were still in their winter state, but there was a palpable feeling of something about to happen – the energy of spring can be felt in the air, no matter what the temperature is doing!

My two clients had travelled up from the south-west of England for this course, and were keen to get going. We started by discussing exactly what natural navigation is, and how we have all of the skills to do this stored away in our brains – we just need to learn how to unlock them again. After this we had a quick tour of the village of Rhewl, looking at a mixture of human and natural navigation features that we can make use of (from satellite dishes and the weathering of buildings to the shape of trees and where plants choose to grow).

After this quick coaching session we returned to their vehicle, and made a point of finding landmarks and clues to direction in the immediate area. After a few minutes doing this we set off along the road and turned up the hill into the woods, all of the time logging and noticing features that we could add to our ‘mental map’ of the area, turning around and stopping to study the landscape around us at regular intervals. As well as being an excellent way to gather information about the immediate area and your place within it, this way of travelling through the countryside also ensures that you do not miss anything, and you get the most out of your walk. By plodding on, head-down looking at a map and GPS we might walk past scenes and natural points of interest, exactly the sort of things we travel into rural areas to see in the first place!

The route I had chosen was a circular one along footpaths and through woodlands and fields, and as we wandered we regularly checked our position and direction of travel against the natural clues and signs around us. By travelling from a known position, in a known direction for a known distance we can accurately locate ourselves once we reach our destination – all without using a map or compass, just a few simple tricks and tactics. Careful observation and understanding of the natural and man-made features of the landscape will unlock a whole heap of useful information for navigators of all experience levels.

We stopped for a lunch, and with the aid of a tennis ball, and inflatable globe and an LED torch we went through the basics of navigating using the sun, moon and stars. This course took place a week before the Vernal Equinox (Equinox coming from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night)) on March 20th, one of two days each year where the sun will rise in the east and set in the west in the Northern Hemisphere (the other date being the Autumnal Equinox in September on 23rd September). This is an important day for anybody who uses the sun for navigation, time keeping or who even has a passing interest in natural systems and patterns, and we talked about this, the solstices and other features of celestial navigation.

Our final challenge was to find our way back to the village by using the techniques we had already covered – along a path they had never walked before. Using the growth of trees, knowledge of the local area we had gathered that morning and predictions about how natural features tend to work (rivers run downhill to the sea, cold air sits in steep-sided valleys and so on) we found ourselves approaching the village from the south west.

Natural Navigation is not just a survival skill or a interesting trick – it really does give you an insight into how the landscape can not only tell us which way north, south, east and west are but how to find our way to point in the distance and find our way back again – all without resorting to map, compass or GPS.

Our next Natural Navigation course is in Betws-y-Coed on 21st June.

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