Two am and I am in a hammock in the middle of God knows where. It is unspeakably cold and my sleeping bag won’t behave. The effort of trying to force the zip to close while staying aboard is taking it out of me. To be honest, I’m exhausted. My pillow and blanket keep slipping to the ground but the tight frame of the hammock makes movement to retrieve them almost impossible. It’s also very claustrophobic. With the sleeping bag zip refusing to move higher than my knees I give in to my fate and hope that sleep arrives before I die of hypothermia. Half an hour later I decide this union cannot last. My bed at home is like a comfy pair of matronly knickers (and boy am I missing it). This hammock is like sleeping on a G-String.
Fumbling for my trainers, I survey the silent campsite.The moon is full, casting its bright light through the trees so that everything looks pure and clean. And yet I am too cold to enjoy the magic. Arms full of bedding, I trip over the para cords across the damp ground towards my friend’s tent. Through the gloom I catch sight of a neighbouring hammock. A few hours ago I was stifling giggles as I’d helped a second friend settle into it. Now the hammock looks sinister, rocking in the stiff breeze like an alien pod waiting to hatch.
Not wanting to wake the others, I softly call out my friend’s name. She sits up instantly and unzips the tent opening. I note, wryly, that she only has on leggings and a short sleeved T.shirt. Still wearing my woolly hat, ski coat and entire winter wardrobe, I settle on the narrow surface of the spare camp bed and close my eyes. After the hammock it feels luxurious being able to stretch out. But I can’t sleep. An hour passes, then another and I am still awake. Cold consumes me. It’s like lying on granite. My feet are blocks of ice. What I need is a layer of insulation under me, I think, suddenly remembering some earlier advice. My roll mat and blanket are still tucked inside the hammock. No use putting it off. I have to go back for them.
We are a group of twelve on this bushcraft weekend. Having arrived the night before in the pitch black, shadowy forms emerging from cars with only head torches for lighting, it is not until we gather for breakfast the next day that I get a proper look at everyone. We are a mixed bunch. The men in the group are clearly experienced campers; they packed light, can pitch a tent in the dark and have all the gear. With the exception of the friend I shared the tent with and who cajoled us into coming, we girls are novices and nervous ones at that. Camping in the Summer is one thing (I haven’t camped since I was ten). Taking part in a bushcraft weekend mid November is an entirely different matter. I’ve ventured far from my comfort zone and am already plotting my escape.
After breakfast (porridge and tea), we sit on damp stools made out of tree stumps and are shown the basic skills of carving. I still haven’t fully warmed up and feel distracted by the rain and biting wind. But then we get to have a go ourselves. All at once I’m using a nifty folding saw to cut through a log (the process of which warms me up) and make a wedge with a knife. This, I think as I reduce my log to a pile of kindling, is fun. Firelighting skills follow. I’d half anticipated the old rubbing two sticks together but it turns out this is the most difficult method. Instead, we are shown a variety of ways to start a flame, including one which impresses me using only wire wool and a V9 battery.
Next, we are taken on a woodland walk. We stop to identify trees and discuss their different uses, medicinal as well as a source for food. Hornbeam, hazel, sycamore, maple, birch, different gelatinous fungi including one called the Jelly ear which apparently the Chinese prize but looks too disgusting to sample, though others do. We learn never to pitch a tent under a beech tree. Widow makers, as they are sometimes referred to, are renowned for dropping limbs.
Despite the dismal weather, we are an upbeat and curious group. There is something quite satisfying about leaving behind the creature comforts we rely on and learning to do them ourselves. It might be about survival but it turns a tedious chore into one of adventure.
Accompanied by the distant sound of the M20, we move deeper into the woods and reach an area of survival shelters. Like curious sculptures, some have been built as wind buffers, others as a more substantial refuge. We start piling on leaves, moss and bark to the roof of one debris hut after someone suggests I sleep in it (my eventful night has been well broadcast).
“You’ll be nice and cosy in that,” they say encouragingly.
Mmmm. I’m not convinced but show willing by trying it out. I get down on my hands and knees, squeezing my 5.9” frame inside the mud cave and immediately decide that while this might work for a hobbit, it’s not for me. Small, dark spaces again. I just don’t like them. I’d feel like I was being entombed.
We spend the rest of the afternoon carving a honey spreader (well, this is a beginners course). This turns out to be the thing I enjoy most and so, it seems, do my friends. It is hard work at first and my knife keeps snagging the wood but there’s nothing like a bit of outdoor carving by a fire to focus and quiet the mind.
As it starts to get dark, we return to camp and shelter in the well equipped wooden yurt. It’s cosy in here. The wood-burning stove keeps the large, heavy kettle ready for a steady demand for tea and we have our camp chairs to sit on. Supper is chili-con-carne and rice which I tuck into with the enthusiasm of someone starved for three days. The rain’s coming down so heavily now that it begins to leak through the roof and I have to keep moving my chair to avoid getting wet. The only light comes from two tiny candles which hardly seem worth the bother. It’s difficult to see your food. We wear our head torches round our necks like jewellery so that we don’t blind one another as we talk. After we have washed up our plates, we resume carving our honey spreaders (curiously addictive) and the conversation flows. People start to head off to bed. It does feels late and I stifle a yawn but when I check my watch I am shocked to see it’s only 8.30pm. I have to be ill to retire that early so I keep one of my friends company as the fire slowly dies to nothing and she breaks a house rule by polishing off a glass of smuggled-in Prosseco.
I make a dash through the rain to the tent. This time I am armed with a hot water bottle and a sleeping bag borrowed from a friend who had to leave early. I can tell, from the way it springs out of its bag like something alive, that this is a far superior model to my own. I brave taking off my coat and settle inside. It feels puffy and luxurious. The zip glides up my body so that I am fully enclosed. I start to warm up. Soon I am hot. Kicking away the hot water-bottle I unravel my arms and hold them out behind my head. I am an inferno. If there was a window, I’d throw it open. Then I start to disrobe. Even my socks come off. Finally, thankfully, I reach an ambient temperature and settle.The rain is hammering against the tent. It is so loud that it sounds like it’s just above my nose. It is hard to imagine being able to sleep through the racket but I do. Like a baby.
For the last day we learn about knife sharpening and more fire lighting options. Then we are set a challenge to light our own fire using the methods we were shown the day before. Like excited children, we head off into different directions to gather wood. Everything is soaked from all the overnight rain so the trick is to pay attention to what is hidden (and therefore protected) and focus first on finding tiny twigs. I opt for the cotton wool smeared with Vaseline option as a fire-lighter. A few strikes of my fire steel and the cotton wool ignites. It’s like magic. Water fizzes out of the end of the twigs like beer froth but amazingly, with gentle coaxing, the fire takes. Soon it is throwing out a powerful heat. It is my Ray Mears moment and I feel a rush of pride.
It is ironic that the sun comes out at the very point we leave. As we set off back across the muddy fields to where our cars are parked, I cast a nostalgic look over the little campsite which has been our home for the weekend knowing I shall never come back. Whatever it was I needed to prove to myself doesn’t need repeating. That said, I have shared a memorable experience with four lovely friends and I’m glad I came. Would I recommend you do the same? Definitely. If you can get past the cold, those sapling trees in the bright moonlight are a sight to behold.