The secret of dining in the real outdoors

PUBLISHED: 15:09 26 August 2016 | UPDATED: 15:09 26 August 2016

Venetia Hawkes cooking wild garlic bannock bread

Venetia Hawkes cooking wild garlic bannock bread


Escape the phones and tablets and discover the secrets of dining in the real outdoors – Venetia Hawkes did just that in Buckinghamshire woodland

“That’s Jelly Ear”, David Willis points out a slimily unappetising looking fungus. “You can pickle it and eat it, but I wouldn’t bother,” he adds. There’s definitely no eating of bugs either. Delicate herb breads, nettle risottos, elderflower fritters - tasting like a cross between a summer hedgerow and a 1950s fairground, are the wild foods Willis favours. On his Bushcraft courses you can learn to light a fire, carve a spoon, build a shelter, cook over a camp-fire and enjoy a delicious taste of the wild.

Bushcraft, learning skills to thrive in the wild, has quietly grown in popularity. You can go on adventure holidays in Wales, spend three days making a long-bow in Sussex, learn water dowsing in Cumbria, make a willow basket in Oxfordshire, butcher wild game in Gloucestershire. East London has its own spoon carving shop.

In Bucks, in private woodland near Chalfont St Peter, David Willis Bushcraft provides courses and free family nature walks. Whether it’s enjoying a break from ever-increasingly technological lives; the satisfaction of learning new skills; or simply the child-like delight of fooling about in the woods and immersing yourself in nature, Bushcraft seems to appeal to some almost forgotten instinct. Ray Mears, the UK’s best known advocate of Bushcraft, says “When I sit by a campfire and contemplate the wild it’s as if somebody has whispered a secret in my ear.”

Bushcraft is gentler than its Survival-Skills-Preparing-for-the-Zombie-Apocalypse cousin. It’s about enjoying thriving in the outdoors rather than battling against it. All wood smoke in the twilight as the stars come out and supper simmers over the fire. Hobbits would do Bushcraft.

Willis, who also runs Bushcraft workshops at festivals Camp Wildfire and Wilderness Gathering, has been a Scout Leader for 15 years and served in the army. The outdoors is a lifelong passion - growing up around Gerrards Cross and the Chalfonts he and his friends built camps in the woods; later he motor-biked and camped round Europe with his wife Alison.

A combination of a trip with his son, volunteering with a Maasai tribe in Kenya, and admiration for Ray Mears prompted him to make the jump from a career in IT. “You realise there is something in life you really want to be doing,” Willis explains, “Watching Ray Mears teaching and inspiring people – it made me think about showing other people.” The rigorous training to become an instructor saw mornings when he had to break the ice on his boots, frozen to the ground overnight, before he could put them on and get a fire going for tea. “It was tough, but immensely rewarding – I’d do it all again tomorrow”, he grins.

Fortunately no such hardships are required on the Bushcraft experiences he offers. In a beautiful woodland setting every detail is thought about and taken care of, so it’s a wonderful combination of outdoors with mod cons. Home-made cookies round the camp fire. Birdsong all around. A fire flickering under a conical awning fashioned from a parachute suspended between the trees makes it feel like stepping back in time to an Iron Age round house; except with posh coffee.

He runs a range of day-long courses, covering three main aspects of Bushcraft - outdoor living skills, natural history and woodland crafts. Flamboyant Firecraft for your inner boy scout – the satisfaction of creating a glowing spark and coaxing a bundle of Thistle-down, Rosebay Willowherb seeds and Honeysuckle kindling into light is a pure joy. There’s Woodland Crafts - the ground slowly covering in curling wood shavings as spoons and spatulas emerge from the logs they’d been hiding inside, while new-found friends enthuse about one another’s handiwork. Backwoods Cooking – the pleasure of tucking into a lunch you have foraged yourself. Who knew nettles, with more vitamin C than oranges, could be so tasty and nutritious? Or that tea made from Ground Ivy (an entirely different plant to its poisonous namesake) tastes earthily of peppermint? Willis’s favourite foraged food is the versatile Wild Garlic. He uses the young leaves in salad with the flowers as decoration, makes a pesto from it with hazelnuts and olive oil or adapts a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe to make the flowers into onion bhaji-like fritters sprinkled with salt.

Willis has that great teacher’s gift of sharing knowledge with enthusiasm and humour; making everything seem fun and possible. Small group sizes, around six to 12, mean he can gently guide each person along in the way that suits them. You don’t need to have any previous knowledge or skill. “It’s a Bushcraft experience”, Willis explains. “You’ll learn something, but it’s not hardcore. Afterwards you’ll notice more, recognise types of trees, spot animal trails through the leaves, be more in tune with things, more connected. Bushcraft encourages you to be more conscious of the world around you.”

Willis also offers free guided nature walks, which book up quickly. The monthly family friendly walks, lasting around an hour and a half, are a chance to start learning about the woodland, spotting animal tracks, identifying trees and flowers, enjoying the surroundings with increasingly knowledgeable eyes. And he tailors courses for private groups, from companies to a forthcoming hen party: “The bride wanted something a bit different, where her friends would have something they’d made to take home to remember it by,” he says happily.

Bucks has a tradition of wood-carvers working out in the woods. In the 19th century the furniture making town of High Wycombe was the biggest producer of chairs in the country. Highly skilled craftsmen were drawn to the surrounding villages and Chiltern beech-woods to make chair legs and other parts for the furniture industry. These ‘Bodgers’ also turned their hand to crafting wooden spoons and bowls. Some lived out in the woods, working directly in the stretch of trees they’d bought to hone into furniture.

You can enjoy a glimpsing feeling of connection with those earlier craftsmen as your, perhaps at first clumsy, attempts to whittle wood become more assured as muscle memory and confidence build.

But what’s the best thing about Bushcraft? “It’s this,” Willis gestures round at the sunlight dappling through the trees, the robin hopefully eyeing the bread baking over the fire, the distant keening of red kites overhead, “the peace, the tranquillity, no need to rush anywhere. The simplicity of a fire, kettle gently boiling above it, whittling a spoon - it’s a great de-stressor.”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote of living at Walden Pond, “to see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.” Yet there is something more joyful, frivolous even, at the heart of Bushcraft. Something of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat bumbling along the Thames in friendship. A friendly inclusivity, a healthy setting aside of the bustle, even for a little while, to just enjoy being outside, fooling about with twigs, experimenting, learning, being part of nature.

And everyone can have a go, beards are entirely optional. “You just have to be curious about nature with a willingness to listen and learn and have fun,” Willis says; adding, “That’s the recipe for most things in life really.” 


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