You know Ray Mears, the guy on the TV who is passionate about bushcraft and who teaches essential survival skills? Like lighting a fire without matches?

Well, last week I went on a course run by his Woodlore company, to learn the firestarting trick and other survival-type skills. We were taken from the rendezvous point into the depths of woodlands on a private estate on the Sussex Weald, near Tunbridge Wells, where we pitched camp.

Our leader for the week was Woody, an ex-forces man with an unsettlingly good knowledge of stalking and tracking of the human variety. He was ably assisted by Stanni (an action-man lookalike from the Netherlands) and Willow (who, in her green hooded jacket and broad-brimmed woodsman’s hat looked exactly like a spirit of the trees).

Over the next six days they drilled us in the techniques of survival, and patiently patched us up after numerous mishaps with bushcraft knives. We built shelters out of sticks and leaves, made cord out of nettles (painful), fashioned spoons out of wood, skinned and gutted rabbits, and set snares for birds. We learned how to navigate by the sun, moon and stars, and how to forage for food in the wild. We soon discovered there’s a very good reason most wild foods are not found on supermarket shelves – when an instructor said something was delicious, it just meant it tasted less disgusting than the rest.

And yes, we started fires without matches – very hard work, involving lots of vigorous elbow action with a bow and drill. Even if you don’t manage to get your fire started, you get pretty damn warm in the attempt.

It wasn’t always fun. The schedule was busy, and there never seemed to be enough hours in the day to get all our projects finished and collect our firewood. Personal hygiene went out the window very early in the week  stripping off for an al fresco shower in October didn’t appeal, so I resorted to baby-wipe baths in a vague attempt to maintain respectability. And everything, I mean EVERYTHING, got covered in mud.

There were times during the week when I wondered why I’d paid so much money to do this course, when I seem to remember Girl Guide camp could be equally cold, damp and character-building, and an awful lot cheaper. But with hindsight, it was definitely worthwhile although I hope never to be in a survival situation, it’s good to know that if it happens, I’ll have some idea of how to fend for myself although after a less than impressive performance on the firestarting front, I’ll be making sure I’ve got some matches with me.

Finally, huge thanks to Mike and Melanie Norris, who have shown generosity above and beyond the call of duty. They uncomplainingly took in a smelly, muddy, cut and bruised stray, and have plied me with hot baths and good food. Very much appreciated.

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