Of bikes and bushcraft

Back in June the Redster and I went on our own exclusive Mummy-and-Redster weekend away.

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Home for the weekend

The idea was for us to have some bonding time together, and hopefully boost the Redster’s confidence…or maybe it was for me to squeeze the most out of the last few minutes of her childhood before she turns into a teenager. (This is an event that doesn’t wait for the age of 13, by the way. In fact I fear it may already have happened and she’s still 11.)

Either way, I wanted her to have some serious time and attention and to feel like the weekend was very much for her. I suggested it and asked her what she’d like to do.

‘Stay in a hotel with a swimming pool and eat in lots of restaurants,’ was the answer I was expecting.

What I got was: ‘I want to stay overnight in a wood and learn survival skills.’

What?!

And when I recovered, I realised, ‘But that’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do!!’

I did some research and discovered that there is fair amount of this sort of thing going on in woods around the UK, if you fork out for it, with a birthday party in a wood in Sussex at one extreme to a week with Bear Grylls (wading through rivers up to your neck and eating live grubs) at the other. We found a middle way, in Derbyshire, called Woodland Survival Crafts and signed up. Sadly, the weekend course – where you get to stay overnight in the shelter you’ve just made – was booked up, so we opted for a day course instead. They recommended a place to stay right next door – a fishery-cum-campsite where you can sleep in a little wooden hobbit house called a ‘pod’.

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View from the pod

I now think that weekend might count as one of the best I’ve ever had.

Having spent Friday night in our pod – which can hardly be described as camping given it had a TV and microwave – we had all of Saturday to kill, with the woodland course not until Sunday. There was a fishing competition in full swing in the fishery, if something as stationery as fishing can be referred to as being in full swing, and while it looked kind of interesting we know nothing about fishing and didn’t own so much as a net. I’d brought our bikes sort of on the off chance, and the campsite owner told us there was something called the ‘Cloud Trail’ for bikes running past the nearest village. We went to check it out and discovered that quite by chance, we had hit cycle gold.

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A thumbs up for making it back in one piece

Turns out there is an incredible off-road cycle network in Derbyshire. It runs alongside canals and a former railway line, over river bridges and through beautiful green spaces, right into the heart of Derby itself. We saw a sign saying ‘7 miles to Derby’ and thought we’d give it a bash – since our route was completely flat, by the time we’d gone there and back it didn’t feel like we’d cycled 14 miles at all – the furthest the Redster has every travelled by bike. We would probably have got lost if God had not provided a cycle angel at the first junction, disguised as a local guy who not only gave us directions but cycled some of the route with us, telling us the local history as we went.

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A view from the cycle path 🙂

It was a beautiful day. The penny finally dropped for me about why people get so obsessed with riding bicycles: cycling in June sunshine in the English countryside alongside a waterway, nowhere near any motor vehicles, on a nice flat surface, is possibly one of the nicest things to do in the whole world ever. The Redster and I were able to cycle side-by-side and chat most of the time. We stopped at a canal lock to help moor a canal boat, and made the observation that there is no such thing as a canal boat without a resident dog (or two). We ate our picnic in the shade of a tree. We returned slightly saddle-sore but intensely satisfied, to microwave our Waitrose ready meal (curry) in the shelter of our pod. The next day was brilliant, but we both remember Saturday as our favourite day for the sheer quality of time together.

Sunday saw us deep inside a wood (mainly birch, if you’re interested) with a handful of other families, learning things of utter awesomeness.

It started with shelter building. Shelters left standing from previous courses demonstrated that they really can be waterproof – they were bone dry inside even though it had rained the night before. To save time we were given the raw materials, all gathered from the wood we were in, before being guided through the process. As Mr Suburbanite was not present, the photos below are not the best quality, but should give you the general idea…

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The basic structure is one long straight stick and two shorter forked sticks (child optional). Simple

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Lean some ribs up against the spine

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Weave in some flexible twigs (birch in this case)

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Harvest some bracken (using minions if available)

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Add it to your roof

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It’s a bit like thatching – shove the bracken upwards, stalks first, through the twigs, starting at ground level then adding the next layer further up 

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Add forest floor debris for waterproofing (strange but true)

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Finally, admire the other group’s finished shelter, which is a lot more stylish – practically Andy Goldsworthy

And there you have it. Took maybe an hour including harvesting the bracken.

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If you look closely you will see that the Redster is modelling the string

There was plenty of other awesomeness, including fire-making from scratch (the Redster and I needed another three days to master that one – as it was we did make an impressive amount of smoke, and we bought a military-grade fire steel to take home so we never have to do it again). But our favourite activity was: Making String. From brambles! Yes! How awesome is that? I won’t bore you with the details…but it was seriously strong, and took all of about 15 minutes from the moment of finding a decent-sized green bramble. Nettles are good too, if you soak them overnight first, and lime bark is best but takes a lot more preparation.

So…if civilization abruptly comes to an end for whatever reason, the Redster and I should be okay living in the woods. Until we starve to death, since the course didn’t cover eating. Anyway, I highly recommend it – book now and you might get onto the weekend course for next summer, and perhaps civilization will hold up in the meantime.

The return journey was kind of poignant. Supper in a motorway service station felt like saying goodbye in an airport terminal at the end of a boarding school holiday. I know I’m being stupidly sentimental, but it was a kind of farewell, to special exclusive time together – who knows when that will be repeated? – and to an era of the Redster’s childhood.

I shall repeat this exercise with the Cutester, who can be relied on to choose hotel, swimming pool, unhealthy food and perhaps some light retail therapy. It’s tough, this parenting lark.

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One thought on “Of bikes and bushcraft

  1. Pingback: Holland at last | Subversive Suburbanite

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