Category Archives: Nature and Wildlife

Cold October Canoe Trip

A sudden down-turn in the temperatures in mid October didn’t put us off a planned canoe trip on the river Wye. We set off for a short trip with an overnight wild camp on the river, Autumn sunshine and the trees just beginning to turn, we had a brief shower once we got on the river, but sheltered under a huge oak tree, with acorns dropping all around us as the squirrels above were busy feeding before winter. There were a lot of pheasants around too, and we saw them scatter as the sound of a Goshawk called loudly from the tree just above us, something I’d never heard before – I still haven’t ever seen one of these elusive predators, even though the Wye valley and the Forest of Dean are one of the best places to see them, they are making a great comeback in recent years after being persecuted, like many birds of prey to the verge of extinction in the UK in the past. But the pheasants certainly know about them!

We canoed downstream in the most beautiful sharp autumn light late in the afternoon, the shower brought out the best rainbow I’ve ever seen, reflected in the river and reaching right across the sky. Arriving at our camp spot as dusk drew in, the temperature was dropping sharply, so with one strike from the firesteel on some birchbark and dry twigs gathered along the way we had a fire going, and set about organising the camp. With a bit of rain still in the air Hawkeye set up his usual tarp rig as a back-up, but we planned to sleep out until any rain came. In fact the sky cleared completely during the evening, but that meant the temperature really began to drop fast – with the fire roaring we were warm but a little apprehensive about how cold it would get during the night. The owls hooted all around the valley in the dark, and the sound of the fire crackling and the river running past made for a fantastic evening around the fire. We ate strips of rump steak on sticks over the flames, and big roast potatoes cooked straight in the embers – the best way: the ferocious heat in the embers cooks the potato much hotter than an oven, and really brings out the best sweet flavour, we both agreed that you need no more than potatoes cooked this way with some butter for a great camp meal. They were in about 40 minutes, then pulled out to cool: the surface turns to a kind of charcoal egg-cup, once cool you can hold that, break open the top and scoop out the soft potato inside, your hands get a blackened, but holy smoke it’s worth it!

Rainbow reflected in the water...

Getting the fire going and the camp set up at dusk

The stars were soon out, full moon rising too over the treeline, and later we retired to the swag and sleeping bags with the fire still providing plenty of warmth. I fell asleep with the freshening air, looking up at a billion stars, with the sound of the owls and the river, an unforgettable magical experience.

Sure enough during the night it got very cold: I pulled the canvas swag over my head to keep off the breeze, and slept soundly, perfectly warm and dry: still nothing better for me than an australian canvas ‘swag bag’ and sleeping out, no tent required. Worst case if you get heavy rain a small tarp over the top would do the trick, but unless you get heavy rain you can sleep right out there in the open, in comfort too.

Hawkeye woke early, and got the fire re-started from the remains of last nights logs, then poked my swag with a stick to wake me so I wouldn’t miss the most beautiful morning scene on the river I’ve ever witnessed: the cold meant a thick mist was swirling around over the water, shifted around by a light breeze, the river and the forest around was stirring. H had the Kelly Kettle on too so I had no excuse but to jump up, get some clothes on quick and enjoy some hot tea by the fire, just watching the day begin. The cold was such that a thick frost had formed on most of our gear, and it felt like a winter trip rather then autumn! Warmed my hands on the fire as they were getting numb it was that cold, definitely sub-zero by one or two degrees.

The Kelly Kettle fires up for some hot tea on a cold morning

Cold morning camp scene

The sun begins to wake up the valley...

After some coffee and hot porridge on the fire cooked in the trusty crusader mugs, we got into the canoes and pushed off to explore up river, paddling quietly through the swirling mist, the forest all around – a magical experience I’ll never forget.

Canoeing through the mist...

So here’s the video of the trip… watch it full screen if you can, hope you enjoy it.

Woodland Camp

We just got back from a fantastic woodland swag camp in a local nature reserve. Given special permission, we were able to camp in a place not normally open to that activity, surrounded by the sights and sounds of a protected woodland and grassland nature reserve. We were treated to young Roe deer and even a badger wandering past our camp, as well as a large male Roe deer passing by and letting off loud barking calls just outside our camp. We’ll write up the trip in full soon, but here’s a pic of the woodland camp scene – you’ll spot the green Australian “swag” wild-camping bedrolls rolled up in the pics below.

May on The River – Overnight Camp

Took a trip to the River Wye at the end of May with our Australian visitor “OZMan” to show him what it’s like in a country that has rather more water and lush growth than they get down under. A fantastic trip again in gorgeous late spring weather, OzMan even took a dip in the river and climbed tup to the top of Yat Rock, he was really struck by the beauty of our English countryside. I lent him one of our genuine Australian swags so he’d feel right at home! Somewhere along that lazy river as the evening drew in towards dusk I spotted a rare “Hobby” falcon flashing over the surface of the water catching bugs, something I’ve never seen before – a really beautiful bird, with a very distinctive agile flight full of twists and turns as it races after dragon-flies and moths, eating them on the wing. As the canoe drifted silently on the water we came very close, right under a branch where it had stopped to rest for a while, so I could see that striking red underside and dark moustache features. But it’s in flight you want to see this bird – a really magical experience, and one you’d be unlikely to see except from down at the water level in a canoe, approaching silently on the water.

Solo Canoe Camp

Just returned from a Wye canoe and wild camp – my first ever solo trip of this kind. It wasn’t supposed to be solo but my buddy couldn’t make it last thing, so I went for it alone as I was already in the valley. Just a ‘one nighter’ although an amazing experience to do on my own – it didn’t feel lonely although I was alone.

Plenty of company from the local wildlife though. Highlights were observing amazing aerial displays from the Symonds Yat Peregrines, also as many as 4 Greater Spotted Woodpeckers sighted, loads of jumping fish, as many as 12 deer really near the river bank and the first ducklings of the season were out too.


A fairly chilly wind meant the fleece stayed on and at times the breeze in my face made it difficult to progress with Old Red without a 2nd paddler, putting in effort too. I nearly tipped the canoe by not paying attention to a large rock just under the surface, given away by the rippling water over it. At the time, I was letting the canoe lazily drift sideways and got a hell of a shock to find myself tipped sideways on the rock as Old Red struggled to stay upright, in the middle of the river. Luckily, I just managed to push myself off of the rock with the paddle before the situation got worse. There was a second or two when I thought I’d be tested in the cold water with an unexpected swim! Phew. Was a wake up call for me and I will learn from that. The tough nature of the Old Town made handling it on my own, on and off the car and in and out of the river easy enough. They can take quite a bit of dragging around, given their robust build quality.

No rain came at night but I had a pretty good tarp rig set up and had a great night sleep despite the owls, really close, doing their Tawny thing. The river was full of May Fly early evening flying up in huge numbers. No other canoeists were seen on the trip although I did get up at 6am and left my wild camp spot, with no traces at 7.30am so I was the early bird.

I had no matches, lighter or gas burners as back up – just good ol’ Kelly Kettle and a striker with a few bits of shavings and Birch bark in my pocket.

Birchbark for getting the fire started, using a firesteel.

I collected a few bits of dry twigs on the journey down river. Pleased to say my fire lighting skills are fairly good now with a tidy little campfire going in no time giving hot water for tea and towards something to eat. Great bit of comfort, that. Same, in the morning. I didn’t bother taking a camp chair or stool. I just lay out on my sleeping bag by the fire until 1am listening to the wildlife and the Wye before getting in under the tarp. Cool.

Tarp & Canoe set-up

It was a clear night too. I felt as comfortable as I would be in any hotel! I had everything I needed really and I didn’t have noisy people in the corridor at 2am trying to find their rooms and get their key cards to work! And anyway, who wants a ‘five star’ bill when you can have a ‘million stars’ for free?! Get Out, Stay Out.

Stoatally Different Canoe Trip…

On Saturday 24th, we took ‘Old Red’ (our newest canoe, an Old Town Discovery 158) on its 3rd trip, on another ‘over-nighter’ on the River Wye. The river was quite low with the recent fine weather and Spring has now properly arrived at last. We didn’t see the Peregrines this time but were treated to a lengthy sighting of a Stoat, hunting alongside the riverbank.

Stoatally Different from a Weasel...

It moved quickly in the cover but we could see the distinctive white chest and black tip of the tail clearly – How to tell a Stoat from a Weasel? Just remember this old rhyme: A Stoat is Weasily recognised, as it Stoatally different from a Weasel!

I rigged up an improvised shelter with my tarp as we expected some rain at night and sure enough, at around 3am, the showers started.

Spring had Sprung in the Valley for our Camp

Simple but effective Tarp & Canoe Rig for a wild camp

Light Rain on the Tarp in the Morning...

The birdsong took over from the rain at 6am and it was incredible to hear this chorus again. The protective Canada Goose we’d seen on the last trip left us alone as we passed this time – he seemed a bit more relaxed about canoeists. Mrs Goose was still up on the nest as he eye-balled us from the other side of the river. Only a few Buzzards this time and the Owls were fairly quiet – and no visits from the Mink at camp – all in all, a Stoatally different trip!

Wild Camping

“Wild Camping” meaning camping out amongst nature away from a managed campsite, is one of the most fantastic and wild experiences you can have, without having to journey to Africa or the Arctic Circle. It’s the best way to really tune in to nature, experience the seasons changing and the wildlife around you, and for canoeing there’s no richer experience than paddling your own way along a river or lake, stopping to camp over night under the stars, and then waking up surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature before you move of on your journey the next day. But what are the rules and laws you need to know about?

When it comes to rivers, there’s an advantage in that as the river level changes it will expose the river bed, which makes it possible to have a “no-trace” wild camp. In practice you can wild camp on the shingle beaches anywhere along the navigable parts of River Wye (because landowners are so used to recreational paddlers) but this is also true on other rivers subject to local conditions. We’ve been doing it for 20 years on the Wye without ever having any problem even though technically, legally you probably need to seek permission from the landowner, but of course finding out who’s the landowner is not easy, but if you do know then of course stop to ask. Remember trespass is not an offence, only trespass causing damage.

If you can find an actual island in the river it’s case that’s counted as the river bed so no permission needed; but there’s no need to go hunting for an island, as it’s really no problem provided you always follow some basic rules:

  • no damage
  • no litter
  • no noise
  • no trace left

A Simple Wild Camp, with minimal impact.


Campfires & Firewood

Having a campfire is a key part of the experience of camping and wild-camping where it’s allowed, especially in winter to keep warm of course, and for cooking. Clearly conduct a risk assessment in terms of vegetation and fire risk and observe any local guidance. Don’t burn waste (plastic, paper wrapping, litter) – the fumes can be harmful and the residue may be impossible to clear up. Be aware when collecting firewood that deadfall wood is a key provider of nutrients to the ecosystem, via fungi and insects; don’t ‘harvest’ from one spot in woodland or on the vegetation on the riverbank – washed up driftwood is what should be used. Always burn off any logs before you go rather than leaving half-burnt wood around which lasts for years – don’t throw half-burnt logs into the river either as they’ll just float down and end up somewhere else. Don’t have a bigger fire than you need, extinguish the campfire with water, then spread and tread the ash well into the stones, until you can barely see anything, and you’re ready to go. One point: be aware that either wet stones or stones with air pockets in can explode in the heat of the fire – it’s only happened once to me in the last 10 years, but it can happen – take a first aid kit.

Water Levels

Remember water levels can change rapidly depending on weather upstream in the mountains, so be aware of whether the river is going up or down and keep an eye on the river level webcams before you go, and on the river itself and skies when you’re out. Be ready to change your plans if the weather changes significantly.

Camp Rules
Don’t fish either as you’ll be raise unnecessary and very real concerns of poaching; and don’t wild camp in an area that is clearly managed for fishing specifically, it’s not welcomed there.

Keep to no more than 3 people/boats in a group at one site, find separate sites if necessary. Use a swag or bivvy and tarp or a small natural-colour tent rather than a monstrous orange tunnel tent if possible! Best to keep a fairly simple camp and not spread all your gear around either, particularly anything that could look like litter – plastic bags, bottles etc. keep them stowed out of sight. Don’t stay more than one night in the same spot, because it’s not your land for a holiday – arrive late in the day and leave early.

Sometimes the landowner will come down to take a peek in the morning, or late at night, and if you follow the rules above you’ll get nothing more than a friendly wave or a chat about the river and the weather – they can see you are respecting the environment and their land, and just enjoying the outdoors.

(Necessary Disclaimer: we’re not legal experts so read up online yourself if you’re concerned and seek out the local knowledge in your area; publishing this guide doesn’t make us responsible in any way – enjoy the wilds of our wonderful country! Thanks.)

First Trip and First Days of Spring on the River

Last weekend saw us make it on the first river trip of the year, finally after a very cold and rather drawn out winter this year. It was fantastic to finally get out on the water, and with the river Wye in quite a bit of flow after yet more rain the river itself felt as eager to move down stream as we were! A highlight was taking our new red Old Town Discovery 158 out for a maiden trip, and I have to say she is a lovely boat – there’s something classic about the red colour – perhaps it’s from the Bill Mason days (see below), and whilst our green one blends in visually with the surroundings, the red one seems equally at home out in the wilds. There was really no sign of spring yet, despite it being the very end of March – just some wild garlic in the woods with it’s rich pungent aroma as you walk through breaking the leaves and releasing the scent, and a few daffodils of course in the churchyards and gardens. But otherwise it felt like we were there at the very start of spring – the first day was much like winter, cold wind and grey clouds, no greeness in the trees at all. But when the sun came out after the nights camp on an island in the river, and all the birds in the valley burst into song it seemed like suddenly spring had gotten underway. Buzzards soared in breeding pairs above our campsite, the river flowed past, and overall it was a pretty special trip – here’s to many more this year! View the trip in video below:


Some still photos of the trip:

En Route through the Wye Valley, "Old Red" on the roof rack...

En Route through the Wye Valley, "Old Red" on the roof rack...

Kerne Bridge - the sun was shining finally

Kerne Bridge - the sun was shining finally

"Old Red" - our new Old Town Discovery 158 canoe in classic red. This was her maiden voyage. Fantastic craft.

"Old Red" - our new Old Town Discovery 158 canoe in classic red. This was her maiden voyage. Fantastic craft.

 

This should do for a campsite for the night - an island in the river

This should do for a campsite for the night - an island in the river

 

 

Evening sky draws in...

Evening sky draws in...

Kelly Tea on the go...

Kelly Tea on the go...

Only just into Spring, we still needed the fire for warmth. We cooked some strips of rump steak on sticks, and some potatoes in the embers.

Only just into Spring, we still needed the fire for warmth. We cooked some strips of rump steak on sticks, and some potatoes in the embers.

What a morning - the view from the swag on what seemed to be the first day of spring.

What a morning - the view from the swag on what seemed to be the first day of spring.

Bright morning sunshine.

Bright morning sunshine.

2 Australian swags, and one red Old Town Canoe

2 Australian swags, and one red Old Town Canoe

The green swag from TheAussieShop.co.uk

The green swag from TheAussieShop.co.uk

End of the trip - loaded up to go back home.

End of the trip - loaded up to go back home.

Canoe Videos by Bill Mason, Waterwalker…

Waterwalker

A classic canoe documentary from the early 1980′s, still made available from the Canadian National Film Board:

“This feature-length documentary follows naturalist Bill Mason on his journey by canoe into the Ontario wilderness. The filmmaker and artist begins on Lake Superior, then explores winding and sometimes tortuous river waters to the meadowlands of the river’s source. Along the way, Mason paints scenes that capture his attention and muses about his love of the canoe, his artwork and his own sense of the land. Mason also uses the film as a commentary on the link between God and nature and the vast array of beautiful canvases God created for him to paint. Features breathtaking visuals and exciting whitewater footage, with a musical score by Bruce Cockburn.”



Song Of The Paddle

Also available is Mason’s 1978 film “Song of The Paddle”:

“Join outdoorsman Bill Mason in this short documentary as he and his family go canoe camping in the wilderness. Gain an appreciation for the art of canoeing while watching a small group experience the sheer joy and beauty of Nature. Along the way, the Masons experience countless adventures and some breathtaking scenery, including Indian rock carvings at Lake Superior.”

The Voyageurs

Another fantastic canoeing film available there is the documentary “The Voyageurs” from 1964, covering a subject featured heavily in Ray Mears’s recent series about Canada, “Northern Wilderness”:

“This short film tells the tale of the men who drove big freighter canoes into the wilderness in the days when the fur trade was Canada’s biggest business. The film recreates scenes of the early 19th century with a soundtrack by an all-male chorus.

Snowbound in a Campfire Tent

The Campfire Tent has been getting good use during this winter snow: kind of a ‘Backyard’ test for a snowbound winter camp here. The campfire tent proving itself again – giving great shelter from strong and bitterly cold Northerly winds, whilst allowing the openess for cooking, observing nature and snowbound views, and generally ‘messing about in tents’! In this weather the views have been absolutely stunning and I haven’t missed a thing – including a huge shooting star one evening. I set up just before the snow came in 10 days ago, and after the main snowfall the roof of the tent had about 5 inches of snow weighing it down – that’s a LOT of weight, and happy to say the canvas, stitching, poles and guys all stood up to the test. The pegs have been completely frozen into the ground so they aren’t going anywhere, which has helped in the very strong winds we’ve had. Walking the fields all the activity of nature is written into the snow in footprints – from tiny mice trails and bird footprints, to thin and whispy deer tracks and big badger prints – all the activity you’d normally miss in the dark is recorded for the following morning.

Also here is a backyard test of a new Hekla 30 firebox from Tentipi, a great bit of kit I’ll write more about in detail later.. The tent itself is from Green Outdoor and features in the Winter Camp story below. For now here’s the video:

Fred J. Speakman – Bushcraft Writer Remembered

POTP reader Colin Tennant provided this piece on some background to early ‘bushcraft writer’, the naturalist Fred J. Speakman (his books covered in our post here). He’s just completed a 90 minute DVD of a talk with Peter Read, a naturalist and resident of Epping Forest. Peter met Fred when he was eighteen and is a font of knowledge about Fred’s work and the forest. Here’s an extract with some fasciniating oral history of the Epping Forest area.

Oral history for Loughton and Buckhurst Hill

During the first half of the 20th century Loughton played host to thousands of East
End children who visited the Shaftesbury Retreat on Shaftesbury Road. School pupils
from some of the poorest parts of London were treated to a day of fun and fresh air in
the Forest at one of the many tee-total retreats that once littered the Forest.

Joyce Casey who now lives in Chingford, remembers visiting a retreat with her
school:

“When we got off the train and we were told that we had to be very quiet and we had to
walk along very quietly and so we did. We were very subdued but we were all bubbling with excitement inside so we walked along until we came to a clearing in the Forest and we entered this gate, and there was a kiosk in the middle and then we went
into this building and we sat down on the wooden benches with wooden tables in front
and there we were given a sandwich and it seemed to be that it was dried bread with
corned beef or paste or something in it and a glass of water and we had to have it
blessed.
After we’d eaten they then said “we’re taking you to the Forest” so we were taken to
the Forest and there we were playing rounders and various other games. I remember
going to a pond and seeing all these tadpoles and the frogspawn and everybody was
getting very excited about it, of course we all wanted to take some of it – Canning
Town would be alive with frogs! But of course there was no way to take any, and we
were going in the water and coming out and here again there was no one to tell us not
to, we were just free spirits. I presume that the teachers were around, but I have no
memories of anybody saying you shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t do that. Anyway,
after a couple of hours or so we were rounded up and then we all walked back to
where we were going to have tea.

You can imagine all these children who had been clean at the beginning of the day
were now covered in mud splashes and socks were down, and ribbons had come out
of your hair and so forth! We went back and had a current bun and a drink. We milled
around the kiosk that sold sweets and then we all had to walk back very quietly and
demurely down to the station and we all got back on the train. I remember going to
bed that night and I’m sure I must have had a smile on my face thinking about what
had happened during the day, and that was my introduction to Epping Forest.”

David Gannicot remembers meeting Fred Speakman, local naturalist, author and
educationalist, whilst watching for badgers at Goldings Hill:

“When badgers were much more common in the Forest, I often went with my brother
or a friend to a sett in Epping Forest to await their nocturnal explorations for food.
Since badgers have a keen sense of danger, it is necessary to settle down quietly in the
Forest about an hour before dark if you want to see them. To a young lad, the Forest
could be quite eerie with the trees taking on weird shapes as total darkness
approached.

The date was the late 1940s and the sett was about half a mile off Goldings Hill. One
evening, having patiently sat still for a couple of hours, we heard a quiet padding
noise from our rear. We assumed a badger had left a different sett to the one we were
observing. The muffled sound continued for several minutes and I began to think it
was not being made by a badger. Suddenly, out of the darkness a human figure
appeared. He had made hardly a sound. The man was Fred Speakman, a local
naturalist. We didn’t see any badgers that particular evening but were thrilled to
have met this knowledgeable man.”

For Kathleen Hollis the Forest was at the centre of her childhood:

“My sisters and I spent many happy days of our childhood in Epping Forest. Our
garden gate in Princes Road opened on the Forest, Lords Bushes and Knighton
Woods. We knew every pathway like a map. Many places had names- Side Path,
Middle Path, Suttons Bump, the Jungle and the Plain. We enjoyed going wooding with
my mother to get wood. We were only allowed the dead wood to help boil our
copper, to get hot water for washing and bath night. In the autumn we piled leaves in
heaps to jump into from trees, or if we were lucky enough to find an old pram, we had
a race track.

In the winter, the lakes and ponds of the Forest would sometimes freeze over. Beryl
King, who lived with her Forest Keeper grandfather Mr Humphries at Knighton
Wood, remembers hearing her relatives talking of one very important visitor who
enjoyed skating: “I believe Teddy Roosevelt used to come over. I mean I can’t remember that, it’s before
I was born, but they used to put all fairy lights in the trees round the lake and they
used to be able to skate on it! Yes, you could skate in those days. I learnt to skate up
there and my grandfather was a fine skater. It used to freeze over even after it went
into the Forest and I remember they had to put the danger warning signs up, as the
Lake was very deep in parts.”