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.
‘Old Red’ our new Old Town Discovery 158 canadian canoe had its 2nd outing on Sat 10th with an overnighter involved. The usual and amazing magic of the Wye Valley featured again on this trip. Daytime temperatures were up to 17 degrees on the Saturday with quite a chilly 5 at night as we lay out under the stars in the Swags. The trees still looked very Wintry and they’re late this year, but up close, you could see the buds of Spring bursting out everywhere. Another few warm days and that should make a huge difference.
We heard the Peregrine Falcons calling in the distance and soon after saw one of them zooming down the valley like a jet, and disappearing over the trees. We also encountered a very defensive male Canada Goose who wanted to fight anyone that passed; to keep Mrs Goose safe. We met him two weeks ago on that trip and he was fairly touchy then to any passers by. We kept away both times to give them some space. Countless Buzzards soured in the warm air and a Sparrowhawk darted around the trees just yards from Old Red as we drifted silently. In the morning, we were awake by 6am listening to what sounded like hundreds of birds singing at the same time. At camp, I was pleased with my improving skills with a striker and small pieces of Birch bark shavings to get a small camp fire going, for directly boiling the Kelly Kettle and cooking some meat that I propped on a sharpened green stick.
During the night, I lay there listening to the Tawnys and my eyes had adjusted quite well under the fairly bright night sky. I heard a worrying noise on the pebbles and stones about 20 yards from me and picked up the outline and profile of a large Mink bounding towards our spot, closer and closer.
The Mink then stopped very abruptly, sniffed the air, and did a ‘I just smelt a bloke’ kind of U turn back to the river. As he raced away, he tore up stones behind him, like a car doing wheel spins! I heard the splash as he hit the safety of the Wye again.
On day 2, only 3 other canoeists were seen by us so it really felt like we had the Valley to ourselves which was a great feeling on that warm Sunday morning, as the lambs skipped on the banks along side us.
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
“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
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
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.”
Ray Mears has done more than anyone in recent times to promote the benefits of Getting Out & Staying Out, and particularly he has shown himself a great believer in the open-to-your-surroundings nature of the Campfire Tent or Baker Tent. In his episode on Roger Rangers in the North East United States and Canada he showed a complete camp set up using 2 baker tents, in some really beautiful woodland.
Here’s some pictures of Ray Mears Baker Tent Camp – makes you want to Get Out & Stay Out doesn’t it!
Ray’s set up shows perfectly the combination of openeness, ability to be warmed by a fire in front, and of cooking on the fire whilst staying sheltered in your tent. But the main benefit of the Campfire tent is in this open-ness to your surroundings – if you’re out there you don’t want to miss a deer wandering past your camp, or the chance to make a wish for a lottery win on a shooting star burning up in the atmosphere above you. Or an owl that flies low across your camp in the early evening. Using open tents these are all things I’ve experienced on my travels.
With winter well and truly upon us, it’s time to look at methods of keeping warm. Equally useful for the indoor woodburning stove as for the outdoor campfire, a knowledge of the burning qualities of our major native woods is invaluable at this time of year. Gather some Alder on your winter canoe trip and after dark you’ll find it hard to get the fire going, because of the high moisture content. Recognizing the exact species of wood from dead lying branches can be difficult of course, but look up, look up, and you’ll get a clue to what’s providing the wood lying on the ground.
The Woodland Trust provides this excellent guide to the trees of britain which will help with the “look up” part with beautiful and accurate illustrations from the Collins book.
Willow is one of my favourite woods and Willow driftwood is common on our river banks where floods surge through in winter breaking branches from the trees which are often half-submerged for much of the year. In this guide the “Crack Willow” is described perfectly:
“Crack willow is aptly named, not only due to the twigs making a ‘cracking’ noise when broken but also because old trees often develop a large crack in their trunk and are prone to collapse.”
And also useful is this old rhyme from an anonymous source gives doubtless hard-won clues as the qualities of the different wood available:
Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter’s cold
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes, and makes you choke
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread –
Or so it is in Ireland said,
Applewood will scent the room,
Pearwood smells like flowers in bloom,
But Ashwood wet and Ashwood dry,
A King can warm his slippers by.
Beechwood logs burn bright and clear,
If the wood is kept a year
Store your Beech for Christmas-tide,
With new-cut holly laid aside
Chestnut’s only good, they say
If for years it’s stored away
Birch and Fir wood burn too fast,
Blaze too bright, and do not last
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
And dangerously the sparks will fly….
But Ashwood green,
And Ashwood brown
Are fit for Queen with golden crown.
That ryhme from an unknown traditional source was found from an excellent web resource here at www.aie.org which also has a fantastic table of ratings and descriptions of the main wood species which gives a really good overview of the burning and seasoning qualities of different species.
Autumn colours make getting out into the woods a must…
For more “Bushcrafting By Landrover” see our LandroverExplorer.co.uk website – follows the same “Get Out & Stay Out” philosophy but applied to on-land travel instead of on water!
“One of my very favourite events of Spring is the magical but brief appearance of dramatic clusters of Bluebells right across southern England. Preferring shade, they flood wooded areas in an instant – like the annual gathering of some Secret Society of Blue. And each year I take pictures.
Because I can’t quite believe my eyes: their vibrant colour combining with the bright lime of new beech leaves in an almost surreal display. And because perhaps they might not return..?” Thankfully they do each year which is important as our native Bluebell’s which represent a significant 25% of the world’s Bluebell population – Find out more about Bluebells at the Woodland Trust or head to your local woods before this amazing scene is over!