it was about 9 years ago or so that I was coming to the end of my Bushcraft Leadership course with John Rhyder at Woodcraft School. With my fellow students we had to prepare a couple of weekends training to visitors to prove we had mastered our bushcraft skills and also that we could pass these skills onto others – in May of this year I was back down at Woodcraft School but as a visitor this time with this years students.
I had received an invite and so popped down one morning in late May. All the classes had been set up and after a quick chat catching up with John it was time to get cracking. There was a class on bowdrill by Jack which was great but I was not. I failed to get an ember – excuse – I was not allowed to use my knife to make adjustments as I had not done that class yet 🙁
There were classes on campfire cranes (a particular favourite subject of mine loyal readers will know), safe carving techniques and different methods of using a firesteel.
Another favourite of mine is the Atlatl (I think I was one of the first students on John’s courses to teach this). We carved our own Atlatl and were soon pinging darts down the range.
Then it was time for a stroll in the woods looking at useful plants. John runs an Ethnobotony course (which I hope to attend one day) and Lucy our instructor had completed this very in depth course previously – her knowledge on plants and their uses really came through on the day.
Back at camp Lucy had prepared about 15 plant specimens and we had to identify each plant and note its use correctly – tough but we got 100% after a bit of conferring 🙂
Lucy had also collected up some cleavers which she crushed up and boiled to make a green tea – this was really enhanced with some Elder flower cordial she had made earlier.
My final class was with Lee looking at animal tracks and signs. Lee certainly knew his subject however I had to leave (to run one of my own courses) early and did not get out on the tracking walk he had planned.
It certainly was great to get down to see John and the students at Woodcraft School and I wish all the students well for the future – as to you John, thanks for the invite and as per usual a job well done I think.
There has been a lot of skullduggery going on in the Aitchison-Jones household recently and it all came to a head in September 🙂
My wife Alison made sure that a certain weekend in September was kept well clear in my diary. I was told to pack for a family camp to celebrate my 50th birthday (location unknown) – hard to believe I have reached such a lofty age, I know 😉
So after packing we set off on a magical mystery tour that stopped off at the Arrivals lounge at Gatwick Airport. Passing through the gates was ‘Darling Barney’ all the way from Southern France to celebrate my birthday with us.
The pictures in this blog are a mixture from Tony Bristow, Ian Woodham, Alison Jones and myself.
The magical mystery tour continued to our friends Philippa and Phil’s farm just outside Dorking in Surrey. I was directed to a field to set up camp and we soon had our hammocks up and fire on. That night Phil came down to join us around the fire, there was a Harvest Moon and real ale and I was happy as Larry.
Phil asked Barney and myself if we could help him and a couple of friends complete a bridge at his girls school the next morning. I thought nothing of this as I normally help out Phil’s farm when I camp there and Barney is a carpenter/cabinetmaker anyway so his skills were needed.
It was a good morning mucking about in the mud building the bridge and we even stopped off for a couple of pints on the way back.
Unbeknownst to me Alison had set up a secret Facebook page and invited lots of my friends to the bash. While I was away folks started to arrive and needless to say that when I was in the car coming back down the field to the camp I was feeling slightly bemused.
There followed a lot of hugging and generally turning around with a startled look on my face as more and more folk popped out of the wood. These Saturday morning arrivals were friends from various parts of my life. Barney and Steve from Raleigh International, Liz, Rick, Stu and Gordon from Crisis, Alan and Dave from the Sea Cadets, Tony, Shelly, Robin, Jenna, David, Ian and Archie from Bushcraft UK
Alison had arranged for a delivery of groceries to be dropped off at the farm and a feast was quickly prepared. David Willis (Bushcraft With David Willis) used his bushcraft baking skills to make bread and our resident Sea Cadet chef Alan Lewis got on with prepping the skewers for the barbie.
I had gone from quite chilled out (must have been the two pints in the pub) to frantically running around getting the fires going, maintaining them and trying to chat with everyone who arrived. Those of you who know me personally know that multi tasking is not my strong point.
Added to all this confusion my friend Graham was spotted coming down the hill carrying a massive present all wrapped up. He told me I could not open it until later that evening around the fire.
After a few more beers (I kept opening one, putting it down, chatting, losing it, opening another……and so on, repeating the process) the food was ready and a lovely birthday cake produced.
Thanks to everyone who brought a present along – every one was appreciated and I am still working my way through all the single malts you brought along Rick, Gordon, Stu, Dave and Alan.
The wooden ’50’, Cliff, sits with my medals and other personal bits and bobs. It is a lovely piece of carving buddy.
Still not used the old military canteen, Barney, in case I damage it – it too will live on my bits and bobs shelf.
As for the Harrier knife carving, that log Graham that may take a while. (The massive present Graham brought me turned out to be a rare Harrier stamped knife together with a log from which to carve my own twelve-piece dinner service).
Thanks Phil and Philippa for the lovely honey you had just jarred 20 minutes before. As fresh as you can get I would imagine.
Thanks for all the Go Outdoor vouchers – I spent a happy couple of hours in there getting some extra kit.
Lastly to Alison for getting me that rather nice laptop I was really looking for (cheers for organising that Dave). It works a dream and I can process pictures so much quicker now.
The rest of the evening was spent chatting and from time to time Alison managed to extract some stories from folks about myself – many had the ending of me being hit in some way 🙂
A real highlight of the evening was listening to Robin and Jenna singing Happy Birthday to me in Welsh – I am not normally an emotional person but that moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.
A surprise evening arrival to the party were my good friends John and Caron of Woodcraft School (apologies I did not get a picture of you at the party). They just sort of appeared out of the dark while I was chatting away (just when I was sure there were no more surprises I was proved wrong).
Sunday morning soon came and those that had decided to stay for the night rose to a breakfast of bacon rolls and sausages before cracking on with some archery and Atlatls and posing for a Survivors’ picture.
Packing up was a sad business as everyone prepared to travel back home but I was still reeling slightly in a happy way from the whole surprise party.
I am still amazed at the distances people travelled to come to the party – France, west Wales, Leeds and more. Some came for the day and others stayed overnight. Thank you to all those who could not make the weekend but sent me there heartfelt wishes instead.
Thank you everyone who came and a special thanks to Alison and Philippa for all your organisational skulduggery 🙂
It has been 8 or 9 years now since I started making my own bows and Atlatls. In that time I have enjoyed making a number of different types and have brought them all together in this post. I am no expert in making them however I do like to carve them.
If you want to know how to make any of these tools just click on the title for each section to see a detailed How To…. guide on making them. This post will concentrate on my thoughts on them through my own personal use and that of my students.
I have probably made at least a dozen of these quick bows and taught many students to make them since 2009. They take no more than a couple of hours to make and are quite powerful for green wood bows. I normally use two hazel or ash rods taped together to make them.
I learnt how to make them after watching a You Tube video by Mark Emery (Sussex Woodsman) who is an expert woodsman.
The bow themselves are very light in terms of poundage (20 to 30lbs in draw weight) but on a high arc I can generally get them to shoot an arrow 60 to 70 metres. I usually shoot them on short ranges of less than 20 metres in the woods.
These have proven a massive hit at the Bushcraft UK Bushmoot and there has been a class run on them since 2009 with folks of all ages making them. I particularly like to see a family making one and then coming down to the range of an evening to shoot. I still have ones I made all these years ago and they still shoot well.
This was the very first bow I made back in 2008 on a Bushcraft Instructors course with John Rhyder of Woodcraft School.
As a group we felled an ash tree , split it into staves and carved our own bows. We did this over two weekends with a month in-between so allowing the stave to season before the tillering process. The ash flatbow has to be made wider than it is deeper due to its deep rings however if it is tillered well it will still shoot fast.
This bow comes in at about 40 lbs in draw weight and has a tendency to ‘twat’ the inside of your forearm so a arm guard is a must.
I give this bow mostly to adults to shoot because of its draw weight but with a good eye and a steady hand she can be very accurate. I started shooting right handed as that is how I was taught to shoot a rifle many years ago however my friend Charlie Brookes suggested one day to try left handed shooting and suddenly I started to hit the target. I am left handed and left eye dominant but the muscle memory from using a rifle made it difficult to shoot left handed at first – however with a lot of practice that has gone, so I am now happy to shoot with either hand.
I made this bow about four years ago at the BCUK Bushmoot and was taught by Wayne Jones (Forest Knights). It is similar to the ash bow in that it is wider than it is deeper however it is made out of two pieces of bamboo (the HowTo…. goes into detail of why two pieces are used).
Traditionally the two pieces would be joined together with wooden pins and strapping but on the day all we had was tape. In the courses Wayne runs nowadays he uses the pins and strapping.
It is quite a light bow (about 30lbs in draw weight) however it has the advantage of being made very quickly (a couple of hours in competent hands).
Another unusual feature of this bow is that the hard outer shell of the bamboo becomes the Belly (the part of the bow facing you when shooting) of the bow and the softer inner part of the bamboo becomes the Back of the bow (the part of the bow facing away from you when shooting). I am told that this is to do with the characteristics of the bamboo – because it is a grass technically and not wood.
This is my favourite bow. I carved it while doing a Primitive Technology course at Woodcraft School.
I carved the bow based on the dimensions of the ones found in the peat bogs at Holmegaard in Denmark. The bow has the lower parts of its limbs shaped wider than they are deeper much like the ash flatbow. The upper parts of the limbs are more ‘D’ shaped so making them stiffer but thinner than the lower parts of the limbs.
This unusual shape works well with ash as it is not a particularly strong wood for thin bows. The wide lower limbs give it strength while the thinner and stiffer ‘D’sectioned tips allow the limbs to shoot forward at a very fast speed so making it an excellent hunting bow where you get fairly close to your prey..
I also decided to make the nocks out of rawhide and spruce pitch rather than carving them in. I did this as some Holmegaard bows have been found with no nocks carved into them. Whether they had bone nocks attached or rawhide as I experimented with will probably never be known but they work well.
This bow is a favourite amongst the children I teach as they can draw it easy. Personally I just love the shape of the bow and it shoots well for me,
I have written a number of posts on these little devices. When asked about them by children I teach I liken them to these modern ball throwing devices dog walkers use nowadays. So if you imagine replacing the ball with a spear (technically called a dart) you will get the idea.
The set is made up of two parts – the Atlatl (the throwing device) as shown below and a dart (seen above). My post on the Atlatl goes into detail on the history of them and the different designs you can find.
The ones below are very simple ones. The left hand one has been carved from a hazel rod and the one on the right is from a piece of yew with an antler tip attached by sinew and spruce pitch.
I have tried to make a number of different Atlatls over the years and a favourite of mine is called the Lovelock Cave Atlatl (named after where it was found in the USA). I came across some drawings of this Atlatl on the web and set about making one.
It was thought to have had a bone or wooden point at the end to attach the dart to it but I experimented with just cordage. This seems to work quite well however there is no archaeological records that this adaptation was ever used.
I set myself a challenge a while back to produce a split stick Atlatl from just one piece of willow and limited myself to just my primitive tools.
I scraped and carved the wood with my flint knife and used the bark as cordage. It turned out to be quite a nifty little Atlatl in the end.
Atlatl with a Rest
I carved this Atlatl after reading about hunters in Arctic environments using this type of Atlatl. The rest allows the hunter to wear a glove while waiting to shoot the dart. The dart has a piece of cordage wrapped tightly around it that is pushed up against the rest so fixing the dart in place. With a quick flick the dart is away with no ill effect on its flight.
Thats it for me on bows and Atlatls (unless I make some more).
One thing that the BCUK Bushmoot is renowned for is its kid friendly environment. The Moot provides a massive playground for both structured (by lessons) and unstructured learning (through play).
As I grew up as a kid on the Isle of Lewis I would head on out in the morning to find adventure and return home when my stomach demanded attention. As I live in a village now that has busy roads running through it the Moot is one of the few places I know of that I am happy for my kids to go out and make their own adventures as I once did.
We stress that parents are responsible for their children however we encourage a sense of adventure. I let my kids run off and play within the main area of the Moot site and under adult supervision on the massive expanse of the sand dunes of Merthyr Mawr.
There are plenty of woods, dunes, trees and buildings to explore in the area around the Moot to satisfy the sense of adventure in any kid.
There are workshops specifically for the kids and other workshops where they learn alongside adults. Kids are encouraged to attend the Starter Course we run for anyone new to bushcraft or looking to work on their basic skills.
These basic skills include learning about knots, fire lighting, carving and safely using a saw (to name just a few). Wherever possible I like to get the kids learning these skills alongside their parents so that they can work together later as a family. Kids under 16 are allowed to use knives and saws however they must be under the supervision of an adult when they are using them or carrying them.
Even in this digital age of the xBox and the Playstation kids are always attracted to sticks, be that the Atlatl, bows or staffs. I like to think that the classes we teach kids bring some of that make believe digital world to life without any of the violence or gore. We always teach the kids to treat these tools with respect and only to use them when permitted.
My good friend Fraser Christian of Coastal Survival has been coming to the Moot for a number of years now. Fraser is always keen to teach kids in his classes. Some of his courses include campfire baking, net making, coastal foraging and survival training.
One thing I love about the Moot is that it is situated on sand dunes that have over the years become a woodland. This makes for an amazing place to launch yourself of heights or climb trees. Natures own playground you could say.
There are lots of activities aimed primarily at the kids from treasure hunts with our resident Pirates under the leadership of Cap’n Badger, to craft courses and games.
One of the games I run from time to time is a stalking game. Below you can see the kids trying to leopard crawl up to get some sticks without being soaked. This is a great game to teach kids all about their senses and in particular about staying quiet in order to see more wildlife around them.
For many a year now we have had story telling sessions around the fire of an evening for the kids (and adults too). Womble is a great story teller and keeps the kids captivated with his interactive stories.
The Moot organiser is Tony Bristow and depending on the dates of the Moot his birthday sometimes falls during it. It usually is a time to bake a cake and dish it out. Needless to say Tony gets a little piece however there are many hungry little ones looking for their share 🙂
The Moot is for kids of all ages be that young at heart (yes I mean you Spikey) or taking their first steps out in the adventure of life. My kids love coming along to see their ‘Moot friends’ and I hope they will continue to do so for years to come.
Looking at the BCUK forum I see that there is talk already about organising activities for the kids for next year.
Sometimes in your life a little trip comes along that really lifts your spirits. This happened to me last September when my good friend Dave Lewis invited me along to a camp he had organised for Enfield Sea Cadet unit. The camp was at Tolmers Activity Centre near Potters Bar (just North of London) and turned out to be a quite magical weekend.
Dave was leading a training session for his older cadets for the upcoming Chosin Cup competition and he wanted me to work with his Junior cadets on their campcraft skills. After setting up camp I spotted a load of folks heading down to a small pond so I decided to follow on and see what was afoot.
As I approached the pond I could hear a story being told about the ‘Lady in the Lake’ and all of a sudden the skies lit up. As I was just approaching the pond at that time I managed to get these two cracking shots of the fireworks going off.
In the morning I took the cadets with some other staff members out towards Northaw Great Wood (a local nature reserve). Along the way we had to scramble over some tricky terrain but managed to have a bit of fun when we found an old World War 2 Pillbox.
Once we got into the woods we found a lovely spot by a dried out stream to try out our hammocks. The Juniors had never tried hammocks before but soon got into the ‘Swing’ of things.
Our task on the weekend was to introduce the Juniors to basic Adventure Training skills such as using the map and compass, and to get an understanding of their natural surroundings.
So as we were learning to use the map and compass we carried a Journey stick with us. This stick had string and elastic bands wrapped around it so that we could add different items we found along the way to it.
The aim of the Journey stick was to ensure that the Juniors kept a good look out for different plants and objects so that they could add some of them to the stick and so tell a story of their journey when they had finished at the end of the day.
In amongst all this learning we took time out to climb the odd tree or two and just relax (the staff just tended to relax though).
We spotted many different types of flaura and fauna on our travels and played a little naming game on the way. I got the Juniors to spot different trees and name them something they all agreed on – so the Sycamore became the Star tree, the Ash tree was named the Centipede and so on. They would walk through the woods shouting “There’s a Star tree” or “There’s another Centipede”.
At the end of the day I gave them a chart so that they could figure out their given names. This method I find works well as I find that kids learn best when they are having fun along the way.
When we got back to camp we had a very full Journey stick with no two items the same. The Juniors really worked hard to finish the stick and each took it in turn to walk with it.
Back at camp we had a very busy campfire on the go with some great food being prepared by Alan and Dave Lewis. On the Saturday night we had a barbie and marshmallows, and each morning Alan cooked a fantastic breakfast with some lovely pancakes.
On the Saturday I had taught the Juniors how to light a fire using Firesteels so on the Sunday they all helped me to get an ember using the bowdrill. Each junior took part and we soon had a great big glowing ember.
One Junior said that he had watched the recent programme by a ‘well known survivalist’ where it had taken the contestants two days to get a fire going so he was over the moon to get an ember in just a couple of minutes.
Once the ember was stable we popped it into a tinder bundle and everyone took it in turn to blow it into flame.
I think the smiles on their faces kind of say it all about the experience they just had.
Once we got the fire going properly Alan Lewis took the juniors on a cookery class. He got them to cook sausages over the fire and then to make up a bread mix. The bread mixture was then wrapped around the cooked sausages and in no time they all had their own hand made sausage rolls.
While the Juniors were cooking their sausage rolls I wandered over to where Dave was working with his older cadets. They were practising some ropework to set up a retrievable rope system for crossing a river. All this was in preparation for the forthcoming Chosin Cup competition in early October.
To finish the course off for the Juniors I set up the Atlatl range on an open slope. It was not long before they got a hang of this primitive hunting technique and were soon landing darts on the targets.
I finished the weekend still feeling as fresh as I started. It is not often I can say that about Sea Cadet weekends (I usually need a day or two to get over them) but the juniors were so keen to learn and were a real bright and keen bunch that I look forward to being invited again next year.
The BCUK Bushmoot is about sharing knowledge however one thing it does bring out in me is my competitive spirit. That may be through making a tug of war rope out of grass through to the serious competitiveness of the archery range.
This sharing of knowledge may come about in many ways such as workshops, one to one sessions, presentations and competitions. This post is focussed on the many competitive activities we undertake over the two weeks of the Bushmoot.
The first picture I shared was of the grass tug of war we undertook under the watchful eye of Perry McGee from the National Tracking School. Perry showed us how to quickly gather grass, twist it, create rope and most importantly how to have fun with what we created.
One of the activities that attracted participants from all age ranges was the catapult. The catapult is a tool for all ages I think – sometimes we were aiming for accuracy and sometimes aiming just for the fun of it 🙂
My friend David Colter has introduced the sling and in particular the Balearic style of sling. The throwers all made their own slings from string and leather and it attracted participants of all age groups.
David has run classes on this for a number of years and he had a great time running a competition on the sand dunes this year. The sling throws the projectile at very high speed so I think they used tennis balls for safety’s sake.
Next year David is making this official by running the Balearic slinging world championship event at the Bushmoot.
One of my favourite events is the Atlatl. This again is a very ancient art and was (and still is in certain parts of the world) used as a hunting tool.
I have lots of different types of Atlatl throwers and darts however I use unsharpened bamboo canes for training. I use Atlatl throwers with rest attachments for the kids to use (they can be difficult to hold) and spend many an hour with my friend Charlie Brookes on the range teaching them to throw.
This is a particularly popular activity for kids of all ages (most adults at the Bushmoot come under this category as well) as the appeal of throwing Atlatl darts down range can be quite addictive.
We run an axe and spade throwing range as well ( more difficult than it looks) and it provokes stiff competition. I have not done this to any great degree (though I hope to throw more next year) but it does make for great viewing and photography.
I noticed the guys were throwing next to Cap’n Badger’s white tarp and positioned myself to try and capture the axes and spades in flight. Needles to say I had my lens well zoomed in and the shutter speed really fast.
I think Cap’n Badger was trying to tell me here what he thought of Phil’s throwing technique 😉
Each year we (that is usually Cap’n Badger, Paul Pomfrey and myself) run the archery range for an hour or two in the evening. This allows anyone who wants time to get in a bit of practice.
We run lots of classes for the kids offering tuition or time for parents to teach their own kids. For many who come to the Bushmoot this is the first time they have ever shot a bow.
Many of the bows are made on site including the Bhutenese bows (with Wayne Jones) and the Father and Son bows by Chris Pryke (I used to make these at the Bushmoot as well).
The archery range is situated well away from the main camping area in the centre of a beautiful copse. The range is managed well by a core team and there is plenty of time to practise before the competition.
We have a competition for the kids and one for the adults. Everyone who enters brings a present along and we also have prizes donated by others so the so the spirit of competitiveness can be quite fierce.
Usually we have three rounds of shots at different distances and the judges make sure everything is tallied up correctly.
The award ceremony is always great fun (especially as the scores are read out) and everyone walks away with at least one prize.
As the years have gone by and the competition has become a normal part of the Bushmoot many people look forward to this event so that they can walk away as champion.
The Bushmoot is a great place to learn however it is also a great place to come and test yourself against others, be that making grass rope the quickest through to being crowned archery champ for 2016 – who knows it could be you 🙂
Catch up time again – I ran a bushcraft course with my colleagues Charlie, Dave, Cliff and Alan for the Southern Area Royal Marines Cadets last June in the military training area around Aldershot here in the UK.
This is an excellent area with lots of woodland to roam around and learn about the art of bushcraft.
I wrote three short articles about this weekend back in June for the Wildlife Trusts 30 day Challenge I undertook however this is the full report on the weekend now.
Set up took most of the Friday and we were joined by a number of the Royal Marines staff so it did not take too long.
I wanted the cadets to experience sleeping in hammocks so brought a dozen or so along. They took a while to set up but it was worth it in the end.
The cadets arrived in the evening and after a safety briefing, some supper and a stroll it was time to bed down for the night.
Some cadets were in the hammocks and some under their tarps on the ground. It was a wet night however everybody was mostly dry in the morning.
We ran a number of classes starting with building different types of shelters, and looking at how the tarps and hammocks were set up.
The camp chores such as gathering wood and getting fires going were soon under way. At this stage we taught the cadets how to use firesteels to light their fires.
I had also brought a number of cooking rigs for them to try out. The one in the bottom picture is the Double French Windlass rig and is one of my favourites.
I wanted the cadets to feel comfortable so we spent quite a lot of time setting up different apparatus for cooking such as this Broiling rig or just taking time to chill out (bottom left).
One rule I had made at the very beginning was that unless there was an emergency there was to be no running. Quite hard for Marine Cadets to do I know however the feel of the weekend was to be one of a relaxed atmosphere.
So relaxed that magically some cup cakes appeared in Dave’s lap.
Charlie had a good time ponnasing some trout around the fire and it tasted equally as good as it looked cooking.
We spent quite a while learning about knife safety, battoning and carving. Then later in the evening Dave and Cliff ran a stalking game and Atlatl range.
Once the cadets were bedded down the staff relaxed around the woodland TV to plan the next day out (and have a cupcake or two).
I think you can tell by the happy smile on this cadets face that the hammocks were a success.
Our resident master chef Alan soon had breakfast organised with plenty of sausages and bread on the go.
Classes began again soon after and I ran the group bowdrill sessions. Every team that did this got an ember and successfully blew it to flame. No mean feat considering how damp everything was.
We tried out the handrill however without success. The cadets and myself gave it our best shot but the conditions were not with us for this one so we went back to using the bowdrill.
Some groups also carried on with carving their butter knives. Some ended up as pointy sticks (teenagers tend to do this for some reason) however we did get a number of very nicely shaped and functioning wooden knives carved in the end.
Cliff ran another stalking game involving water pistols however they all failed to work so improvised with squeezy bottles instead (worked a treat so I will be using them in the future).
I had also brought along a number of Father and Son survival bows for the cadets to use on a short range and they were soon happily pinging the arrows down range.
We had to pack up on the Sunday lunchtime so it was over before we knew it however it was a great weekend.
My aim was to show the cadets how to make themselves comfortable in the outdoors and to have fun so that when they went back out again to practice their field craft skills they would have a wider and better understanding of the nature around them.
The gentleman you can see playing golf with some pony poo is Chief Petty Officer Paul Townsend of City of London Sea Cadets. Paul has managed this weekend for a number of years now and it is one of the main weekends in the units diaries.
We had a great time navigating in the woods, playing woodland Jenga with logs, arm wrestling or just helping each other along.
The temperature was well into the late 20,s so some of the cadets took it upon themselves to cool things down.
We met up with the BEL staff monitoring the DofE groups along the way, helped each other and learnt a thing or two from the staff.
One of the things I like about this weekend is that we get excellent cooking from our very own RAF chef Simon. Simon has the uncanny knack of taking a few basic ingredients and turning them into a delightful meal.
In the evening I lit a Finnish candle and I managed to get some amazing Fire Faces from it. How many can you spot?
The Sunday is a day of stances. The BEL students ran a variety of classes such as camping kit, compass work, food and first aid.
Charlie had a great morning teaching the cadets how to use both modern and traditional firesteels.
In no time he had them blowing tinder bundles into flame.
Once the fire was going well Simon had the cadets making the best Shmores (melted marshmallows and biscuits) you could imagine. I managed to get myself a decent sized one eventually.
There were a lot more activities going on incling the Atlatl being run by the DON Lt Cdr Mark Macey (I am sure Mark is a secret bushcrafter at heart), running the DofE, campfire cooking and volleyball.
While we were doing all this a group of cadets with Paul were performing an honour guard at Boldre church for the HMS Hood Remembrance Service.
I have never gotten to this service as I have always been running the camp activities but every year I love to see the pictures of the guard.
That was the end of another great weekend so here is to another great one next year.
I can only publish a few pictures due to the Scout policy on this and must apologise about the quality of the pictures as I had left the focus on manual instead of auto.
I set up a scenario where the Beavers were lost in the woods and in trying to find out where they were, they found a ‘supposed’ aircraft crash site. Everything they found at the site such as a discarded parachute was put to use.
In no time they had the chute up to offer them some protection from the sun.
Once the chute was up the Beavers went out to collect wood and tinder for their fire (all strategically placed for speed as we only had an hour and a half for the whole event).
The Beavers lit the fires (we made two) using firesteels and we set up a cooking rig to boil water in a couple of kettles (a brew for the staff).
I had set up a load of hammocks around the crash site for the Beavers to try out. I took ten at a time on the firelighting while the other ten were told to conserve their energy and rest up in the hammocks. I had no arguments on this from any of them.
Once the fires were going we set off to do two other activities. I asked Amber (aka Kiwi) if she could run a drum stalk. This is where the Beavers are blindfolded and they have to walk towards the sound of the drum and touch the drummers forehead. All the Beavers managed this. It is a good game for teaching them the importance of using all their senses and not just their sight.
The other activity was the Atlatl. They had a great time pinging Atlatl darts down the range to finish off.
I had a great time with this event and by the smiles on the Beavers faces afterwards I think they did too.
Meet our Junior Sea Cadets from London Area – Cadets who love to learn by having fun.
A year or so ago my friend Lt Cdr (SCC) Mark Weston invited me along to help out on one of the weekends he organises for our Junior Sea Cadets. Mark believes that it is sometimes good to bring these youngsters (10 and 11 year olds) away on training weekends where they can learn in a fun manner but not have the prospect of an assessment hanging over them at the end of the weekend.
I was hooked on these weekends from the start as the Juniors undertake a number of different activities to learn new skills and I get the chance to play at bushcraft with them.
I was joined on the weekend by my friend Dave Lewis to deliver the bushcraft class in the woods. The training was conducted at Crowborough Army Camp but thankfully this time we got access to the ajoining woodland where we are allowed to light fires.
Many of the Juniors had never shot an arrow before but after some tuition they were pinging them down range as quick as they could. One little lad was so chuffed as he got the tiny bull’s eye on one of the targets.
Dave and I took it in turns to deliver different classes as we got a group of about 6 Juniors at a time for about an hour and a half each time. So while I was doing archery Dave was teaching half of the group how to use a firesteel properly and then how to build a proper fire.
I collect Fire Faces from images I see in the flames but the best faces are always found on the owners of the flame. Even Mark helped out with the fire lighting and I think his face says it all.
While we were having fun in the woods, other instructors were running courses back in the main camp. Here you can see Kay modelling some of the signalling flags the Juniors had designed in her class.
Also Sam and Lorraine ran a very busy and successful cookery class where the Juniors made some rather delicious biscuits (I know – I tried a few out).
Every Junior took part in the First Aid class with Keith and learnt about CPR and got themselves a signed certificate to confirm this.
A Sea Cadet course would not be complete without a seamanship class so Alan and Nigel were kept busy teaching all the Juniors about bends and hitches.
Up in the gym Darren our PTI kept the Juniors running around all day with fun classes to use up all their excess energy.
On the Sunday all the classes were up in the camp and included the ever popular Atlatl class. This skill has become a popular one to learn as the older cadets are now marked on this in the Chosin Cup competition held annually by London Area Sea Cadets.
Dave ran this class leaving me free for some time to concentrate on getting these pictures and capturing some video of the weekend.
As some Juniors were doing the Atlatl others were in the gym with Darren competing against each other doing lots of games.
I got some of the Juniors and staff together that morning to do some relay bowdrill. I didn’t have time to run this with all the cadets but those that did had a great time.
I put together two videos of the weekend. The first one shows all of the activities the Juniors undertook and was partly filmed by Deputy Area Officer (London) Lt Cdr (SCC) Cliff Lewis while I was teaching.
The other video shows the relay bowdrill I did with the Juniors. This was an experiment and as it was successful I will be using this technique with them again. Thanks to Chrissie Weston for filming much of this.
This was a great weekend and Mark has gotten a winning formula with the variety of classes the Juniors get to try out – I am looking forward to the next one in late spring next year.
I came back from holiday in France on Saturday the 2nd of August, unpacked then re-packed and headed out with my two kids Catherine and Finlay to Merthyr Mawr in South Wales on Sunday the 3rd of August. Unluckily I had been beaten to my usual camping spot at the Moot by another family but managed to set up nearby with my tipi, kitchen tarp and my hammock stand.
I found a fire guard lying in the sand and after digging it out used it around my fire. It was quite a well engineered piece and I could not understand why anyone would have discarded it.
The first few days were mostly spent chilling out with the kids before eventually getting around to putting up the workshop tarps and parachutes. This was the first year I had taken my children to the Moot and they took to it like ducks to water.
For the first few evenings we had dinner with Fraser from Coastal Survival over in the sand dune area so preparing the evening meal was never an issue for me, thankfully.
I could not resist taking this shot of Stu when he arrived in a taxi and we unloaded his supplies for the Naughty Corner.
It was at this time that my daughter started feeling unwell with a high temperature and feeling very faint. For the next few days she would sleep a lot in her hammock and eat very little. I thought it was just one of those 24 hour bugs but it turned out to be quite a nasty virus and really laid her out.
This is the first of five videos I took while at the Moot and shows the set up and some of the first courses that were held.
It was good to see all the new growth on Drew’s tree that had been planted last year. People have been leaving little tributes on the tree over the year which I thought made it look very special. While Catherine was feeling a little better she would come out and play with the other kids while she could. She never met Drew but I am sure that they would have gotten on with him like a house on fire. Drew loved to run role-playing games with the kids at the Moot and Catherine and Finlay love these types of games.
The first course I was involved in was the Starter Course. I have written a separate post on this course on the BCUK forum and you can read about it here – Bushmoot Starter Course. This is the second year we have run the course and it is starting to prove very popular now.
Over three of the nights I was at the Moot there was some great entertainment. On one night some of the lads from the Naughty Corner came down to the main sandpit area and had a great jamming session. Apart from filming them I recorded a couple of their tracks and then used them as backing music for my second video. Tony, the organizer of the Moot, even got himself some birthday cake on the night.
The other two nights we were treated to an amazing fire display by Emily, Liesl and Naomi Cook. These three young ladies are very talented and brave.
Here is the video of Emily, Liesl and Naomi doing their fire show on both nights.
One of the things that has struck me about the Moot is all the different art that you can experience there. Art in the form of music from Stephen Crump (recorded for my third video), Welsh love spoons from Dean Allen, Woodland Plant Art from Keith Beaney and art in the form of iron from Dave Budd.
Needless to say Spikey and Badger managed their own version of art up in the Naughty Corner with the use of torches and some evening spirit.
The main Moot kicked off with lots and lots of courses. I have posted pictures from just a small selection of what was on offer: making the pizza oven with Tim, mini bows with Wayne, water purifying with Richard, net needle making with Steve and spoon carving with Dean. There were lots more courses going on but I did not get to see them as I was on the Starter course all day. My wife Alison arrived on the first day of the main Moot and took a lot of the pictures of the day.
It was at this stage that we decided that Catherine was best off at home, so instead of staying, Alison took her back that day with Finlay.
The next video is of many of the first day’s workshops, with backing music from the Naughty Corner band.
The Sunday was another day of workshops and I tried to get around to as many as possible. These included knife sharpening with Chris, making tapestries with Shelly, tracking with Perry McGee of the National Tracking School and making a geodesic dome with Tony. There were plenty of other courses going on such as plant walks with Robin Harford and willow basket trap making with Fraser from Coastal Survival.
My video of the day has as its soundtrack Stephen Crump playing a tin whistle on a wet afternoon.
Needless to say I spent a lot of my time down on the archery range shooting arrows or atlatl darts. With all the bows Wayne had been helping people to make we were kept very busy.
I made a short but very funny video of Mad Dave and Cap’n Badger helping me to clear the range of a hung up tree.
At this stage I had not run any bowdrill classes but I had done a couple of one-to-one sessions. My neighbour Matt Baillie went off after one of the sessions and persevered until he got the bowdrill cracked – well done mate.
I also did a quick session on the Egyptian bowdrill method and made a short film of it.
The Monday was a bit of a damp affair but the Traders’ Day went well and I managed to try some more of Richard’s excellent elderberry wine.
I managed to get a little bit of food at the group meal before it was devoured. This is becoming a bit of a tradition now since we stopped doing the hangis, and it is amazing to see all the different dishes that can be cooked over an open fire in a Dutch Oven.
My last video of the Moot is of the Traders’ Day and the group meal.
I spoke with Alison that evening and decided to head home in the morning as Catherine was still very poorly. I got home by lunchtime on Tuesday and thankfully over the next few days Catherine started to recover and was soon back to her usual self.
I really enjoyed the half of the Moot I attended this year and my kids are desperate to come back again next year. There were another couple of days of workshops that I missed but I think this post will give you a feel for how the Bushmoot works.
I hopefully will see you all again next year and meet a few new faces as well.
After the day was finished I was really struck by how many of the skills I practice under the title of bushcraft were being practiced on a daily basis on the Isle of Lewis just a few generations ago
My brother Finlay has been attending Lews Castle College on the Isle of Lewis off and on now for a number of years and I was privileged recently to be asked along for a day to teach him and his fellow students some bushcraft skills. They have a great horticulture area at the college with some impressive greenhouses growing a wide range of plants. Finlay loves working with plants and the college has provided him a good place over the years to develop his skills.
The current course he is attending is called Grow2Work and its aim is to instil a work ethic within the students, giving them confidence and building their self esteem. The students develop a number of skills, such as working as part of a team and following instructions by spending time planting, harvesting vegetables and strimming plants.
My Grandmother Mary passed away earlier in May this year and while I was up on the island for the funeral my sister Tina had a chat with the course director, John Maclean, and mentioned that I did teaching around wild plants and bushcraft skills. Unknown to me, Tina had volunteered me to do a day’s bushcraft tuition for the whole of Finlay’s class when I was next up at the end of May on holiday to the island with my family.
I found out eventually I was doing the course and so, not really knowing what I was going to do with it, packed an extra bag full of bushcraft and survival kit. I fully expected to have half my kit confiscated at the airport but miraculously the security folk let it all through. If I had been asked to open it up I would have been hard pressed to explain myself.
I had been asked to run the course on the Monday so I managed to do a recce of the castle grounds woodland to find good teaching areas. While I was doing this with the kids my wife Alison ran the Stornoway half marathon. I shot this little video of the day recceing the woods and supporting Alison.
I spent a lot of time as a teenager exploring these woods around the castle and it did feel rather strange to be coming back to teach bushcraft skills in one of the places that my passion for the art started.
Monday morning arrived: I went off to Stornoway with Finlay Mhor (Big Finlay – my brother) and with Finlay Bheag (Little Finlay – my son). I met the rest of Finlay’s class – Murdo, Matthew, Alistair, Josh, Mark, and John – and the tutors John and David. We had a good chat about what we could do and ended up agreeing to spending some time:
making nettle cordage
identifying some of the wild plants growing around the site
setting up a tarp and hammock to learn some bushcraft knots
trying out some different fire lighting techniques
and finally shooting some Atlatl darts in the wood.
There were a few nettles growing around the edges of the gardens so after putting on some gloves I got the guys to pick some to make some cordage. I explained that it was thought the nettle was introduced to the British Isles by the Romans as a method of producing linen or as a method of keeping warm (urtification).
In Scotland historically nettle was used to make scotch cloth; the poet Thomas Campbell wrote in some of his letters, “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen.”
After picking the nettles the guys stripped off the leaves and crushed all the nodules in the stalks to make them easier to split open. Nettle cordage would have been made on the island in the past as it has been common on the island for centuries. I got the class to split open the stalks of the nettles along the full length of the stems and then pulled out the hard pithy core to leave long strips of the outer nettle fibre.
We then wrapped the nettles into short strips of cordage. The guys liked this as they could see how they could easily make cordage from nettles in their garden if they did not have any modern cordage to hand.
After making the nettle cordage we went for a walk up into the woods. On the way we stopped to chat about many of the wild plants growing around the college. One of the common plants was the Silverweed. I explained this plant was a staple food in Scotland prior to the introduction of potatoes in the 1500s and was known as Seachdamh Aran (the Seventh Bread). It was thought that a man could sustain himself for a year on a patch of silverweed the square of his own height. In North Uist during the clearances, homeless folk were said to be living on shellfish and on bread made from dried silverweed roots. A good document on this can be found on the BBC website.
After talking about some other plants including comfrey, thistle and some different types of trees, we set ourselves up a little camp. This was to show the class some of the hammocks and tarps I use when bushcrafting. They were all keen to try out the hammocks. I had brought along two types of hammocks. One was the EDC Chair hammock and the other was the Woodsman hammock. Both hammocks are made by my friend Mat Howes of UK Hammocks. After setting up the hammocks we set up a tarp and practised some knots, including the Evenk, the Tarp Taught and the Clove Hitch.
After lunch it was on with the business of making fire. We had already made fire by using a parabolic mirror earlier that morning using the sun’s rays – not often you can do that on the Isle of Lewis. Although I used a modern mirror this technique has recently been shown to have been used for thousands of years – World’s Oldest Solar Device.
We decided for safety to light our fires on a patch of concrete within the nursery area (normally I would use raised fire pits for this). I taught the class how to use modern firesteels at first and they soon had sparks going strong.
My son Finlay got in on the act as well and everyone was able to light up some cotton wool balls in no time. I have to say a big thank you to my wee boy Finlay as he was the perfect student all day, getting stuck in with all the others.
After the cotton wool balls I got the class to catch some sparks onto some char cloth that we then popped into some hay.
Everyone was happy when we got that first tinder bundle burning happily.
After the firesteels it was time to make some Lucky Fire, sometimes known as the Beltane, the Need fire or Forced Fire on the islands. In Gaelic it is called teine eigin (translates as ‘fire from rubbing sticks together’). Bushcrafters normally call this skill the Bowdrill but what is not commonly known is that this method of fire lighting was used in Scotland in some places to light fires up until the middle of the 19th century.
I doubled up with each of the guys to give them a feel for how it worked but due to a lack of time could not teach them to do this on their own. The wood was lovely and dry due to the sunny day and we soon had some good coals going.
As we were bowdrilling I explained how this technique had been used on the islands until very recently and it would have been quite likely that some of their recent ancestors had used this technique to light a fire. After getting a few coals we popped one into a tinder bundle and started blowing that into flame.
Everyone was keen to be involved in all parts of the process of making fire.
Even the boss John got involved and before we knew it we had flame again 🙂
As we could not keep the fire going because of the college safety rules all I could do with the class was to explain at this point how they would go about building their fire up so it became self sustaining.
The final activity was to get the Atlatl darts out. I could not bring any with me on the plane so I just bought some bamboo canes locally and made flights out of tape. All in all the set cost me about £6.
After a bit of tuition to each pair it was time to do some shooting.
In no time they were getting the hang of it. We did though have to move our target (thanks for your ingenuity here John) as some golfers had lost a ball and were searching for it in scrubland near the target.
I think John is a possible convert to the Atlatl by the look of the concentration on his face.
I really enjoyed teaching my brother Finlay to use the Atlatl.
In the end they all got the hang of it and were happy to be chucking darts down the range.
I must in the end thank my sister Tina and John for arranging this day as I had a fabulous time working with everyone in Finlay’s class.
After the day was finished I was really struck by how many of the skills I practise under the title of bushcraft were being practised on a daily basis on the Isle of Lewis just a few generations ago.
No pressure, no assessments, no worries – just fun, fun and more fun – these were the requirements for the recent London Area Sea Cadet Juniors training weekend at Crowborough Army camp.
I was joined by my good friend Charlie Brookes for the weekend teaching some bushcraft skills to the cadets. Also helping us were one our new Adventure Training instructors Emma Deasy and Leading Cadet Jessica Edwards (Jessica is under training to become an Adventure Leader).
We set up our classroom and prepared for all our activities on the Friday afternoon. At this stage it was just Charlie and myself but as he is a top bushcrafter everything got set up in record time.
As the cadets arrived on the Friday evening Charlie and myself relaxed around a nice fire and discussed how best to run the weekend. We did not have to look after the cadets in the evenings as there were enough ‘Duty Staff’ around to do this.
There were lots of activities planned for the cadets. The plan was for us to be given six cadets for an hour or so and then they would be moved onto other activities. On the saturday we had 3 teams in the morning and 3 in the afternoon.
We ran various activities in each slot including the Atlatl, archery, fire lighting and stalking games.
The Atlatl (a spear chucking device) has become a regular event at many of our courses. Just looking at these cadets you can see that they really enjoy this activity. I set up a short range of about 15 meters as I was more focused on accuracy rather than distance.
One of the other activities the cadets undertook was a cookery class (Cook Stewards course in the Sea Cadets). I was supplied on a number of occasions with some excellent cookies that were baked in this class and every time I went into the main building I was assaulted by a fantastic smell of baking biscuits.
As you can see that the little fella in the picture just above on the right turned out to be a proper little Minion. This was baked by one of the other instructors Emma.
Charlie spent a great deal of the day teaching the cadets how to light a fire in many different ways and also about the responsibilities they need to think about when lighting a fire. In these pictures the cadets are using traditional flint and steels on the left and more modern firesteels on the right.
Some take to this straight away and others require a little bit of a helping hand.
In no time the cadets were creating good sparks from traditional flint and steels and lighting up cotton wool balls smeared in Vaseline with modern firesteels.
The cadets also lit lots of charcloth and soon had good tinder bundles going.
I put together a short video showing all these activities.
I asked Emma at some time on the Saturday to go around the other classes and get one or two pictures of each one. Emma did get some good pictures but I also found this on my camera – scary stuff 😉
A little toy that really caught the attention of the cadets was the parabolic mirror. This is a concave mirror that you can use to light a small piece of material just using the suns rays.
Other classes the cadets undertook included First Aid and Physical Training.
One of the activities I like to teach the cadets is about listening correctly while out and about. They all come from London so for many they do not truly listen to the countryside when out and about. to begin with I get them to focus their listening by cupping their hands to their ears. This really increases the sound volume from the direction they are facing and as they turn around they can clearly hear everything coming from quite a distance.
After they get used to this we blindfold them so that they can appreciate how much sound can help us with spotting animals in the woods.
The drum stalk is a game where the participants are blindfolded and have to walk from an unknown spot (to them) and touch the head of the drummer. The drummer gently taps the drum (a bucket in this case) to give the participants a focus to walk to. Each participant has a guide walking by them to make sure they do not fall into any holes or trip over anything.
Being Sea Cadets a training weekend would not be complete without a class on Seamanship and on Comms skills. In Seamanship the cadets learnt how to make a monkeys fist – this is a type of knot that creates a weight using the rope and is used for throwing a heaving line from a boat to the shore in order to tie it up.
In the comms class the cadets learnt all about how to use radios properly by getting out and about using hand held radios and they also made their own semaphore flags.
After each Atlatl session I also got the cadets to shoot some arrows down the range. I managed to get some cracking shots this time of the arrows being released.
On the Sunday morning a competition was held and we set up an Atlatl range so that the cadets could try out all the skills they had learnt the previous day.
The cadets were definitely better than the staff with both accuracy and enthusiasm.
The PT staff also set up an indoor sports competition for the cadets. I walked into the hall and the noise of all the cadets egging their pals on was amazing.
A staff team was put together and thankfully as I was seen to be too busy filming was left alone. In all the madness and fun that was being had I have no idea who won.
In amongst all this fun we did find time to do some other stuff. Charlie tested out a Wood Gas stove and I managed to do a little pot hook carving (a How To on this to follow).
A great weekend with great Sea Cadets both young and old.
Helping me on the weekend were Dave Lewis and Charlie Brookes (and at different times Christine Weston and Emma Deasy).
The weekend’s weather was pretty poor to say the least with a lot of rain and some quite high winds.
The high winds were a concern for me so I told the cadets that sleeping in hammocks over the weekend was not an option. A few were upset but soon got on with things. The cadets ended up sleeping in their tents in the grounds of the main camp nowhere near any trees.
They had to set up the main tarps to work under, after a bit of instruction on knots they were left to their own devices and managed to get two big tarps up by themselves.
Once the tarps were up the cadets had to collect dry wood from the surrounding area. As it had been raining heavily there was very little in the way of dry wood lying around so we taught them how to identify dead standing wood. Thankfully the woodland had been coppiced in the past and left untouched for many years so there were plenty of dead standing coppice poles in the area.
Once all the wood had been collected and graded it was time to play with some firesteels.
(NB The light levels in the woodland were poor and I only had my phone camera to hand so some of the pictures have been brightened slightly or have had the colours in them deepened slightly.)
Once they got the hang of lighting char cloth the cadets experimented with other tinders such as pampas grass and birch bark.
Everything was very damp but the cadets persevered and eventually had two good fires going to get a hot brew on. As we were running the course in the woodland within the grounds of the camp all the cadets were being fed from the main camp galley. This freed us up to concentrate on different bushcraft activities without having to worry about getting food cooked over the open fires.
One of these activities was to introduce the cadets to a bit of safe knife use. After discussing safety issues and the legalities of using a knife, the cadets learnt how to carve themselves a small wedge. I like this simple activity as it involves using a variety of carving techniques.
The cadets practised cutting techniques safely, making cuts away from themselves and in front of them or off to the side. We spent a good hour trying out different cuts and everyone managed to finish their wedges.
The wedges were needed because the next lesson was about battoning – where you use your knife more like an axe to split small logs. I did a demonstration to the class showing the whole process and then we split into two groups to let the cadets have a go themselves.
I find battoning is best done kneeling down and with the use of a stump on which to rest the piece of wood that needs to be split.
The knife is positioned on top of the piece of wood at 90 degrees to the body and the back of the blade is struck with the ‘hammer’ (a small but weighty stick) so that the edge of the blade is driven into the wood. I published an article on knife safety last year that covers battoning in more detail.
Here you can see that the knives have been driven well into the wood and the wedges are now being used to widen the split further.
The cadets got the hang of it pretty quickly and were soon splitting the wood down.
Here the knife has been removed and the cadets are using the stump to help drive the wedge into the wood to split it.
Later that afternoon we started on two shelters. Normally I would ask for volunteers to try and sleep out in them but due to the high winds I did not offer the cadets the option this time. The weather was quite cold, but this activity kept them moving and warm.
It was not until well after dark that I called a halt to the shelter building but they did a good job and worked well together.
Even though the weather was not kind to them and we worked them hard there was still time to play and chill out around the fire with a marshmallow or two.
We stayed a couple of hours around the fire before sending the cadets back to the main camp and getting our own heads down. All the instructors stayed in the woods with our hammocks and it was a slightly ‘swaying’ night to say the least with lots of creaking from the trees above us.
Charlie had a brew on first thing and also showed the cadets how to use the Kelly Kettles safely.
There was time for a couple of posed pictures in front of the shelters before the cadets dismantled them both and scattered the debris back around the site so as to leave no trace of them. Apart from becoming unstable if left up, shelters tend to attract rodents to the site (since it’s not just humans who seek shelter) – so down they came.
For the next couple of hours it was time for Atlatls, bows and stalking games.
Once the cadets got their eye in some had pretty good groupings.
Even the staff managed to get a shoot in 🙂
Even though the cadets did not get to use the hammocks and tarps this time we did get some out for them to try.
The final part of the weekend was to return the campsite to the condition we found it in, if not better. This was the easy part of the weekend as the teams were now working well together and everything was stripped down and packed away quickly.
I hope to run one or two more bushcraft courses for the cadets this year and give them the chance to sleep out in a hammock.
Even though the weather was against us this time the cadets knuckled down, worked hard, had great fun and made things comfy for themselves – that’s bushcrafting for you.
Every September for the last 5 years many of the ladies of Bramley, Hampshire have come together for a very special race. It’s called Iron Mumand these ladies train very hard throughout the months leading up to it. Many will have started for the first that year having not trained in any way for years (or never) and in a matter of a few short months are running, cycling and sprinting in this race. My wife Alison is one of the organisers and for the first few years she had me out on the route doing marshalling. Thankfully that came to an end two years ago when I was redeployed to the fun day, and now I get to play at bushcraft while the ladies are out running. Catch is though, I have to help about 20+ kids (and the occasional mum or dad as well) achieve an ember using a bowdrill. Luckily for me I enjoy the whole fire-making business.
The day for me starts early as I have to set up my bushcraft area and help with setting up the race. Normally I start about 6am setting up my tipi as a focal point for the bushcraft. I have the fire area set up near the tipi and an Atlatl range set up behind it.
Inside my tipi hanging on a rope from the centre pole is a Burdock hanger for my jacket and bits and bobs. I will be posting a How To…. on these hangers shortly.
One of the main things I have to prepare are the drill pieces for the bowdrill. I will go through quite a few before the day is out.
Once everything is set up it is good to get a brew on. I like to use the Kelly Kettle for this as the fire area is self contained. Also it is good for these kind of shows as people can learn some basic fire starting skills using one. In this picture though is Tom Gilbert (a fellow member of BCUK) who was perfectly capable of getting the Kelly going and a brew on.
Last year I got my first customers even before the race started. I try and explain all the different parts but sometimes the queue is too big or the kids just have that look in their eye that says ‘Just get on with it!’.
To give that feeling of teamwork (and maximise the number of kids having a shot) I try to get them to double up with me. The need to master the bowdrill solo only starts to take hold in the teenage years, so all the kids I work with are usually very happy to work as part of a team in firemaking.
My son Finlay though was very insistent on just the two of us having a go. Thankfully the day was warm, the wind was gentle and steady and I had plenty of dry timber, so we got lots of embers really quickly.
The kids were pretty enthralled with seeing a glowing ember and were really protective of what they had just created. The wind was just strong enough to be helpful with the embryonic ember’s start in life but potentially strong enough to immediately blow it apart if it was not protected. Kind of a Catch 22 situation, but the kids managed to protect their embers until they were strong enough to pop into a tinder bundle.
Each ember produced a nice bundle of flame. With these tinder bundles I generally hold them unless the kids are really keen to do so. I then get all the kids to queue up behind my shoulder and take turns blowing it into flame.
While all this was going on, the stance next to me was doing a bit of hay bale throwing. Never tried this before and only got it about half as far as the winner (must be a knack thing, obviously). The kids shied away from this one so my friend Michael and myself took turns throwing the bale with any of the kids who wanted a go. Turned out to be a hit after that. (Michael though had done his shoulder in earlier so when his good wife Helen found out what he had been up to there were a few choice words said) 😉
The other activity I offer is an Atlatl range. It is very small but it has a good turnover of kids. Michael is quite happy to run this stand for me (thanks mate). I have a range of different Atlatls for the kids to use so that even 3 year olds can use them. We give each of the kids a bit of tuition to begin with before letting them loose with what is basically a spear-chucking device.
The range is strictly controlled with a clear target and launch area.
After a few tries most of the kids can get the dart into the roped off area. There is something fundamentally satisfying about throwing an Atlatl dart and I find whoever picks one up and uses it gets the same satisfaction. Must be something imprinted into our genetic makeup (like watching the flames in a campfire).
After the race (I saw nothing of it to tell the truth) those volunteers who had helped out at all 5 races received a lovely gift of an engraved metal wine stopper.
I thought I would finish on this picture: my wife Alison saw it and asked, ‘Where does your beard end?’ 😉
As explained in the previous article, an Atlatl is basically a spear-chucking device. Many different types have been made by different societies: there is nothing in the archaeological record (as far as I know) of this type of Atlatl, but then as it’s made completely of organic material there is no surprise there. I decided to investigate this type after researching the Lovelock Cave Atlatl. There is debate over how darts were launched by that Atlatl and whether a point was used or whether a strip of cordage was used.
The One Stick -Split Stick Atlatl I made for this post was done using primitive tools only and a single shoot of goat willow (Salix caprea). I made the Atlatl just to prove to myself I could make one out of a single stick (shaft, wedge and cordage). All you would need to make one using modern tools would be a good sharp knife. The piece of willow I selected was about 1.5 metres long and about the thickness of my thumb. This was far longer than needed but I wanted it this length to get lots of cordage from the bark and to use part of the excess wood as a wedge (needed in making this type of Atlatl).
The first thing I did was to cut into the bark all the way around the stick about 12cms from the thickest end, leaving an area of bark slightly larger than my fist. This bark-covered end acts as a handle area.
I used an old deer rib bone to scrape the dark outer layer of the bark off rest of the stick, leaving the handle untouched. If you leave this on the bark, the cordage you make from it will not of the highest quality.
After scraping off all the bark I re-cut around the stick just above the handle area to make sure all the inner bark was disconnected from the handle area.
I then cut a line through the inner bark from the handle to the end of the stick to start to open the bark up.
I used my thumbs to peel open the bark. Other tools that make this job easier are a small wooden wedge or the back of your knife blade. In late spring the bark comes off easily so my thumbs were all I needed.
Wherever possible try and take the bark off in one piece so you can make long strands for easy cordage making. Do not worry if this does not happen, all it means is that your cordage may take slightly longer to make.
I wedged the flint knife into a groove in the log and then sliced the bark into strips. I managed to get a good amount of strips out of this one piece of bark. I then left the strips to dry out in the sun. Cordage is best made from rewetted strips of bark as the bark shrinks considerably when it is dried out for the first time.
I decided that I wanted my Atlatl to be about 64cms long (fingertip to armpit for me) so I used a piece of flint knapped as a discoidal (curved) knife to saw through the stick. This takes far longer than using a modern knife but I find far more satisfying.
Keep sawing until you can feel you can snap the wood without splitting it down its length. Once snapped, trim the end of the Atlatl smooth.
The spare piece of wood needs to be trimmed down and cut to size to make a wedge. This will be used to form the split stick part of the Atlatl.
I used my flint adze at first to blank out the wedge, making it about 10cms long.
Then I used my flint knife to trim the wedge to its final shape.
I used my flint knife to split the non-handle end of the Atlatl open. As the knife has a flat spine I just hit the back of the knife to start the split. Be careful to keep the split in the middle of the stick. A piece of cordage should really be tied off on the shaft where you want the split to stop. I forgot to do this but thankfully the split did not travel too far. I made my split 20cms long.
I used my discoidal knife to create a small groove around each split limb for the cordage to grip onto.
Before inserting the wedge I did tie off the split with some of the dried bark using a constrictor knot.
Afterwards I used more of the bark strips to secure the wedge by wrapping them around it to hold it secure.
I had plenty of bark left over after this, which was good as I wanted to make some cordage to create a strap to hold the dart in place before launching.
I completed a piece of cordage about 50cms long to give me plenty to tie onto the Atlatl. I used a constrictor knot on each split to hold the cord in place. Jonsbushcraft blog has an excellent tutorial on making cordage.
I was very happy with how this Atlatl turned out.
You can see the dart has a groove instead of a hole at the end. This allows the cordage to hold the dart in place before launching.
The finger pinch hold is just the same as a normal Atlatl with a point.
I think the launch with this type of Atlatl feels slightly different but once you get used to it I find the release is as smooth as it is with a normal pointed one.
I made this Atlatl purely for the joy of making one with primitive tools and to see if it was possible to produce a hunting tool out of just a single stick.
I have no idea whether hunters in pre-history used this type of Atlatl but I certainly now know they would have found it the easiest thing in the world for them to make.
Back in early September of 2013 my good friend Dave Lewis invited me over to Danemead Scout Camp to help work with some cadets from the North London Enfield Sea Cadet unit that he was planning to put forward as a team for the London Area Sea Cadet Chosin Cup competition in October.
I had worked with the team earlier in June focussing on their navigation skills so this time the focus was team working. The Chosin Cup marks highly on good team working and we both felt that Enfield had a very good chance of winning. As well as the teamwork we wanted to give the cadets some time to relax and enjoy the outdoors in a way that they would not normally have the opportunity to.
As part of the team working training I briefed the cadets that I wanted them to set up their own group tarp, fire and individual hammocks. They had learnt many of the necessary skills before so they just needed a little refresher on bushcraft knots and off they went.
The white platform the cadet is standing on is actually one of my archery targets made by Mark Gater of G-Outdoor. An excellent bit of kit that has many uses other than just a target. I did a review of the G-Tuff Field target on Bushcraft UK back in 2011.
Now a recurring theme of the weekend was the lack of time I got to sit on my EDC hammock chair. I love this chair so I was a little upset at its overuse by others 😉
The cadets were also taught how to use Laplander saws safely so they could prep their own fire for the evening: the wood slightly propped up and sawn off to the side with the arm supporting the branch crossed over the top of the blade.
The cadets needed no help getting the fire going with firesteels as they had done this many times before, and then it was time for a well-earned rest.
On the Saturday after noon we had a visit from our friends Jim and Maria Stilgoe with their sons David and James. I had never met baby James before so it was nice to do so out in the woods. David on the other hand is not one to sit around for long and was soon off exploring and had a great time with Jim shooting the Father and Son bow.
After a bit of shooting David needed a bit of a rest and soon found his first hammock – ‘And the little one said roll over’ comes to mind here 🙂
As I was saying earlier I did not get much of a chance to use my own hammock chair. It makes a perfect seat for mother and baby I think.
Camping would not be camping without a toasted marshmallow or two. And the occasional cremated one.
That evening around the fire the cadets had made I got some cracking Fire Faces.
After a good night’s sleep (we were only out for one night) it was time to crack on with more activities.
The focus on the Sunday was to improve the communication between the team members when doing tasks. Here the cadets are working together to set up a river crossing activity by manoeuvering a log to act as one of the make-believe river banks.
I taught them a new way to create an emergency stretcher from a single piece of rope (not the usual Mountain Leader version).
At break time you can guess I was still minus a hammock.
Dave set up the river-crossing activity and talked the cadets through what he wanted. They set up an excellent crossing and soon all were over the other side.
To finish off we got the Atlatls out and had a ping. It is good for the cadets to practise this as it is a standard test at the Chosin Cup now. I took a short video of the cadets using the Atlatl that weekend.
The best thing about the EDC hammock is that it has a zip. Somehow the cadets found this rather fun. I had given up now on ever getting a seat 🙂
I had a great time over the whole weekend as all the staff and cadets knew what they were doing, they wanted to be there and the weather was perfect. You do not get that too often when teaching outdoor education so it is one weekend I remember fondly – apart from the hammock stealing!!!
I’ve mentioned the Atlatl several times in previous blogs, so I thought it was high time I wrote a post devoted to this, one of my very favourite bushcraft activities. I’m going to introduce you to the three different types of AtlatlI use when teaching this art, together with some historical references to them I’ve found in the course of my research. For one of my types of Atlatl there is no historical record, and the exact makeup of other types are sometimes just a best guess, so please feel free to leave comments if you know more, as it is all a big learning curve for me. There are many different types of Atlatl but here I will concentrate on the three I regularly use.
What is an Atlatl?
An Atlatl is a spear-chucking device traditionally used for hunting or combat purposes It was developed in pre-history by many different societies. Some societies still use the Atlatl to this day, others used it alongside the bow while other societies stopped using the Atlatl after they developed bows. An excellent modern day comparison to help you understand how an Atlatl works is to watch a dog walker using a plastic tennis ball thrower. The ball travels much further than normal as the plastic ball thrower extends the thrower’s arm length and as the arm sweeps forward the plastic thrower is bent back, storing energy. This energy is released as the thrower does a final flick of the wrist. The dog is happy as it gets a longer run and the thrower is happy as he gets longer between throws :-).
The name Atlatl comes from the Aztec society but in Australia it is known as the Woomera. An excellent overview of the Atlatl can be found in Wikipedia.
I like Atlatls as they are relatively simple to make, cost me next to nothing to make, students can make them and learn to use them easily and will provide hours of fun for kids from the age of about three years up (I still classify myself as a big kid).
When teaching this skill I always set up a proper range so that the darts can be thrown safely. I normally work on a range of about ten to twenty metres but a good Atlatl can reach up to a hundred metres in a competent thrower’s hands.
Here is a selection of some of my Atlatls. I will be posting in the near future a couple of How To…. guides on making some of these Atlatls.
I have simple Atlatls that just have a point at the rear to attach the dart to, Split Stick Atlatls with cordage instead of a point, and other Atlatls that have a front ‘Y’ rest for the dart.
The simple type of Atlatl shown below on the left just has a point at the rear to hold the dart in place before releasing it. You will see how this works later in the post. This is the easiest type of Atlatl to make. I generally use the base of a piece of hazel coppice (lots of other woods will work as well) for this where there is a fork in the wood near the ground. All I have to do is after cutting the shoot is to shape the smaller fork into a point with a knife and whip a para cord handle onto the main. The Primitive Ways website gives an excellent description of constructing a simple Atlatl.
The Atlatl on the right is also a simple one but made in a primitive manner, without modern tools. I used a thin yew branch, attached a rawhide handle and attached a carved antler point to the back.
Once you have mastered the finger pinch grip these simple Atlatls are very easy to use and great fun can be had at very little cost. The Atlatl gives greater power to your throw by extending your arm length, enabling you to throw the dart faster and further.
Atlatls with Front Rests
I was on holiday in the Cheddar Gorge area of the UK a few years ago and spotted in the Museum of Prehistory some reproduction Atlatls on display. They had been reproduced as closely as possible to Atlatl finds in the local caves. One of them had a forked rest and I found that intriguing, as up to that point I had not found any reference to this type of Atlatl.
I soon found out that this style of Atlatl with a front rest is great for kids. As the dart is supported by the rest no finger pinch grip is required, making it easy for kids as young as three to use this type of Atlatl.
In my research into this type of Atlatl I also came across a post by Mike Richardson In Primitive Ways explaining how if the thrower has to wear gloves (for example in arctic environments), the normal finger pinch method of holding the dart is not an option so a rest is attached to the front of the Atlatl. This along with some cordage wrapped around the dart allows the gloved thrower to have the dart locked in place but still easily released with a flick of the wrist. I have used this method numerous times and the cordage wrap/lock has no detrimental effect on the release of the dart.
I made some Atlatls up with metal bolts as rests as I found the original wooden rests I had made were easily broken by my cadets so I had to design a ‘Squaddie-proof’ alternative. Not pretty but very effective and robust.
In the picture above and the one below you can see that the cordage wrap on the dart is locked up against the fork of the rest, ensuring the dart does not fall off before release. After a short piece of tuition most kids (except the very young) are able to set this up for themselves.
In the picture below you can see a wooden rest I made by wrapping a piece of shaved wood around the shaft of the Atlatl and tying it in place with some natural cordage. I inserted a further wedge piece in the rest to tighten the cordage wrap. This proved an interesting experiment but was too fragile for most of the cadets to use.
Again in the picture below you can see that, as with the Atlatl with the bolt, the dart is well locked in place requiring only a flick of the wrist to release it. I have not come across any historical evidence for the cordage wrap on the dart as a holding mechanism. It may not be authentic, but I like it as it opens up the world of Atlatl to the very young who find holding the dart and Atlatl in one hand difficult.
The Split Stick Atlatl
The Split Stick Atlatl I found documented on the Primitive Ways website as well. No point is carved at the end but a piece of cordage is used instead to hold the dart in place. There is very little archaeological evidence for this type of Atlatl and much debate if it was ever used but I like it and with a little practice it is just as accurate as an Atlatl with a point. A good online discussion on this can be found in the PaleoPlanet forum.
I call this one the ‘One Stick Split Stick Atlatl’: I made the whole thing using primitive tools and out of just one piece of willow just to prove to myself that an Atlatl could have been made just using one straightish piece of stick. I will be posting a How To…. guide on making this Atlatl.
A sideways view of the Atlatl showing the finger pinch grip.
One of my favourite Atlatls is the Lovelock Cave Atlatl which I reproduced as closely to the original as possible. This Atlatl was found in a cave over a century ago but the original was lost; thankfully, though, not before someone had made a detailed drawing of it. A copy of the drawing can be seen in the post by Mike Richardson on the Split Stick Atlatl. It has a fork at the rear and the drawing shows a small groove around each fork. I have read that this was where a small piece of carved wood or bone was attached as a point to hold the Atlatl. I decided though to see if the Atlatl would work with just some cordage wrapped around it. Again there is no historical evidence that this was done but it does work well. A good comparison of both attachments to the Lovelock Cave Atlatl can be read in the PaleoPlanet forum here.
Sideways pictures showing the finger pinch method.
A couple of pictures showing the dart attached to the cord wrapped around the fork.
A little experiment with a split stick and a rest. The rest did eventually split as the pine wood was quite weak with the hole drilled into it.
The rest here is based on the Cheddar Gorge replica I saw but instead of a point at the end I made it into a fork with cordage. This works perfectly well with a bit of practice.
I really love making Atlatls and everyone I work with loves to have a go with them. I need to spend some more time on making different types of darts next to go with my shed full of Atlatls.
Around a fire some time last year my friend Kev Lomas asked me about helping out the Royal Marine Cadets (RMC) in his area (Southern Area Sea Cadets) with some Bushcraft. As Kev had helped us in London Area a lot over the years I was keen to help out.
Another reason was that the course would be on the Isle of Wight and there is nothing better than walking through dappled woodland in the Spring on a sunny day on the island (there are no deer on the island to eat all the flowers).
The course was at the end of April this year and the weather was fine and warm. I had a smooth trip over the Solent with with just a little fog to begin with but it soon cleared up.
I went down on the Thursday to set up camp and I am glad I did as it took us all Thursday afternoon and Friday to set everything up. The camp we stayed at was deserted and the woodlands were beautiful – though I did manage to get my heavily laden van well and truly stuck in the mud trying to set up. Luckily once emptied she leapt out of the mud to save my embarrassment.
There was to be about 25 cadets on the course with about 5 instructors. One of the instructors called Sgt Tony Moore had attended the same instructor course with Woodcraft School that I had completed so it was good to swap stories. (The chicken below, by the way, is a plastic one we found in the woods.)
When the cadets arrived they were briefed on the activities. I think some were a bit disappointed to find out I was a Blue Jacket (a Sea Cadet instructor) rather than a RMC instructor but when I began describing all the skills they would cover and how these could cross over into their field skills they started to come around (I think also that it helped when Kev mentioned I was ex-Airborne).
We had the Padre around for the weekend and he was keen to be involved. As well as trying out a normal hammock he was very taken with my UK Hammocks EDC chair.
A tradition in the RMC is to introduce the cadets to the Coca Cola tree. Many of the older ones had seen this before and sniggered at the back watching younger ones’ confusion as Kev pulled the ‘tree’ out of the ground all the while explaining how rare it was 🙂
Many of the cadets brought their own knives along so we had a good chat about the pros and cons of the various different types. I then issued some fixed-blade bushcrafting knives for them to practise with.
They all managed to make wedges and learn the art of battoning wood, making the kindling they’d later use for their fires.
They used firesteels to get their fires lit and then we boiled water in our Kelly Kettles for a brew. I love using the term ‘brew’ to Marines as you can see the grimace appear on their faces. To them the correct term is a ‘wet’ and they are very proud of the difference (no idea why).
We bought in some mackerel and the cadets prepared them and made up some Ponassing rigs.
A bit of a scrum to be fed but they all enjoyed it.
During the day we went out for a wander looking at tracks and signs. We found some owl pellets, scavenged birds’ eggs and also some early orchids.
In the woods there were clear Badger trails which were easy to follow. We came across this nice print near their latrine.
On the Saturday afternoon we dug up some worms so they could be cleaned out overnight. The next day a quite passable omelette was made with a bit of worm as protein.
Tony had fun showing the cadets how to prep rabbit.
As we had quite a lot of fish that was not Ponassed we fried it off in the Muurrika.
In the evening the staff helped the cadets set up 10 hammocks. This took quite a while but was worth it as some were very keen to try them out. One cadet was about 6 foot 5 inches and was determined to have a go. His head could not fit in the hammock so it was quite a challenge to make him comfortable. He survived the night however, and said it was a relaxing sleep.
Again on the Sunday we went for a wander to see was out there in terms of foraging. The cadets were introduced to hawthorn, birch and beech leaves (all tasty in the spring). The small plants we looked at were nettles, wood sorrel, burdock, plantain, reedmace and primrose to name just a few.
The ranges were an ideal spot to get the bows out.
We also introduced the cadets to the Atlatl.
You do not often see so many being launched simultaneously like this.
I had a fantastic weekend and so did the cadets, based on the feedback I received. I am looking forward to doing something similar with the RMC in London and also with the Southern Area RMC again next year.