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Ben Law: The Woodland House (*****)
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Ever since I first set foot in the Pyrenees last year, albeit with a snowboard strapped to them in 4 ft of snow, I have been looking forward to summer to come around again to get up into them thar hills and explore the crystal clear mountain lakes and enjoy a spot of wild camping.
For those of you familiar with the Tour De France (yes, the one in which us Brits smashed everyone else in last week- fine work Wiggins & Co), the Col du Tourmalet is the most famous climb on the Tour, it is also the highest road (2,115m) in the Pyrenees and the area which I chose to explore. Planning a trip like this wasn’t too difficult- the internet is a wonderful thing and Google Earth is even better- being able to map out and print satellite images of your desired spot certainly helps when you find yourself up in the mountains. The only thing Google Earth won’t help you with until you find yourself in the thick of it, is the terrain which isn’t obvious from a bird’s eye perspective.
Now, the Pyrenees really don’t dick about.
It’s not easy to find people to coax up a mountain. Hiking isn’t everyone’s cup of coffee. I must admit- It’s not really mine, for me there has to be a purpose: a reason to venture off into the unknown. More often than not, that reason has scales, a penchant for worms and makes damned fine eating. Fish. The area I had picked out in the mountains, just south of the town of Bareges, had a good cluster of lakes at around 2,200m (quite high up- Ben Nevis is 1,344m) in all shapes and sizes. Perfect spot. But who would be game?
I met Dustin at Wilderness Gathering last year, when Ash and myself took HGC HQ on the road to showcase the Foraging school. Dustin runs the company www.bushcrafttools.com and specialises in Fire Pistons, which he designs and produces himself. Having recently relocated to Perpignan on the Med side of the Pyrenees and a keen brother of the Angle himself, he was the perfect companion. So, through that wonderful invention used by ex-pats across the globe, we arranged everything over Skype and planned to meet at midday on a Tuesday. The plan was to have one night in the mountains and the second night in the valley by one of the rivers. Three hours drive from the Beach and I was up near La Mongie and the Col du tourmalet. Boom.
As I’m not really one for following sport, I was surprised to learn that the Tour De France was actually passing through the very day and the very place we chose to hit the mountains. Bugger. Traffic, Gendarmerie, lycra and sweaty people creeped through the mountain passes in 30C heat. Not the best start…but eventually we made it to the start point.
Rather than regale you with tales of elation, woe, steep climbs, desperate fishing, Kamikazee sheep, cows with bells on, French folk dumping behind rocks, great banter, useful hipflasks, chopping down dead pine limbs with an axe on a cliff edge, Bushcraft discussion (apparently Ray Mears doesn’t do bushcraft anymore because its ‘too commercial’- who on earth would you hold responsible for such a thing?), contemplating rolling large boulders into mountain lakes and dodging rock falls, I’m just going to present a series of pictures….painting a thousand words and all that. The only thing I will say, and perhaps the best thing about hiking up in the Pyrenees, is not having to take any water with you: you just fill up as you go along from all the fast flowing mountain streams. Who said Evian was Naïve spelt backwards?
Dustin's Pyro Piston worked a treat. Available from www.bushcrafttools.com
Walking amongst the cowslips.
So here is summer! At last! Sling the machete and bed roll on the back, don’t forget the water bottle and head out to the countryside in search of peace, relaxation and some flickering flames. It has been a while. I thought I would just stick up a quick update of what I’s been up to down here Sussaaax way. Things continue apace- book launch on Tuesday was a huge success and it was great to spend it with friends’ family and those twitter and blog followers who popped in to pick up a copy- thanks very much for the support!
Camping has become huge over the last few years…massive, enormous and humungous, so much so that it has diversified into categories:
Glamping: hunter wellies and short shorts, yurts, tipis, gigantic gas ranges, slick fire pits, shitters with a view to die for and a heftus price tag to boot- strictly for media types, Cotswolders, Chelsea wenches and people with money to burn looking for a “wild” experience. Having said that, if you are going to pimp it up in the great outdoors, this is mutt’s nuts and I should now…I teach foraging at just such a place (wouldn’t mind living there actually!). Foie gras for starters followed by chateaubriand on the barbie and a few bottles of Petrus 2005…darling.
20 sec timer on a moonlit Safari Britain.
Some things never go out of fashion. Regardless of whether fire is still a necessity to modern man, it is still capable of bringing about a “stare-on” amongst the best of us. Another relic of bygone days that still rings true to the caveman within is the concept of “home” and in this case the intrigue held by caves. How many times have you seen a cave and had to fight the urge not to go and check it out? Afterall, why not…
The Rocket Stove is quite simply pure genius. It is a remarkably efficient method of taking a small amount of fuel (wood) and maximising it’s potential. Good for you, good for recycling and ultimately: good for the planet. Having recently proof read my first book, a weighty tome of over 300 pages of tree dwelling escapades, I noted I had mentioned in the intro that I was no eco-warrior, hmmmm…I feel the whole experience of low impact, self-sufficient living has actually changed me more than I thought. On a recent stopover at a friends flat in London, I noticed he was using bottles of Caledonian “spring water” instead of using tap water: fair enough London water isn’t the most tasty and rumoured to have high levels of oestrogen, perhaps the thought of a pair of moobs had brought about the dependence on bottled water? I did question why he bothered with bottled water, but to be honest carbon footprints probably mean little to an investment banker, after all…what’s Evian spelt backwards?
As a person with a degree in Archaeology, I obviously have a bit of a soft spot for old stuff. The fact I chose not to squander my time digging, sifting through bags of mud, counting the amount of different shell types from shell middens and touching myself during repeats of time team was something I realized after my first year of the course. Why didn’t I change courses? Because I had a real fascination in the subject and I suppose I felt it would make me a more knowledgeable fellow, certainly I found whenever I had banter with the generation above they would always show interest, often ending with “Gosh, that takes seven years to qualify doesn’t it?” Err no that’s Architecture…another drink sir?
It was Saturday afternoon. The problem with living in Sussex is that the majority of friends still reside in the city, hence not many people to play with. Whilst reading through my Afterword for the book for the hundredth time and finally deciding that it was actually finished, I decided I wanted to do something spontaneous…
The micro adventure was coined by Al Humphreys, still inspired by the series of adventure talks from last week, I felt I should try one on for size. Micro adventures are quite an ingenious concept and opens you up to a whole world of experiences waiting to be had, in short, just go somewhere on the spur of the moment and do something for the hell of it…
Other than fire, shelter and water, food is obviously one of the four pillars of survival. When it comes to camping or a Ray Mears inspired weekend in the wild, people tend to reach for the canned rubbish, nuts and the delightful rank mattesons sausage….hmmm. For survival that’s all well and good, energy rich food is generally top of the list, but this isn’t about survival. This a culinary ‘survival’ pack that is for the gastronome who intends to make the most out of what they can find in the fields, woods and meadows.
It’s pretty tough to find a foodstuff in the wild like bread; it’s actually nigh on impossible. A bag of flour is one of the most useful additions to your camping larder and I rarely spend a few days in the woods without it. Not only is it packed with carbohydrates, something often scarce in the outback unless you want a diet of roots. These particular dampers pictured where made earlier this summer by the girlfriend and I, at a stopover on Dartmoor, before heading north for some surf.
If you want fresh meat you ain’t gonna get it in the supermarket. To quote Monty Python “Say no more”. To enable you to get a sneaky taste of the good stuff, you have to take part in the demise of your creature of choice. Be it by way of a rod or gun or some sort of trap. Does wild meat taste better? I would say yes, if your talking free range and a healthy diet then the meat you get will almost certainly reflect those two attributes.
The problem these days is not the way in which you come across the animals you can eat, but method of dispatch. Our society is far too sanitised today to allow many of the snares below to be used. Legality and cruelty to animals is taken very seriously, thus doing things the old fashioned way is frowned upon. It is for these reasons I would discourage anyone to go ahead and set any of these traps, but for those of you willing to get your hands dirty you will almost certainly be rewarded! Society today is hell bent on the suppression of the old way of life…should we move into the 21st century forgetting all of which got us where we are today? I don’t think you would find many hunter-gatherers saying to one and other; “Probably shouldn’t use that trap because it might hurt the animal and I don’t want to be responsible for killing it…”. Hell no! I think they were more concerned with staying alive. There is the same old argument stating the fact that why would you need to do this when you can buy your meat in a shop. I believe the answer to this is three-fold, its called living (because life can pass you by without ever having truly felt the male instinct to hunt and provide and act on it), the meat is too good and of course it is free food.
I have used many of these traps and they are all fairly humane, as long as they are regularly checked. The sense of the achievable is also a huge factor, the connection with the land around you and knowing that you have read it correctly and set your trap in the right place in order to secure food. All these things are important so we don’t forget just how lucky we are today. I pay great respect to the people who have developed these cunning methods of capture throughout the centuries, especially the poachers of old England who managed to provide for their starving families, without which some of you may not even be here today.
The Ground Snare:
The traditional method for catching Rabbits, also used for pheasants. The snare itself is quite often made from a short hazel peg and a length of twisted brass wire with a running loop. Never set in front of an animal’s hole, always in hedgerows or rabbit/game runs. The same principle applies to the spring snare below only the spring snare suspends the prey off the ground away from other predators.
This is a good way of catching squirrels especially if the pole is baited, I myself have had a squirrel pole set for two days without anything happening. Add a few acorns or cracked wheat and the results are a lot better (2 on 1 pole!). Again this method employs a wire noose and a couple of poles can be placed against a few trees in a wood, ideally against a tree which holds a Drey (squirrels ‘nest’).
A useful method for a variety of prey, set on a game trail, this method can turn out, squirrels, rabbits, pigeons, game and even rats. In place of a large rock, a bundle of logs bound together can be used. Again it helps to bait this trap and ideally know what animal you are after in order to select the correct height to set the trigger stick.
Here are three useful traps to have up your sleeve, a couple on the wrong side of the law. The first two are derived from old English poaching methods (The New poachers handbook by Ian Niall, Heinmann: 1960).
The Line Snare:
A cunning method for getting your hands on pigeons and pheasants. Best set in open corn stubble, grassland or along hedgerows. The more set the higher chance of success, fishing line or thin cord is threaded through raisins or berries (about 6 to 7 on 5 foot of line). The principle is, the bird will take the bait eating along the line, by the time it gets to the last morsel it has about 4 foot of line in its gut and is well and truly stuck. Another form of this snare is to set a line with a baited hook…animal rights eat your heart out.
The Wildfowl snare:
This method of snaring wildfowl was certainly developed out of a need for complete un-detection. The idea being to drive a thick wooden stake into the lake bed or slow moving river bed and place a stone the 1/3 a weight of a duck on top, onto the stone is tied a short length of line with a baited hook of bread or even worms (as long as they float on or near the surface. Once the duck has taken the bait and the hook is set, the duck’s movement will make the stone drop pulling the duck into deeper water drowning it. Make sure you get to it before the pike do!
Ojibwa bird pole:
This has been used for hundreds of years by Native Americans. The trap is set in a clearing or field and acts as a perch for unsuspecting birds. The pole is about 4ft in height and the snare wire is attached to a stone, which is kept in place by a thin pencil sized stick. When the bird lands on the perch, its weight will force the pencil sized stick down and the snare will tighten around the birds feet suspending upside down in the air ready for collection…don’t use too heavy a stone otherwise you might take the legs clean off!
In my opinion, by far the easiest method of obtaining food is to look to the water. In most cases it is best to be in easy reach of a river or lake for a variety of reasons, mainly for fish.
The Night line:
This is by far the most effective way of fishing for survival as it involves very little energy being used. Prepare as many as you can to increase your chances. Set them before night falls, check them around Midnight, remove your catch (most likely Eels) and rebait for checking in the morning. Can catch almost every type of fish, I once caught an Eel which a Pike had decided to take and the result was 2 for 1!
The Fish dam:
This method is used on small shallow rivers or streams in places such as Scotland/Devon/Wales. A bit more labour intensive, yields smaller fish but once it is built it can be checked constantly and requires little or no maintenance. Again if baited with chopped worm etc. results can be improved.
Please note: Some of these illustrations are from field & stream.
I have just been playing on the internet and have come across some cunning little devices with which to pass the summer. I just had to point these out to you guys as I cannot wait to get my hands on one, no longer will I have to lug around a large steel grill in my fishing bag! to purchase visit The portable barbecue. Check out www.iwantoneofthose.com for purchasing.
The Grilliput. (above)
Not sure about the name, it has to be American. But a handy little device I am sure you will agree. At 29cm long and 2.2cm wide when closed it opens up into a 23x26cm BBQ. This has to be the ultimate in hunter-gatherer cool and it makes me wonder if Ray has one? If not, he always has his sticks or even some rocks to heat up for an underground oven. It has a surface area allowing 560g of food to sizzle on its surface and is even dishwasher friendly, shame as I don’t have one it could be friendly with, but hand washing is still the best!
The portable barbecue.
Not quite an original name as before but a superb product all the same, comes in two styles. I think as far as the city dweller goes not only will you look the cutting edge of bbq technology when meeting friends in the park, but you will probably get a pat on the back from the park keeper for not trashing the grass. I have seen many an Aussie or South African leaving those big burnt patches when their not behind the bar and its not a pretty sight. Made from thin pressed steel and comes with a nice shoulder bag to carry it. Amazing!
Fold flat- £19.95
Carry and go briefcase bbq- £24.95
All pictures and prices coutesy of www.iwantoneofthose.com
It was on a hot, humid Wednesday evening last summer that I was sitting at my Juliet balcony enjoying a nice cold beer and contemplating the possible prospects the approaching weekend had to offer after a heavy week of work. One thing I did know: I didn’t want to be in London.
Options were, on the whole, fairly slim. It was nearing the end of the month, cash flow was down to a minimum and most of my friends were all booked up. A trip to Sussex seemed the best plan to protect my dwindling earnings from the extortionate prices of our nation’s capital.
Meanwhile on the TV, Ray Mears was strutting his stuff in the wilds of Britain, building shelters, eating ants and making fire from sticks. This was nothing new to me (apart from eating ants) growing up in the middle of the forest, making camps and building fires were commonplace from an early age and I began to reminisce about those happy, carefree days when such things as rent and working for a living were a long way off in the distance.
Then it hit me, why not go down to the country and do just that a weekend in the woods surviving off the land (to a certain degree) and sleeping rough? To many of you this may sound absolutely ridiculous and more of a chore than a relaxing week in the country. But then why not escape the city and spend a couple of days in peace and tranquillity without police sirens, heavy traffic and people clogging the pavements like herded cattle? Why not indeed.
I have to admit I did not fancy taking on the woods myself, where’s the fun? So I called a good friend of mine, Chris and attempted to sell my idea of a perfect weekend. Chris had just finished Uni and had plenty of time on his hands. The two of us had plenty of camping under our belts after 3 months of it in Fiji and Australia during our gap year, and it was easy to sell my plan, as I was not the only one with limited cash resources.
So it was settled, two nights of Ray Mears challenges and a mini wild food odyssey. Luckily, I had the Friday off, as the life of a freelancer flits from ridiculous hours for days on end to a gentle trickle of the odd day here and until the vicious circle starts again.
Friday arrived and a wave of relief and excitement washed over me as I packed up all my necessary items for the journey ahead. There is a strange thing that happens when making the transition from the city to the middle of the woods. A mild case of disorientation and deafening silence of your immediate surroundings really is food for the soul and a better remedy for stress than I have ever known. We really had picked the perfect spot. This particular part of the countryside boasted a beautiful stretch of the River Ouse (the fish course), a selection of different trees from hazel and oak to birch and pine (the building materials and fuel for the fire), plenty of fresh wild greens including carpets of wild garlic coating the forest floor (the vegetarian course) and the odd pheasant call around us that indicated to a possible meat course. We had all the basic ingredients; it was know left to us to come up with the menu for a successful weekend.
After a quick scout of the area, we found the ideal spot to make our camp for the next few days. Our kit list for the expedition was relatively small and consisted of tools for the job and a few creature comforts. We had our pocket sheath knives, machetes, hatchet, bungees, cord, folding saw, leatherman, fishing gear, frying pan and candles. Food wise we took a quick trip to the local supermarket and came out with a packet of bacon, two large rump steaks, bread rolls, a bag of spinach, corn on the cob, three red onions, a pack of butter, salt & pepper. For our essential liquids: four large bottles of water, two bottles of red wine, a large bell jar of cripple cock cider (we are in the country after all) and a small bottle of whisky in case we got cold, of course!
Once we had staked our claim on our delightful patch of forest floor the first thing on the agenda was to build a fire place, which in any camp and for our ancestors was essentially the main focal point of a settlement. With the fire pit dug and our cunning method for supporting the pan: four Y-shaped sticks at either side of the pit and some freshly cut lengths of hazel rested on top, the next step was to build our shelters.
The abundance of hazel was a real godsend, there really is no better building material found in the forest and this versatile wood can be used for all manner of things, as you will see in due course. We both opted to build a half dome, rather like many of the tents on the market today. The key to building a shelter like this is to first lie on the floor and mark out how wide it should be so you can lie comfortably inside, then cut all the lengths of hazel you will need to build the frame. The next step is to sharpen five of the best lengths at one end, then bend all five pieces so they will not break once stuck in the ground and tied into place. The rest, as you can see from the pictures is fairly straightforward, the off cuts from all the hazel lengths were perfect for covering the shelters to make them “waterproof”, having said that the heat wave predicted for the weekend meant rain was unlikely.
Fish by Nightlines.
The one thing I was really looking forward to was the chance to base all our meals on the availability of what was on offer in our immediate surroundings. True we had got some food in the event that nature would manage to outwit us and leave our stomachs empty, but as they say chance favours the prepared mind, my fishing gear and the river being the most obvious of companions, I set about making an age old poaching device which allowed for maximum fishing potential with minimum effort on my behalf. The idea behind a nightline is very simple and in most cases extremely effective, as long as the water holds fish of some form. As I have fished this river on more than one occasion I know it holds a good head of eels, wild brown trout, perch, chub, gudgeon and of course top of the food chain and most fearsome of all, the pike. The three species that took my fancy from a culinary perspective were eel, trout and perch.
The nightline consists of a foot long peg of hazel, sharpened at one end and with three metres of strong fishing line (4-8lbs) tied to the other end, then I tied on a hook and two small bb fishing weights (shot). Once I had been through the arduous task of making six of these, remember the more you make the more chance you have of catching fish, I chose the most likely looking spots in which to set my cunning traps. Baited with a single worm (found whilst digging our fire pit) they were carefully dispatched into the river and left to perform. I set them mid afternoon and would wait till dusk to see if there was to be a fish course.
The rest afternoon was left to laze about in glorious lawlessness and do some ambient gathering of wild greens for supper. Wild garlic was an obvious contender as the smell of it had barely left my nostrils all afternoon due to its abundance. As well as this we gathered a load of young nettle tops, dandelion leaves, jack by the hedge, a handful of sorrel and some cow parsley. The last three were essentially for flavouring the fish I had not yet caught and the steaks we would almost certainly devour. There were also the skewers to be made for cooking the meat and hopefully, the fish? These were made again from thin strips of hazel. The best thing about them is there primitive, caveman appeal (its all in the thickness, about 5 times that of a bamboo skewer!). The only prep they required was to strip off the skin and sharpen one end, as they were freshly cut and still damp, we had no worries of them burning in the fire.
One of the tastiest things we tried was wrapping the cooked beef in wild garlic leaves, see below, this added some really fresh flavour to the perfectly cooked meat.
The best thing about campfire cooking is that it is basically a barbecue with one difference, fresh wood instead of charcoal. There isn’t a massive difference, but to me, barbecuing this way is way superior as opposed to charcoal. It could be the fact you’re cooking under a canopy of trees in the middle of nowhere and the food cooked over the fire has that wonderful wood smoke infusion which, ultimately means little or no seasoning/flavouring is needed. The flavour is all there.
The rump steaks were chopped into cubes, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, skewered and slow cooked over the smouldering fire, turning occasionally. The meat was without a doubt some of the best I have ever tasted, eaten straight of the skewer it had the most intense flavour and a nice juicy, rare centre cooked to absolute perfection. I am sure if you tried this yourself you will almost certainly agree!
At about 10.30pm after a few drinks and a few hands of poker, I felt it was time to see if the nightlines had delivered. After lifting two out with no success I began to question my confidence in this method. By the time I had lifted out all six I had flapping and squirming on the bank one brown trout of about a pound and a half and three very unhappy eels. Well, we weren’t going to go hungry tonight. One of the great pleasures of nightline fishing is the moment you begin to pull up the line and feel something kicking at the other end and have no idea what kind of fish you could be dealing with.
With the fish course imminent, the preparation for the fish was simple. The fire was fed and stoked up to a roaring inferno. The trout was gutted, skewered carefully, coated in butter and stuffed with sorrel, as a substitute for lemon, and wild garlic bulbs. The eels were a proved to be more of a tough customer to deal with. Trying to kill an eel and stop it moving is quite an effort. After a few blows to the head it is dead, but this single muscle of a creature doesn’t stop there. It still squirms whilst you are skinning it, gruesome I know, but quite something to behold in any case! Skinning involves a pair of pliers and slitting the eel’s skin all the way around its ‘neck’. Then I had to hammer my knife through its head into a log, grip the skin with my leatherman and slowly peel the skin off rather like removing a pair of tights, not that I know what this is like, but purely on assumption.
The eels were then chopped into bite size chunks and finally stopped moving. The best way to cook them is to gently fry them in a little butter in the pan. Add to this a little seasoning, lemon juice and some chopped wild garlic leaves. For the final flourish I added a bit of white wine, once slightly browned we took them off and ate them straight off the bone. The texture of an eel is very meaty and not dissimilar from monkfish, it also has a very faint fish flavour and combined with the other ingredients, tasted incredible.
The vegetarian course.
As a good accompliment to the fish I made a simple dish that tastes fantastic and is very good for you. A combination of stinging nettles, finely sliced red onion and chopped Jack by the hedge. An odd combination you may think, but trust me it really works.
Firstly, I added a bit more butter to the pan, which still had all the goodies leftover from the eels, a sort of quick fix fish stock. In went the onions, fried until soft, followed by the nettle tops and the chopped jack by the hedge. These were then left to wilt and stirred occasionally. The final flourish was a dash of red wine to finish. This dish we grazed on whilst eating our chunks of eel and skewered trout, simple and easy and a great course to finish on.
The rest of the weekend passed uneventfully, with a few attempts at trying make fire ray-style, something that, for now remains to evade me, but once mastered I can feel like the complete man! Also we added a back wall made in a traditional weave pattern and Chris attempted an A-frame shelter which allowed him to sleep up off the floor, good on paper but the lack of trees at either end meant it was doomed from the start.
Would I recommend this as a good mini break? Definitely. Provided you can get permission to camp and have a fire on a piece of land and make sure you leave nothing behind when you eventually feel a return to city life is necessary. Apart from being bitten to buggery by mosquitoes, I had one of the most relaxing, cheap weekends I could possibly have had and managed to knock up a fair few hours of fishing. Also, I gained plenty of experience cooking with wild produce and tasting which flavours complimented each other and the meat in question. The only thing I could have done with was a shower, but when living in the forest for a couple of nights the only cleanliness needed is when cooking. With the whole summer ahead of us I urge you to at least, on one weekend, forgo any monkey business you could get up to under the glow of the city lights and escape to the forest for a few days of peace and quiet. My only advice is to know what you are picking if you are after wild food, take extra supplies just in case and don’t forget mosquito repellent!
For equipment and tools for an expedition visit the Ray Mears website www.woodlore.com and shop online. Essential reading would be the SAS survival handbook, The art Bush craft by Ray Mears and the excellent Food for free by Richard Mabey. Also, A cook on the wild side by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is packed to the hilt with fresh ideas for wild produce.