My husband and I never give each other birthday presents. Except for maybe his favourite bar of chocolate (Butterscotch Green and Blacks if you’re wondering!) I don’t think I’ve ever given him a present to unwrap on his birthday.
Now, before you start thinking I’m the world’s worst wife, let me explain. Instead of giving each other a traditional birthday gift, we arrange a surprise trip and activity for each other. Usually, we don’t find out what the other one has planned until we get there.
A Bushcraft Birthday
This year, for Steffan’s birthday I wanted to do something a bit different. His birthday is in May, and after a long cold winter, I was desperate to spend some time outdoors soaking up some early spring sunshine.
And you don’t get much more outdoors than a 24 hour bushcraft course!
After deciding on the beautiful county of Northumberland as the destination of choice (click the link to read about Why You Should Take a Short Break in Northumberland), I began searching for the best bushcraft course in the region.
And that’s when I stumbled upon Wild Dog Outdoors.
Despite the website showing no availability for the dates I wanted, I took a chance and gave Kevin a call. I’m so pleased I did because 10 minutes later, after a quick chat with Kevin about what to expect from the experience, our bushcraft course booking was confirmed.
Kevin emailed me over a kit list and I went about checking we had everything we needed. I was surprised to see that a tent and sleeping bag weren’t on there but thought perhaps sleeping under the stars was all part of the outdoor survival experience. I didn’t give it a second thought.
We arranged to meet Kevin on the morning of the bushcraft course at The George Hotel in Chollerford. Sitting down for breakfast, I finally let Steffan in on the details of how he would be spending the following 24 hours. To be fair, he took it pretty well and actually seemed quite excited, using it as an excuse to eat his way through more than his fair share of the hotel’s buffet breakfast. Well, who knew where our next meal was coming from?!
A Night Under the Stars?
Full to bursting with buffet breakfast, we made our way outside to the arranged meeting point in the carpark. Kevin greeted us warmly before gesturing at our tiny rucksacks.
“Your tent and sleeping bag in your car?” he asked.
I searched his face, trying to figure out if he was joking. He wasn’t.
Apparently, the email had contained an attachment. I later discovered said attachment which detailed a far more comprehensive kit list than the one I’d read. And yes, it included a tent and sleeping bag. Idiot.
Thankfully, if Kevin was despairing at the totally unprepared city folk who had descended on him for a night under the Northumbrian stars, he didn’t let it show. Promising to sort us out with some kit before nightfall, we sheepishly got into our car and followed behind Kevin’s van to the site of the bushcraft course.
The Bushcraft Course Site
I had been expecting to hike for at least an hour to get to the bushcraft site (a presumption based on no facts and something I’d entirely made up in my head), but in reality, the site was no more than a 10 minute walk from where we left our car.
We found ourselves in the basin of an old disused limestone quarry that nature had completely taken over and claimed for its own. It was difficult to imagine that this quiet, tranquil space had once been the site of a thriving, busy limestone industry with the noise of heavy machinery filling the air.
Building a Shelter
First things first, we were given the task of building a shelter. Given our lack of tent, this seemed to be a wise idea.
Kevin patiently worked with us, instructing us on what to do and how to tie the various knots required to make sure the tarpaulin shelter stayed standing. I’d clearly forgotten any knot tying skills I’d learnt in the Girl Guides and had to learn from scratch, all fingers and thumbs, as I pulled the string tight against the natural pegs Kevin had carved from tree branches.
With the shelter standing, we erected Kevin’s little one man tent for the night. I briefly wondered where we were going to sleep given the shelter we’d made had no sides on it, but there was no time to worry as it was time to learn how to build a fire!
I’m a Firestarter
It turns out that Keith Flint from the Prodigy doesn’t need to worry about us stealing his Firestarter status anytime soon. Building and starting a fire from scratch is actually really quite difficult!
Kevin taught us a number of different bushcraft techniques to start a fire, ranging from traditional methods such as flint and char cloth (cloth that has been placed in a tin over a fire), to spark lighters and batteries. I’m just pleased that Kevin wasn’t relying on us to start the campfire as we definitely would have gone to bed cold and starving!
You can’t come to Northumberland and fail to take notice of the fascinating and often brutal stories that make up the history of this county. And if there is one person who can introduce you to these stories, it’s Kevin. As well as bushcraft courses, Kevin runs historical tours and events focussing on Northumbrian history, and his passion for the subject shines through in everything he does.
We spent some time crafting viking spears, complete with feathered ends, and learning how to throw them. I discovered I’m not a very good Viking hunter and Steffan was only marginally better!
Kevin left us happily occupied playing a Viking game, which was a little bit like a cross between 10 pin bowling and boules, whilst he went back to his house to get us some sleeping bags and a tent. I’m not convinced we entirely played by the Viking rules, but it was good fun nonetheless! Obviously, I let Steffan win – it was his birthday after all 😉
Possibly one of the most relaxing activities on the bushcraft course was rope weaving. After putting our tent up (we finally had a home for the night!) we sat down on tree stumps and learnt how to make rope by peeling thin stands from tree branches with a sharp knife before weaving them together.
In the quiet of the quarry, I could have sat there weaving rope for hours; it was so calming! I’m pretty rubbish at practising mindfulness, but maybe rope weaving is my key to a quiet mind?!
One thing’s certain, and that’s I’ve never eaten so well on a camping trip in all my life! I didn’t really expect to have a full-on feast during our bushcraft course but that’s pretty much what we got.
Not only was there a good supply of hot tea and coffee, Kevin had been shopping beforehand and, for lunch and dinner, he set up a table full of buffet snacks. Crisps, sausage rolls, pasties, bread, fruit, chocolate….you name it! It was a far cry from the foraging I had been expecting from the bushcraft course. The furthest I needed to forage was in the cool box under the table when I wanted some milk!
It wasn’t all that easy, however. No, we didn’t exactly have to go hunting ourselves, but we did have to learn some new cookery skills; the kind that they don’t teach you on Saturday Kitchen.
Kevin taught us how to use a sharp knife to take the bark off a tree branch before sharpening the end of the stick into a point. He presented us with a rainbow trout each and we poked our sticks through the mouth and body of the fish and held it over the open fire to cook.
For dinner that evening, Kevin taught us how to pluck and fillet a wood pigeon, something I was surprised I wasn’t a whole lot more squeamish about!
I’ve never eaten pigeon before, let alone one that was plucked by my own hands and cooked over an open fire, but it was pretty delicious!
As the sun went down and the light faded, Steffan, Kevin and I sat around the campfire chatting into the darkness. We started to make cups out of small tree stumps, burning coal inside them to hollow them out. This was another strangely hypnotic and relaxing activity, and something I’m determined to finish off now I’m back home.
I’m not sure what it is about being outside around an open fire, but it does have a calming effect, and we soon started feeling sleepy and ready for bed.
Steffan decided to go for an all-out bushcraft experience and sleep in the shelter we’d made earlier, meaning that I had an eight man tent all to myself!
Except for a light rain shower overnight and a crying fox, we all slept solidly through the night and woke fully refreshed, ready for the next day.
The Bushcraft Experience
We absolutely loved our first bushcraft course and can’t wait to do more of it in the future. The beautiful weather definitely helped, and spending so much time outdoors in the peaceful countryside was just bliss. Even the compost toilet didn’t dampen the experience (I’ve been to enough festivals and seen far worse!)!
Kevin manages to mix practical skills with fascinating historical facts and is such an interesting person to spend 24 hours with. I’d definitely consider doing one of his historical tours of Northumberland next time we visit.
Fancy experiencing a bushcraft course for yourself? Visit Kevin’s website Wild Dog Outdoors for details.
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Would you ever try a bushcraft course? Let me know in the comments!