Last week was a bizarre one for me. I was invited to take some pictures for Cotswold Adventures on one of their 1-day Bushcraft courses. I was informed that the fire-lighting was probably quite good to photograph taking place at around 11am. I planned to stay there for an hour or so.
As it caters for everyone as low as 8 years-old I didn't really know what to expect and wondered whether it would be a little too fluffy. I was very wrong.
I arrived in camp - a parachute-covered area in the middle of the woods that you wouldn't stumble upon if you didn't know it was there - 20 minutes before the group and instructors arrived. I messaged Jose, one of the instructors, to let him know I had arrived and he replied "please light the fire if it has gone out". It was smouldering. It was also raining so all the wood was wet. There were no matches, or firelighters (that is strictly not true but Jose never told me where they were). I looked around for something to burn then raided my wallet for a few receipts and voila, there were flames. I added some of the already cut wood ( Tim, the other instructor had cut that earlier) and it was actually pretty good. I think Jose was actually surprised when he arrived. I know I was.
The group arrived, three adults and four children. They had made the walk from the Cotswold Farm Park into the woods learning some basic foraging skills and finding out which plants will kill you if you eat them. "Who wants a cup of tea?" Christ, I didn't realise that if I hadn't got that fire going there wouldn't have been any hot water in the kettles above the fire. The group were taught how to pour water. It's easy at home but completely different in the woods with a handle that can remove skin for a week and an uncontrollable spout. Each were given a mug. That was their mug for the day. You lose you mug and you don't drink. There were spares and of course the group would have shared but you get the point. You have to try and get into survival mode.
The group had a good mix. Both gender and social class too. It was quite clear that some some of the group were more confident than others and more vocal too. Some of the children were learning Bushcraft at school. When did that become a thing? It's an odd thing to mention I know, but looking in from the outside it was pretty noticeable, yet in the woods class has no meaning whatsoever as everyone is one and after only half an hour the togetherness was real.
After a few safety instructions it was time to learn how to light a fire. It was a wet day as I mentioned so there was not rubbing sticks together. Each person was give a firesteel, some pieces of kindling, cotton wool and dried grass. A firesteel is a nifty piece of kit that works in wet weather and creates a 3000°C spark. It lasts for over 12,000 strikes and is much more reliable that a piece of flint. I never ever managed to start a fire using flint. The tip here is Petroleum Jelly of any kind like vaseline, chap sticks and lip balm. It slows down the burning process and allows you more time to add the other components. I was learning.
It was time for lunch. Both parents of the children had brought a bag of "safety snacks" in case there was any nose turning at the food provided. We walked out of camp as the group were taught the reasons why we don't prepare food in camp. Eight fully-feathered pigeons appeared out of a cool box. I'm not squeamish in the slightest but I wasn't really expecting that and I'm not 100% sure that the group were either. I was pleasantly surprised. They were each taught how to remove the breasts from the bird, heads, wings and all, and to know if it is healthy or not. Most of the group were chipping in and eventually the meat was cut up. Hands and knives were washed and we returned to camp where peppers, mushrooms and onions were already cooking on the fire. The pigeon was added to a pan and fried to a medium-well done. Tortilla wraps were heated on the lid of the big pot and lunch was served. Only one of the group had tried pigeon before and only one refused to eat it. He was the youngest and was happy munching on his custard creams!
After half an hour of chatting and eating around the fire, the best bit in my opinion, it was time for some shelter building where the group could practice their basic knife and saw skills. Surely, it's like building a den? However, you would never have wanted to sleep in some of the dens that I built in my youth. These shelters were solid, taking the weight of Tim who is at least 14 stone. These sheters would usually take a couple of hours to build and would be completely water tight, big enough to sleep in, which sounds obvious but is apparently a mistake made by many, and positioned correctly. The whole group, got stuck in, searching the woodland floor for the right sized sticks and foliage to cover the shelter. I found myself getting involved too. They did pretty well in the time they had.
We all headed back to camp once again to test some of the knife skills that they had learned earlier. The idea was to make a butter knife to to take home as a memento but you could literally make whatever you liked. "The trick to this is to never tell anyone what you are making until you have finished" explained Tim. Jose got his box of examples out. Some were very impressive, especially the bread knife!
It was all pretty quiet as everyone had their heads down in their work. There were knives, spears and unidentified objects being made but it didn't matter. Everyone agreed how therapeutic it was.
From thinking I was going to stay for an hour, I ended up staying for over 4 and enjoyed every minute. I loved the freedom that the instructors gave the children. They were always watching them for safety purposes but were given responsibilities of helping with the campfire and preparing the food for lunch. There wasn't a toilet. There were a couple of water containers for hand washing and tea making. It wasn't fluffy in the slightest and you didn't stop learning all day. In a world where we spend our lives staring into a phone screen, this was a breath of fresh air in every sense of the word.
Cotswold Adventures offer many 1-day Bushcraft courses throughout the summer that are perfect for people of all ages (minimum age of 8 years-old).
Bespoke days can be arranged too for stag and hen parties, corporate team-building days or for friends and families.
They will cater for people of all experiences and will design your day accordingly.
Visit cotswoldadventures.com for more information.
Last summer, me and some friends were having a BBQ. As I arrived it was pissing down with rain so everyone was in the living room watching Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports. This is a programme where you watch other people watching football and occasionally shouting like mad men when something remotely interesting happens. On entry a score popped up on the screen, Fleetwood 2 Oldham 2. "Seriously, who would give a shit about Fleetwood verses Oldham?" I didn't know a friend of a friend (who I had never met) was a die-hard Oldham fan. He grew up in Witney and now lives in Cheltenham. Don't ask. "Not a fan then?" he asked. "Going to an Oldham game surrounded by people chanting, wearing a football shirt would be my worst nightmare and completely out of my comfort zone" I explained.
Last Saturday I attended Oxford United v Oldham Athletic at the Kassam Stadium, wearing an Oldham shirt (a £5 purchase from Sports Direct. Worryingly it once cost £49.99!), surrounded by the aforementioned chanters. We arrived at the ground where there is a stand missing behind one of the goals which is a car park. There were around 600 Oldham fans who had made a significantly longer journey than us.
First stop was the bar in the stand under where we were seated. Bottles of cider were served in plastic bottles. Fair enough, apart from the fact that you weren't allowed to take them up to the stand. I was peckish (no surprise here) so I thought I would try one of Oxford United's award winning pies. I have no idea what award these pies won but I wouldn't want to try the other contenders. One plastic fork lost its battle with the crust and the only good thing about it was that it was hot.
"It should be good up there" said our Oldham supporting friend talking about the atmosphere in the stand. We made our way up.
"We'll go and stand with the drummer" he said. Luckily for us, the drummer wasn't allowed to bring his drums in to the ground. We went and stood by him anyway. The players came out onto the pitch to cheers and chants. I think the surrounding fans expected me to know the words as I was donning a shirt. In all honesty, they weren't the hardest songs to pick up. "Ritchie Wellens' Blue White Army" I later learned that he is the manager. They even chanted at a man stood on a pillar in the car park trying to peer over the fence mocking him that he didn't have a ticket. He was the lucky one. Tickets cost £24!
There was a young man with his shirt off all game. He wasn't part of the group we were in but was like some kind of messiah as fans would look over at him for approval and when starting a chant. He goes by the name of Top Off George. "Why do they call him that?" I asked.
Now I wasn't expecting much for my £24 but this game was particularly rubbish. There was a call for a penalty to Oldham that was greeted with predictable hand gestures and a chant to the referee. There was one shot on target, by Oldham, that one of our friends missed as he went early to join the half-time bar queue.
We were in no rush to get back up for the second half. It was just as awful as the first half. The players were actually rubbish, apart from the left back for Oldham. The center midfielder for Oldham, Fane, pronounced Fanny to the amusement of absolutely nobody must have slipped through the net as he can't do any of the basic footballing skills. The game ended 0-0. Oldham received a standing ovation from their fans. I realised that we were the lucky ones as we were having a night out in Oxford and not having to travel back to the north-west.
We literally spent our whole evening at Sandy's Piano Bar in Oxford which is one of the best bars I have been to for a very long time. The two guys who played the piano that night were incredible and classics were sung all night. The cocktails were also pretty special at around £8-10 each. I dread to think what we spent on Dark and Stormy's, Pornstar Martini and other concoctions throughout the night but whatever it was, it seemed much better value than £24 on a game of football. Cheltenham really needs a bar like this.
Top Off bloody George...
Have you been affected by the KFC "crisis"? Were you one of the ones who phoned 999 to inform the police of your emergency? If you answered yes to either of those then this probably isn't for you.
For a while now I have found it increasingly difficult to go to a chained restaurant, pub and even supermarket, I know Budgens and Coop are both chains but at least they try and support local producers and from an outside point of view, do a good job in doing so.
When it comes to eating out in the Cotswolds we are spoiled for choice. It surprises me that people still go to some chained restaurants in Cheltenham with so many amazing independents to choose from. How the bloody hell is Frankie & Benny's still there?
If you want a good burger go to The Bottle of Sauce or Holee Cow. Fancy a chinese? Head to The Mayflower. How about a pizza? Well you can head back to The Bottle of Sauce or visit Fat Toni's. You can get some of the best curries in the UK at Prithvi and the East India Cafe. The choice is endless. Are you looking for your fix of Japanese? Look no further that Koj and KibouSushi. We haven't even mentioned all of the pubs and restaurants around the Cotswolds serving incredibly good food, beer, wine and spirits with service to match because it's their name that is over the door. I could go on and name all of the pubs I love or you could just visit our Cotswold Pub Guide* and see them for yourself!
I'm not saying to never eat at a chained restaurant again and I'm definitely not saying that all of them are rubbish, The Boston Tea Party does a cracking breakfast, The Ivy is the hottest seat in town and the Cosy Club is decent for a drink, but the next time going out for some food is mentioned, why not try one of the amazing independent alternatives that are on offer?
However, if you do enjoy eating food out of a bucket, the Colonel's doors are sure to be open again very soon.
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