Family walk through Penn Wood

One of my favourite times each month – the opportunity to guide a few families through a local woodland in the Chilterns. Blessed with wonderful sunshine, it was a lovely May afternoon to be exploring Penn Woods. Managed by the Woodland Trust, it is one of the largest ancient woodlands in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) totalling over 435 acres!

Tree hugging - using our senses to recognise a mighty oak

Tree hugging – using our senses to recognise a mighty oak

We started our woodland walk from the church car park – heading out along the main foot path past the beautiful flint clad church and the newly installed Woodland Trust signage, welcoming visitors to the woods. Our first stop, stinging nettles – a plant that so many fear and yet, it wasn’t long before everyone was keen to look at them closer, especially the children.

Having demonstrated how to pick them without getting stung, I quickly showed how to juice the doc leave, the green liquid being used to relieve the inevitable stings! Many of the children were keen to try, the younger ones being guided to the doc leaves and the older ones picking nettles and then applying doc!

Tips for using stinging nettles

  • Always pick vibrant, healthy nettles, avoid areas that may have been polluted or fouled, be that by dogs being walked, farm run-offs or similar and gather the nettle tops – the top 4 to 6 leaves are usually best
  • To pick them with bare hands – seize the nettle, hold it firmly, should you be tender handed it will sting you for sure – gloves are probably a good option
  • Cooking will kill off the stings and stop them from stinging you
  • There are lots of vitamins in stinging nettles (more here)
  • Nettles make a lovely earthy tea – I like them when they are green, but you can dry them if you wish
  • They are good stirred into a classic risotto or as a vegetable, a soup or gazpacho
  • Stinging nettle tempura – I was serving them up at the recent Great Missenden Food Festival

Tree hugging – developing a relationship with a tree

My favourite tree, the mighty oak. I love it’s strength, the way it spreads its limbs out wide, reaching out across the sky. There’s the deep furrows in the gnarly bark and the beautiful curvy leaves that look like clouds as you hold them against the sky. A wonderful tree and great to see the children giving it a big hug.

Amazement at the amount of pond life - loving the tadpoles and water boatmen

Amazement at the amount of pond life – loving the tadpoles and water boatmen

We spent time looking at the many beech trees. Most of the buds have burst open to reveal their soft new leaves, oval in shape with a little tail and hairy around the edges. They are good to add to a woodland salad and a few were sampled by the children and their parents.

Fascination with the water boatmen

There was excitement around the pond, as one-by-one many tadpoles were spotted in the water, and then fascination with the water boatmen, as if by magic, they were skating across the surface of the pond.

Exploring the pond at Penn Woods

Exploring the pond at Penn Woods

Whilst some of the children explored the other side of the pond, keen to get closer to the waters edge and find routes that would just about support them, we climbed across the newly formed log-jetty. It was more solid than before, with the end staked to hold the logs in place. Still we didn’t want the children falling in – it’s not that deep but they would have got very muddy (none this time).

Identifying trees - using smell to recognise the fallen cedar

Identifying trees – using smell to recognise the fallen western red cedar

Climbing in the trees

One of the large western red cedars had fallen, not far from the pond, it had lost a huge part of its trunk which had crashed down on the surrounding trees. The children were quick to spot an opportunity for climbing and enjoyed playing along the long branches now just a foot or two above the ground.

Here was a great opportunity to engage our sense of smell to recognise this cedar – the foliage was crushed and the citrus smell revealed, just one of the ways to get to know this wonderful tree. Western red cedars have with a deep red-brown bark that is relatively soft to the touch, almost sponge like, a deep green foliage, and they tower above other trees, like a lesser version of the great American sequoias.

Identifying plants - checking that it's wood sorrel before eating!

Identifying plants – checking that it’s wood sorrel before eating!

On our return journey through the woodlands, we spent time getting to know the lovely larch – it’s foliage in little tufts, that are soft to touch. Unlike the spruce, fir and pines, the larch looses its leaves in winter, leaving the characteristic little stubs along the twigs.

Getting to the heart of wood sorrel

And then in an opening along the woodland path, there was an abundance of wood sorrel. Another opportunity to engage our senses. Many of the children recognised it’s shape as being similar. We carefully examined the plant, looking at the three heart shaped leaves and the lovely white flowers, with faint pink lines within. Then it was time to taste a few – first checking each one was the correct plant and not eating to many, just in case the oxalic acid (found in many plants) unset the stomach – moderation is a good thing!

More woodland walks

Thank you to the families who join me on this lovely May walk in Penn Woods and for granting permission for a few photos – much appreciated. If you’d like to join one of my family friendly guided woodland walks with your family, please check future dates and register here!

Going with the flow

It was February, I had an opening in my diary, woohoo, nothing to do for a few days and the excitement of being able to do something just for me. It was time for an adventure, there was the call of the wild, a wish to explore somewhere new and the need to relax and enjoy being close to nature without the everyday pressures that modern life presents.

Looking at my long list of ideas for adventures, there it was a microadventure, a paddle down the Thames in my canoe, that was just the ticket. The plan, not much of one really, was simply to launch off near Cricklade, close to the rivers source and paddle down river, just going with the flow.

Launching onto the River Thames at Cricklade

Launching onto the River Thames at Cricklade

Here she is, my little Lakelander canoe, made with the fab guys, Steve and Dan at Orca Canoes, ably assisted by my son, Michael. I’d grabbed some sleeping gear and change of clothes and stuffed them in a big Ortlieb drybag, filled a large plastic storage box with food and topped up a 5lt water container and that was pretty much my planning done. Well yes, a coat, woolly hat, buoyancy aid and a couple of paddles and then I was off, enjoying the flow of the river.

Canoeing this stretch of the Thames in February has the advantage of it being comparatively clear, with the arrival of Spring the Bullrushes will be growing tall and making some parts difficult to navigate. Care was needed though, there was a reasonable flow and signs on the river were at amber; caution stream decreasing which means all unpowered boats (are advised) not to navigate and users of powered boats to navigate with caution. I proceeded with both caution and care – swimming could be left for another day!

Going with the flow - paddling down river from Cricklade

Going with the flow – paddling down river from Cricklade

Just 20 minutes paddled and it was already time for the first portage, a tree had fallen and blocked my way completely. Time to unpack and carry the canoe and gear around to the other side and then get back in again. There were a few more trees slowing progress – but the next one, looked passable! A small gap between the branches, but wide enough for my canoe to pass, this seemed just the place to avoid another portage.

Don’t under estimate the power of water

My first lesson of this trip, don’t under estimate the power of water – to get through the gap I turned across the river a little and this gave the current enough purchase to grab my canoe and I could feel the boat rolling beneath me. In that moment I imagined an imminent capsize and my gear and canoe disappearing down the river – evasive action was called for and some serious back-paddling and manoeuvring had me safely away from this predicament. A portage was the safest option and and that’s what was called for – lesson learnt!

Those first few obstacles got me in touch with the river and then I was off and on my way, going with the flow. The weather was kind, a chill in the air with some winter sunshine – good to be alive and I was enjoying the open river. Paddling along, I switched to using my deep water paddle and I made good progress, whilst keeping a cautionary lookout for the challenges ahead.

Castle Eaton - somewhere to explore another day perhaps

Castle Eaton – somewhere to explore another day perhaps

Obviously, I knew that this part of the Thames would be quiet, but it was the School holidays, so I had expected to see a few people on the river or walkers enjoying the Thames Path – but I had the river all to myself. It was wonderful to not know what lay around the next corner and Castle Eaton was just such a place. In fact the only reason I know it’s name is because I looked it up afterwards – at the time I just marvelled at its beauty and wondered what it must have been like in times past.

One of many lovely bridges on the Northern reaches of the River Thames

One of many lovely bridges on the Northern reaches of the River Thames

There are campsites along the Thames, but February is hardly the season for camping. To be honest, I simply wanted to wild camp, find a quite place to sleep each night and I wasn’t disappointed. My first night was near a lock, I had done a number of portages, enjoyed my day and it was getting dark and time to set up camp.

Cake before bed

My daily routine was to have a brew, set off early and then stop for some breakfast further down river. Lunch was my main meal of the day – so I would cook up something tasty from the large box of food I had brought along. Having set up camp in the evenings, I’d have a snack, brew and cake before bed – I find that those carbs help me sleep warm and after a good days paddling I always slept well.

Pillboxes along the Northern banks of the Thames - a poignant reminder of fortress Britain during WW2

Pillboxes along the Northern banks of the Thames – a poignant reminder of fortress Britain during WW2

I’d just had my first encounter with other paddlers, two guys paddling what appeared to be a racing canoe, a C2 I think, difficult to tell because it was already dark and I was about to stop for the evening. After a friendly hello, they sped off at speed – I saw them again later as they portaged their canoe back up river, a quick good night and they were gone. They were the first people I’d spoken to since I’d been on the river – it was amazing to be so alone and yet so near to busy towns and villages.

Poignant reminder of fortress Britain

An early morning start and I was to spot the first of many pillboxes – these fortifications were built along the upper reaches of the Thames during the second world war. With the fall of France, the home guard were tasked with building defences and using natural barriers to slow the potential invasion, these pillboxes are part of those defences.

Paddling amongst last years bullrushes - so much easier in the winter months

Paddling amongst last years bullrushes – so much easier in the winter months

After a frosty night, it was wonderful to get paddling on the river, those arms working and the canoe gliding along. There was still a good flow to the river, but it was noticeable how the wider stretches slowed. With a little less in the way of challenges from fallen trees, it was great to just enjoy being outdoors and to relax into the flow of the river.

Friendly lock keepers

I chatted with one of the lock keepers who works for the Environmental Agency, one of a few that I had friendly talks with on my travels. He checked that I was aware of the amber warning and was happy to show me how to work the lock gates – the manual self-service gates are simple to use, but until now I had portaged around them.

Rushey lock - the deep river lapping over the walkways

Rushey lock – the deep river lapping over the walkways

It was interesting to see the significantly different water levels, not just from one side of the lock to the other, but the differences between the locks too. At first when I portaged at Rushey lock, I couldn’t see the walk-way for putting the canoe back in and that’s because it was below the water line!

Last years bullrushes - standing tall and proud

Last years bullrushes – standing tall and proud

After setting up camp in the dark the evening before, it seemed prudent to scout for possible wild camping spots sooner and I made a mental note of this as I settle down to an enjoyable days paddling.

Bird watching

Canoeing along the river at a gentle pace, you become so much more aware of all the wildlife. I’m in someways sorry I didn’t take photographs of the many birds, ducks and swans I watched on route. the many herons, they always gave flight when they saw me, even though I was some way off. They are such beautifully elegant birds, it was a pleasure to see them fly across the river. The swans by contrast, barely battered an eye, often continuing to forage in the murky depths as I paddled by. The Northern reaches of the River Thames really are a wonderful place to enjoy bird watching, and the perhaps because I didn’t take that many photos, I remember them all the better!

Wild camping on the river banks and meadows of the River Thames

Wild camping on the river banks and meadows of the River Thames

Wild camping on riverside meadows

Camp for the night was on a grassy meadow, a lovely spot on the bend of the river. I pulled up, unloaded and rigged up my tarpaulin against the canoe, with the opening away from the prevailing breeze. It was a warm evening, time for some stretching to ease the aching limbs and then a brew, a wash with the remaining water and bed time! As I lay there in my sleeping bag, toasty warm, I listened to the river and the squawking from the rooks near by. They appeared to be bombarding another rookery and were on near constant missions to other parts of the woodlands, wow, they were noisy, but it wasn’t long before I was asleep.

Just another lunchtime stop for a brew

Just another lunchtime stop for a brew

Thank goodness for Muck Boots – they proved themselves well on this trip. The river banks were very muddy, well it was winter time. At first I was going to wear some wellies, but my older son, James, kindly lent me his Muck Boots. They were fab, with possibly the only downside being that my feet did get a little too warm at times and hence a little sweaty – yuk, but warm and wet is good, right!

Time for running repairs - good to be prepared!

Time for running repairs – good to be prepared!

Be prepared – a good motto to have!

It’s always good to be prepared and one of the great things about travelling in an Canadian canoe, is that you can pack lots of gear. Yes, of course when you portage you realise that maybe you packed more than you needed. On this occasion, having some gaffa tape and para-cord proved a good choice. Alas, my canoe split open! I remember getting in and hearing a crack, but nothing appeared to have happened so I continued paddling on towards Oxford. Later, whilst pulling the canoe through a lock, I noticed a good inch of water in the bottom – oops!

The canoe is made of plywood each section or chine is held together with glass fibre and epoxy resin. But a crack about 8 inches long had appeared and so a little ingenuity was required…

The plan, stitch it back together with the inner fibres of para cord (that’s the white cord). I made pairs of holes either side of the crack with the bradawl like tool on my Swiss Army knife, made a ‘needle’ from some chicken wire fence and sowed it all back together, tightened it up and then covered it with gaffa tape on both sides.

Of course, that would have been far to easy, so it started to rain. I Laughed a little and set up an impromptu camp on the outskirts of Oxford and set about the repair and then cooked some lunch.

And after the rain a beautiful sunset!

And after the rain a beautiful sunset!

Setting off again, with the Lakelander repaired, me all togged up to keep warm and dry, I was greeted by a beautiful sunset – the rain stopped and the paddle down the Thames continued. Of course I was running later than expected due to the enforced repair – I had hoped to paddle through the City of Oxford and find somewhere to wild camp on the other side. Still it was interesting to look at some of the old industrial buildings as I found my way along the river.

The magnificent old industrial side of Oxford

The magnificent old industrial side of Oxford

Camping on the wild side of Oxford

It was getting dark and despite my best efforts at paddling a little quicker, I was going to have to make camp in the City of Oxford! After paddling the upper reaches of the Thames, so peaceful, with just the birds calling and the ripple of the flowing river – Oxford was quite a shock to the system.

I paddled on looking for somewhere secluded to camp, but all seemed rather exposed. Eventually, getting darker and the river narrowing again, there on the right was a meadow, facing on the other bank many expensive looking blocks of flats.

It was noisy, boy was it. Sirens of emergency vehicles, the raw of trains and the hooting of horns – I longed to be out of the city. But I was tired and needed a sleep, so that meadow looked good and I set up can discretely in Oxford, keeping lights to a minimum, I really didn’t want anyone popping by to say hello!

I had a brew and a piece of cake and then went to bed – I crawled into my sleeping bag and can hardly remember putting my head down, I was asleep in no time all. I had a great sleep and woke early, still dark and to early to set of paddling. I checked my watch – it was only midnight! I had had a wonderful 4 hours sleep, I really had, and it was still very noisy. A call of nature and then another piece of cake and I was asleep again for another 4-5 hours – yes I was up around 5am ready for another days paddling.

Wild camping in Oxford - who'd have thought it!

Wild camping in Oxford – who’d have thought it!

Too much plastic

Paddling out of Oxford, it was interesting to see everyone heading off to work, cycling, running and walking. There were ladies rowing teams out, being coached from the river banks, they certainly shot by faster than me. But what sadly struck me the most was the amount of plastic waste, the litter that had carelessly been discarded by the thousands of people who live in the city and no doubt the tourists too. The river was suddenly awash with plastic bottles and cartons – it will be a huge but worthy task to clean it up. In the upper reaches, where few people appear to walk, I had seen little rubbish, perhaps the occasional football stuck in the bullrushes, but that was about all.

A life less complicated

Reflecting on this much needed #microadventure, what I loved was that just a short drive from our busy lives lay this beautiful piece of river, where you could connect with nature, listen to the birds, splash in the river and sleep out under the stars. This special time, provided a space to think and relax into a simple routine, a life less complicated – it comes highly recommended! Thank you for reading this blog – I hope you can find somewhere to be at peace, at least for a while.

The making of char cloth tinder

There are many ways to light a fire and some of the basic deliver the most satisfaction. So have you ever tried to light a fire from a simple spark using a piece of flint and a steel? This should not be confused with a firesteel, one of those ferro or ferrocerium rods. When a firesteel is scraped properly it provides a shower of bright, white and extremely hot sparks to ignite a tinder bundle. Chipping away at a piece of flint with a steel by contrast creates paler sparks that are a cooler orange and far more sensitive to the tinder used.

Why do I need char cloth? To ignite a fire with a dull or pale spark, you will need a very dry tinder. With a very hot spark (e.g. firesteel), you may be able to light tinder that is damp, all be it not obviously so. With a piece of flint struck with a steel, the tinder will not ignite if the tinder is even slightly damp. This is why you need a very dry tinder called char cloth.

Materials prepared for making char cloth

Materials prepared for making char cloth

Char cloth is made from a cotton fabric, pretty much any 100% cotton fabric will do the job nicely. I make char cloth using, pieces of old denim jeans (no I don’t have any of that stretchy lycra stuff in my Levis), handkerchiefs that are passed their best and in this example (above) the remains of a Judo jacket (my sons).

Char cloth is made in a similar way to making charcoal – the material is heated to drive out all the moisture whilst not allowing it to combust! For char cloth, use a small tin can (e.g. a black treacle tin) that has a tight fitting lid – a small hole is pierced in the lid (more on this later). The cotton fabric is cut into strips, sufficient to fill the tin but still let enough air circulate around it – don’t over fill the tin.

Cotton cloth charring on the campfire

Cotton cloth charring on the campfire

The cotton material is placed loosely in the tin, I find that it’s best not to overfill. It’s ok if you do, it’s just that the charring process will take longer and some pieces may not be fully charred. The lid is then firmly pushed down to create a good seal and the tin containing the cotton placed on a heat source. Yes, that saying “which comes first the chicken or the egg” comes to mind! A fire is the obvious choice, but any heat source will do, a gas stove for instance. I wouldn’t recommend doing this in your kitchen on a cooker – not good at all.

So what is happening here? The heat is drying out the cotton – yes even though the fabric may feel dry to the touch, it really does have a moisture content that would fail you for your fire lighting. Thinking about the fire-triangle for a moment, the need for heat, fuel and oxygen. Placing the cotton in a tin with a tiny hole in the top means that the moisture driven off by the heat, escapes through the small hole. Because the small hole has steam flowing out, the oxygen flow is significantly reduced or hopefully eliminated, hence your cotton cloth does not combust in the tin!

Stopping combustion of the charred cloth

Stopping combustion of the charred cloth

Now don’t go away and forget about your char cloth in the making. As soon as it is completely dry, the flow of steam will cease, oxygen will enter the tin and your lovely char cloth will ignite leaving you with a tin of ash! Keep an eye on proceedings – a small tin like this will take somewhere between 20-30 minutes. As soon as the steam appears to have stopped, block the hole with a pointed stick and carefully take it of the heat and leave it to cool.

What happens if you don’t wait for it to cool? Yes, I have done this, in the interests of science of course. Using some fireproof gauntlets, I carefully removed the lid when still very hot, and not too surprisingly, the charred cloth burst into flames!

Not-quite fully charred cloth

Not-quite fully charred cloth

And what happens if you remove your tin from the heat to soon? Here is an example, the cloth is not fully charred, some of the cotton is brown rather than deep black. No, need to worry, just pop it all back in the tin and repeat the process – it’ll more often than not be fine. Of course, you could try the partially charred cloth to see what happens – it’s unlikely to work, but good to appreciate what happens if not fully charred.

Char cloth ready for fire lighting

Char cloth ready for fire lighting

This is what you are looking for, a jet-black, fully charred cloth. The fabric should be brittle and easily fall apart. A word of warning, you fab char cloth will now be soaking up the ambient moisture in the air – so I suggest you store it in an air-tight container ready for use!

Char cloth ignited by a spark

Char cloth ignited by a spark

Time to test the char cloth using a small piece of flint struck with a steel. With a super-dry piece of charred cloth, you should be able to drop a spark and ignite the cloth with comparative ease. Now of course this does rather depend on how much practice you have given to using the flint and steel.

If that has sparked your interest in fire lighting, then you may like to learn more fire lighting methods, on either my Art of Fire (both modern and primitive methods of fire lighting) or Bushcraft 101 (fire lighting along with other essential wilderness living skills) courses.

Fire Lighting and wilderness living skills on Bushcraft 101

Freshly baked sweet chestnut bread

It’ll come as no surprise to those that know me, that baking bread is something I love to do. Whilst you can certainly bake a good loaf in your oven at home, baking your bread over a campfire is something really special. For me, it’s the process that brings such joy: The gathering of firewood and kindling, and the lighting of the fire, that brings the expectation of the bread to be eaten.

Foraged sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnuts pan roasting

Sweet chestnuts pan roasting

With such a hoard of sweet chestnuts, and some nice big ones to boot, I needed to do something with these lovely, sweet and tasty nuts. Ah ha I thought, how about a sweet chestnut loaf! The best ideas come when sitting by a campfire – that’s for sure!

The first task was to roast those chestnuts – you need to make a small cut into the shell to avoid them exploding. Yes, they really do explode! When roasting some recently, one escaped being slit and exploded with an almighty bang. Because, it’s a little late for foraging chestnuts, I wanted to ensure they were all good to eat and no dodgy ones would spoil the bake. So, I halved all the chestnuts and chucked out any that didn’t past muster.

The roasting was done in a small cast-iron pot, it has a lid, which was used. A little olive oil was poured into the warmed pot, the nuts added and stirred to coat them in the oil. Then a little hot water from the kettle was poured in and the pot sealed with the lid. I roasted them for about 20 minutes and then, well, I just had to taste a few!

Bread making and baking…

Sweet chestnut bread - baking in Petromax Dutchoven

Sweet chestnut bread – baking in Petromax Dutch oven

I warmed some water for the yeast and mixed up a classic-loaf with strong bread flour, a little salt and that yeast once it had frothed nicely. I used a spoonful of sugar and a pinch of flour to feed the yeast. With the dough well mixed, those sweet chestnuts were added and rolled in with a glug or two of olive oil.

The well-kneaded dough was put in the warmed Dutch oven to prove. I tend to keep it suspended above the campfire, at a height that means it will keep warm but not start to bake. 30 minutes later – I check, it’s risen nicely, I knock it back and we go again. After the second prove it’s time to bake – the oven used is a Petromax. The oven is lowered and embers put on the top to bake the bread. Dutch ovens have a rim around the lid to stop the embers falling off!

Sweet chestnut bread part-baked

Sweet chestnut bread part-baked

On the first check, the loaf was pale and under baked. It had been baking for 25 minutes, which with a hot oven would be fine, but today the weather was very cold, so back in it went. This time the oven was placed directly on the embers and the ember-glowing log-ends placed on top. Care is needed doing this, because with the intensity of the heat there is a possibility of over-baking and burning the bread.

Sweet chestnut bread - finishing the bake

Sweet chestnut bread – finishing the bake

The reveal was 20 minutes later, with a nicely browned loaf. Tapping the bottom provided a reassuring hollowness and confirmation that the sweet chestnut loaf was baked and ready to eat!

David’s top tip for baking with a Dutch oven

Dutch ovens are fab for campfire cooking. The cast iron dissipates the heat throughout the pan, but there is still a possibility of the bottom getting to hot and burning the contents. For baking, place the dough in a separate pan inside the Dutch oven, supporting it on a few green sticks or stones. This will raise the dough up from the bottom of the oven, allowing hot air to circulate (as it would in a conventional oven), and provide a more even bake without burning its bottom!

Sweet chestnut bread - the freshly baked loaf

Sweet chestnut bread – the freshly baked loaf

During the winter months baking will most likely take a little longer due to the colder weather – but don’t let that stop you, your fresh bread will still taste great – Happy Baking!

Oh yes, the folks I shared that sweet chestnut loaf with, thought it tasted rather good. Join me on a Campfire Bread Baking course and have fun baking and eating a variety of tasty breads.

Find out more and book Campfire Bread Baking

Whittling with one hand

Have you ever injured your dominant hand badly enough that you had to learn how to use your other hand? I have been unfortunate enough to do this not once but twice, although the second was a shoulder injury, it still meant I couldn’t use my dominant hand. Seeking the positive, there was a benefit to me, in that I am now able to demonstrate carving techniques using either my left or dominant right hand. Being ambidextrous also helps those who are left-handed, because I can show them how to carve the way they would prefer, which means they don’t have to transpose the movements.

If you haven’t had such bad luck, well that’s great news and I hope it stays that way. But ponder for a moment how you would whittle a stick if you could only use one hand. There are many people in this position and not wanting to exclude anyone from my courses, I recently helped someone enjoy a day of Bushcraft who had initially rejected the idea because of his life-long injury.

One-handed whittling using the aid / board that holds the wood firmly

One-handed whittling using the aid / board that holds the wood firmly

So how do you carve a stick or whittle a spoon if you can’t hold it with one hand while carving with the other? Clearly you need something to hold it firmly, but in such a way that it is easy to adjust the piece of wood. I had a chat with my friend Jon Mac at Spoon Carving First Steps and he suggested a wooden board with a couple of holes drilled and a piece of rope passed through (see pictures). The idea is to clamp the piece of wood / stick in place with the rope by holding the rope tight using your foot. He had heard of this idea but not seen it in action – so it was time to try it out!

Making the board – cut a piece of wooden plank, long enough to be slightly taller that the height of your knee from the ground when sitting (my example was 600mm and 150mm wide). Drill a couple of holes to pass a rope through – tie the ends together and dangle them over the top, so it hangs down.

Using the board – lean the wooden board against your leg and put the heal of your foot (other leg) through the loop that dangles down. Place the stick under the loop and then apply pressure with your foot to hold it in place. To adjust the position of the stick, reduce the pressure and more the wood, then reapply pressure!

One-handed whittling aid - holds wood firmly whilst carving

One-handed whittling aid – holds wood firmly whilst carving

It took a few goes to be comfortable with it, trying out different positions to see which worked best. But as you can see, I whittled a piece of hazel stick successfully. Happy with the aid to one-handed whittling, it was now just a matter of seeing how my budding student got on with this aid. Well the great news is that it worked a treat. He tried different ways of using it and quickly found a position which meant he could whittle sticks successfully and carve one quicker than other attendees who had both hands available to them. This is what he had to say afterwards:

I was quite gobsmacked as to the best of my recollection no one has ever made such a concerted effort to adapt to my needs before, and to support my inclusion

Thank you to Jon Mac at Spoon Carving First Steps (please do take a look at his website to see his beautiful photography and wonderfully carved spoons and kuksa / wooden cups!