Summer holiday outdoor learning for children

Lots of children and their parents joined David in the woods for Environmental Learning and Bushcraft sessions at the Shortenhills Environmental Centre in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire.

We were natures detectives, identifying trees; feeling the bark, observing the shapes of the leaves, the colours and even the smells, and then we made string and bracelets from grass and stinging nettles – well done to you all. It was wonderful to see some of the youngest identifying the trees!

(This lovely short video was filmed and edited by Kirsty Feasey at Active-In)

David has teamed up with Shortenills which is part of the Adventure Learning Foundation and the great news is that these sessions have been funded by Public Health England in association with Active Bucks and Active-In, so they are FREE for the summer holidays!

More sessions at Shortenills each Tuesday throughout the summer holidays!

Environmental Learning and Bushcraft Sessions will be run on Tuesdays, starting at 3:45 and finishing at 5:45. They will be delivered so that parents and / or guardians participate and are actively involved and assist with their children’s learning.

Dates: Tuesday 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th August 2016

To book please contact Kirsty Feasey (mobile: 07710 095245, email: Kirsty.Feasey@active-in.co.uk) at Active-In – thank you

Bushcrafty weekend at the Bushmoot

The Bushmoot runs for nearly two weeks, it’s a wonderful opportunity for individuals, friends and families with a common interest in all things Bushcrafty to gather, share and learn. There’s a huge number for workshops to attend, from camp craft, knife safety and shelter building through to coastal foraging, flint knapping and bow making!

The Bushmoot is located next to the amazing sand dunes at Merthyr Mawr, so a long walk or a swim in the sea are never far away. Best of all are the people who attend, you really couldn’t ask for a more friendly and chilled event. So keep an eye out for the Bushmoot 2017 dates and book some time off with your family, friends or just get along and make some new friends!

Living with a fab tree tent, a Tensile Stingray at the Bushmoot

Living with a fab tree tent, a Tensile Stingray at the Bushmoot

Centre stage this year for my camp was the Stingray, a tree tent made by Tentsile. One way to describe this amazing tent is a multi-person hammock, it’s designed for three! Underneath that flysheet is a triangle of tough fabric that is suspended in mid air, attached to three trees by strong ratchet straps. And how do you get in – via a hatch / entrance underneath of course (our cool box made a useful step!).

Kettle hanger - a simple crane

Kettle hanger – a simple crane

The simple pleasures of camping; find some wood, split into suitable sizes (even if damp on the outside from rain – it’s likely to be much drier on the inside), carve a few feather sticks and light your campfire. The kettle was suspended from a simple pot hanger (note the piece of para-cord attached at the back), and a brew was soon ready.

Bread baking class at the Bushmoot 2016

Bread baking class at the Bushmoot 2016

For regulars at the Bushmoot, it’ll be no surprise that I was running another bread baking class. Having made our yeasted bread dough (some with added pesto) we left it to prove near the fire, and while waiting we made bannock and cooked it as nutella (hazelnut spread) filled dampers on sticks. Thank you to everyone who joined my bread baking class – to get my bread baking recipes, just subscribe and those recipes will will be on their way to you!

Bread baking pots at the Bushmoot

Bread baking pots at the Bushmoot

One thing to consider when baking is what pot will you use – the message is clearly anything that is made of metal. We used a variety; dutch ovens, zebra cans, aluminium billies, stainless pots and an intriguing pot made from tow stainless mixing bowls clipped together with bulldog clips!

Bread baking at the Bushcraft Show 2016

It was great to be providing bread baking workshops at the Bushcraft Show again this year. Places filled very quickly, early on the Sunday morning, while the baking area was set up in front of the main stage.

Bread baking workshops at The Bushcraft Show

Bread baking workshops at The Bushcraft Show – Thanks to John Potts of The Funky Studio for photo

The huge teepees of the main stage provided a nice back-drop and meant lots of people could learn about bread baking on campfires, whilst watching some of the teams make and kneed their dough, make bannock while waiting for the dough to prove, before finally baking their bread.

Bread baking in Petromax Dutch ovens

Bread baking in Petromax Dutch ovens

We baked bread using Petromax Dutch ovens (the FT6 model, one with and one without legs). Whilst you can bake good bread using mugs, pots and pans, a cast iron oven distributes the heat of the fire more evenly and as a result creates a more even bake. You can see a few green sticks in the bottom of the ovens – these raise the small tiffin tins up to allow convection to distribute the heat around the loaf. Alternatively you could use a few pebbles or stones or even use a purpose made trivet!

Team photo - proud of the bread they baked

Team photo – proud of the bread they baked

It was a shame there wasn’t enough room for everyone to bake bread – but it was lovely to see perfect strangers with a hunger to learn, happy to work together to form baking teams.

Bushcraft show visitors baking bread and bannock

Bushcraft show visitors baking bread and bannock

The baking teams produced some lovely loaves with patterns created so each team could recognise their loaf – The recipes used are all available – details below.

Some of the freshly baked loaves of bread

Some of the freshly baked loaves of bread

It was wonderful to chat with old friends and make new ones and a big thank you to Olivia Beardsmore and her fabulous team for putting on such a wonderful event. It was great to be back at the Bushcraft Show again this year.

If you’d like a copy of the bread baking recipes used in the workshops then just subscribe! No, you don’t to have been participating, just have an interest in baking bread over a campfire. I’m hoping the budding bakers will do their homework and bake some bread by the end of June! By all means share pictures of your bread baking over on the Bushcraft with David Willis Facebook page I’m looking forward to seeing the results!
Find out more and book a place on a Backwoods Cooking Course!

May’s guided woodland walk

It was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods, bright, sunny and warm with a little dappled shade here and there. All the trees had foliage, after the cold winter months looking at the buds, it was lovely to see the leaves sprouting from the buds and flowers forming.

Families gathering wild garlic in May

Families gathering wild garlic in May

In April we looked closely at the wild garlic (ransoms), learning how to identify this tasty plant. This month everyone was looking forward to seeing the wild garlic in flower – and they weren’t disappointed, there were lots of flowers. Some leaves and flowers were gathered to make pesto and to add zome zing to salads.

Young beech leaves

Young beech leaves

The children remembered the pointer buds of the beech, but could not see them bursting into leaf. Being so young and fresh, you can clearly see the fine downy hairs around the edge of the leaves. Whilst a little chewy, they have a nice flavour and are good with other leaves in a salad – a few leaves were tried.

Beech flowers

Beech flowers

Taking a closer look at the beech foliage, we could see the flowers, the male flower out on a stem, hairy / downy.

Goat Willow / Pussy Willow / Sallow in flower

Goat Willow / Pussy Willow / Sallow in flower

The flowers of the goat willow are now fully formed and it won’t be long until they burst with blossom and become fluffy like a pussies tail!

Cockooflower / Lady's-smock

Cockooflower / Lady’s-smock

So easily missed, the Cockooflower or lady’s-smock is a beautiful little flower, it’s flowers sitting a top a slender tall stem, with purple veins radiating out across four pale petals.

Dog violets

Dog violets

Often seen hidden around the margins of hedgerows or edges of gardens, the dog violet has a stunning purple-blue flowers with darker coloured veins. We found a carpet of these violets out in full sunshine, as vivid as the bluebells but sitting close to the ground, nestled within the grass.

Thank you to everyone who joined me for this lovely woodland walk, it was nice to see familiar faces and meet new families too, especially the youngest to attend the walk at just 7 weeks!

Join us for a Free Family Friendly Guided Woodland Walk

First impressions of a tree tent

So just what is a ‘tree tent’ and why would you want one? A friend described it as a cross between a hammock and trampoline, and it has to be said that this is a pretty good way of describing a tree tent. It is a tent that is suspended via some strong webbing straps attached to the surrounding trees, floating above the ground, all be it tethered to those trees.

Why? Well because you can, would be an honest answer and because it’s fun, providing a very different perspective for watching and living more closely with our natural woodland surroundings . For anyone who has ever slept in a hammock, or perhaps laid back in one on a sunny day, will know that a hammock provides a very comfortable place to relax and sleep. Unlike a tent, there is no need to clear the ground before pitching the tent to remove those little sticks and stones that, if not removed, will ruin an otherwise good nights sleep.

Another excellent reason for using a tree tent is that, like a hammock, you don’t need to worry about the suitability of the ground on which you would otherwise be camping. You can pitch a tree tent over rough or over sloping ground or even over a pond or stream -I’m looking forward to more challenging locations!

Tentsile Stingray

First night in a Tentsile Stingray tree tent in Bushcraft camp

First night in a Tentsile Stingray tree tent in Bushcraft camp

Our first nights camp was in the woodland where I run courses and the first task was to find a suitable location for the tree tent, three trees from which to suspend the Tentsile Stingray tree tent. The instructions recommend trees that are a foot thick, with trees evenly spaced from each other (ideally forming or approximating to an equilateral triangle). We were in luck, with a nice setting right next to our campfire circle. Erecting the tent was simple enough (well for anyone familiar with setting up a tent on the ground), aided by the excellent videos on the Tentsile website and luckily for me an introduction by Alex Shirley-Smith, owner of Tentsile (thank you Alex).

Like a tent, you need to have insulation underneath where you are sleeping to keep warm at night. In our case, we also had a Trillium Hammock which can be suspended underneath to create a second base layer, between these layer we placed our Thermarest insulation mats. The Stingray can comfortably sleep three people, but with the Trillium suspended separately and with the addition of the optional side walls, there would be room for another tree people down stairs – take a look at this amazing Tentsile configuration!

With the tent platform evenly positioned between the three trees, it was just a matter of inserting a couple of polls into sleeves in the tent fabric to pop up the tent and pull over the flysheet and we were ready to try it out.

There are two entrances, a hatch underneath (see picture above) and a doorway (see below). I put a wooden bench below the hatch, slipped off my shoes and climbed up into a whole new world of camping. We were just a few feet above the ground, but that was enough to see things from a new perspective. It was high enough to see blue tits fly past and yet be at the same level as them too – wonderful.

Tentsile Stingray tree tent - mug stand for morning cup of tea

Tentsile Stingray tree tent – mug stand for morning cup of tea

Well our first night in a tree tent was amazing, it really was a completely new experience, lots of fun too and very comfortable. It was a beautifully clear night and lovely to watch the stars suspended above the ground, that insulation really paid off! And where do you put you morning cup of tea, well as you can (just about) see above, I rigged up a tripod upon which to perch a mug of nettle tea. The flysheet was then removed and we relaxed, sipping tea, listening to the dawn chorus and watching the birds fly be, what a great way to start the day.

Camping with a new perspective – Tentsile Tree tents

Campfire cooking in the woodlands

This short film was recorded during one of David’s recent Backwoods Cooking / Campfire Cooking courses – set in a private Chilterns woodland in Buckinghamshire. So what could you expect from a day of backwoods cookery? As you will see in this film, you can expect to be baking, steaming, roasting and cooking on a campfire!

Google review “Can’t be a much better way of spending a day outside than learning … and trying … different campfire cooking techniques. Lamb roasted in a fire pit accompanied by foraged wild garlic and salad leaves, sea bass steamed in moss, ponassed trout and two different types of bread … all prepared, cooked and consumed in the one-day course (Backwoods Cooking) set in beautiful private woodland (currently carpeted with bluebells) in south Bucks. I am an experienced “bushcrafter” but have never managed to persuade my wife and daughter to join me in the woods for weekend (or longer) courses, but they were made to feel really comfortable and had a very enjoyable day … it might not be so hard to persuade them to go again!” from Bill

Thank you to those who joined me for this Backwoods Cooking course and for agreeing to be in this film and Dean Butler for filming and editing.

Find out more and book a place on a Backwoods Cooking course

Lovely nettle tea

Spring has arrived and so have those lovely nettles – oh yes they are lovely! We have been conditioned as children to avoid their painful sting, but nettles offer so much and this is why they protect themselves from animals, including us that will forage and consume these wonderful plants.

Why should you see nettles in a new light? Well for one they are really good for you, nettles are nutritious and even better than spinach! Nettles are a source of protein, have traces of fat, contain more vitamin C than oranges, have quantities of vitamin B, calcium, potassium, iron and more.

Nettles springing up in the woodlands

Nettles springing up in the woodlands

It is possible to pick nettles with your bare hands without suffering the sting, but using gloves will probably be a more satisfactory experience. If you fancy trying, just follow this verse by the 17th century writer Aaron Hill – “tender-handed stroke a nettle, and it stings you for your pains, grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains”. Firmly grasping the nettle really does work, however there is every chance that you stroke one of the nettles next to it, so be warned!

When out foraging for nettles, it’s best to pick the nettle tops; pinch or snip off the top 4-6 leaves. You can safely harvest nettles throughout the year, but choose young nettles shoots in shady, ideally damp spots. Later in the year, it will be best to look for new growth, perhaps where earlier tall nettle stalks have been cut back. Obviously, as you would with any foraging, please avoid areas that may have been polluted or fouled, be that by dogs being walked, farm run-offs or similar.

How do you avoid the sting when eating? Just applying heat will ‘kill’ the sting and produce leaves that are safe to consume.

For your first experience of nettles, why not try a cup of nettle tea? Pick a few nettle tops (3 or 4 should be fine) and place them in a mug. Then add boiling water, leave for a few minutes to steep. I usually leave them for 10 minutes to get a deeper flavour and enjoy a cup of refreshing, slightly earthy nettle tea. You may wish to wash the nettles first, but I am happy to just add the boiling water to make it safe to drink.

A lovely mug of nettle tea

A lovely mug of nettle tea

What else can you do with nettles? I love to fold them into a risotto or use them as a vegetable, rather like spinach with a knob of butter or to make a gazpacho. Later in the year, I use the fibres from the long stems to make string or rope, there are many other uses for this ever so versatile plant.

Next time you’re out for a walk, consider picking a few nettles to make a cup of tea, pan fry them with a little butter or fold into a risotto – if you do, it would be great to hear your experiences and / or perhaps share your pictures!

What’s happening at Camp Wildfire?

Last year’s Camp Wildfire was a great success, half adventure camp and half music festival for adults only. Located at a secret woodland location in Kent, with easy access from London, there was a huge range of activities to engage with; zip wires, archery, sword fighting, knife throwing, horse riding, yoga, painting, crafts and loads more and then music, dance and partying into the small hours.

David provided the natural shelter building workshops in 2015, teaching the curious adventurers how to construct cosy shelters using the natural woodland resources – we built quite a lot in the woods too! David is really pleased to be invited back again for 2016, he will be providing Bushcrafty activities and workshops throughout the weekend!

Example of a natural shelter

Example of a natural shelter

At sunset on the Friday evening, David will be providing a “Sleep tight, Stay Warm” talk. Last year some campers got really cold, so this session will ensure they can stay warm at night and get a good nights sleep!

Both Saturday and Sunday mornings will start with guided woodland walks; a journey through the woodlands, reawakening the senses and become a little more connected with nature. No longer will there be a wall of trees, we will get to know the trees individually and recognise their differences and personalities. Similarly, we’ll take a look at the woodland plants and show you how to become familiar with them too.

Hodgemoor Woods in June - guided woodland walk

Guided woodland walk – learning about the flora and fauna

David will also be providing natural shelter / bivouac building workshops in the morning and in the afternoon, there will be wood whittling classes, with the opportunity to carve a piece of wood foraged from the woodlands.

Woodland Crafts - Cups and Spoons

Woodland Crafts – Cups and Spoons

And on Saturday evening, David will be providing fire lighting demonstrations, using fire by friction (rubbing sticks together) and other methods, there will be plenty of opportunities to join in around the campfire!

Fire-by-Friction - blowing the ember into life to make fire!

Fire-by-Friction – blowing the ember into life to make fire!

Camp Wildfire “Winner Best New Festival AIF Awards 2015″ – watch their fab Offical Wildfire Trailer put 17-19 June in your diary, check out their website to see more activities: www.campwildfire.co.uk and book tickets and save £10 on each ticket using this special #discountcode / #vouchercode: Bushcraft10 (just enter it at checkout for £10 off a weekend ticket) – see you there!

Discount Code for Camp Wildfire: Bushcraft10

Mothers day – family friendly guided woodland walk

Mothers Day - Family friendly woodland walk

Mothers Day – Family friendly woodland walk

A few of the regular attending families had asked if they could bring their mothers along for the walk – what a lovely idea and it meant we had three generations enjoying a walk together! There is something quite special about taking families out for a walk in the woods. With our own children now young men, it’s lovely to see other peoples children enjoy the simple things in life and be inquisitive about nature.

Whilst not yet Spring, it felt like the end of Winter was behind us and Spring was definitely around the corner. We had another lovely Sunday morning walking through the woods, the weather was kind to us again, with a chill in the air and a little sunshine to remind us of the changing seasons.

As well as looking at creepy crawlies, shapes of leaves, sticks and stones, here are some of the many things we looked at in detail as we wondered through the woods.

Beech-buds - long and pointy like arrow tips

Beech-buds – long and pointy like arrow tips

Stinging nettles - hollow needles of silica

Stinging nettles – hollow needles of silica

We looked at the buds of the huge beech trees –  their pointy buds, sharp to the touch, long and narrow rather like an arrow tip. We carefully looked at the stinging nettles, getting up close to see the ‘hundreds’ of silica needles just waiting to sting the unwary. Stinging nettles are fabulous plants, packed full of goodness, great for teas, soups and you can make string from the stalk fibres later in the year too.

Silver birch, horizontal lines & flaky bark

Silver birch, horizontal lines & flaky bark

Pussy willow - fluffy buds

Pussy willow – fluffy buds

There were some lovely silver birch, we looked closely at the bark, it’s silvery whiteness, the horizontal lines (lenticel) that allow the tree to breath, and the flaky bark that can be used to light campfires. The pussy or goat willow was already blossoming, the bud bursting open, soon they will be fluffy like a cats tail.

It was yet another lovely walk, a beautiful morning, nature awakening for Spring and wonderful families, all young at heart.

If you’d like to join the next walk, just register your family via this page: Family Friendly Guided Woodland Walk they are free to attend – if you have any questions do get in touch.

Inaugural netwalking event in the Chilterns

What a great way to start the day with the inaugural netwalking event taking place at Hodgemoor Woods on the outskirts of Chalfont St Giles. We met in the woodland car park at 8:30 and after brief introductions set off on a guided woodland walk. The idea is simple, enjoy some fresh air, connect with nature, chat with like minded people and depart at the end refreshed ready for the business day ahead!

As we walked around the woods, we stopped to look at a few trees on route. Some may be able to recognise oak trees by their distinctive ‘knobbly’ leaves, but they are not quite so sure in the winter months. Most are less familiar with it’s form, and the texture of it’s bark, the shape and colour of it’s buds.

Oak trees, certainly those that are mature tend to spread their branches out, like an architectural structure, they reach out to command the canopy and capture as much sunlight as possible. The oak bark, once recognised is really distinctive, with its rough rocky surface. The red / brown buds, as you can see in the picture below, are rounded, formed into to clusters at the end of the twigs and then alternate on either side as they progress down each side of the twig.

Mature oak tree bark

Mature oak tree bark

Oak tree buds - winter tree identification

Oak tree buds – winter tree identification

We stopped to recognise the hornbeam, another hard wood, it forms the boundary of the adjoining Hales Wood enclosure. Others we looked closely at included the beech, comparing and contrasting it with the hornbeam. It’s not that obvious at first what the differences are, but on closer inspection, the buds are shorter and less pointed, the ‘growth’ lines on the beech trunk are horizontal, whereas they are vertical on the hornbeam. Looking at a few of the dead leaves, the differences were shown; smooth edges on the beech leaves and small teeth around those of the hornbeam.

After looking at few more trees, enjoying a chat with our fellow netwalkers, we arrived back at the woodland car park for tea and coffee served from the back of the Land Rover.

Thank you to the business folks who joined me for this inaugural netwalking event in the Chilterns. It was lovely to see the enthusiasm for future walks, along with a request for similarly lovely weather  – I’ll do my best!

For details and to book your place on the next Netwalking with David Willis event please view the events calendar – thank you!

The inaugural netwalking event - February 2016

Thank you to the business people who joined the inaugural Netwalking with David Willis event – February 2016