Walk Like a Shadow: A Day With Ray Mears, Ashdown Forest - 29th December 2005

Ray Mears - bushcraft expert and TV legend - runs several courses throughout the year, via his company Woodlore, which range from introductory walks through to complete two-week treks through the jungles of Belize. The trick is getting on one, as the demand is so great that eternal vigilance (or luck) is required when monitoring the e-mail list for a cancellation spot or a new course appearing. And so it was when an e-mail arrived for a day course entitled "A Christmas Walk in the Woods" in Nosher's inbox: about 60 seconds later a place was booked. The course itself is held in Ashdown Forest, and starts from the nearby scouts' centre at Broadstone Warren. 20 people arrive in the carpark for 9.45am (Nosher had driven straight down from Suffolk, having left at 7.15am), and shortly afterwards Ray himself arrives. The group then heads off to build 3D models of the local terrain out of heaps of leaves, learn about tracking (to which the light covering of snow contributes immensely), create fire without matches, learn how to navigate by using trees (if you look carefully, their branches tend to point south), do a spot of archery under the tutelage of expert bowyer Chris Boyton and generally get a chance to listen to someone with a passionate and genuine affinity for the landscape and the rapidly-diminishing skills of native bushcraft. Ray Mears is as affable in real life as on telly, and tells some great stories in an engaging way whilst we hike around the woods of East Sussex - the day is thoroughly enjoyable and also enlightening; it's quite staggering and humbling to realise what little most of us know about the world around us.

next album: New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, Suffolk - 1st January 2006
previous album: Boxing Day Miscellany - 26th/27th December 2005

The first task is to build 3D models of the area, including hills and streams, so that we understand our environment better: Ray Mears inspects the results

The group hikes off into the forest

Chris Boyton introduces his bows

The group listens to Chris

Trekking off again

Ray talks about tracking

The tracks of a fox, who had been running along the logs like kids run on a wall, are pointed out

Ray explains the differences between male and female deer droppings

Ray takes a bit of beech bark from a dead tree, scrapes peelings from the inside and lights it with a spark

We are encouraged to get in touch with trees

Ray shows how to set up a camp fire correctly, so that the ground doesn't suck the heat out when the fire is starting

Ray's fire is going

The larger group is split into 4 smaller ones, each of which tries out firelighting: Nosher's group get's their fire going.

The low winter sun shines through the trees

Scenes from around the camp fire

The scene looks almost neolithic, as wisps of smoke rise through the trees

Our camp fire finally gets going well. Annette, one of the Woodlore guides, comes over to check.

Ray and his group's camp

Chris Boyton introduces archery

Ray warms his longbow up over the embers of the fire

Ray and Chris do a bit of 'roving archery': selecting targets, each decided upon from the previous location

Ray has to dig one of his arrows out of a fallen tree

Action archery shots: Chris uses a traditional style

Ray lets another arrow loose, using a bushman-like stealth hunting style where the bow is brought up for only a second or so

Making a toothbrush from the chewed end of a larch twig (the tannins in it make a good astringent 'toothpaste')

A strange red stream flows through a snowy landscape. The redness is, in part, due to iron ore from the local landscape.

The snow has melted just slightly on the leaves of Rhododendron, leaving a great leaf-shaped pattern

The uses of sphagnum moss are explained

The area where deer have camped overnight are pointed out: the snow makes it brilliantly clear

Ray looks for deer hairs in the patch occupied by a male deer the night before

A huge beech tree, pollarded 600 years ago

The group file past the wonderful old tree

Artists' bracket fungus

Ray carves a picture of a pawprint track in a piece of fungus

Ray does some book signing on the bonnet of his Land Rover

Members of the group take it in turns to have photos taken

Contributed by Ellie: Nosher takes aim under the watchful eye of Chris Boyton

Contributed by Ellie: Nosher's group clear away all traces of our camp fire

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The first task is to build 3D models of the area, including hills and streams, so that we understand our environment better: Ray Mears inspects the results