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Survival skills: Eats shoots and weaves

Worried your cosy urban existence has deprived you of something essential? Then perhaps you need to learn to live off the land and sea on a coastal survival course. Just be ready to weave

Survival skills: Eats shoots and weaves
The group at Port O’Warren Bay. Image: Chris Horton

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My bushcraft instructor is standing over me, glowering, as a tempest rages in the evening gloom. “Face the pain,” Fraser Christian barks. “Find your inner hunter!”

My rite-of-passage moment has arrived. I’d been expecting it during my five days camped on the Dumfries coast learning hunter-gatherer skills. But as a squeamish pescatarian who balks at killing flies, I’d imagined that when it came I’d be spattered in blood, whacking a fish to death. Not sitting on my backside in a tipi, basket-weaving. 

Still barely half-complete, the crooked nest of twigs in front of me is a grotesque parody of the tightly woven willow fish traps my nine Complete Coastal Hunter Gatherer coursemates had conjured up that afternoon as we beavered away under the awning of the mess tent. Only a suicidally stupid fish could fail to squeeze through the gaps appearing in its tapered sides as I struggle to twist the buckling willow canes into ever-decreasing circles. 

There’d been a moment of light relief — my sorry effort making a brief cameo as a hat when I photobomb my victorious coursemates as they pose for Fraser’s camera. But it’s followed by a pang of envy when I’m ordered to soldier on alone as they set off down the lane to Port O’Warren Bay clutching their traps. Baited with crushed baby crabs and wedged between rocks, the traps await a potential banquet of fishy visitors on the evening tide — Fraser having caused expectation levels to soar by assuring us “an 8lb conger eel doesn’t read the label” when asked what they might entice. 

If I’d feIt like the odd forager out earlier that afternoon, I’m an outcast now, effectively banished to the tipi — the only place I can continue my fish trap in the raging storm that’s sent my coursemates scurrying back to their cosy tents and campervans. But when Fraser pokes his head through the billowing canvas door, it’s not the hoped-for reprieve he delivers. With his exhortation to push through the pain barrier and engage with my inner Ray Mears ringing in my ears, I’m left to reflect on a week of highs and lows.

“This isn’t a holiday,” Fraser had warned, as he welcomed us onto the course. “If you’d wanted that you should’ve gone on a chocolate-tasting workshop.” I sensed a siege mentality: our cosseted urban world on one side; his world — living off-grid in a bender tent in a Dorset forest — on the other. A world we’d now be inhabiting. “We work to the rhythm of the tides,” Fraser tells us. Not just heading down to the shore at 6am and 6pm to check and rebait traps at low tide, but ditching our phones and nine-to-five mindsets and reconnecting with a primal, long-lost way of life. “Our ancestors all started on the coast — it’s inside all of us,” Fraser says, thumping his chest. 

But it’s soon clear my inner neanderthal isn’t talking to me. Neither, it seems, is Fraser. After demonstrating how to make long lines — which we’ll be baiting and tying in a row to lines attached to posts in the sand — he makes it brutally clear he doesn’t expect questions. When I ask how long to cut the nylon filament linking the line to the hook, I get short shrift: “Long enough to tear the fish’s throat out!” As someone who finds IKEA flatplan instructions infuriatingly vague, I’m craving centimetres or inches, but Fraser’s mantra — “nature doesn’t know any of these rules” — means the willow for the fish traps needs to be, “I dunno, leg height?” while fishing lines are “shoulder width” long. Barely five foot tall, Karen — the lone female in a group with more than its fair share of six-footers — shares a grumble with me at these bespoke dimensions. 

She also shares her encyclopedic knowledge of wild plants on foraging walks, plundering hedgerow, meadow and shore for a breakfast fry-up of oxeye daisies (like floral fried eggs), mushrooms, nettle nuts and hogsweed — a sight that has full-English traditionalists Tony and Phil shaking their heads and muttering into their cuppas.

It’s not just Karen with the green fingers. Fraser shows us how to create a wild allotment with a bit of light pruning — plucking a sea kale stem here, a sea radish leaf there, as we move along the shore, so plants aren’t depleted. When he goes a bit Zen on the beach — getting us to think like our prey in order to catch it — there are raised eyebrows. But after creating my own crab hotel in a rock-pool, I return the next day to find there are guests. Then, later on, Karen and I hit the bivalve jackpot when we think like shellfish — flooded wellies are a small price to pay as we engage in a spot of cave Twister, pulling out the fattest, barnacle-encrusted mussels from the most inaccessible crags and nooks.

Fraser has got us seeing the coast in a whole new light. Ripples on the sand are just pretty patterns until we realise they’re signposts, pointing to shore — handy in the fog, because you really don’t want to be stuck on such a vast expanse of sand racing an incoming tide that’s faster than Usain Bolt. There are even moments of disarming tenderness. When Fraser holds up a piece of string to demonstrate the bowline knot we’d be using for the fishing-rod rigs — making exaggerated looping movements with his hands and reeling off a quaint woodland mnemonic — it’s like I’ve switched channels from Tarantino to Beatrix Potter. I stifle a giggle, and try to repeat it back to myself while attempting the knot. “You fetch the rabbit out of his hole, take him round the tree, back down his hole, then back around the tree and…” The string falls apart. I’ve failed again. 

Fraser adopts a more confrontational approach during the net-making workshop. “I’m not going to mother you,” he snaps, when my hand shoots up for the umpteenth time. Summoned to the front, he hands me the net needle and gestures to the rope mesh suspended between two poles. I’m preparing to fail, but surprise myself by successfully stitching another diamond. “A round of applause please for the London journalist,” Fraser deadpans, flashing me a devilish smile. It’s a highlight of the week.

A low point: making nettle cordage. After hours of exfoliating and de-leafing stems of the stinging triffid, peeling off the parchment-thin bark, tenderising the strips with the handle of our knives, then pleating into a single thread, the group has enough cordage for a pair of shoelaces — and has reached the unanimous verdict that some skills from the past really should stay there. 

After fiddly bushcraft tasks like these, the fish slaughtering I’d been dreading feels like light relief. Bating the long lines, Fraser watches as we each coax a live lugworm onto our hook — “Gently, gently… careful, you’re losing the juicy bits!” At dawn the next day, there’s a buzz of anticipation as we head to the shore — Fraser’s prediction of what we might catch as vague and florid as ever. “Everything… seals, birds, mackerel, labradors, children.” 

What are waiting for us look like sharks. Are sharks! One or two lie still — their gills pecked out by the gulls. But my dogfish is still very much alive. Squirming on the sand, a pair of startled eyes stare up at me as I ease him off the hook as gently as I’d eased the worm onto it. But there’s nothing gentle about the next bit. Grabbing the tail with both hands, I wrestle him over to a wooden post and perform the overhead ‘bicycle swing’ Fraser had shown us. And again. And again — just to be sure. Charlie, next to me, has a different technique, but is equally vigorous. “If that was a baseball, I’d have hit it to outfield,” he grimaces. 

Then the fun really begins. Fraser had warned us there’d be a bit of twitching, but he hadn’t said anything about battling zombie fish. Even without his head, my dogfish is still writhing like a snake as I tighten my grip on its sandpaper flanks and use my knife to roll back the skin. It’s still putting up a fight as I begin to gut it. Looking up the beach, it’s like a corner of a Hieronymus Bosch painting has come to life — a row of figures, stooped, crouched, kneeling, amid pools of blood, heads, fins and guts. 

Going to Sainsbury’s would’ve been easier, it occurs to me that evening. Certainly a lot less messy. Right now I could be watching telly, waiting for the microwave ping. But I’m glad I’m here, watching the sun sink into the Irish Sea, waiting for Fraser to cook up a storm with our dogfish. As the darkness closes in around us, the glow from the oil-drum stove transforms my dreaded classroom into a cosy, fire-lit cave. Fraser cracks dad-jokes and spins scary-funny forager yarns, while turning a blind-eye to the bottle of Scotch doing the rounds that’s making Pete and Andy seem a lot less scary and Kiwi James sound like he knows what he’s doing as he strums our requests on the guitar and we sing along.

Charlie demonstrates his dogfish-dispatching technique. Image: Chris Horton

Charlie demonstrates his dogfish-dispatching technique. Image: Chris Horton

Catch of the day

Back in the tipi, my fish trap weaving hell continues, but I’m roused from despondency when a welcome face appears in the fluttering canvas doorway. It’s Steve, Fraser’s deputy and best friend, who has the weathered face of a grizzled trawler captain, but a patient, kindly manner that betrays his years as a psychiatric nurse (“It comes in handy when dealing with Fraser,” he whispers, at one point. “Don’t tell him”). Hovering in the shadows of the mess tent during the bushcraft workshops, he’d been like a magician’s assistant — passing Fraser roll-ups, fetching things, taking Fraser’s cat back to his van. He’d done the same for us, lending a hand — when Fraser wasn’t looking.

Steve takes one look at my fish trap, chuckles and disappears into the darkness.

That’s it. I know now it’s a hopeless situation. I resolve to confront Fraser. Putting aside my willow bundle, I take a deep breath and head to the mess tent, where I find my instructor pulling tins of tomatoes from a Lidl bag. I can’t carry on with the fish trap, I explain. Can’t do it. I’m not being lazy.

Rather than the dressing down I’m expecting, Fraser just shrugs, takes a deep drag on his rollie and fixes me with a stare. “I’m like you,” he says with a smile. “Slow learner, need everything explained twice.” I’m getting goosebumps. It’s not exactly like Luke finding out Darth Vader is his dad, but it’s a shock. A relief.

We’re all part of a tribe, Fraser explains. “All got a role to play,” he says. “Maybe you’re not the fisherman, not the hunter. Maybe you’re…” A pause. “You’ve got your humour, you make people laugh.”

And with that, the struggle’s over. That night, as the storm rages on, I ponder what had happened, if I’ve earned some grudging respect for confronting him. Maybe that was the pain I needed to face. Maybe I’d found my inner hunter. Maybe I was just a hopeless, helpless clown.

There are white horses coming in at 6.30 the next morning but it’s me who could be forgiven for seeing the funny side in the bleak scene that greets us. Ripped from their rocky berths by the heavy swell, all that remains of most of my classmates’ fish traps are a few stray strands of willow — all they have left to show for their efforts. But I don’t feel even a twinge of satisfaction at the irony of this outcome. I feel their pain too. After all, we’re part of a tribe now. When I get to Dumfries station the next day, I get confirmation. My iPhone doesn’t recognise my fingerprints. The dogfish skin has erased my urban identity. I’ve joined Fraser’s world.

The catch from one of the surviving traps. Image: Chris Horton

The catch from one of the surviving traps. Image: Chris Horton

Five things I learned

1. Timing the tides
Tide cards aren’t exact (a gale held the tide back by half an hour one morning). Get to the beach before low tide to see what it’s doing — a fast sideways tide can strand you.

2. All about arrowgrass
The pick of the foreshore plants? Arrowgrass (tastes like coriander) and sea kale (its calorific roots helped our ancestors settle on the coast; top chefs love the shoots).

3. King of knots
In coastal bushcraft, the top knot is the bowline (‘king of knots’) — a great all-rounder that’s also a life-saver as it’s easily untied and won’t constrict under load.

4. Group ethic
A primitive coastal lifestyle was surprisingly pleasant — sociable activities like plant foraging and readying traps fitted around two bursts of hunting at low tide.

5. Lost art
Our ancestors were skilful hunters. Our primitive gill nets (between poles) and oak gorge hooks only caught baby crabs
and seaweed.

Essentials

The five-day Complete Coastal Hunter Gatherer is held at two locations: near Dumfries, South West Scotland (26-30 June 2017); and near Bridport, West Dorset (18-22 September 2017). The course teaches a mix of modern and primitive bushcraft and foraging skills. Adults, £575, (children with adults, free). Price includes evening meals and accommodation in a private coastal meadow (bring own tent or sleeping system).

Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)