Britain’s Last Wilderness
I grew up building dens in the garden, in the house, at school, up trees and at the beach, every one was an adventure in a boyhood dream or made-up land, but they always ended, I got distracted, it was dinner time, the holiday was over. But why does the adventure have to stop? At what age is it no longer acceptable to go out and build a den in the woods and play at surviving? Do you have to wait to have your own kids before you can get out there and rejoin the game? We all had our reasons, this was mine: to spend a week living this boyhood fantasy of building a den that we could live in, catching our own food and surviving, and, finally, a chance to play in the woods again, only this time on the remote Knoydart Peninsula in the Western Highlands of Scotland.
Being “adults” we had several meetings to set the “rules” for the trip, the difficulty “rating” was noticeably correlated to the levels of wine at the meetings and see-sawed between a glorified fishing trip and running naked through the Scottish Highlands. Eventually, we set our boundaries, in short: 200grams of oats/day, a standard wool blanket, a knife, a specialist object and a reference book. Clothing-wise we decided on nothing technical, matching jackets (supposedly made waterproof with waxing), a base layer, shirt, jumper and fleece.
Quite early on we chose our location: a 55,000 acre wild and sprawling playground between the sea Lochs Nevis and Hourn (Heaven and Hell) – the Knoydart Peninsula, frequently referred to as “Britain’s Last Wilderness”. What a place for an adventure, rugged and remote, accessible to us through an overnight bus ride, a 5 hour train ride, and a ferry.
It was an eventful week. Well, the first 2 days were very eventful, with an airlift and 2 of the remaining “survivors” deciding they wanted to leave, we were very quickly whittled down to just three (James, Rich and me). Fortunately, Chris (who was airlifted on the first evening) was able to return to us for a night before heading back to work in the city. His return did highlight the drop in our own energy levels having lived solely on oats, muscles and limpets for a few days. His frenetic energy and desire to try everything, from building steps, weaving walls, digging, chopping wood and foraging, he was like a small boy with vast amounts of energy to direct.
I had a thoroughly enjoyable week. Naturally, there were bits which I could have lived without, like not having an entirely waterproof jacket, sleepless nights in the cold, having to stoke the fire several times a night to keep warm, smokey and painful eyes, never being full, only eating shellfish and stinging nettles, spooning another guy… quite a few things, in fact, but I still genuinely enjoyed the experience.
The weather was good to us, although not perfect, the fronts of rain coming across allowed us to either avoid them or dry out between soakings. When we were wet we could feel energy levels plummet rapidly, really making us question why we were there, but then the sun would shine and everything would seem a bit more manageable.
Before we departed we were meant to research and learn about foraging, wild plants and shelter construction. This was in the spirit of learning, we would then contribute to the group as a whole – very hippyish, I know. Our main source of knowledge came from a couple of courses, the one I attended was a three hour coastal foraging course in Lyme Regis. Costing £30, it was well worth the money, just to know that all seaweeds are edible was great, though in reality it doesn’t taste that good so we hardly ate any.
Muscles, limpets and winkles were our main food sources, with the addition of wood sorel, stinging nettles and primrose flowers. I am sure a forager with more experience could have been more extravagant. With this limited array of food we had to be creative about how we cooked. Oats soon became oatcakes, which became oat biscuits; limpets soon became fried in their shells and eaten whole; we added the winkles to the oats and wrapped them in kelp; we ate them neat, we tried all we could think of, but I remain unsure of them, what you get for your time really isn’t worth it.
When we arrived it took us a long time to decide where to build our shelter, going through several options. I am glad we chose where we did, even when the weather was raging outside the hollow where we built our shelter always seemed to remain calm. We were ambitious in our plans, but building a shelter big enough to sleep 6 is a bigger task than imagined, so in some ways the loss of half the party was a good thing. Although we never finished the entire shelter I think what we achieved was pretty brilliant: we had a thatched lean-too, a turf roofed fire break to reflect heat into the shelter, woven walls and a reed floor… not bad for a week’s work. There is still plenty of room for additions and improvements if anyone would like to head out and continue what we started!
I would recommend the experience to anyone, just be safe and know what you are getting yourself into! We had emergency equipment with us which thankfully we didn’t have to use – apart from the Mountain Bothy which we used as a sauna on our last evening……
Thanks to everyone who came; Harry, Chris, Marco, James and Rich. I am thoroughly looking forward to our next adventure!
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