We think we could survive, but as Rupert Isaacson reports, the woodlands of the Home Counties can prove an unforgiving wilderness
Living off the land is something most of us feel that we could do if we had to, but how many of us really have a clue? How many of us can tell, even in summer, which plants are edible and which are poisonous? And in autumn which of the hundreds of mushrooms and toadstools will kill us and which can we eat? In winter, how can we find and identify the few fungi, berries and roots that would keep us alive until the spring? How would we trap birds and small animals? And before we try and fill our bellies, how many of us would know how to build a rain-proof shelter from branches, or to light a fire without using a match?

A number of places in Britain now teach woodlore, varying from relatively gentle guidance in identifying fungi to all-out survival courses held in all seasons and all weathers. You don't have to be super-fit to take a survival course: even the winter courses can be taken by just about anyone and are run over a week or a weekend. But be warned, even two days of living off the land can be an alien experience. If you try a week you will find that life's horizon narrows down to food, shelter and warmth.

Oddly enough, this can be deeply relaxing. Despite the challenges and obvious discomfort, it is impossible to come away from such a course without a real sense of achievement and a sense of perspective on day- to-day pressures.

Raymond Mears, who runs his Woodlore courses in the Sussex and Hampshire woods, learned his bushcraft from the Zairean pygmies and from the Cherokees of North Carolina. He offers a range of two-day and six-day courses. If you have only a weekend, the fundamental bushcraft course covers a wide range of skills, and you will be living in the wild. If you have a bit more time it is even more rewarding to take the six-day foundation course which gives you time to put the skills into practice.

Be aware that these courses are not for vegetarians or vegans as Britain only has a limited amount of wild vegetable food, especially in winter. Woodlore's courses put as much emphasis on catching fish and game, as well as working hide, antler and bone, as it does on gathering wild foods. However, for those seeking a more spiritual element, Mears is also big on passing on the pygmy and North American Indian ethics. The basic message is pretty simple - put back what you take out. You are never allowed to strip a food source bare, nor are you allowed to kill more than you need at any one time. Between the more practical tasks of building shelters and procuring food, Mears spends time explaining pygmy and Cherokee philosophies, what he calls the medicine wheel. Combined with this is instruction on how to make flint tools and how to use plants for medicine as well as food.

If you don't fancy roughing it completely, Woodlore also offers several wilderness- related courses, such as birch-bark weaving, carving with knife and axe, bush cookery and nature awareness and animal tracking. Despite being only an hour from London, you become so quickly immersed in the countryside where the courses take place that you forget you're in the affluent South east. Sometimes, while foraging, you might come within sight or sound of a big road. To think of all those people in warm cars while you shiver in the woods puts your life in perspective (it may also make you jealous). The courses bring home the fact that machines are all that stand between us and the wild. A Sussex woodland is as much a part of that wild as the wildernesses of North America or the African rainforest, and that is reassuring. Once you have survived even two days in the woods, you will never look at the countryside in the same way again. It becomes a living thing, by turns benevolent and vicious and beautiful, it stops being merely a picturesque landscape seen through a car window.

FACT FILE

Woodlore, 77 Dillingburgh Road, Eastbourne, Sussex BN20 8LS. Tel (01323) 648517, fax (01323) 738356.

Accommodation

Not provided (bring your own tent).

Food

Varies according to course.

Children

Minimum age normally 16, those under 18 require consent of parent of guardian. Special youth courses available.

Insurance

Clients require their own holiday insurance.

Tariffs

A wide variety of woodlore courses offered, some examples are - 2 day Fundamental Bushcraft Course or Nature Awareness & Animal Tracking course: pounds 100; 2 day Bushcraft Cookery course: pounds 100; 2 day Foraging for Fungi course: pounds 150; 1 week Foundation course (includes food): pounds 350; 1 week Journeyman course (includes food): pounds 360. For those interested in more remote couses, Wodlore also leads trips to Lapland and Sweden. Ring them for details.

Booking

pounds 50 non-refundable deposit required. Balance due 6 weeks before start date. Cancellation charges: 3-6 weeks before start, 50 per cent of total; 3-0 weeks before start, 100 per cent of total. Late bookings sometimes accepted if space available.

Access

A22 to Eastbourne. Trains and buses available to Eastbourne. Once there, transport to the course site is provided.

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