" It was liberating to
sleep in the open.
Only having to open one
eye to see the stars.
With the gentle sound of the waves
to soothe us to sleep..."
'What sort of people pay to “survive” a day and night on a chilly South Coast beach?' I asked myself as hubby and I waited in the car park for our survival companions. The answer became apparent ten minutes later: Stag Party! Oh yes. We were about to spend 24 hours of discomfort in the company of 12 of ‘the boys’ (who thought THIS would be more fun than a weekend of debauchery in Latvia), 2 guides of the distinctly outdoorsy type, hubby and myself. And Tinker the dog. The only other female.
Our own route to this weekend escalated from a historic secret crush on Ray Mears on my part and a desire to light fires without matches on hubby's part. We'd spent a pleasant weekend previously in the climbing/camping stores around Covent Garden purchasing fire steels and compasses. Putting together our own little survival kits, neatly stored in tobacco tins! Needless to say, we were a bit put out when, still in the car park, we were handed various essentials including penknives, tin mugs, bashas and tent pegs, and electronic lighters(!). As well as emergency peanuts and chocolate. Not for consumption, but cover from potential lawsuits against the organisers if we crashed our cars on the way home from lack of sustenance! These, together with the sleeping bags and roll mats we were instructed to bring, are all apparently things that one is supposed to have on hand at all times. I must remember to re-pack my handbag!
After meeting our guides, Fraser (who had the look of someone who slept under the stars most nights), and Mike*, (more boy scout in his beige, high waisted slacks, clinking things hanging off his belt), we loaded up our survival gear, and set off down to the beach. (*Not his real name, but we preferred it. Think Nick Frost in the TV series Spaced!) It was at this point that we first heard the survival motto “two is one, one is none”. A subtle warning about losing vital pieces of equipment. And the realisation that I would need a larger handbag.
En route there were teenagers in a tent playing loud music, the visible scatterings of toilet paper a short distance from the tent. By the disapproving comments from Fraser I realised that the handy pack of tissues that I'd brought with me could not be put to use. That is, if I could even find anywhere private enough to pee. Away from my 15 companions! I realised that I would monitor my water intake this weekend.
Chesil Beach has miles of beautiful soft sand with, above the high-water line, a raised area of sand and scrub mix. Beyond that, at the point where we stayed, was an area of reeds and marshland, leading to rolling hills of farmland. Most of our time was spent on the sand/scrub area. Fraser pointed out three or four low-lying plants that were either edible or had healing properties. Indeed, I pocketed a few leaves of some kind of plant which came in useful a few hours later when I scratched my palm on a sharp stick; chewing the leaves and placing them on the scratch apparently offers antiseptic properties (although to be honest when I say scratch it was barely even that, and I did have some antiseptic wipes from Boots in my emergency tin had it been a real scratch!)
Chesil beach, source: http://www.dorsetcamper.com/the-chesil-beach.html
A mile or so down the beach we stopped at a handily swept up tree trunk. Smooth and weathered by the sea. An obvious place at which to build a shelter. Fraser and Mike used this trunk to show us how to build the perfect shelter (and presumably had done so many times before). Then left us to our own devices on the scrubland. Without another single useful object to help us!
The basha turns out to be a useful bit of kit (I must get one for my handbag!). Simply, a piece of waterproof canvas. About the right size for two people to sleep under. With eyelets and cord at each of the four corners, the middle of each side. The ideal situation is to have something high to tie the two end cords to. Then the corners and side cords can be secured to make a tent shaped shelter, angled enough that any rain would roll off the sides. And the wind couldn’t get a grip of the underside of the shelter and tear the whole thing away. Knots were simple and aimed to allow quick release. Luckily my teenage years messing around in dinghies in Cornwall meant that I can do knots. Unlike hubby who was all thumbs!
While Fraser and Mike were showing us how to build the perfect shelter. What width of wood was required to make a fire. With the help of a piece of firelighter (?) We slowly came to realise that a large group of people of a certain age were hovering nearby. Some looking with us at some interest, but most gazing in to the reeds. It turns out that we were in a notorious twitcher's hotspot. That a rare bird had been spotted in the vicinity. The word had got out. (I suspect that we might not have been very welcome at that point.)
Once our shelter and fire building education was deemed complete, we were let loose to find our spot for the night. To put up our shelters, with the adage that we were to spend the rest of the day continually improving our shelters. Trust me shelter #1 needed much improvement! Hubby and I wandered further down the beach. Slightly panicky in case the stag boys beat us to what could be our perfect spot. Before deciding on a sandy hollow just beyond the line where the beach meets the scrub land (on the higher level in case of unexpected spring tides). We searched for something with which we could elevate our shelter in case of rain, and managed to build the slightly flat structure pictured below.
After ‘shelter’ came the much anticipated FIRE! We collected as much kindling as possible. Without being too greedy. Supplies were in demand. Setting up three flat stones to make a hearth. Mindful of wind direction and not setting fire to our already inadequate shelter. We built up a small fire (lit it with the electronic lighter). Sadly, our fire steels were not going to be put to use this weekend. As I went foraging for more kindling hubby built the fire up to as large as he could get away with. We used our tin mugs to boil up some (bottled) water (for no apparent reason) and relaxed in the sunshine listening to the sounds of the sea and the calling of the stags.
Summoned back to base camp, Fraser showed us the wealth of edible vegetation around the area. Taught us how to test anything that we were unsure about. Rub it between thumb and forefinger and wait an hour for any reaction before ingesting said plant. There were 6 different varieties of edible plant. Including wild carrots. And parsnips. Needless to say we could not remember any of them when it became time to forage for dinner. We dined on the most commonly available, sea kale. Made in to a watery soup. Seasoned with the McDonalds salt and pepper sachets from our well stocked survival tins. Regardless of the seasoning, it still tasted just like boiled cabbage. But with less flavour. I would like to say that the one indispensable survival tool that had not been handed out. And that was not in our survival tins would have been a spork. Eating boiled sea kale from the tip of a sharp penknife would not have been pleasant even had the food been tasty!
After “lunch” we went foraging for useful bits of flotsam and jetsam to bring back to base camp. Any bits of rope or cord, foil, basically anything manmade. I think this was a two-pronged exercise. To see what use could be made of beach trash. And to clean up the beach. Hubby and I were very proud of ourselves when we found an abandoned lobster pot half submerged in the marshy area and brought this back. (We were less proud when we had to carry the surprisingly heavy tangle of rope and metal back up to the car park the following day!)
Gathering around the fire at base camp we were shown what could be made of various bits of trash. Mainly how to make a long length of cord out of random pieces of string. Our lobster pot included a wealth of thick orange rope. But not of much use. We were also shown how to make cord out of nettle stalks and grasses. Should ‘rubbish’ string not be available.
It was about 5pm. The warmth of the day was seeping out. We were left for the evening to improve on our shelters. Make some more sea kale soup. To enjoy the tranquillity. Some of the stag boys headed back to the car park to pick up the hot beers from their boots (Nice!) We kicked ourselves for not having had the foresight to plan for evening. Not even a pack of cards. We found a short plank and used it to put a bit of height to our shelter. Built the fire up as much as hubby could get away with. Did some cordage for sundown. Before crawling backwards, fully dressed, in to our sleeping bags for the night.
It was liberating to sleep in the open.Only having to open one eye to see the stars.With the gentle sound of the waves to soothe us to sleep... But it certainly wasn’t comfortable. The sleep mats did nothing to disguise the lumps of plants and reeds growing out of our sandy hollow (in hindsight maybe we should have done a bit of weeding before building our shelter!) The night was clear, but the lack of clouds brought a corresponding chill. I spent the night convinced that I couldn’t feel my feet. I’d probably get frostbite and have to have my toes cut off (as warned about by Fraser). Didn’t get much sleep.
The minute there was light. I crawled out of my sleeping bag. Walked a mile down the beach to the tunnel of undergrowth that I’d found the night before to use as a lavatory (finally I could drink some water!) On the way back I picked up more firewood and kindling. To put some warmth back in to our bones. It’s shameful to say but we’d kind of assumed that, after a sea kale soup breakfast, we’d be breaking down our camps and heading back to the cars. But no. To our dismay. This was a full 24-hour experience.
At mid-morning we broke down our camp. Burying the remains. We took our backpacks back to base camp. Received a tutorial in orienteering. We were then divided in to two groups. Pointed to a spot in the farmland beyond the marsh and reed. Told to plot our route there, going in two different directions. Swapping directions with the other group to make our way back. By this time the sun had come up. We were all warmed up. Regaining our cheer. We set off with compasses at the ready and a spring in our (carefully counted) steps.
At the meeting point there was no sign of the other group. We sat in the grass. Chatted and enjoyed the sunshine. There was still no sign of the other group. We saw Mike set off in the other direction to rustle them out from wherever they had gone. They had gotten bogged down. Literally. Mike had routed them out and shown them how to “square off” a bog. Needless to say we didn’t strictly follow their instructions to get back to base camp. But rather made our own way avoiding said bog!
Back at base camp we learned about signalling using mirrors and cans or signs on the ground, before loading up our backpacks (and the lobster pot) and hauling it all back up to the car park to make our goodbye’s and head home.
In summary, it was a fabulous weekend. We were lucky with the weather. We lost a few pounds. I’m sure we learned lots of information (that we’ll hopefully never have to remember). Mostly it was a good excuse to spend the next two nights in a lovely country B&B. 5* food in a gastro pub. A warm night’s sleep.
Addendum: We did not crash the car through lack of sustenance and sleep. There was a significant moment of marital disharmony. I, a very occasional driver, was forced to drive an extra hour by hubby, the sub-standard navigator. As well as this there was a serious lesson to the effect that the only words I need to hear are “left”, “right”, “go”, and “stop”, i.e. when I say “can I go?” the answer “yes”, meaning “yes, something’s coming”, is NOT the right answer.
By Mandy, the imaginative weekender.