Two Girls Go Wild in Suffolk: Bushcraft survival in the Rushbrooke Estate woods
PUBLISHED: 12:20 26 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:20 26 September 2019
How are your bushcraft skills? Curious about their own abilities to cope without technology, Naomi and Sarah head for the forest | Words: Naomi Gornall - Photos: Sarah Lucy Brown
It was time to go back to basics and discover the real wild side of life. I've always watched those survival programmes in fascination, and like most of us, wondered if I could do them?
I quickly concluded it was 'no', but I was intrigued to discover that, if armed with the right teaching and skills set, would I have a fighting chance in a survival situation?
Since my photographer friend, Sarah Lucy Brown, and I set up our collaboration, Two Girls Go Wild in Suffolk, at the start of the year, we have taken part in a number of fun and slightly unusual activities, but this one really met our 'wild' brief.
Mark Beckham launched his own company, Natural Survivor, last June following a career in the military spanning almost three decades. He agreed to give us a basic introduction to wilderness living skills, which included natural navigation, fire lighting and survival shelter construction.
When we arrived at the forest, on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds, we marvelled at how peaceful and calming it felt. The woods are part of the Rushbrooke Estate and the owner has kindly loaned them to Mark to run his courses.
As we came into the camp, the fire was already lit so Mark hung the campfire kettle over it and made us some tea. He began to explain his background and why setting up his venture has been a form of therapy.
Mark signed up to the army at just 17 and stayed a decade before transferring to the Royal Air Force to be a survival specialist, which he did for 18 years.
Due to injuries sustained from several tours in war-zones, including Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, his physical and mental health began to suffer.
In 2016 he went to see a doctor about excessive pain he was enduring, as well as memory loss. During the appointment, his doctor picked up on the state of his mental health and he was sent for a mental health assessment.
He was diagnosed with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and hyper-vigilance, and was placed on a recovery programme and given intensive therapy. He was put on long term sick leave and, eventually, medically discharged in June 2018.
During Mark's time on sick leave, he began to think about his future and came up with the idea for Natural Survivor. Thanks to a business course and a £2,500 grant from Help for Heroes, he was able to purchase equipment and set up his own business.
The very nature of what Mark now does for a living is key to his recovery. "I still have bad days but when they come I can deal with them, because I know there's hope out there. I just keep it in the back of my mind that as soon as this little cloud has passed, I'll be back down in the woods and cracking on, because I've got things to work towards now."
As we finished our tea, it was time to get to work. First up was natural navigation. Who knew that puddles, the moon, stars, trees and a shadow stick in the ground could help point you in the right direction?
We listened intently as Mark explained the techniques used to detect direction, based on elements like the wind and sun. He went on to describe other ways to help you survive in the wilderness.
Extracting water from a silver birch tree seemed surprisingly achievable, as did using a fish's swim bladder as a float to catch more fish.
Mark's knowledge of the environment and how it is key to our survival in the absence of manufactured gadgets seemed boundless. His expert tips spilled out faster than I could write in my notebook.
Sphagnum moss can be used as a sponge, a nettle plant is useful to make cordage from, and special herbs found in the woods can help cure illnesses.
It wasn't a monologue though. He constantly invited us to think for ourselves. When he asked us how to cure a nettle sting, I proudly produced one of my only natural remedies, which is to rub a dock leaf on it.
However, Mark pointed out that dock leaves don't necessarily grow near nettles and that the cure is actually the nettle itself. You take the nettle leaf between your thumb and forefinger and smooth the hairs away from you, then mash it up in your fingers until it produces a green juice, which you can then smear over the sting.
At this point I should mention my new best friend in all this, Poppy, a two-year-old sprollie (springer-collie), who has been Mark's companion and therapy dog for the last two years.
She remained at our feet for most of the duration, begging us with her eyes to throw sticks. I'm not a natural dog lover but Poppy had such a gentle disposition and playful nature it was impossible to ignore her. Clearly used to Poppy trying to monopolise attention, Mark pressed on.
He explained that when someone is in an extreme survival position, their top priorities (in order) should be air, shelter and fire, water, then food. He gave us a brief demonstration of constructing a typical thermal A-frame shelter, put together without the need for cordage.
The shelter is covered in bits of bracken, fern, twigs, basically anything the forest provides. During his full day sessions, it generally takes pairs about three hours to build a shelter and up to five or six hours to complete a water-tight, thermal shelter.
Once you have somewhere to lay your head, the next priority is warmth. I've always thought that making fire looks really hard and can take hours to master. Well, thanks to Mark's technique, both Sarah and I cracked it in about five minutes.
He showed us a piece of charred cloth and held it over the edge of a flint and then proceeded to hit a steel strike across it at the right angle. Once we got the spark onto the charcloth, he then gave us dried grass to make a bird's nest.
We placed the charcloth in the middle and blew until the ember took hold and flames suddenly appeared. It felt like a real achievement. After all, there are few more important basic life skills than making fire.
As Sarah and I drove away, we were completely buoyed up by spending a fun afternoon with such an inspirational character. We both felt that if ever we were in a survival situation, we might have a slightly better idea of what to do. And if all else fails, we know a man who could help.
Want to have a go?
For more information on Natural Survivor, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit naturalsurvivor.co.uk
If you know of any secret spots in Suffolk or think we should try an exciting new activity, drop us a line at email@example.com, we'd love to hear from you.
Also tag us on Instagram (@twogirlsgowildinsuffolk) if you are out and about being wild in Suffolk.
A chance to leave technology behind
Since starting his business, Natural Survivor, after leaving the Army, Mark Beckham has met all sorts of people interested in learning survival and bushcraft techniques, from those on corporate away days, groups of friends, and even themed birthday parties.
His survival workshops can vary from a day session to overnight courses, to expeditions in Sweden, where students can prepare game meat, cook it and then sleep in the shelter they have built.
"Technology has taken over so much now that I think people crave to leave it behind and get outdoors," he says.
"I teach people about how to preserve themselves before getting rescued. It's all about how to live in harmony with nature."