My children have been living wild in a forest for three days. They’ve been making fire, building shelters, tracking badgers and sleeping under the stars. Every time I imagine them out there in the woods - deprived of their screens, hot running water, and the fridge - I’m torn between guilt and delight. My 14-year-old was particularly resistant to the prospect of adventure and bushcraft at Camp Wilderness; he’d explained that he couldn’t go, as he was scared of spiders.
But while video games - my kids’ favourite addiction - always cause frustration, tears, and rage, there’s increasing scientific proof, as if we didn’t already suspect, that spending time in nature soothes and de-stresses. Our high-pressure, fast-paced, technology-focused lifestyles fatigue the brain but, according to a recent article in National Geographic, Your Brain on Nature, when we slow down, breathe fresh air and gaze upon beautiful surroundings, we feel physically and emotionally restored. Notably, there’s a 'three-day effect’, where even our mental performance improves.
As we drive the children to the Camp Wilderness drop-off point in Hatfield Wood, Oscar, 14, blind to its magnificence, is still talking about Pokémon Go ('There’s a squirtle nest, three minutes from our house!’). The car bumps along a dirt track bordered by a dense forest of feathery ferns, and tall trees. The kids are greeted by beaming twenty-something bushcraft instructors: Rosie Pickford is Camp Leader, and Alex Peers is in charge of activities. There are eight boys, two girls. I ask if Oscar is the oldest. Alex, a jolly young Hagrid of a man, understands, and reassures me: 'We’ll make him tribe leader.’
It’s drizzling, the skies are British summer grey and despite their great suitcase of clothes, I worry that my darlings will be wet and cold. Fortunately, I don’t mention this to Alex McBarnet, founder of The Bushcraft Company, which runs Camp Wilderness. He tells me, 'Resilience is a lovely buzzword, parents and teachers go on about it, and then you get a phone call, “It’s raining - will the course go ahead?” Yes, of course it will go ahead! This is camping in a wood for five or three days: getting up, having to light a fire in the rain - that is resilience!’
Their packed timetable includes the intriguing-sounding 'Panassed Salmon’ in which, explains Alex, after the children collect firewood, 'We take a massive three-foot salmon, and show them a Native American technique to fillet it, then we spatchcock it between split sticks, and roast it over the fire. The kids love it.’ A salmon is respectfully sacrificed, rather than, say, a rabbit, because, says Alex, 'Many kids have a pet Thumper, they don’t want to see it ripped to shreds on a bushcraft course; it’s just not okay. We’re not teaching them military training: they’re small children.’
When we reunite, our kids have definitely, as they say, 're-wilded.’ They look like characters from Lord of The Flies. Their grinning faces are grimy with camouflage paint, their clothes are smeared with mud, and Caspar, 9, wields a wood-whittled spear as tall as he is. Conrad, 11, says proudly, 'I tried a salmon eye but I spat it out.’
Oscar has clearly bonded with Alex ('he was so sweet! We talked about rugby!’), and loved every moment. Shelter building is cool, apparently: 'We got given this big tarpaulin sheet, found two trees moderately close together, and we pulled a rope across the two trees using a knot that Rosie taught us. Then we put the sheet two-thirds over the rope, so there was a wall on one side, and half a wall on the other. Rosie taught us the noose to tie to the pegs. Then we did the insulation, using dead ferns.’ Conrad adds, 'if you didn’t pitch it tight enough, and it rained, the end of your sleeping bag got wet.’
Conrad slept in the shelter, which he recommends: 'In the morning, I could hear muntjac deer, squirrels and birds, and when I woke up, and it hadn’t fallen down on me, I felt I’d accomplished something,’ he says. 'I had my head outside for the night. I could hear animal paws crunching on twigs. It was very breezy, and helped me go to sleep. It smelt like damp soil, which is actually quite nice. You’re not that scared of the dark, because the instructors are a few steps away, sleeping in the yurt.’
Caspar slept in the boys’ tent, says Oscar, 'so I stayed with him, because he didn’t want me to leave him alone.’ I’m stunned when Alex tells me how 'fantastic’ my kids were together, how they looked after each other. At home, it’s swords at dawn and every man for himself. But as the boys burst into a rendition of a song they sang around the camp fire, I realise they’ve become a tribe. Our sons tease us with riddles they’ve learned, and all wear paracord bracelets they’ve woven themselves ('Rosie says it’s very therapeutic.’)
Ciara O'Neill, camp chef, says Oscar, 'made brownies and rice-crispy squares from scratch.’ They toasted marshmallows, had wood-fired pizza, bolognese, pancakes for breakfast, and hand-cut bacon. It sounds luxurious, but as McBarnet says, without mentioning any names such as Bear Grylls, 'Camp Wilderness is totally non-butch. This is not about “I’m in a disaster, how do I get out of here?” It’s not for the tough kids: it’s for all of them. It’s about optionally going into this environment, and making it home.’
The boys smell deliciously of woodsmoke; they’ve collected kindling and learned to make fire ('give us cotton wool and Vaseline and we’ll make one in the garden!’) They also made traps, of which there are four kinds: 'strangle, mangle, tangle, and dangle’ says Caspar, adding, 'I think you’ve got an image in your head right now!’ I’m not terribly surprised that Caspar didn’t brush his teeth once (despite Rosie digging a hole for them to spit toothpaste into). There were more exciting things to do.
They adored the instructors. Days after coming home, Caspar sniffs, 'I miss Alex.’ He tells me, 'Rosie was the worst dinner lady. But an awfully kind person. She threw pepperoni at us. I caught one in my mouth!’ This was a perfect adventure; thrilling, yet safe. Caspar, says Alex, excelled at sneaking up on the instructors through the woods in their many games ('brilliant,’ says Oscar, 'Predator, Animal Splat, Twenty-One.’) Though Alex did halt play, to draw everyone’s attention to the gorgeous colours of the dawn sky.
'We learned a lot,’ says Oscar. Rosie, he says, is a tracker, and led them through the undergrowth: 'We came across this place where a deer had slept. We all knelt over, so we didn’t disturb the flattened grass, as Rosie explained how muntjac deer take naps. She overturned a leaf, and there was a barely-visible indent in the ground, a badger’s paw-print. And we all carried hazel branches, for making traps, and bracken for camouflage. We followed Alex through the forest, and then, over rolling hills.’
They’re desperate to go back, and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. As Alex McBarnet says, 'The day we’ve got adults who don’t remember going camping and toasting marshmallows, we’ve got a massive problem. We’ve got a responsibility to get kids back out there, back to the basics of British nature, and it’s not always at the top of their agenda. But,’ he adds, 'once they’re out there, they love it.’
They do indeed. For once, Pokémon Go and the PS4 can’t compete.
Camp Wilderness runs all-inclusive summer camps throughout the summer holidays in Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cheshire and Kent, for children aged six to 15. From £249 for a three-day camp.www.campwilderness.co.uk
FOUR MORE SUMMER CAMPS FOR KIDS
PGL: For ages seven-10, 10-13 or 13-16. Variety of holiday types for one, three, four or seven nights. Including: Action and Adventure (exploring, quad-biking, sailing, power-boating); Specialist holidays (surfing, cooking and even driving lessons for ages 13-16); or Multi-Activity (from circus skills to canoeing, problem solving to sailing). Venues nationwide including Perthshire, Wye Valley and North Devon.
YHA: At Go eXtreme, for 12-16-year-olds in Shropshire (five nights, £389), kids will learn to race quad bikes through open country and fly down zip-wires as well as paintballing and archery. Action Adventure packages, for 10-16-year-olds in the Peak District, Dartmoor, East Sussex and Gloucestershire (five nights, £379), include climbing, orienteering, canoeing and raft-building.
CAMP BEAUMONT: These day camps for two-16-year-olds in London and the Home Counties offer four main programmes with over 40 sporting, creative and adventure activities: playtime, magic, mania and teen club. It's possible to add a 'specialist’ holiday to the itinerary: e.g. archery, swimming lessons, riding, cooking or bushcraft (from £55 per week supplement). Extended days also offered: 8am-6pm for extra £10.
KINGSWOOD CAMPS: Adventure holidays for eight-17-year-olds (three, four, seven nights). From £539 with sale reductions to £229. Five venues including beachside on Isle of Wight and a teenagers only camp in Norfolk. Activities including abseiling, kayaking, zorbing, arts and crafts and excursions. Football camp and a Bear Grylls Survival Academy are also available at three venues on selected Saturdays, for additional £59.
This article was originally published in August 2016. Prices have been updated.