Saturday, 31 May 2014

Leafy bushcraft soap

 The humble horse chestnut  and silver birch will be well known to those who appreciate the outdoors (and probably those that don't too). The leaves make a decent soap as they contain small amounts of saponin.

To use them is easy, I'm using chestnut in this series of pictures. First of all, gather a couple of leaves or so to give you a manageable amount of scrunched up leaf in your hands. It's hard to say with chestnut as the leaves can vary so much, the silver birch leaves are harvested by carefully pulling them off the branch in a downward motion.


 Once you've worked them into a more managable pulp, really give it a squeeze and should see a modest amount of bubbles issue forth to clean your hands/ give you faith that there's saponin contained in the leaves. The two pictures above are, from left to right, chestnut and birch. Chestnut is used in commercial cleaning products like shampoo and indeed the conkers are usable as soap too (not that I've made any with them mind). This method of cleaning hands is actually quite effective but the drawback is that you need to remove lots of pulped up leaf pieces from your hands after they are clean, and I wonder how much of the cleaning action is the rough quality of the leaves themselves. Give it a go and decide for yourself. The one thing to note is that your hands feel clean and aren't subject to a big dose of 'cleaning agent' like you may be with commercial products.

The one drawback in my area re horse chestnut is that the leaves suffer a premature end due to leaf miners.  

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Home made jerky (no fire needed)

I've done a few articles for Scouting magazine (and the now discontinued Cub supplement) in the past few years. In 2011, as part the bushcraft base I was part of at Gilwell 24, I knocked up a jerky tower which generated a lot of interest...and top notch beef and venison jerky. Mike Rushton from Tamarack Outdoors was our guest that year and confirmed that the jerky was top notch..Which was a relief! Mike even pitched in and made me some beech chips to add into the embers.

Whilst making jerky over a small smoky fire is great, it's not always possible to do this at home and I recalled an article in Bushcraft & Survival skills magazine by James Watson who showed how to make a wooden jerky 'oven' which was powered by a pre energy saving bulb. I decided to have a play around with the idea of homemade jerky and took a slightly different route...And it had pleasing results,  but more on this later.

I came to the conclusion that a jerky article would make a good article for Scouting magazine and I asked the editor that I was working with at the time about a joint one and he agreed. Whilst I could knock up a competent article I decided that it would be worth engaging fellow Scouter Derek Wright to contribute to it. He runs The Jerky Shack so knows more than a little about this fine art.

After Derek agreed to contribute I sent him a bare bones article and asked him to infill it with detailed information. Whilst he was doing that I set about writing up a section on home jerky production. The article appears on the Scout Association website here but for some reason only did the traditional angle and edited the home jerky stuff off...Hmph! Do have a read if you get a moment because there is a lot of relevant information in it that applies to however you make jerky. The thing to remember with jerky is slow and low on the cooking time and heat so it seemed logical to consider experimenting with a slow cooker which is left on for hours. 

I took the bowl out and lined the base with foil, then formed a wall around it using the corrugated plastic that supermarkets use to separate milk cartons. The skewered meat than sits on top of the base.

I then secured a muslin sheet over the top using clothes pegs (to help keep insects off) and then switched the slow cooker on using it's lowest setting. The foil on the top in this picture was used when the sun went in for a while to reflect a little heat back. 

I had to use pics of my pics in the magazine for this article and will change them for fresh ones when I get a chance...And whilst having a nostalgic re-read of the full article I had a little light bulb moment and a possible way to experiment with this method in the summer.

Whilst this method makes reasonable jerky the obvious thing missing is the smoke. As the slow cooker is surrounded by oxygen and provides heat I decided to try and complete the fire triangle and add a small amount of smoking chips with the slow cooker on the high setting to see if they smouldered, the experiment was a I thought it worth a try!

Now that this thought was in my mind I wondered about making a small legged pan out of a jar lid and bolts to put a small piece of charcoal in to then put chips on to create smoke. I also wondered about a rudimentary aluminium foil tent with holes in to help spread the smoke around, this may well negate the need to have a muslin cloth in place which may well catch fire if this jar lid pan is used anyway! There is also the possibility of using longer bolts and securing a second jar lid and using a tealight underneath to smoke chips...Not sure if the candle would taint the jerky though... 

So if this combination works it could perhaps be used with a cardboard box with the bottom removed to do more. I've used a sizable box like this, lined with foil, as a basic smoker. The metal kebab stick shelf is about 20cms above the ground and I use an old desposable barbecue tray as the heat source and usually use oak chips to generate smoke. Cooking times aren't too far off normal times because you are cooking and smoking in real time (as opposed to cold smoking which is smoke only and takes a long time). Mackeral as an exanple will be about 15 minutes on a medium heat. 

But I digress! I think this could work well but as I type this we are still experiencing the post Bushcraft Show weather I haven't managed to experimant with some of the later stuff but if anyone wants to try when the sun is out do report back!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Bushcraft Show 2014

It seemed fate was against me from the off, first of all an extended stay in hospital for my son (which spawned this blog entry) seemed to have put paid to me visiting this year's Bushcraft Show in Derbyshire. Once that hurdle was overcome I was intent on going on the Sunday as I get up stupidly early for work on Thursday and Friday I was going to lay low on Saturday but some folk I wanted to meet were only there on the Saturday and I was on the promise of a free pint so I changed.


So as I'm about to depart at early o'clock the peaked cap says hot, the bag says not! The inclusion of a wide brimmed hat was a useful addition which helped to shed the precipitation nicely during the day.

Fast forward to the BBC weather forecast promising rain on Saturday but sun on Sunday, I thought I'd cocked up royally but in the end had a perverse mindset towards a shower dodging day. Having arrived in good time for the 9:30 start through biblical rain I clocked the in/ out for the day visitor car park looking a tad chewed up early on...Still, on with the show.

Above are a couple of shots of the show, not brilliant but it was actually quite hard to get it all in. There was a lot to see and, having missed last years it was a nice surprise to see the size of the offer. 

I saw fellow Scouters Mark and Ray who do the Urban bushcraft podcast as soon as I walked in and had a quick chat with them. They happened to be near the legendary 'Lofty' Wiseman and Mark offered to take a snap...Rude not to say 'Yes'. Lofty is a gent and very amenable to such requests. Mark and Ray were hosting the guest speakers on and off and did a fine job.

About 20 minutes into the show I noticed this van being pulled in and started to wonder if there may be a more suitable method of getting around being displayed at the show!

After the magazine's award ceremony I saw Lofty do a talk about surviving which had good content and not a little army style humour. The shot on the right (above) is just after he's answered a question for me. I made fun of my son's weather mishap at a Scout camp that weekend for my chat with Lofty.

Soon after this I had a reminder text from my wife to source a Father's Day which was sorted by a visit to the Shark Tinderbox stand. I got a crook knife strop and it was fun watching my wife guess what it was when I got home! Also by this stage I'd caught up with all those I knew and most of those who I wanted to meet for the first time which helps the Facebook percentage of friends I've met.

And to the irrepressible Cody Lundin, he did a long talk which I saw both in the flesh and on the big screen erected outside the impressive main marquee and was full of energy, very much like his TV delivery. I could list all the shops and school stands that I went to but it would probably just read as a who's who of those that were therebut  I will just sneak a mention for Woodlife Trails  and Greenman knives though. I think the guide was essential to maximise the show and what it had to offer. Whilst perhaps a tad expensive at £2.50 it had all you needed to know. Suffice to say that over the course of the show there were 6 pages of (or about 300) talks and demos, over 45 different exhibitor stands.

Whilst admiring the mud by the main display tipi I chanced upon Steve Backshall, Lofty and Simon Ellar (the magazine editor).

I noticed a tarp tent set up at the DD Hammocks stall and had a little chuckle to myself because it was this very design that gave my son his camp site misfortune..He should have accepted my offer to oversee his efforts rather than pushing his 'embarrassing' parent to go and leave him to it. 

Misfortune was to befall Lofty too, this is his car that got stuck in the mud. This got me thinking that a mid afternoon departure may be a good idea, it was. The way out of the day visitors car park was one level above being liquid and a hats off to the show volunteers who tirelessly got cars out. Another soaking on the way home cleaned a lot of the mud off as it goes.

When I got home I said to my wife that I had issues with self control and managed to resist the temptation not to buy a hot off the press coat that was a special price at the show, she said that it surely could have formed the basis of my birthday present in August-D'oh! But through the magic that is Facebook messaging and texting, Urban Bushcraft's Mark saw Woodland Way's Jason and he's put one aside. I owe both a beer...

As I arrived back a little sooner on the Saturday than planned I delved into social media as I was still buzzing. I had only a small snap shot of the multi day show but whilst accepting the old adage 'Each to their own', I was rather disappointed to see a lot of what I felt were very harsh criticisms of the show/ organisers. The rain had been unbelievable and I really felt for for Simon, Olivia and the team. Good show on a good show I say. Things do go wrong sometimes but here's to a sunny 2015.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Magpie youngster

At the weekend my wife and I saw a sparrowhawk eyeing up our garden and surrounding area and later heard a sort of 'bird scream' with magpies joining in the chorus, we'd assumed that the sparrowhawk had just scored tea. I wouldn't have thought a sparrowhawk would have found a magpie a manageable target if I hadn't seen one flying away with a magpie in it's talons and the victims impressive tail feathers flapping behind-Bizarre and impressive, especially as there were other magpies mobbing it.

Fast forward to yesterday and I could hear a 'churrp, churrp' in a tree near the back of my garden, similar to a greater spotted woodpecker but softer. It was there all day pretty much and through the thick foliage I could just see a silhouette of a largish bird...which was accompanied by the incessant machine gun churr of the magpies. I assumed it was a youngster.

Late in the day I assumed that there was a cat in a garden near me because I could see three or four magpies 'chacking' at something in the garden with one doing the afore mentioned 'bird scream'. that suggests that it wasn't a bird taken at the weekend but is this an escalated magpie 'chack'?

Today I heard a buzzard calling and went out to see if I could see it (buzzards are one of half a dozen birds of prey I can expect to see, the others being tawny owls, red kites, hobbys, kestrels and of course the sparrowhawks)...I didn't look up as I noticed a little head bob up and down at the back of the garden. I sneaked up close with the camera and discovered that itwas a young magpie. He ran into cover, out of cover, in, out...

I could hear a chacking parent overhead and whilst pondering if magpies dive bomb like terns I decided to open the back gate.

 He stopped, looked up, he made off...

He stopped and looked up again, then at me...

The parent looked at me, then the chick...

I can still hear the youngster and his annoying loud parent(s) some hours afterwards so hopefully a good conclusion. Good distraction twixt putting shopping away and ironing!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Photos to spot nature

Here are three shots from when I've been out and about. The rocky shots are from a visit to Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, the other is from when I was out and about doing the pictures for this blog page

So what is the common theme that has seen me upload these seemingly random images? I'm probably no different to anyone who enjoys the great outdoors in that I'll always have a camera with me and also my current HTC phone has an 8 MP camera which isn't shabby by any means so I feel I'm prepared for when there's a shot to be had.The common theme that runs through these pictures is that they feature birds, can you see them without scrolling down further to the 'answers'? You are looking for a Treecreeper, a Short Eared Owl and Common Buzzards and I've listed them in order of ease.

So the reason for this blog post is that when out and about I often use the camera to highlight where something of interest is if others I'm with can't immediately see it. Let's take the two Skomer pictures first. As I walked the southern coast of the island with my family I saw a buzzard low over the rocks which appeared to drop down into a nest site. After a little bit of 'You see that rock over there...' I decided to take a couple of paces until the triangular rocky outcrop was level with the possible nest site, took a picture and successfully pointed the site out. The other picture was when we all went for a 'pit stop' before going to puffin spot whilst waiting for the boat back.

Whilst my sons and I waited outside a short eared alighted on the rocks by the loos and as we called my wife I decided to snap the owl position as it blended in perfectly with the rock and would probably only have been visible as it flew off. The Treecreeper shot was taken when this normally non stop little bird just stopped dead on the trunk, and being mainly brown it looked like a stump.



Monday, 5 May 2014

Nettle syrup

I'm not entirely sure where I got the idea for nettle syrup but whilst it is fairly similar to the pretty boy elderflower cordial recipe  I personally think it's more of a head turner because most folk haven't heard of it..."Nettles?" they say, "Yes nettles" I reply.


200g nettle tops (Useable tops from approx Feb-Oct. Avoid large 'leathery' leaves)
1 kilo sugar
40g citric acid
500ml boiling water

Dissolve the sugar and citric acid into the boiling water in a bowl. It sounds a lot of sugar to disslove (it is!) but it will go.

Strip the leaves off the stems and roughly chop them. 

Submerge in the syrupy mixture and leave for anything from 2-7 days, stirring now and then. It will turn a sort of greeny, grey colour but have faith. 

Strain out the spent nettles...try them, they are (predictably) sugary and actually rather nice.


This syrup is nice on it's own but also works when mixed with a little Elderflower cordial (how to here). If you use red stemmed nettles (as I usually do) you'll get pinky/ orangy syrup. See the Cub supplement article I did here. I can't see any reason why this basic cordial/ syrup mix wouldn't work with a whole host of ingredients...I have my eye on an interesting ingredient that I'll be experimenting in due course...I must get round to trying this with a little less sugar but I like it as it is for the time being.

I happened to mention this syrup on the Forage London Facebook page of (a.k.a John Rentson) and he asked me how I made it which I was rather pleased about. He said that he usually makes dishes with less sugar in and did this at about 50%. Now the last thing I wrote before publishing this page was that I'd like to try a lower sugar version, so I should take this opportunity to do so...Going forward I will be obeying my sweet tooth!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Bear, Bushcraft & Survival Skills magazine & elderflower cordial.

In Bear Gyrlls, Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine, and 'Senational' Elderflower
Cordial? That's quite a combination, let me expand on it. 

In early 2009 I'd been approached via a personal message on the Escouts forum by the organiser of a July Explorer Scout camp (Gilwell 24) which is held at the Gilwell camp site to see if I would be interested in helping Bushcraft and Survival Skills magazine on a stand they were bringing. As I subscribed it didn't take much thought.

It later transpired that they were going to be in attendance to cover Bear Grylls' investiture as Chief Scout which was going to happen at said event which rather added to the promise of attending. It was all a bit last minute so I wasn't really sure what to bring, or indeed if I needed to bring anything but I thought a drop of homemade elderflower cordial would hit the spot.

I got parked up on the Saturday and noticed a white van double parked near the main admin building with some guys milling round it. I decided to ring the contact number I was given to see if anyone picked up and Chris Irwin the then magazine designer answered. A quick meet and greet was followed with a sense of urgency, they had a minimal brief of what was happening and where to be so I told them to follow me in the van and after some slow and careful driving through the throng of Explorer Scouts wearing bright wigs, tutus and 'hug me' signs they got parked up near a small fire circle (near the bomb hole for those that know).

A quick dash to the stage saw us there with minutes to spare. It would have been touch and go without a scouter doing his good deed ( he says with barely any modesty!). Once Bear had finished accepting the role from outgoing Chief Scout Peter Duncan both were off for a walk about to press the flesh.

We retired back to the van and I helped them to set up their stand which was made up of event flags and those upside down roller blind style adverts and a gazebo with magazine details and offers. There were also some large, wide logs for individuals to practice ferro rod usage on.

It was all hands on deck a short while afterwards as Bear rolled into view, I managed to get to have a word 1-2-1 which to this day I don't know how I managed as there were masses vying for his attention. I presented him with a laminated four leaf clover for luck in his new roll, and a wooden whistle made of wild service tree wood.


After the commotion died down I decided to offer the guys on the stand a taste of the homemade cordial that I'd bought along with me and I was really chuffed that they all raved about it to the point where one of the guys forbade me to offer to any of the camp participants!

I awaited the next magazine to read the coverage and was absolutely delighted with the article: Not only was it a respectably sized piece but it had a pic of me meeting Bear in it and Chris thanked me at the end for my help and described my elderflower cordial as 'sensational'.

Fast forward to the winter of 2010 and I decided to send in the recipe to the letters page and not only was it published, it got star letter status and earned me a fire piston (which is a rugged piece of kit for sure).

So with the shaggy dog story done, here's the method I used and then wrote down in the letter to the magazine. There are variations but this works for me...


1.5 litres of boiling water 
1 kilo of castor sugar 
20/25 large elderflower heads (available late May to mid June.If they are small pick more) 
3 lemons 
55g of citric acid (which is a box, costs around a pound from Chemists)

In a large bowl or billy pour the boiling water onto the sugar and stir. Leave to cool, stirring every now and then to dissolve the sugar. 

Add the citric acid, the lemon zest. You can slice the lemon in too and  it will cut through the syrupy taste. Put the Elderflower heads into a small bowl and add enough cold water to just about cover them. Gently stir this. I use cold water as anything even approaching hot will turn the fragrant heads limp, brown and unusable.   

Strain the cold Elderflower liquid through a sterilised muslin place in a sieve into the syrup. Serve with chilled carbonated water and love it, you'll feel refreshed. 
For Beavers, Cubs and Scouts you can do a cheats version. Follow the above but make some at home and freeze into ice cubes...sneak them into your HQ freezer/ fridge/ cool box and add the 'ice' at the end of the evening to cool it off-instantly quaffable cordial. A Bear Grylls free version of this recipe is available here for those that wish it.
It freezes well too...