Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Early fruits


Earlier in July I noticed a couple of comments on social media about the ripeness of blackberries which indeed mirrored what I was seeing near me. But it not just the blackberries...


By the end of the month, and without even trying, I've found a handful of different fruits, namely raspberries, elderberries, hawthorn and sloes all ripe. The only notable absentee (that I will admit to proactively looking for) is cherries but this year the crop has been pretty non-existent. Couple of cheeky wild strawberries too!

Bizarrely I also stumbled across some elderflowers! How is the fruit near you? 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Minsmere RSPB reserve

Scarlet Pimpernel, one of my favourite flowers. I love the colour (which seems to be a slightly scarce tone in a blue, white pink and yellow flower world) as well as the name and it was the first thing I saw as I stepped out of our car having parked up at the RSPB's  Minsmere reserve on the Suffolk coast. It turned out that it was everywhere, making it's name a little ironic and with respect top this little flower I was hoping that the day would yield some slightly rarer sights.

After a quick drink at the excellent visitor centre we stopped at the Sand Martin breeding bank which is easily viewable. Sadly, these were the first Sand Martins that we had seen this year with only a modest amount of swifts as our usual summer visitors. I shouldn't be saying that about an iconic summer visitor.

My eldest son was on a weekend Scout camp so we took my youngest and luckily he likes nature and was soon captivated by this superb reserve. I must say that the bird sighting information is detailed and very up to date which is a credit to the staff and is perhaps driven by the fact it is such a prestigious site for seeing nature. We were mindful of little legs on an expansive site and decided to try and visit the most popular hides which conveniently took us to the beach as some hides are accessed via a beach path. 

Another thing that we are short on back home is butterflies and moths so it was very satisfying to see so many butterflies on the day, I reckon we saw about a dozen different types with Peacocks appearing everywhere. The Poplar Hawkmoth wasn't as active though... 

We drove to the reserve past Ipswich and the river estuary was a clue to our coastal destination, but as you drive to the reserve you go through classic British woodland and that to me is the beauty of this site because you can switch from woods to grassland to red beds to marsh to coastal habitats very quickly. I would definitely recommend a telescope for a visit.

This is a small elder growing out of a WWII tank obstacle. I liked the symbolism.

The shingle seashore is soon reached and the breeze was much appreciated on a near 30 degree day. There were several coastal plants to be seen and path to the hides on the edge of the reserve runs parallel to the sea.

And to the East scrape and the first of the star attractions that you associate with the reserve-Avocets, and there's no waiting around in the hope that one will deign us with it's presence (like a Marsh Harrier or Bittern) as there were absolutely loads to see with 200 or so recently sighted. The variety of birds was impressive from the usual to the not so common.

The array of flowers that can be seen is a credit to the site as well. As with all the flora and fauna I snapped there is a good varietal mix. I'm not sure what the delicate mauve coloured flower is (above bottom RHS) so if anyone knows I'd be happy to hear from you!

We'd decided to make a trip to the bittern hide our penultimate visit as we were wilting somewhat. It is a vast expanse of reeds (hardly a newsflash for Bitterns) and there had been a good amount of recent sightings although you could wait forever and not see this s(k)ulky bird. We were treated however to a couple of good views of a Marsh Harrier and I managed to get a shot of it but it's too far away to make inclusion of the picture viable. My son manged to follow it with a scope and exclaimed "Wow, it's beautiful" which was a bit loud for in a hide but seeing as he'd spotted it the first time before the twitcher collective (with camera lenses the size of an oil drum) he can be forgiven. When it comes to nature let's encourage youthful exuberance before it gives way to adult understatedness.

We'd planned the route to go from the Bittern hide to the view point (which overlooks one of the meres) as we could dump our bags and walk there quickly from the car park. The shimmering heat haze effectively prevented any bird id but my son did spot the wooden 'studio' close by that was recently used for the BBC Springwatch series broadcast from there. I said to my son "Look there's the Beech" (see the above picture), which drew an "Oh ha ha, very funny" monotone reply. Hmmm, it was time for a quick drink in the café.

You'll probably not surprised to read that I highly recommend a visit, we did well to see what we did with little legs to consider but we've hardly scratched the surface with a day visit and this small blog could easily read like an extended list. Non-members can pay on the door to get into the centre and I'll be doing one or two early morning, go as slow as I damn well want visits during my forthcoming work sabbatical. Click here for a pdf map.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Jerky from Gilwell 24

Having posted recently about a successful bushcraft base at Gilwell24 Explorer Scout camp I thought I'd post about the jerky stand I set up with a couple of experimental things tried alongside the traditional, plus what meat marinades I chose.

The meat I used was a lean piece of topside (don't go any cheaper than silverside!) and I froze it for an hour and a half or so before slicing as it just gives it a little rigidity to get thin slices from but get a move on as it doesn't last long. 

I decided to do two marinades, a dry on and a wet one. The dry one is a shop purchased one, a Jamaican Jerk mix from Schwartz which has ingredients like cumin, salt, chilli, garlic and allspice in, and the wet mix was homemade and I combined teriyaki sauce (a posh soy sauce), a little cold strong tea, garlic powder and fresh grated ginger. The wildcards were cherry tomatoes with Schwartz Season All and a little sugar on which I cut into three so that each piece had either the stalk section or a large piece of skin for strength when suspended. The other thing I tried was thinly sliced chorizo, I decided on the former because when oven baked they develop an intense flavour, the latter because it is a powerhouse of flavour and I wondered if a day of smoking and drying might enhance it.

I made a rudimentary stand from four lengths of hazel and secured a shelf about chest height from the ground and used fresh bamboo as skewers. The foliage is a little locally sourced greenery (mainly nettles) and isn't thickly thatched but, as I know from doing jerky in this fire circle in the past, despite it being like an amphitheatre in shape there is a very faint breeze and this was just enough to combat it. The item to the left is a charcoal lighter converted into a stove.

I started it off with some charcoal (using the previously mentioned stove to fire it up) and topped the coals up with some fresh cherry wood that I'd bought along, as well as some wood chipping that I got with my Ronnie Sunshine smoker.

I decided to relocate the stand in the afternoon to catch more of the sun, it was warm but cloudy until lunchtime, by which time some high hawthorn branches were blocking the rays out. it was a good move but stand looked a little disheveled!

So the scores on the doors. A good amount of leader traffic stopping to look. The cherry toms, despite the salt and serious dabbings with kitchen roll didn't quite work in the time, and the chorizo was slightly smokey but otherwise unchanged...oh well, nothing ventured. The dry mix one was ready before the wet mix one which is no surprise because you are adding liquid to a product you are looking to remove it from so it often needs a little more time. I placed a few slightly larger wet mix pieces in a tray with a muslin secured over it in my garden the next day just to finish them off. In the past I've used  this method to make jerky at home but I made the ultimate poshcrafting jerky rig (he says without a hint of modesty!).

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Gilwell 24 2014

Gilwell Park is the headquarters for the Scout Association where everything from Scouting magazine to wedding receptions happen.It is also a campsite.


When Bear Grylls was sworn in as Chief Scout in early 2009 I'd been approached via a scouting 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 and I'm pleased that my knowledge of the site was the difference between them getting some shots of the ceremony and not because they'd been given little detail.


Almost inevitably I got a follow up message to see if I'd be interested in doing a base the next year. I called a few scouters (l-r Martin, me and Simon) and us three musketeers did a decent job with minimal preparation. I also made over a hundred pop can stoves to give away!

The next one saw Mike Rushton from  Tamarack Outdoors make the journey from Lancashire to put in an appearance and amongst other things led a spoon carving session and helpfully made me some beechwood chips to smoke the jerky I was making! 

The third one in 2012 saw Pablo and JP from Woodlife Trails come down to do some tracking and bushcraft demos but this Gilwell 24 seemed doomed. I put aside Wednesday to do some prep in the small fire circle (where the base takes place)...The circle had been hired out to a school in the evening so that wasted a day, then the Friday saw a tree surgeon in the circle cutting down an Aspen branch so I didn't get in there until dinner time. It started raining and it just kept going and going and eventually the only dry bit was literally a small area under the chute. On a plus note  we had a visit from a very necky fox on the Friday night, and scouting ambassador Ed Stafford made an appearance on the Saturday morning and got a fire by friction lesson from JP pre 'Marooned and Naked'.

Last year I decided to take a break after this rather calamitous weekend (although original musketeer Martin ran a small base) but now I was turning up with the Scouter base still happening and added to, the IEAT in place and Woodlife Trails making a return. Pablo and JP are keen to help Scouting and it was great to see them coming back. I was there to help grease the wheels for Woodlife Trails if needed but also to chip in with the others as and when.

Panoramic base view. Photo credit Chris Elmer.

Pablo and JP decided on a slimmed down display in the fire circle as opposed to a stand outside which they did last time and it was about right for what was, rather pleasingly, a crowded fire circle.

The above view doesn't quite show all the base as it's impossible to squeeze in but the Explorers and leaders had knife sharpeneing, tracking, natural history, jerky making, sharps, firelighting and paracord knitting on offer.

The guy who organises the Gilwell 24 camp once said to me that the bushcraft base is a good balanced to the silly wig, free hugs sign wearing shenanigans that goes on within the day. I agree. Whilst we got on with things the noise from elsewhere was a constant reminder of this.

The Woodlife trails three musketeers and yes, I got a win on the jerky despite the on off sunshine and annoying on off breeze! If you are based near Hatfield Forest and or Gilwell (both in Essex) and would like to investigate Woodlife Trails coming to your Scout group then give them a shout.