Happy camper: Tawny Clark learns how to boost health and wellbeing through nature-based activities
Striding along a former railway line, on a steep mountainside above the hidden village of Cymmer, in the Afan Valley, I have everything crossed that I’m heading in the right direction.
My pace slows as voices are heard up ahead. Prepare yourself. A deep breath or two and the game-face goes on.
Today’s role – ‘happy camper’.
A gathering of canvas chairs and half a dozen people tells me this is the place. ‘Good mornings’ are warmly offered round, but it’s immediate action as the fire needs lighting.
I’m given a rapid lesson in fire steels and am away trying to spark a ‘nest’ of dry mountain grass.
Like using soggy matches, it’s a frustrating and monotonous scrape and fail, scrape and fail. But a few tweaks to technique and sparks finally fly.
I am caveman, discovering fire. My mood ignites as any trepidation instantly vanishes with the rising flames. This is going to be fun.
I’m here with an organisation called Coed Lleol, or Small Woods Wales, whose mission is to improve the health and wellbeing of people across Wales, through woodland and nature-based activities.
As someone who lives and breathes the natural world, I’m intrigued to see this rapidly expanding organisation’s approach to engaging people in nature.
Today’s organiser, Katie, is apologetic.
The intended session leader is ill so she’s brought along a hastily gathered ensemble of activities that she hopes will keep us busy and entertained for the three-hour session.
As she talks through the list and asks members of the group to choose which two they’d most like to have a go at, I’m faced with a dilemma.
Obviously, I want to do all of them!
With a giant kettle set over the blazing fire, and project volunteers Mel and Steve on hand, to ensure we don’t lose digits or set ourselves alight, we commence crafting.
Fuelled by fresh air, caffeine, and a banquet of sugary snacks, in what seems a blink of an eye, I have before me a wooden mallet, flower-filled soaps, festive firelighters, charcoal pencils, and a pot of ivy-leaf laundry detergent.
The fire’s kept us well stocked with tea, melted the wax and soap, turned willow sticks to charcoal, boiled detergent, and kept us warm. That’s some major multi-tasking.
I leave this first session practically glowing with positivity and excited to show everyone at home my bag of homemade goodies.
The following week I’m late again, and hurry down the track, anticipating fire-boiled tea and a bustle of activity. It’s a gear change. Stuart is here this week to teach mindfulness and martial arts.
Within minutes, instead of bubbly chatter, we’re silently sat playing rock, paper, scissors and whittling wafer-thin curls of wood to practice single-pointed focus.
Then, we get our arses handed to us by (thankfully pretend) attackers.
It’s all very calm, polite and optional – there’s no expectation for people to join in if they don’t want to (with any of these activities), but I do tend to get stuck in, so it’s my own fault really when I’m spun round and sent packing by Wing Chun master, Stuart.
These certainly weren’t skills I’d expected to learn in the great outdoors today, but this is something I’m swiftly learning to embrace about Coed Lleol.
Arrive with an open mind, be curious and just have a go, whatever the activity happens to be.
The following week we’re joined by Hannah, who introduces us to wool felting. I’ve wanted to try this for a while, so I’m a keen bean. We make felted pebble soaps, then move onto necklaces.
As it turns out, felting requires a lot of patience. And a level of tolerance for a weird, soapy, woolly textures that make your fingers wrinkly and give nerve-endings an odd tingle. Personally, I find it somewhat akin to biting on tin foil.
I roll the soapy wool back and forth over a sheet of bubble wrap, to encourage the fibres to ‘felt’ together. After an age, bits fall off.
I tease out the strands and try again. Hannah shows me how to create a web of wool to bandage up my failed attempt.
The colour I’d chosen is now mostly hidden beneath the webbed patch. As a rescue technique it’s effective, but, as my necklace continues to morph into a series of such patches and loses the brightness I’d wanted, the idea of taking up felting as a hobby begins to lose its shine.
I announce, perhaps more bluntly than intended, ‘This isn’t my craft!’
I leave, glad of the opportunity to give it a go, and chuffed to bits with my pebble, but don’t expect to see me wearing my half-finished ‘necklace’ any time soon.
Next up is edibles, and I’m sorry to say, also some in-edibles! The ominous-sounding Dump cake, for example, tastes like it sounds.
I’ll never know how my marshmallow-and-chocolate-chip-stuffed baked apple tastes, as our cheeky companion, therapy dog Orbit, takes a fancy to it too.
She sneaks it from under my chair when no-one’s looking and gets scoffing. With freshly roasted chestnuts to tuck into, I really don’t mind.
A few weeks in, the forecast is bad – so this week’s session is indoors.
We’re nature journaling, making paint from plants and berries and drawing flowers. A break in the rain sees us venturing outside to forage for supplies and inspiration.
We’re a long way from cover when the downpour reconvenes in earnest. I’m woefully ill-equipped and soaked through in minutes.
My enthusiasm plummets and, even after twenty minutes hugging the hand dryer and being kitted out in clean, dry, borrowed gym kit, I struggle to muster much interest.
Once I’m tucked into a blanket with a cup of tea, I do have a go, but only manage a few half-hearted splodges.
I will give nature journaling a proper go another time when I’m not so damp and grumpy.
For the final, festive-themed, session, we’re making wreathes. Having pretty much always adopted the position, ‘go big or go home,’ recently I’ve found my view shifting.
Maybe it’s an age thing? When Hannah says it’ll take longer and be more work to make big wreaths, I automatically begin a modest little wreath, which is finished in no time.
It’s cute, and I’m pleased with how it turns out, although I can’t deny the pangs of envy for the ambitious and bountiful wreaths some others have spent hours wrestling with.
There is time, however, to coerce Hannah into showing me how to make willow star wands, which is great fun. And I get a chance to kick back and soak up the scenery while my mince pie warms over the fire.
These sessions have been a wonderful opportunity to experience different perspectives and explore the diverse relationships other people have with nature.
Every session (bar one) has brought calmness to my mind, rejuvenated my soul, and stretched some pitifully-underused muscles.
It’s been hugely rewarding to be shown these traditional techniques and an absolute joy to work with natural materials.
With endless crafting pathways yet to explore, this journey is only just beginning, but for now, the infectious enthusiasm of Katie and the team at Coed Lleol has helped make my Christmas list very simple this year.
Dear Santa, I’d really really really like an axe, a knife, a saw and a fire pit please.
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Just go for a walk in a field (round the edges if sown) or forest. It will take the edge off.
Don’t bother with fancy rubbish.