As our taxi pulled into the muddy field where the children were starting to gather for Camp Wilderness, dark clouds were starting to gather, too. And as my 12-year-old twins, Kit and Natasha, grappled with their huge rucksacks, containing hopefully everything they would need for their five day stay in the Cornbury Park woodlands in Oxfordshire, the opening refrain of Allan Sherman’s amusing ditty started whirring through my head. What if it was a washout, or they didn’t make any friends, or they fell into a wasp’s nest… There were myriad permutations of what could go wrong, but any concerns were clearly mine and mine alone because with the encouragement of the jocular and enthusiastic young instructors, my children were soon joining in the games designed to break the ice and get to know their fellow campers before heading off into the woods.
Having been given a steaming mug of coffee (despite being the tail end of July, the temperature was unseasonably chilly, more of which later) and chatting briefly to several of the other parents, who also seemed to be finding the drop off more difficult than their children, I was introduced to Alex McBarnet, whose brainchild Camp Wilderness is.
Camp Wilderness is, in fact, the summer camp offshoot of the Bushcraft Company, which Alex started some six years back at the relatively young age of 24. “We were the first company just to focus on schools, offering residential courses in which students could enjoy a real back to nature experience while learning a few survival skills into the bargain,” he says. A bush craft instructor himself (Ray Mears was an early inspiration and, in fact, helped train him as a boy), his dedication and passion for offering truly authentic outdoor adventures quickly took off and today the company employs around 300 people (extremely carefully selected, but less for their bush crafting skills, more for their ability to engage and inspire the students) across nine locations.
It’s the summer camp side of the business, however, that Alex is now focusing his steely blue eyes on. “I definitely think there’s a growing appetite for this sort of experience, which this generation of children rarely come across naturally,” he says. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that more than 20 per cent of Camp Wilderness’ bookings come via grandparents. “They really connect with what we do because it’s exactly what they did as youngsters, but the difference being they did it for free, whereas now you have to pay for it,” an irony that’s clearly not lost on Alex.
Also highly supportive of Alex’s endeavours are the private estates whose forest and woodland his companies set up camp in. “Often it is land that is not being used, but is a drain on resources,” he explains. “We come in and operate, neither seen nor heard, and provide a very healthy revenue stream. I’ve never come across a landowner who doesn’t see the value in what we are doing. It’s not like we’re doing motor cross or paint balling.”
Grandparents and landowners aside, what particularly appealed to me as a parent about Camp Wilderness was the fact that all attendees (aged between 7 and 14, and on summer camps ranging from a two to five days) are actively discouraged from bringing along any form of technology. For a daughter with a serious Instagram habit and a Minecraft addicted son, this was music to my ears. “I think it’s important that the smart phones and iPads are left at home,” attests Alex. “Today’s children are so connected, that to remove that from them is initially perceived as a problem. They think they will struggle, but none of them actually do.”
Alex then reels off some of the things Kit and Natasha will be doing over the coming few days, and it’s apparent that they’ll be far too busy forging friendships, playing games and learning new skills to miss anything, and I suspect that includes me. I wander back to the field with Alex, where the children are preparing to head off into the woods. Huddled together in newly formed cliques, I first spot Natasha and then Kit, but they both barely give me a backwards glance. Their awfully big adventure had clearly begun!
So… how was it?
Asked to keep a detailed diary of their time in camp for the purposes of this article, Kit and Natasha failed to jot down a single word. According to them, they were far too busy having fun to do anything as mundane as keeping a log, which I guess gives ample testament to just how enjoyable Camp Wilderness is! A couple of days after returning home, and with the distinctive aroma of wood smoke mixed with general grubbiness finally starting to fade after numerous showers, the children sat down at the kitchen table for some quick fire questioning about their adventures.
How did you feel prior to arriving at Camp Wilderness?
Natasha: “I felt quiet nervous as I wasn’t sure that I would meet anyone there. Also, I didn’t know what to expect and I was a bit worried it might be more like a boot camp than a fun thing to do.”
So what were your first impressions?
Kit: “I liked how we immediately started doing these games, which meant that I’d already got to know a few of the boys before we went into the woods.’ Natasha: “I actually met people my age straight away, which was relief, as I thought they might be much younger or much older. As we walked into the woods I started to get really excited. None of us knew what to expect, which was fun.”
What was the actual camp like?
Kit: “It was so cool. The tents looked like big yurts and slept six people. There were about 25 of us in total, so we were divided up into either boy or girl sleeping groups for the night time.”
Did you sleep in the tents every night?
Natasha; “No, the following day we were put into different tribes of both boys and girls and the first activity we did was to make shelters. We had sheets and ropes, but we had to get leaves to cover the shelter and carve pegs out of twigs to pin it down. Our shelter was great – really cosy – and we slept in that for the rest of the time.”
How did you find the food?
Kit: “It was delicious. I was expecting it to be really plain, but it wasn’t – there were stews, curries, pastas. My favourites were the breakfasts. On the first morning we had a great big cooked one, but there was also porridge and pancakes, which I loved.”
Natasha: “My favourite dinner was definitely the spaghetti Bolognese with garlic bread – yum, yum!”
What were your favourite activities during the day?
Natasha: “Catching crayfish was really good fun, and even though it was cold, I liked swimming in the lake.”
Kit: “I thought Pop Tag was brilliant – everyone is ‘it’ so you run around trying to tag people. If you get tagged you have to sit down, until the person who tagged you is tagged themselves. If you then both get tagged you have to play Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide the winner.”
And during the evenings?
Kit: “Definitely Capture the Lantern. The instructors hid a lantern in the woods that we could all see glowing. We had to make our way towards it without being caught. If people saw you they’d flash a torch at you and you had to go back. Afterwards we’d sit around the camp fire singing songs and telling stories.” Natasha: “Hot chocolate by the campfire was really cosy.”
What was the worse thing about your trips?
Natasha: “The fact that you packed really thin sleeping bags, so we practically froze to death at night. Thanks mum!”
Kit: “Bring dark clothing for the night games so you’ll be better camouflaged.”
Would you go back again?
Kit and Natasha in unison: “We ARE going back next year!”
A five-day camp at Cornbury Park costs £395 per child with 10 per cent off for sibling bookings. For more information visit campwilderness.co.uk