Ray Mears on why his primary school teacher played a big part in his future success
PUBLISHED: 15:12 09 April 2014 | UPDATED: 13:52 19 January 2016
From the Spring 2014 edition of A+ education magazine South East - A regular on our TV screens, Ray Mears is one of the country's leading experts in bushcraft and survival techniques - but it might never have happened if it had not been for a teacher at his Surrey primary school…
Name: Ray Mears
Profession: Woodsman, instructor, author and TV presenter
Born in: Kenley, near Croydon
Lives in: Near Hastings, Sussex
Educated at: Downside Lodge Prep School in Purley and Reigate Grammar School, both in Surrey
Best subject: Any that involved being in the outdoors
Finest moment at school: Meeting my mentor, Mr Hopkins
Report most likely to say: Ray needs to spend more time looking at his school books and less time staring out of the window!
People know me for being an outdoors person, and I’ve always been that way, ever since I was a young lad growing up on the North Sussex Downs. I think, as adults, we can sometimes be quick to dismiss kids and their early interests, but many see a spark at a very young age and it sticks, and that was definitely the case for me.
I loved the countryside – I was desperate to spend as much time in amongst it as I could, and every time I went out it was a new adventure; I wanted to push myself that bit further or discover something new each time. I hated it when the days started getting shorter, and the clocks going forward was never a good event!
I had a real thirst for the natural habitats around where we lived, and the thrill of being out there alone, fending for myself, was huge. But things really moved on a level when I met Mr Hopkins – Kingsley Hopkins – at Downside Lodge Prep School in Purley, Surrey. I think most people who have carved a real niche are directly inspired by someone who also had that passion, but it was a bit different for me, because he was actually my judo teacher!
Prep school in Purley
The truth is, I’d been practising bushcraft, tracking foxes, learning about plants and trees and more for a while, but meeting Kingsley really honed my survival skills, and gave me the realisation that staying out in the woods depended as much on my own actions as it did my surroundings.
Kingsley had fought in the Second World War, so his perception of the individual was fascinating. Parts of his past had been a constant fight for survival in really challenging conditions and situations, and he would talk about the importance of knowledge, efficiency and keeping a clear mind at all times. To me, he was the most fascinating of teachers, and I think he really loved my passion for the outdoors and willingness to go off on adventures by myself.
His favourite phrase was “survival isn’t about equipment, it’s about knowledge,” and he gave me so much belief and confidence to keep exploring.
I should say, my parents were fantastic as well. They weren’t really into the countryside, but were very supportive and always showed an interest in whatever project it was I had dreamt up... and there were a few.
So I spent a lot of time with Kingsley and began to really appreciate a whole different way of thinking. And obviously the judo taught me a lot as well about looking after myself, respecting things around me and succeeding by being efficient in whatever I was doing. Those were lessons I took into the rest of my schoolwork, but from very early on I knew nothing was going to come close to my love of bushcraft and being outdoors, and typically academic pursuits never hit the same heights for me.
For the next few years, I just wanted to learn as much as I could. I studied explorers, environments and techniques, and joined the cadets. Of course, back then if you wanted to research anything, you had to go to the library, and there was always a plentiful display of books I could read at school – after all, this wasn’t a subject that was in huge demand amongst other kids! But I would read books, maps... anything really.
Kingsley had taught me that you didn’t need anything out in the wild apart from a smart head on your shoulders, and that was actually a big attraction – seeing how I could fend for myself starting with very little.
On to Reigate Grammar
Later on, I attended Reigate Grammar School, also in Surrey. It was a good school, very good, and I must say I had some interesting years there, but everything was about building my knowledge of the outdoors. There were some interesting moments along the way – realising the relevance of maths in terms of navigation and geometry, and elements of science would always interest me, plus geography of course. And languages furthered the notion of going out in the world exploring, too. But secondary school was really just a prelude to whatever I was going to do next.
Having a good teacher was such an important part of me growing and becoming the person I am today. I see education as coaching life skills as well as academic skills, and Mr Hopkins was the ultimate exemplar of that. After all, long after I’d given up judo I am still using the tools and techniques he offered me.
His approach also inspired me to ‘pass it on’ and offer classes to others. I think if you have a talent that is a bit different, you should always want to share that knowledge, those skills and that interest. And of course, right from when I first started my school of bushcraft, ‘Woodlore’, in Etchingham, East Sussex, at the age of 19, it has been a thrill for me seeing others as engaged in the outdoors as I am.
There’s a huge world out there to be explored, and despite the incredible wealth of distractions that the modern age provides, I still think there’s an inherent passion in people to enjoy the open air and what’s around them, and that’s fantastic.
The Woodlore School of Bushcraft, PO BOX 3 Etchingham, East Sussex TN19 7ZE. Courses suitable for children include: Family Bushcraft, for anyone over eight years, £225 per person; and Junior Fundamental Bushcraft, for 11-16 year olds, £450 per person. For more information, call 01580 819668, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or pay a visit to the website at raymears.com.