Croydon-born bushcraft expert Ray Mears on how to survive in the Surrey Hills...
PUBLISHED: 03:59 22 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:51 17 April 2018
Bushcraft expert, TV presenter and author Ray Mears is returns to his roots to teach Surrey residents how to enjoy the local countryside safely. Harriet Danhash picks up a few tips
With its rolling hills, dense woodlands and seemingly endless stretches of tree-lined country lanes, Surrey is a haven for nature-philes. So it comes as no surprise to learn that bushcraft expert Ray Mears first discovered a love of the outdoors in this very county.
Having grown up exploring the leafy landscapes around Kenley (more of which later), he has since gone on, of course, to become one of the country’s leading authorities on bushcraft. Best-known for his many television series, including the eponymously named Ray Mears’ Bushcraft and Ray Mears’ World of Survival, he is also a bushcraft trainer and author. So, for the uninitiated, how would he define bushcraft then?
“In a nutshell, it’s the knowledge of how to live in wild places in a traditional way, how to feel as though one is part of the landscape and not an alien and, perhaps most importantly, how to be safe in the outdoors,” he explains.
It’s clear that Ray takes his craft very seriously, and rightly so: after all, the natural world can be a dangerous place. “Bushcraft is the practice of learning to see more and feel more, but, above all, learning how to do those things safely,” he adds. “And I’m still learning now.”
Down to earth, passionate about his craft and driven to learn more about his subject out of a genuine love for nature, his enthusiasm for the great outdoors is infectious. However, he is keen to point out that a survivalist he is not. “I don’t particularly like the word survivalism; it conjures up images of bunkers and baked bean tins,” laughs Ray. “Bushcraft is informed by a lot of what is taught in survivalism, but it encompasses a whole range of skills.”
Born in Croydon in 1964, Ray’s first foray into bushcraft – although he didn’t realise it then – was as a child, when he began tracking foxes in the woods. Growing up in Kenley, with Foxley Wood and Kenley Common on his doorstep, Ray never had to stray too far in search of adventure.
Educated at Downside Lodge Prep School in Purley and then as a pupil at Reigate Grammar, he enjoyed school but it was obvious that his passion lay elsewhere. “As a youngster, I always wanted to stay outdoors and camp out overnight but, at that time, I didn’t have the equipment I needed to do those things,” he recalls. After leaving school, he worked briefly in what some might term a conventional job in London. “It didn’t suit me,” he continues. “I was very fortunate to discover that I loved working in the outdoors and had a burning desire to pursue that.”
Indeed, Ray’s childhood interest in tracking foxes soon evolved into a life-long love of nature and, later, the career in bushcraft for which he is now so well known. However, Ray credits his judo teacher at Downside, Kingsley Hopkins, who had experienced life behind enemy lines in Burma, for feeding his passion for the subject. “He showed me the skills, and encouraged me to read up, explore and go off in search of knowledge.” And that is exactly what Ray did.
Since then, Ray’s career has taken him around the world and enabled him to visit countless incredible places, but he says his favourite of all is Britain, and Surrey, in particular, is “amazing”.
“There have been so many times over the years, when I’ve been in rainforests around the world and I’ve just thought that they were bigger, hotter versions of Surrey, especially as we have such a variety of trees and plants in the county,” he continues.
“My advice to anyone wanting to get into bushcraft would be to try and imagine what our ancestors would have needed to know 10,000 years ago. They would have known everything about the hills we sweat up today – the shadows, the insects and the biters – only they would have had a more intimate knowledge because they also knew where to find food. Thinking about that kind of thing is all part of the fun.
“But Surrey is full of so many places to practise bushcraft that I couldn’t possibly mention just one. Plus, if I did, we might get too many people going to them!”
Recognising that bushcraft has given him a means of communicating with nature and the ability to cope in challenging situations, in 1983 Ray founded Woodlore, The School of Wilderness Bushcraft, in East Sussex. Since then, the school has taught people, both young and old, a range of outdoor skills, such as tracking, first aid and medical training, and fundamental bushcraft skills. Today, Ray maintains his involvement in the school and continues to teach the more specialist classes. “I’m currently getting ready to teach the Arctic course in Ontario,” he says excitedly.
Last year was a busy one for Ray all-round, as he also filmed two new television series, Wild Australia and Wild France, due to air on ITV later this year. Now 2016 looks set to continue the trend, as Ray embarks on his UK tour, Tales of Endurance, which will make two Surrey pit stops, firstly at Woking’s much-loved New Victoria Theatre (on Sunday March 6) and then, a few days later, at Guildford’s state-of-the-art entertainment venue, G Live (on Friday March 11).
The show promises to move, inspire and shock in equal measure. “I’ll be telling stories of the adventures I’ve experienced over the years,” he says. “They are remarkable, thought-provoking stories and, when you see them from my perspective, they live with you and you can draw on them in times of crisis.” The bushcraft expert will also talk about how we can all be safer when travelling, particularly gap-year students. “There are now new things we can do that weren’t available when I was younger, such as vital pieces of equipment that can make all the difference,” he adds.
There will also be an opportunity to put your own burning questions to Surrey’s very own action man in a question and answer session and to have a book signed by Ray at the end of the show. However, tickets are selling fast so you’ll need to get in quick.
For now, it’s time for him to get back to his school of bushcraft in the Sussex countryside. But while life may have taken him away from Surrey, Ray still has great memories of his upbringing in the county and is looking forward to returning as part of his tour. “Surrey is a fantastic, beautiful place,” he adds fondly. “I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to grow up here.”
• The Woodlore School of Wilderness Bushcraft, PO BOX 3, Etchingham, East Sussex TN19 7ZE. For more information on the range of courses currently available, call 01580 819668, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or pay a visit to their website at raymears.com.
Ray Mears’ 5 top tips for surviving the Surrey Hills
1) Keep warm - Probably the most important of all bushcraft skills is fire lighting. Fire can dispel the darkness of a Surrey forest, keep us warm, purify our water and cook our food. A vital piece of my kit is a fire flash: a small metal rod that, when scraped with a metal blade, helps to start a fire.
2) Forage for berries - The Surrey Hills are a bountiful source of edible berries, such as hawthorn. Crush the berries with your hands and squeeze the juice into a bowl. Discard the seeds and you’ll be left with a thick liquid that will turn into a delicious jelly-like texture. Remember always to forage responsibly, and only ever eat something if you are 100% sure.
3) Stay hydrated - Water is vital to our survival. When out in the wild, I always pay close attention to my route, to check for sources of water, whether in Surrey or the Serengeti. If you can’t spot a river or stream, remember that water doesn’t flow uphill, so move to lower ground. Also, look for boggy areas and birch trees, which are a good indicator that water is nearby, and insects tend to congregate around water too.
4) Nature’s own pharmacy - Illness and injury can strike anywhere – whether you’re trekking through the rainforest, braving the sub-zero temperatures of the Arctic or just heading out for a country walk and picnic in Surrey’s countryside. Fortunately, Mother Nature is on hand with a vast array of medicinal leaves. Take, for example, the leaves of Greater Plantain, which is widespread across Surrey and can help to heal wounds. First, wash the leaf to remove any harmful bacteria, then wrap it around the wound, tie it in place and let it work its magic.
5) Lifesaving technology - When one thinks about getting lost out in the wild, Surrey might not be the first place that springs to mind. However, with its twisty wooded paths and plunging overnight winter temperatures, getting lost in our county is no laughing matter. An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon is a device that can send a signal via satellite to the emergency services, enabling them to accurately locate your position. They don’t come cheap but they can prove a lifesaving investment, meaning help can reach you fast in emergency situations.
My favourite Surrey
View: Box Hill has to be one of my favourite views in Surrey. When you walk up and admire that view, you can bet your life that our ancestors have been moved by the very same scene – and that’s an amazing feeling.
Walk: I have fond memories of walks around the stunningly beautiful Hurtwood Estate. The mix of woods and hills is amazing and I’ve enjoyed many a day out there.
Memory: Tracking foxes around the woodlands of Foxley Wood and Kenley Common. I never had to stray too far in search of adventure.