The head of a pigeon comes off more easily than you might imagine. Place the neck between your index and forefinger and pull it with about the same force as you would a bathroom light cord. Partridge heads need a bit more of a yank.
For pheasants an axe is needed. An axe and a strong stomach. The brace of pheasants, a male and female tied together as in life, were dignified in their death. The soft breast fur needed to be gently plucked, and then we plunged our hands down the neck cavity and pulled out anything that wobbled. ‘That smell,’ said our young guide Alec, ‘is death.’
Two hours earlier I had been drinking an overpriced latte on a train to Oxford. Now, as we huddled around a crackling fire, the smell of pigeon in soy and ginger sauce was making my stomach rumble.
On a bushcraft weekend course you eat very well. With me were a young barrister, a filmmaker and an IT consultant.
A common sense of disaffection with our increasingly urban lives was the reason we all gave for signing up to spend two icy nights under the stars in the middle of some Oxfordshire woodland. An alarmingly bright 16-year-old lad summed it up best: ‘We are losing touch with our heritage and I wanted to find out how we used to live.’
Getting back to nature: the reality
And while ‘getting back to nature’ was the thread that ran through the weekend course, I hadn’t expected nature to be quite so close. After a hearty dinner, I looked at my accommodation for the night by torchlight: a flimsy basha. Just a piece of material tied between four trees separated me from the elements, and the already frosty leaves were
to be my mattress.
I awoke to birdsong and gazed up into the bare trees, listening to the creaking of branches and watching the final stars fade. Over a breakfast of homemade damper bread, our second guide, Jason, talked us through woodland flora. Ash, oak, acorn and apple trees stood all around us, and a long walk around the woods revealed plenty of uses for the many kinds of wildflowers and plants: there was hawthorn (edible spring leaves), nettle (good for making tea and twine), bluebell root (can be used for glue) and sorrel (delicious). After chewing on random leaves it was time for lunch: trout – which we gutted first, of course.
From survival to civilisation
Afterwards we built our shelter. Using only coppiced wood and undergrowth we sweated in the 1C temperatures, building our grand hotel. Fire-making and water purification lessons followed, then we spit-roasted the pheasants, before falling into a slumber around a mighty fire. We talked about the vast amount of knowledge we had acquired, then bedded down, warm and dry, beneath a roof of leaves – it was the best night’s sleep I had enjoyed for months.
Bedraggled, weary and utterly relaxed I returned to civilisation on Sunday afternoon with a notebook full of hastily sketched leaves and seeds, and the resolve to forage the woods at home. Now I lick my lips every time I see a wood pigeon.
A Woodland Ways Weekend (07843 064114/www.woodland-ways.co.uk) in Appleton, six miles south-west of Oxford, costs £175 for two nights, three days, including course, equipment, food and board; the company will pick you up at Oxford station. Off-peak advance returns London Paddington- Oxford from £8.
Where to eat
The Big Bang
Sausages. The Big Bang loves sausages. Lamb and mint, wild venison, pork and fig and pork and marmite. Vegetarians can tuck into wild mushroom and garlic, or basil and vine tomato sausages.
All ingredients are sourced within 20 miles of the restaurant, and the six bangers we tried were solid, meaty and delicious. There’s garlic and rosemary or spring onion mash or, for a splash of colour, beetroot-stained ‘rose mash’. Combine with garden peas and red cabbage and it makes for a cheery plate of honest fare. The restaurant is in the trendy Jericho area of Oxford – browse for vintage clothes and designer furniture – and although the decor is not as upbeat as the food, the large tables and friendly service make it fun in a group. On Tuesday nights there is jazz in the cellar.
124 Walton Street, Oxford, OX2 6AH (01865 511441/www.thebigbangrestaurants.co.uk). Open 8am-3pm, 5-11pm Mon-Fri; 9am-11pm Sat; 9am-9pm Sun. Main courses £5-£12.
Where to stay
The Old Bank
Through the bedroom windows, the spire of St Mary the Virgin can be seen towering over the city, while Merton, Oriel, University, Christ Church and All Souls colleges flank this well-located hotel. But inside the converted Georgian bank, the owner’s twentieth-century art collection – you may get a Stanley Spencer drawing or a Roger Hilton – gives the 42 rooms a modern feel. Only the suites are large, but all rooms are well appointed, light and comfortable, with marble bathrooms throughout. It is the buzzy vibe, however, that is the highlight, enhanced by the hotel’s restaurant, Brasserie Quod, which serves up reasonably priced Mediterranean cuisine.
91-94 High Street, Oxford, OX1 4BN (01865 799599/www.oldbank-hotel.co.uk). £145-210 for double room.