THERE’S an almost primeval pleasure about cooking over a campfire that appeals to all ages.
No one knows that better than David Willis, whose bushcraft courses and other outdoor events encourage families to get out into the woods and reconnect with the natural world.
We meet at his Buckinghamshire base, an 18-acre expanse of private woodland near Little Chalfont where Winnie the Pooh and Piglet would feel very much at home.
Owned by a builder friend, this provides David with a base camp for bread-baking and wood whittling, foraging and other outdoor adventures for families, small groups and corporate clients.
It’s quite a change of direction for someone who spent 30 years as an IT consultant, but at 58, David is showing no signs of missing the corporate world. In fact it has been a welcome opportunity to rediscover the simple pleasures that played such an important part of his childhood.
As a boy, he loved being outdoors and would spend many happy hours exploring the local woodlands, building camps with his friends. As father to two sons, those camping experiences were fun to share with the family too – and today he is clearly getting just as much pleasure helping other people recapture some of those lost childhood experiences.
“There was woodland at the end of our garden and as a young boy still in short trousers, this provided a wild place to play,” he recalls in a blog posting about his childhood. “A child of the 60s, I found my own amusement. There were a few large trees that were great for climbing, balancing on limbs, that would no doubt now send many parents racing in, to save their children from any potential harm. I’d happily play there in the trees for hours, only to be called in when it was time for dinner.”
Nowadays he delights in guiding families on woodland walks, showing children how to light a fire and cooking over an open fire, perhaps helping to restore people’s confidence about coping in the great outdoors.
Genial, enthusiastic and immensely knowledgable about his natural surroundings, his invitation to families and corporate clients to escape from their computer screens and mobile phones and get back to nature is clearly one that resonates with his guests.
More than 1,000 people have joined him for his woodland wanders, learning about a variety of things on the way – from recognising different trees to appreciating the uses made of different types of wood and the delights of foraging.
“It’s a very primal thing,” grins David. “There are half a dozen different ways of lighting a fire.”
Guests needn’t worry about having to hunt, trap and enviscerate cute woodland creatures though. Although he has spent time in the army – he joined the Royal Engineers as a teenager and spent six years as a surveyor, serving in Belize – there’s nothing military or survivalist about his courses.
He launched this outdoor events business back in 2010 after years of studying bushcraft and leadership skills, culminating in a year-long course with John Rhyder’s Woodcraft School in West Sussex, which he enjoyed immensely.
Teaching experience with the Scouts was consolidated through trips abroad – like a visit five years ago to spend time with Maasai tribes in Kenya’s Rift Valley, which confirmed the pleasure he gets from imparting knowledge to young people.
When he was growing up, he learned through play – building structures and making things, then improving them when they fell down or broke. Those practical skills are still in demand today as a new generation of woodland adventurers learn how to tie ropes, erect hammocks, light fires and make shelters. They might even end up making bows and arrows.
“It’s great just generally for mental health,” says David. “It does everyone a lot of good to be outdoors.”
These events are all about pitching in and getting involved, so even as we speak, the flour, yeast and water is being mixed so that we can try our hand at bread-making.
It may not be the most sophisticated of kitchens and the woodsmoke is swirling everywhere, but we make a decent fist of kneading a couple of small loaves that can be baked in David’s Dutch oven while we discuss the relative merits of hornbeam, burch, cherry and larch wood.
A local lad, David and his friend started to cycle further afield as boys, exploring Black Park and Burnham Beeches before his family moved to the New Forest for a while, helping to cement his love of wild places and woodland surroundings.
So is it the solitude, the sound of the birds, the grounding in nature, the safety of a home-made shelter among the trees that makes this feel like home? Probably all of these reasons, he confirms.
He’s clearly never happier than when rustling up a tasty meal over a campfire, especially if it means having the chance to share the skills needed to enjoy living the outdoor life to the full.
Our bread is beginning to rise rather impressively and tastes divine. The lamb kebabs take only minutes to cook and are equally delicious, all the more so for being speared on hand-whittled sticks and rotated over the roaring fire. Ah, simple pleasures.
But then this sort of experience is at the heart of David’s woodland events, which can be tailored to suit all ages, abilities and tastes.
From rustling up tasty campfire treats to wood-whittling skills and uncovering the magic of trees, he runs a variety of day and longer courses both here in Buckinghamshire and further afield, while his own thirst for adventure has seen him travelling as far away as Namibia to spend time with the bushmen of the Kalahari.
The learning never stops it seems – although the same might be said for his visitors, as they lap up his wisdom on how to make nettle risotto, which berries are poisonous or which trees are best for warding off witches…
Go down to the woods
To find out more about David’s bushcraft courses, including whittling and woodcraft, campfire bread baking and The Art of Fire, or to arrange private family or group sessions, visit his website.
To see David in action, see the Sorted Food Youtube channel