November 5, 2017 by Jason Phillips
Bushcraft masterclass with Randy Mears in the wild
My kitchen still stunk so bad from the fire you could taste it. I threw the black pan in the bin. I cooked up a hearty breakfast to set me up for the day. I had a grass-fed steak in the fridge I had bought off my new dealer at Riverside Market. The date was up, I thought if I cooked it up I could put in my sack til tonight, and share the feast with Randy in the wild. I fried it, put it on a bed of spinach in a tub. Smothered it in grass fed butter and himalayan salt. And finished it up with a generous chunk of double barrel raw cheese. I clunked the tub shut and packed it into my rucksack along with all my survival kit. I bought all the bits I was missing at the local Cotswald Outdoor store and then headed up to the studio.
Kris welcomed me as usual with a huge grin and a cup of tea. I explained what I was up to over the next few days, and he offered to take me to my starting point in St Athan for 4 o’clock. We got down to mixing some tracks.
My ex-lady then text saying she had had a premonition last night that I had died.
I felt travel sick on the way to St Athan, as Kris talked and talked and I turned paler and paler. We finally got there, I hadn’t realised how far it was. I was relieved to get my feet on terra firma, the horizon slowly stopped wobbling and my stomach settled.
One of my earliest memories was at St Athan’s Air show, I was spinning around imitating a plane, playing in the summer heat, and when the giddiness stopped, much like my travel sickness just had, I looked around and couldn’t find my family. I was lost. The place was rammed full of laughing evil strangers and I was alone. I ran around in a blind panic as the sound seemed to be sucked from my world. Just the cackling of the strangers, mocking me, remained. Planes drew silent smokey rings across the clear skies, the weight of my loneliness closed in on me, like the first time you step into a dark hallucinogenic trip. I ran around screaming, no noise came from my mouth. Somehow my Auntie appeared from the blur, scooped me up into her tattooed rugby playing arms, wiped away my tears and the sound and colour returned to my world.
Gogo pulled up and my guide, Randy, stepped out and flung a huge 70 litre rucksack onto his broken back. I bought a sausage and some nuts from the shop and we headed off on our adventure. We were here to teach me some bushcraft skills, enjoy ourselves, and to test Randy’s dodgy back, as this was his first escapade into the wild since breaking his back seven years ago.
We headed down a small lane, and Randy instructed us to collect some dry firewood that was piled up on the side of the road. I noticed a weird looking telegraph pole next to us.
“How the fuck has that pole got a bush growing on the top of it I wonder? How weird.”
“If you look, the ivy has been cut off all the way up, to the box near the top, they probably needed access to that,” said my guide.
“So they give the lampost a haircut?”
“Yep I guess so.”
“So you are going to have an answer for everything?” we laughed, “This could get a bit irritating, Woolly Mears,’ referring to his woolly main and our survival guru Ray Mears.
‘Ahaa. Well, you asked.’ he replied
I told him of the ladies in work naming me Bear Jason after Bear Grills. He laughed. I said it’s the lamest name ever. But I guess I have to own it. What if I spelled it Bare though. Bare like the kids are using as slang theses day, think it means extreme in their use of it. Yeah I’ll be Bare Jason. “Still shit,” he said.
We hopped into a field following a public pathway sign. Half way down a tiny granny’s forehead poked over the hedge.
“Watch the crops! That is not a public right of way!” she squeaked.
“The sign seemed to point this way,” Randy replied.
“It’s a private field! With crops!'”
“We are walking along the edge,” I said.
“There’s no way out that way, the right of way is along this road. You are walking on crops!”
“The sign must have been turned by someone as it clearly pointed this way,” said Randy.
“It’s a crop field!” she reiterated.
She stood there shaking her tiny head. As we walked on, peering though a larger gap, I noticed her tiny dog at the end of her lead, it had a tiny head like it’s owner, and it was shaking it in disapproval at us too.
We could see the sea ahead. Skirting round the edge of the crop field we got to a gate and hopped over. A huge power station sat on the horizon. It looked surreal, like it had been lifted out of a comic book. To the side of it’s chimney rose a chalky moon and the sea gently wept all around it. It seemed like we had arrived in a dystopian future of ugly factories, lamposts with haircuts and people with their heads cloned onto their pets.
“Get a photo of that factory mate,” I said, “That is stunning. So weird!”
Randy started whacking all his pockets like he was being attacked by a swarm of invisible wasps. “Fuck, my phone!” He legged it back along the way we had come and I followed slowly at a distance, after ten minutes he located the massive device sat in the grass. We headed through a marshy field and hit a huge stony beach. The serene cold night wrapped its purple tentacles around us.
It was near impossible to walk on the beach, the huge pebbles sent our ankles snapping in all directions, so we took a small pathway alongside the power station.
It winded around the ever sprawling factory to our left, with a never ending plethora of septic tanks, industrial buildings, monster machines, slag heaps and chimneys. To the right the sea spread out in a shimmering silence with a couple of boats gently bobbing in the distance, their lights twinkling. We were on the Coastal Path, of course, I just realised. We were, after all, the only country in the world with a walking path all the way around its entire coast! An unknown gem. Yes tourists, you keep visiting London and Ireland and Scotland. We’ll keep this gem for ourselves. We may not have Guinness, or The Queen or bagpipes, but this is The Mystical Land of Song. And the universe was born from sound. And we are not advertising what we got, no gimmicks. If you want to see this beauty, you have to discover it for yourself.
“BASTARD!” shouted Randy, my hairy guide.
He had skidded on a rather hefty dog turd. He busted an impressive rendition of the dog shit dance (© Vanilla Ice circa 1990) under the brightening moon. Eventually the power station gave up and the swamps now offered distant gloomy freaky houses, barely visible among the dark woods. After a few hours of coastal silent walking, we slid down a steep embankment into an ancient stone circle. In the centre stood a beautiful tall standing stone, an obelisk of sorts. A passage way had eroded in the cliffs leaving them circular towers of stone capped with grass, and the gap between them brought in the moon and the gentle waves. This looked like a place of ancient ceremonies, and a perfect place to take a break.
I was impressed with how much distance we were covering. We weren’t cold due to the pace, and the moon lit the way. We continued up along cliff edges and through a few caravan parks. People sat in their caravans in their night wear. A couple in their slippers watching telly. A worried lady smoking at her door. A lonesome man in a dirty shirt eating greedily by a dim light.
We could spot Barry Island way ahead of us, with its shiny big wheel. Randy took us off the path, down though a heavy wooded area, and found what he said was a good spot. He set up a wind shield to stop the cold sea air from reaching us and got the fire going. My phone vibrated, a message from Kris:
Hey bud, great to see you today, just to let you know I just found your steak in the studio. Hope you don’t starve to death. See you soon. X
I had been looking forward to my steak supper all day! And there it was sat in a VEGETARIANS HOUSE! I wept. I told Randy, he said, “Awwww diddums, if it’s so bad go home.” Wow, how considerate! Hardcore bushcraft, no time for crying, I thought. But couldn’t stop thinking of my steak all night.
I apologised to the vegetarian for leaving such an offensive morsel in his studio… And told him to bin it.
Randy built a fire pit with some of the large pebbles from the beach. Within minutes it was roaring, I should have taken more notice how he had done it, as I was supposed to be learning. A passenger jet flew directly over our heads, kissing the top of the trees we were under. We were just outside Cardiff International Airport, the runway just ahead. We tucked into our sleeping bags and bivvy bags in the open forest air. Every half hour huge jets flew over us and shook the ground, it was exhilarating, and for some reason amazing.
I had been planning on going to Canada with my good friend this very night, flying from Cardiff Airport, but plans had fallen through. I just realised as I lay there that she was probably in the very jet I was looking at blinking and gaining height up into the winking starry blanket of this November night.
I could hear some weird sounds in the woods around us. I thought it’s half term and we are pretty close to Barry, I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids were camping, or some people were out and about. I heard voices, and then a group of cyclists, slipped into the woods just ahead and headed up the muddy banks and away into the darkness without spotting us.
I could hear footsteps all around me. Like there were a group of people, or cenobites, slowly creeping in on us. Creeping. Closer and closer. I was sat upright and as awake as a hunted rabbit, eyes darting with every sound. Randy looked pretty chilled out, nothing was bothering him, he offered me a puff on a reefer and I thought you know what, Im gunna pass on that. We heard drunk people letting off fireworks and whoooping maniacally in the distance. The bright moon licked through the branches above, the waves whispered down the way and the jumbo jets twinkled and roared over head. The fire crackled and I slowly slumped into the dream world, with Randy’s axe firmly tucked between my legs.
The steak was alive, it was on a pillow in the studio, and Kris was feeding it bits of grass and stroking it. It was purring and Kris was blinking his watery loving eyes upon him, smiling like Mother Theresa.
Morning has broken, and so has my back
I woke up to birds twittering and Randy snoring. The fire had gone out, just a pit of white ash, I was feverishly cold, especially my extremities. When I say extremities I mean my love handles. They were like bags of ice hanging off my back and making my sleeping bag like a mortuary corpse drawer. I quickly got dressed and headed down to the beach. I sat on a rock and looked out at the mass expanse of soft sea framed by white cliffs. Huge rolls of mist tumbled out towards the horizon. A boat tugged from behind a cliff and slowly passed all the way along. The red sun slid above a misty layer on the sea and the morning broke. I felt so at peace. I had slept well, despite being pretty scared. I thought I was going to be up all night, terrified, watching Randy have a peaceful slumber, but as it turned out, I had had a pretty amazing night’s sleep.
I took in the strange vast cold epic morning. This beat waking up in a tiny room, with tiny windows, looking out to some dirty roofs, and a chimney bellowing rancid oil, the rumble of buses down below shaking my dirty windows.
This is how we are meant to wake up. In nature with the birds as our alarm clock. I breathed in the nature. Breathed in Life.
Randy appeared out of the bush, rubbing his eyes. In no time we had packed up and destroyed the camp: Leave No Trace, one my favourite rules of bushcraft. We had met Ray Mears together just last week and now we were out living it. We were in the wild, and nothing felt better. We were pretty quiet. No words were needed.
We left the coast line and decided to head North to an ancient burial chamber, Tinkinswood. A cafe offered putrid pissy tea and we emptied our bowels and let the sun warm us for half hour. This trip had two directives, one, for me to learn some of Randy’s bushcraft knowledge and two, to test Randy’s broken back and see how he got on (after seven years out of the game.) I kept trying to swap my 24 litre rucksack with his 70, but he refused. It wasn’t the pack but the sleeping that had completely screwed him up, he kept reassuring me, and he was unsure if his spine would endure another night on the ground. He said he had a hammock arriving in the post today, which would solve the problem, but it weren’t getting delivered to Tinkinswood.
The plan was to set up camp near Tinkinswood and then finish the rest of the walk into Cardiff in the morning. After our tea we cut through a wood and hopped through a fence and followed a train track for a while, then jumping over a gate followed a stream up north.
Randy was full of survival wisdom, talking of all his achievements before his life altering injury. His training, his orienteering teachings, his previous life, and telling me how he could outdo any search party if it came to it. Every time we looked at the map we would disagree about where we were at, and then he always turned out to be right. I know I was here to learn from him, but couldn’t the fucker just be wrong once! We stocked up on some goodies at a garage, cut through a housing estate and arrived at the ruins of an ancient church. We sat in the sun and he wrapped up another one. I was tempted, but with the possibility of my guide leaving me tonight, I thought better of it. The adverse psychological effects I suffered from that White Widow in Amsterdam in 2001 have never left me. Every puff I took since has ruptured echoes of insanity through my very soul. I politely declined. Randy gave me a quick lesson in orienteering, and for the first time, after decades of travel, I understood it. He let me choose our route and we headed off. After twenty minutes we met a dead end. He got us back on track, his experience saving us over and over. I was a nubie, a total amateur to survival.
We passed though a field with a big dirty horse. I was like “let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Randy, I knew was a bit of a Doolittle, with a house full of animals. He walked straight up to the horse. I skirted around the edge of the field. Fuck messing with that big muscly bastard, I thought. I looked back, Randy stood peacefully, head bowed offering his hand, as the Queen may offer her hand to be kissed, quite limp, but elegant. The horse at first looked a little twitchy. Then tentatively shuffled forward, it’s grey mane sparkling in the bright cold morning. It brought it’s head in cautiously, and then planted a gentle kiss on the hand of HRH Mears. At the moment of the kiss their silhouette broke the sun rays behind them and imprinted a stunning picture on my memory.
Many hours of walking through dewy fields and then, all of a sudden, there it was. The tomb. 6000 years old. Fifty dismembered skeletons had been found here. The stone covering the top of the tomb is the largest in Wales. A bizarre and frightening teleportation to ancient times. I had been here years previous, at the start of my relationship, with my ex. We had recently split up and I slipped into a melancholic reverie. We hung around in a daze for a while, re-entering the tomb again and enjoying the spooky atmosphere.
Randy arranged to be picked up at Culverhouse Cross, an hour or so walk, his back simply couldn’t withstand another night. It was seven years ago now, that he had kyaked down that snowy mountain into a tree, seven years of pain. The first night in the wild, was proving too painful, he needed the hammock. We would have to restart this mission again. The very reality of being alone out here hit me. I considered going home.
We reached a road and my trusty guide asked me to find us on the map. I couldn’t. I looked and looked and almost fifteen minutes of brain strain I pulled a blank. He took the map and showed me the spot within a few seconds. Bastard! I needed more time to learn, to suck Randy dry, like a parasite, of his plethora of knowledge and experience. I hadn’t learned much on this trip, other than he was always right. Time was up, I should have asked more, probed more, got involved in the fire and camp building last night.
“Always remember PMA,” he offered as parting advice.
I hated that expression.
“I prefer NMA,” I said, “worst case scenario, prepare for the worst.”
He tutted. He didn’t look impressed.
“PMA can save your life in a survival situation,” he said, “Ok, Good luck Bear Jason.”
He passed me his chocolate bar, gripped my hand to shake it, and looked genuinely worried.
I waved him goodbye up a long road. I hopped over the stile to begin my own mission and stuffed the entire chocolate bar into my gob. The clouds were gathering in sinister darkening clumps. I was alone, I had no tent, and no clue.
To be continued, tomorrow…