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Bushcraft in Dagenham

The CPRE National Office team in Eastbrookend Country Park The CPRE National Office team in Eastbrookend Country Park

The first question I was asked by almost everyone when I accepted a job with CPRE was, ‘where will you be moving?’ People were often surprised to hear Southwark. Perhaps it sounds like an oxymoron to be based in London but be committed to protecting rural England.

However, in the first two weeks of being here I have been able to give two pretty comprehensive replies to that challenge. Firstly, that vibrant cities with affordable housing will help protect the countryside from the unnecessary sprawl which so often threatens our most accessible rural areas. Second, that it is entirely possible to reconnect with our wild side within the confines of the M25.

It is not often when working in an office (or even for a charity) that you get such a clear idea of what you are fighting for: protecting, promoting and enhancing our towns and countryside. But that is exactly what I got on day two at CPRE with the annual office outing. Across the country, the phrases ‘staff away day’, ‘team-building exercises’ and ‘in Dagenham’ would fill some offices with horror. Not so with London Bushcraft in Eastbrookend Country Park.

It was a morning of delayed gratification – from a roadside gathering at a nondescript underground station, to an introduction to foraging on suburban streets – which certainly boosted our desire to get out there and get stuck in. Of course, when foraging a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, so clarity of exactly what to look for is critical and a thorough introduction from our knowledgeable guides was essential.

From rosehips to horseradish, the wealth of flavours to be found in just a short walk was remarkable, and a testament to the course leaders understanding of the rhythms of the wildlife. The blackberries are right at the end of the season in early October, but the few that were left were beautifully ripe. The rich, garlicky smell of jack-by-the-hedge was a surprise to find on a popular dog-walking path (although perhaps not the best place to try a taste!). And yarrow, which is often seen as a weed, had an intense, aromatic and slightly bitter flavour unlike anything I’d eaten before – it will certainly be making an appearance in my kitchen. From hawthorn to acorns, plants that could be eaten fresh from the bush and others that needed a little preparation, this was an activity that gave a fascinating and varied insight into the sustainable sources of food all around us that we so often overlook.

From foraging to fire lighting, via a well appreciated break for coffee and biscuits. Fire lighting is the perfect task for a cold day as it warms the body several times over: from gathering the wood, to striking flints, becoming human bellows and finally enjoying a well-earned rest in front of the fire (and perhaps a toasted marshmallow or two). It is an activity which offers an escape from the worries of the everyday to the specific focus of survival, which awakes something in us far older, wilder and more promethean than turning down the central heating. For Roger Deakin there was ‘nothing quite as elemental as the log fire glowing… nothing that excites the imagination… quite as much as its flames.’

An afternoon of fire starting with London Bushcraft reminds us that there are simpler ways of living, where the only thing that matters is survival. The same is true when climbing a mountain in our National Parks and, in my experience, it is the ultimate way to relieve stress and set yourself up for a productive return to work. The fact this can be done at the end of the District Line was quite a surprise!

It was the ideal way to say goodbye to last year’s graduate schemers, and to welcome the new intake. Getting out to the countryside is vital to what CPRE does, and we were able to see first-hand what it provides for us in terms of food, recreation and stress-relief. There are few better ways to remind the whole team exactly why we are here working hard every day to protect, promote and enhance our towns and countryside.

Fire lighting awakes something in us far older, wilder and more promethean than turning down the central heating

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