Survive & Thrive: Test your bush craft survival skills at Conkers
We’re standing in the middle of a damp forest in middle England, we've just about managed to construct a shelter with the tarpaulin and bungee rope. We’ve built a fireplace and found the right sized sticks to raise our fire off the ground a little.
My husband is sternly calling for more wood, while my youngest is playing mischievously with the flint trying to get a spark and my daughter is wielding a dangerously huge stick, smacking at dead wood on the trees. I’m worried the rain is coming down faster, and we’re getting colder.
Luckily, we’re not trying to survive alone, we’re at Conkers, a unique indoor and outdoor activity centre in Derbyshire, in the capable hands of a ranger. Conkers offers all kinds of family adventures across 120 acres - tree top walks, hi and low rope courses, play areas, barefoot walks, and inside there are over 100 interactive exhibits.
There is more than enough to entertain the kids on a day ticket, but if you fancy something a bit different, a family outdoor pursuits day allows you to choose three special adventures plus refreshments, lunch and entrance to Conkers for the rest of your day.
We’ve combined pedal go karting, orienteering and bushcraft, but you can also choose mountain biking, archery, kata-canoeing or the activity trail challenge. The orienteering challenge leads to the tarpaulin and bungee ropes, and finally to a clearing where we first meet the Conkers forest rangers.
The cotton wool we’ve been supplied with to help start the fire in these tough conditions has already managed to get damp which leads to a brief debate over whose fault that is. The rangers supplied the cotton wool, but we learn that in a real emergency you could use coat lining, tissues, or fabric.
I can feel a primitive kind of panic setting in, what if this were real? What if we really had to fend for ourselves in the middle of nowhere, could we keep our kids safe and warm? Looking round, all the parents seem to be in their element here, making a real fire, with their kids, in the woods, even in the rain. The kids are loving every minute, especially their face paint camo stripes. There’s definitely a bit of friendly Dad competition going on, especially when we overhear the Dad next to us admit he was in the Scouts. The reality of fire lighting is that it is a team effort, which fully occupies the four of us for a good hour.
The rangers show us how to use the flint, how to make the tiny spark that will light the cotton wool and then eventually start to burn the carefully constructed pyramid of small sticks. We struggle to spark the flint for long enough to get the fire lit. It’s wet, cold and muddy, and the pressure is on. Eventually, we manage a tiny spark, our luck is in and the flame slowly moves across the cotton, at which point we tempt it with the smallest and driest of the twigs we have collected, and encourage it to climb up the tiny pyramid of wood we built.
Just as we get it really going, the ranger comes along and reminds us to dry off the next lot of wood around the edges of the fire – it’s a constant battle to keep a fire going, and you have to keep thinking ahead. We find dry wood by knocking dead branches off a tree – if they fall easily they are dead, if they don’t they are too green and won’t burn.
The best bit is the sense of achievement at building your own fire, enhanced by the digestives and marshmallows the rangers dole out for us to make celebratory s’mores with. My hands are absolutely filthy, but I don’t care, I’m feeling at one with the earth.
Fire lighting is a real family challenge that brings us close together and we leave feeling like we’ve mastered important survival skills.
We’re left with another warm feeling too, Conkers is owned by the National Forest Charitable Trust which has the wider objective of reclaiming derelict industrial landscapes, planting trees, creating recreational forests and parkland. So your day out contributes to the future of the nation’s forests too.
A family day out at Conkers costs £32.95, the family outdoor pursuits day costs £120 for four people, including a choice of three activities, lunch, refreshments and entrance to Conkers for the day.