Campfires and dangerous dens: simple pleasures for boys
When the boys were small, they were pleasingly uninterested in computer games. Even when their uncle gave them on old Playstation and some games which his son had outgrown, the boys left it all languishing in a shoebox after a couple of goes. I foolishly allowed myself a moment of smugness.
I can’t remember when the change came, but it was probably about two seconds after they went to play at a schoolfriend’s house and spent the entire afternoon with him glued to a screen, blasting monsters. A year ago we sat down for a family conference to reach a consensus on permissible screen time. The agreement worked well at first, but it’s amazing how minutes shrink in piano practice or French revision, yet stretch to extraordinarily languid lengths when taken up with zombie-killing on Minecraft. Thank goodness we have dogs to walk, or I sometimes wonder whether the children would ever get outside at all.
The trick is, of course, to
order encourage them outside in the first place. As often as not, once out in the fresh air they decide to stay there after walking the dogs, to ride their bikes/ play on the swings/ kick a ball about. Some recent gifts have been invaluable in helping this attitude. My younger son was given an exciting-looking box by his Godfather last Christmas, which proved to his delight to be a ‘Dangerous Den Kit’. It contains all sorts of things to give over-imaginative mothers the vapours: some lengths of rope, a heavy mallet, a saw, fire-lighting instructions and so on. Over a busy summer, however, the planned dangerous den never quite materialised.
An event at the start of September made all the difference. We hosted a historical re-enactment weekend inspired by the connection between a past laird and the American West (a long story worthy of its own post, so I won’t go into it here). Some of the re-enactors, members of the association of American Mountain Men, made a camp in our woods: an admirably simple set-up, with shelters made from canvas stretched over bent boughs and a campfire set in an earthen hollow, the fire started with flint and tinder. They are men with a deep knowledge and respect for the woods and the wild, whose survival skills fascinated the boys (and the adults too). At the end of the weekend, they asked if we would like the fire pit and shelter frames left up for the boys, and we jumped at the chance. A camp in the woods, made by real, live, buckskin-clad Mountain Men from the Rockies – how cool is that?
At odd moments throughout the autumn weekends, then, the boys have slipped off into the woods to tinker with their camp. The shelters have been re-covered with canvas and bracken, and have been reclaimed for the home country with a British flag on each. I have left the boys to it, determinedly not thinking about the fact that my babies were out there with a saw, a mallet, an excess of energy and a limited amount of common sense. Then a package arrived from the States: a flint and fire steel for each of the boys, a thoughtful present from one of the Mountain Men. Fire was all that had been lacking. Again, I decided not to interfere. Cue a blissful day playing in the woods, inspired by dreams of being a Mountain Boy.
No harm befell the boys in their ‘Dangerous Den’, just a lot of fun. Towards the end of the afternoon, however, it became clear that we still have a looong way to go in the outdoor survival skills department. We had not made any tinder and, without it, the boys were unable to get a spark smouldering from their flints. A certain amount of adult intervention was required to revive the flagging spirit of the camp. Daddy set off with a box of matches (don’t tell the Mountain Men) and a packet of marshmallows, while I busied myself myself gathering some other essential provisions in the
By the time I reached the camp a while later, it was a place of pure happiness. The boys and Daddy were half way through the packet of marshmallows, toasting them over a good hot campfire. From my basket I produced some windfall apples, a flask of hot chocolate and a sticky chocolate cake, which proved to be, well, the icing on the cake as far as morale was concerned. It was all we needed for a camp to become a feast.
The afternoon was mild and still, despite being mid-October. We sat around the campfire, toasting the last of the marshmallows over the embers and warming our hands on tin mugs of cinnamon-dusted hot chocolate. Above us, the sky in the clearing darkened as dusk fell. A skein of geese flew high overhead; from the bracken, cock pheasants crowed their evening announcements. A little breeze got up, blowing the woodsmoke about and sending sparks flying in the cooling air. We licked the last of the cake crumbs from our fingers before packing up and smooring the fire, covering it over with earth. Romantic though the idea of sleeping under the stars seemed, there was school to think about in the morning and warm dry beds on offer back in the house.
You just can’t beat food eaten outside, round a campfire, shared with people you love. It didn’t matter that we have not yet mastered the art of flint-and-tinder firelighting. As we set off towards the lights of home, my younger son could not stop beaming.
‘Can I tell you something?,’ he asked, pulling at my smoke-scented sleeve.
‘What is it, sweetie?’
‘This has definitely been my absolute best afternoon ever in the whole of my life – so far!’
And not a computer game in sight.