At midnight on a Friday, in the Parc Le Breos woodland, I'm laying in a hammock under a thin sheet of tarpaulin. I'm cocooned in four layers of clothing—two of them thermal—but the eerie, cold breeze that crosses my face is still enough to chill me to the bone. I'm on a survival and foraging course in the Gower region of South Wales near Swansea, and it's the first time I've ever slept in the woods.
Under their own makeshift shelters, Andrew Price, a bushcraft expert and foraging enthusiast, and Kate Hawarth, a herbalist who lives off-grid in a cabin in the forest (but not this forest; another forest that's now become rather upmarket, and she doesn't think much of that) are close by. Known for presenting Coast and Country on ITV Wales, Price is a bit of a Welsh TV celeb and, judging by his YouTube videos, is a little fonder of knives than most people. He's honed his bushcraft skills by hanging out with tribes and survival specialists all over the world in places as far apart as Sweden and Malaysia.
The term "bushcraft" only came into popular use during the early 2000s. Before that, activities in the wild were simply known as "survival skills." Foraging is a huge part of bushcraft; being able to source food independently without getting really ill is pretty important, whether you're on a nature holiday or living in a post-apocalyptic world full of zombies à la The Walking Dead.
"Of course, there's the possibility that for one reason or another, the ability to identify and collect wild foods could be a lifesaver in a survival situation," Price says as we wander through the woodland. This survivalist vibe—somewhere between being at one with nature and preparing for impending doom—lasts throughout my time in the forest.
Bushcraft and foraging have been pretty niche up to this point, though TV personalities like Bear Grylls and Ray Mears have contributed to a growing interest in these areas. Even the starkest of urbanites are starting to venture into the countryside and get down 'n' dirty with nature. Through his company, Dryad Bushcraft, Price spends most of his time teaching survival skills to those on family holidays, corporate team-building workshops, and girl scout weekends. His clients are diverse to say the least.
"Interest in bushcraft tends to fluctuate. I think a lot of it is influenced by what's popular on TV at the time," he says. "Some years we run a lot of foraging and wilderness gourmet courses, and others are more geared towards general survival training and preparing for disasters."
The first lesson of foraging seems to be that the cuisine of a post-apocalyptic world involves a lot of foliage. We pick primroses, dandelion leaves, wood sorrel, and a handful of other things from the roughage, all of which can be eaten raw and used to make wild salad. Hawarth the herbalist knows what's good to dry or infuse, so we pull up nettles, burdock roots, and dandelions to use for tea-making too. There are a lot more weeds involved than I had bargained for.
Next, we're tasked with gathering nettles and wild garlic for the soup. We're not allowed to wear gloves for nettle-picking, Price tells us, and we need to check every leaf carefully to make sure it's wild garlic and not a toxic plant called "lords-and-ladies" that grows right next to it. No pressure, then. Stung fingertips and toxin-related bouts of paranoia later, we manage to collect a sturdy Tesco bag full of plant. Now we just have to hope that none of it kills us.
A few miles away at Oxwich Bay, we walk the length of the coastline collecting mussels, periwinkles (sea snails, if you're not a familiar), and seaweed in tin buckets. Soaked-through boots and a moral dilemma over whether the sea creatures can feel me ripping them from the rocks make for an emotional experience but one that is inevitably forgotten by the time we're scooping the innards out of mussel shells at dinnertime.
Our starter of nettle and wild garlic soup is ready quickly, and it's delicious. Wild garlic is a kind of garlic-flavoured lettuce, but with a much fresher taste than the regular variety. The nettles are fragrant and strong in flavour, giving the soup an earthy, comfort-food tone. The meal is a real winner, so much so that I decide it was probably worth the critically stung fingers. A quick rinse of the pan and it's back to work cooking the main course. Mussels and sea snails are soaked in a sauce of wild garlic, white wine, and cream (the latter two items not foraged, given the lack of cows to hand and no time to wait for grapes to ferment).
As Price stirs the pot over naked flames, I wonder how he got into this line of work and whether he's always been so at ease fending for himself in the woods.
"My interest in the outdoors and foraging started when I was very young," he explains. "I remember my grandfather showing me where to collect mussels and periwinkles under Mumbles Pier when I was about six years old."
But it's not just outdoorsy types in coastal or rural locations that are getting excited about foraging. Mark Hix also values the freshness and healthiness of foraged foods, which is why they feature on his fine dining menus.
"I've been keen on foraging since the early days of my career when Italian waiters used to bring baskets of ceps [a type of mushroom] into the hotel, foraged from Wimbledon Common," he tells me. Hix also notes that after a long time, the British public is finally coming around to the idea of wild foods.
"Foraging is definitely gaining in popularity. They've been doing it on the Continent for generations, but we've always shied away from it," he explains. "I can't see why, some of the tastiest vegetables and herbs that are in season now grow wild on our doorsteps and on our coastlines."
After surviving my night in the woods, I wake up to a semi-foraged breakfast: seaweed-infused scrambled eggs, bacon, Welsh flatbread, and wild salad. The standout flavour is definitely the seaweed, a variety called Pepper Dulse that tastes like truffles and mushrooms.
We say our goodbyes and by the time I pull into a Swansea service station, unwashed and in need of caffeine, I feel better prepared for the zombie apocalypse, but really fucking glad to see a Costa.