It was 8oC and it was hammering it down. Yet here I was, fully gortexed-up, barefoot on a beach on Orkney and heading for the sea. After a lifetime of stomping about the countryside in hiking boots, walking barefoot is a strange, but bizarrely enjoyable, experience. “Walking barefoot is a metaphor for how we should treat our environment,” explained our guide for the day, Malcolm Handoll from Five Senses, who had just persuaded us to throw off our socks and shoes and head down to the rocky, seaweed-covered beach in the rain. “It teaches you to tread carefully and engage with nature rather than trample all over it.” It also teaches you that that’s no stranger sensation than feeling bubbles of bladderwrack between your toes and, more conclusively, that when you’re at a latitude parallel with St Petersburg, the sea is painfully cold.
Back in the house, our numb feet began to thaw as we wrapped our hands around a mug of hot tea and watched as Malcolm demonstrated how the Neolithic people of Orkney made fire. After a quick lesson, which was interrupted when a hen harrier hovered inches from the window (wildlife always finds you when you’re least expecting it), it was our turn to create nature’s more basic yet elusive element.
First we constructed a tinder nest by tying a tight knot of dried grass, thumbing it out into a cup-shape and lining it with cotton grass. We then crouched over a long, flat piece of wood with an indentation and a notch, while Malcolm wound a wooden spindle into a primitive bow made from a branch and a rope. I clamped the wood with my newly-thawed foot, steadied the spindle with my left hand (using two limpet shells as a bearing) and held the bow with my right, while my friend Rachel grasped the other end of the bow. The idea was to push and pull the bow, thus spinning the spindle and creating enough friction to generate heat. It was trickier than it looked, but after a few wobbly attempts we saw smoke – lovely thick curls of smoke as the charred dust fell onto a piece of goat skin under the notch. After letting this smoke happily away to itself for a few minutes we gingerly tipped the embers into our tinder nests. Cupping our hands around our nests we then blew gently until the smoke grew thicker and a orange glow appeared. “This is it,” whispered Malcolm, “now take one deep breath and blow gently at first, then harder…” We did as we were told and within seconds were holding our very own flaming ball of fire in our hands. It was a truly a magical moment, exhilarating but a little bit scary. After much whooping we dropped the flaming nest and extinguished our handiwork in one quick step. Strangely satisfied, we were left babbling and smiley and smelling nicely of campfires.
Visit www.allfivesenses.com or wait for the August issue of the magazine to find read more…
Sat, 02/05/2009 – 23:42
Submitted by Joanna Tinsley
Go to BBC Countryfile Blog for more of Joanna’s adventures in Orkney.