Tuesday, 21 December 2010

To begin at the beginning ...

There were the birds, the bees, nappies, school, measles, digging holes, eating dirt, grass stains and cut knees. I was a child of the seventies and I wanted to be either a naturalist, an archaeologist, a spy or a vampire hunter. My natural state was filthy, I ate black berries, wild strawberries and violets; the only edibles I could positively identify and I was not into TV. I was destined for a career outdoors, no doubt about it.

My most prized possession was a set of so called 'survival binoculars', which had an integrated compass and could be used for all manner of exciting outdoor activity. They could be folded and fit neatly into my pocket. I took it everywhere, just in case. Later, my dad bought me a pocket knife; it was very sharp. This, together with my folding binoculars, some string, a couple of dirty plasters, a Duracel torch and a water bottle, with a camouflage case, became my essential outdoor adventuring kit. I needed nothing more.
I became interested in the world of survival through Combat and Survival magazine, a biweekly publication aimed at adventurous young teens which detailed many aspects of weaponry, tactics, self defence and survival skills. My mother thought it a was a waste of money, but to me, it was the most excellent reading.

In 1986, Lofty Wiseman published The SAS Survival Handbook. I was 13 at the time and this was the book I had been waiting for all of my childhood. It had everything and I tried it all. I built shelters, traps, a bow, another bow, spears, bolas, fires ... well, anyone who owns the book knows how many things there are to try. I particularly remember spending the best part of a day with my dad making fire by friction, but I was elated (and blistered) when we succeeded. I made my first survival kit using one of my dad's old tobacco tins and as much of the equipment specified in the book which I could practically get hold of. I took everywhere, just in case.

That book piqued my interest in the outdoors. I went on every school trip made available to me including my first experience of  the Lake District, which I've loved ever since. I felt a sense of confidence out there because I knew that if it all went wrong, I had my trusty survival kit and the skills I had learnt in the garden and down the park. I used my first water treatment tablets and my classmates were fascinated. The water tasted awful, but it was clean and they all wanted a go. I'd brought the book with me and we stayed up late into the night planning what traps we could make to ensnare the teachers the next day.

I'm not entirely sure what happened next, but it involved a Commodore 64 and a lots of maths. I was a bit of loner and subsequently managed to find myself embroiled in the world of computers which ultimately led to university, a career, a mortgage and what appeared to be 'real life'. I still maintained an interest in the outdoors, enjoying what now seems irregular trips outdoors whilst concentrating on career, family and the acquisition of things. How regrettable that existence now feels.

After too many years, I moved to sunny Devon having holidayed there some years before. It was a part down size and part lifestyle change. I became passionate about the sea, got back into sailing and started spending a lot more time outdoors again; indulging my love for hiking and camping wherever possible. After years of striving for wealth, I turned my mind to matters less stressful and much more enjoyable.

I joined the RNLI as a volunteer crewman, graduated Lifeboat College at Poole and did my first work with helicopters; a childhood dream. Lifeboat shouts gave me the perfect 'out' from IT work. I enjoyed the escape, the adrenaline and the camaraderie. I've been with the service seven years now and seen a good few shouts. The RNLI has taught me many skills I would otherwise have not had access to. I'm being examined as a helmsman in January, so watch this space for further news.

Still trying to avoid IT, I taught maths at a village school. I rekindled my love for teaching, which was far more fun than software engineering. I also took a job cooking in a wholefood café for a summer. It paid bugger all, but I loved it. I felt like I needed a total change from computing. I was good at what I did and it paid well, but I was becoming more and more disenchanted with it. I was doing just enough to pay the bills in order that I could spend more time outdoors. Something had to give.

I moved to the coast, took up shooting & fishing again and partook of  such culinary pleasures as fresh mackerel, sea bass, crab, lobster, venison, rabbit and the occasional brace of pheasant, as the village is part of a shooting estate. I started looking in to edible wild plants and was soon dishing up wild garlic, sea beet and Alexanders, a plant found mostly in coastal regions. Life was sweeter, but IT was still a thorn in my side.
I started taking an interest in Ray Mears and hooked up with the Westcountry Bushcraft community. I really started slimming down my camping gear and got back in touch with the old skills. My daughter started joining me on trips out and practising the skills she'd learnt at Forest School, which she'd done at her Primary. I met an abundance of excellent people who were passionate about knowledge sharing. I noted that Bushcraft schools were popping up all over the country; I even considered starting one myself. I looked back at my career in IT and wished it away in an instant. If only I'd followed my heart and gone into an outdoor career instead. The regret was painful.

What happened next was next was part luck, part balls and another part luck. Having dusted of Lofty's book to remind me of a few thing, I looked into finding out if he'd had a school. I managed to find its modern incarnation, Trueways Survival. Though he didn't do field work any more, the ethos and skills set that were being taught were straight from his own teachings and I'd decided to go on a three day course. I packed nothing but the kit list and headed on up to see what it was all about.

It transpired that I was quite overqualified for a weekend course. It's not that I learnt nothing, but working with book and spending a lot of time outdoors had taught me a lot of the skills being used. It was good to have a it all crystallised into a unit, but I'd definitely picked the wrong length. I decided to have a word with the instructor.

"So, how much experience does one need to start working in this field?", I asked Glyn David, who it turned out was lead instructor for the company. He explained that there was no qualification outside of the military and that I should come and do some assistant work for him and see how it goes. It appeared that I had inadvertently asked for a job and had been given an opportunity, an opportunity I was not going to let slip. This was 'dream job' territory and I wanted it, badly.

I didn't need to chase Glyn as much as I expected, it was the following week that he rung me and invited me to Aberdeen to assist on a coastal survival course her was giving there. I clearly performed well as I was invited back to assist on a couple more courses before being asked to take up an internship with them. Only a year after taking the course I was offered a job as an instructor taking courses all over the country.

Steve Marvell - Survival Instructor

I've been working as an instructor for a full year now and have never looked back. It really is the best career move I've ever made and I'm sticking with it. I can't think of anything better than getting paid to build dens and make fires.

Being a survival instructor is not all about going out and teaching the same patter over and over again, the people make sure each course is unique.There is also research to be done, lesson plans to write and new locations & courses to develop. Of course, with an IT background, I get asked to do the odd tweak here and there, but I don't mind, it's just a small part of a bigger picture for me. I'm still constantly learning, but then Lofty has always said that after 26 years of active service, he was still learning, so I don't feel bad.

I love my job and so I've decided to write about it. It's not going to be a manual, rather a collection of observations, experiences, anecdotes and other words which mean the same thing. I hope you will enjoy that which is to come and feel free to comment or contact me directly with questions.

For those who skipped to the end, including you Glyn, I promise that the rest of the posts will not be so long.

Bye for now ...

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