An exclusive audience in the Surrey woods with the world's most respected bushcraft expert on what makes British hills special and why we all need wilderness...
On 3 July 2010 a 37-year-old panel beater from Newcastle shot dead his ex-girlfriend and her lover hours after being released from prison. Disappearing armed into the forests of Northumbria, he sparked a police manhunt and a massive media storm. The fugitive was Raoul Moat. And the man who went to find him was Ray Mears.
The reason for Mears’ involvement in this notoriously public incident was simple: Moat had become lost in a shadowy world where conventional methods to find him had failed. At the time Mears, by his own admission, was ‘on top of his game’ when it came to the skill of forest tracking, where Moat had gone to ground. But there was a delay in the decision to accept the famous bushcraft expert’s quiet offer of help, during which police unknowingly trampled the signs of passage – clothing fibres, kicked-over rocks, rest depressions – Mears was so eager to utilise. But to police high command, in the face of SWAT teams, alsatian dogs, air support and media glower – maybe the twig inspecting of an TV outdoorsman seemed last-ditch. As Mears himself later stated, his involvement was initially “too obscure an idea for them to live with”. But involved he became.
Some might see the episode as a raw analogy of Mears’ career: regressive-tech, in a progressive-tech world. That’s what he’s all about, right? Believe that, and you’re totally missing the point.
“I am a traditionalist in some ways, but in some ways not,” he tells Trail. “Bushcraft, as I explore it, is a hybrid. I will take the best of the old and the best of the new and bring them together.” Huge-scale manhunts aside, what you might call Ray Mears’ niche is deeply whittled in the public consciousness: earnest, khaki-clad, gentle, a man whose rustic resourcefulness has no limit. But however you perceive what he does, this man is credibility made human: considered, intensely focused, and as hard as nails.
Born in Surrey 51 years ago, at age seven Mears accidentally ripped a page out of an encyclopedia featuring an image of cavemen. Allowed to keep the page, the image ignited the fascination that defined his life. The Ray Mears we know founded Woodlore School of Bushcraft 30 years ago, after he was deemed unsuitable for the Royal Marines on account of poor eyesight. In the years since he presented a string of TV shows, penned a dozen books, and memorably introduced superfan Ewan McGregor to the gruelling Honduran rainforest. He also survived a serious helicopter crash, a 16-year struggle with Lyme disease, the tragic loss of his first wife Rachel, and Raoul Moat, among other things. This May he is giving back-to-back presentations at the Keswick Mountain Festival. So, as a man whose specialism – by his own admission – is forests, you might expect his view of the British mountains to be appraising, but generic. But apparently not.
“The British mountains carry such a special quality. It’s a feeling for me. And a rawness. They’ve kind of lost their teeth compared to, say, the Alps. But there’s something else about the mountains here. It’s the tightening of the wind on your skin, and the golden light that follows clouds across the hills. They’re very poetic.”
He thinks about this, then continues. “I’ve always liked to stop on a mountain, and to watch a kestrel from above it... to enjoy the privilege of that elevated view of nature. But I’m not into challenging mountains, or conquering them. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against people racing up and down things. I did plenty of that when I was younger. But I think my view on mountains has matured as I have. They mean more to me now.
“And all of our mountain areas are quite different to each other,” he continues. “I love the west coast. Places like Knoydart, right up high, where you’re walking across stones that tilt and tip and sound like a glockenspiel when you step on them – I love that. And I love the sense of travel when you get up on a ridge.
“Mountains are also a very rugged environment for wildlife. That’s the thing I think is sometimes missing from mountaineering – the sense of the nature of the place. I think perhaps because we have such busy lives, and we have to kind of crowbar opportunities to go to places like this, there is a tendency to not allow ourselves to just wander, and just let the hill pull us along and the subconscious dictate our journey.”
His philosophical roots don’t lie exclusively outdoors, either. He cites Kingsley Hopkins, a World War Two Far East survivor, as his mentor and – rather importantly – the person who introduced him to the outdoors. When the young Mears told the older man he didn’t have the kit, the response was, he didn’t need it. Hopkins was all about “maximising efficiency, minimising effort” – and as a man he had “a steeliness to him, but also a gentleness that emanated from his very core”. But initially he had another, more official role in Mears’ overall outlook: Kingsley Hopkins was his judo instructor. Which, for all its seemingly fringe relevance, actually forms the bedrock of Mears’ ideology.
Much of the praise Mears heaps upon the philosophy of judo – its requisite hardiness, cerebral and physical technique, use of surroundings to your advantage, the adaptation of ancient skill into modern contexts – are interchangeable with that of bushcraft. In judo, as his mentor had it, the aim is to not have to use the skills.
But hang on: that works for survival skills as well, doesn’t it? Nobody wants to have to use those. “Let me give you a perspective on the word survival,” he says. “You won’t hear me use it very much. If I’m talking to members of the armed forces I will almost certainly be talking to them about survival. And they will know exactly what I’m talking about as they will have visualised the sort of situation where that information could be of use.
“What’s difficult for outdoor pursuitists in the UK to understand is there are still places big enough for people to get into trouble – really big trouble – very easily.” Mears recounts arriving to guide a canoe expedition in Canada two years ago and learning that an experienced solo traveller had become lost in the bush. “And he wouldn’t be rescued for three months. So there is a survival aspect to what I do, and it is relevant, and important, but it needs to be put in proper context. It’s not a game, it’s not a gameshow; it’s a grown-up subject which involves very serious decisions. And I try to teach those skills under appropriate circumstances.”
Some TV survivalists teach you how not to die on the off-chance you find yourself in a rough place; Mears is more interested in teaching you how to live in that rough place – which by default covers you on that off-chance. It’s a subtle difference, but critical: like being given the choice of taking an Elastoplast in case you get a cut, or developing skin too tough to bleed. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Mears says he has never had to rely on his skills for actual survival. It’s all just about perspective, which Mears pithily sums up. “I’ve managed to avoid it. What might be ‘survival’ for one person is for another ‘living’.”
Preferred environments for said ‘living’ are wooded places. A favourite is the boreal forest – the massive northwoods that stretch around the northern hemisphere and through which, “if there wasn’t water, you could walk to Japan”. So does wilderness have to be huge? “When you’re in a very large expanse of wilderness, there is a different thing that occurs. It’s more intense. When I go into the boreal forest, what I don’t see is a place with lots of trees. I see a lot of trees that make up one place. It’s like one organ with many, many smaller parts. And when you travel in those places you are just a cog in a very ancient, much larger machine, and you have to learn to fit in.”
This in mind, then, how does Britain measure up? “It’s still wild. Firstly there are still corners of Britain which I would describe as wilderness, though not many. But in a second sense, if you go into the backstreets of London, and look into a garden that’s not been maintained, you’ll find sycamore trees coming up and starting to push the walls down. The urban landscape is just a temporary modification of what is ultimately a wild landscape.”
Mears doesn’t dislike cities. A journalist once made cheap fun of the fact he looked uncomfortable in a street and a shirt – ridiculous when you consider that he was born in London and once held a job in the City. But it is in urbania that he sees the perceived value of wild places at its lowest curve. “When we’re in wild places we feel our shoulders spread a little. It’s easy for us to be benevolent, empathetic,” he says. “But many aspects of our cities have the opposite effect, and make us feel smaller, more selfish. I think that has a negative aspect on humanity. Wild places remind us of who we are.”
A spectre of nature less welcome in Mears’ life has been Lyme disease, contracted after a tick bite. “I had an incredibly bad back for 16 years. I don’t now, and I’m very grateful.” Reflecting on the irony of a man so enthusiastic about wilderness succumbing to one of its maladies, he’s pragmatic. “Nature’s not good or bad, it just is. Despite not being able to exercise and being more overweight because of it, I’ve still been able to do all of these things.”
A big part of Mears’ career has concerned those who remain living in wild places – be they Inuit, Siberian woodsmen, or the desert people of southern Africa. Having learned from them, then lived among the western flipside, preserving traditional skills must seem to him a struggle against an imminent, sad demise.
“‘Sad’ is the romantic view. People say we’re entering a photographic dark age because all our images are on disk, and what if you lose a hard drive with ten years of your life on it? Well, imagine that we lose 60,000 years of knowledge. But it’s not so much the skills but the experience of having relied on them that is lost. If you go to the Kalahari you can go out with bushmen, and they have the full range of skills. But the difference between them and their grandfathers is that their grandfathers absolutely had to rely on those skills.”
Back, then, to 2010. Those dark Northumbria woods, and Raoul Moat. The outcome was hardly happy: Moat, after a lengthy stand-off, shot himself. But here’s the thing: within 8 hours of entering the trees, Mears identified evidence of Moat’s movements, a sleeping place and a trail he’d tried to conceal. He believes he got within 20 metres. And Moat’s emergence into the open immediately afterwards was probably a direct outcome. He’d been tracked, and flushed, using skills thousands of years old. And therein, surely, lies a lesson for us all. “You know, there are wisdoms that are often overlooked because the people who are the conduits for that wisdom look primitive,” Mears says. “And yet some of their wisdom is incredibly sophisticated. It may yet have importance to all of our welfare.”
INTERVIEW: SIMON INGRAM