The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Workshop report

18 March 2017

The Clearing

Workshop 1 - Build A Fire

Our first workshop was BUILD A FIRE, and aimed to teach people how to start fires with pre- and post-industrial techniques, once a lighter full of butane is worth a night with Kate Moss (or future equivalent).

The workshop was led by our very own Tom James, and local bushcraft expert and educator Matt Cox. Attendees included six men, five women, one boy. One person arrived by bike, pushing it into The Clearing through the gate, which was very future. Five Clearing points.

We began with the history of fire (basically reading this article out from Wikipedia, and wondering aloud at the technology we’ve created, that can tell us about the Wonderwerk Cave site, instantly on the edge of a lake in a stately home). We talked about our mutual friend Otzi, an ancient human who was discovered, mummified in ice near the Austrian village of the same name, with a kit containing exactly the stuff we'd be using today.

The rest of the workshop was split in two.

In the morning, we started with the post-industrial stuff – how to build a fire using things you’d find in the streets of Birmingham, Coventry, or gritty Leamington Spa. Wooden stirrers from Costa, copies of the Metro for tinder, fruit crates from Spain and now-pointless bank statements would be good places to start. But how to light it?

Enter flint and steel. The steel is easy – it has to be carbon steel, so look for any tools with a sharp edge that are now rusty. Old files from toolboxes in suburban sheds are a good call. Flint is harder to find in the midlands. Here’s a map of where it occurs naturally. Find chalk and you can find flint. (All the flint we used today was sourced from Brighton Beach. Maybe get a seaside trip in before the apocalypse?)

You’ll also need something called char-cloth, which is basically material that’s been cooked without oxygen, so that it’s super carbonised, and can take a spark. Here’s a video on how to make it. Don’t do it indoors. We’d already made some, earlier in the morning, on real fires. Ten Clearing points.

To use flint and steel, do the following.
1. Smash the flint open, with a hammer, to reveal the sharp, glassy edges inside.
2. Hold the striker in a pincer grip, between fore-finger and thumb.
3. Hold the char-cloth on top of the flint, a few mm away from the sharp edge.
4. Strike down with the striker, against the sharp edges of the flint, almost going past it. A glancing blow.
5. Sparks will fly.
6. With time, and practice, some of those sparks will land on the char-cloth, and start glowing orange. This is the ember.
7. Put the glowing char-cloth inside your tinder (cotton wool from a smashed-in Boots, or dry grasses, both work equally well).
8. Cup the lot between your hands.
9. Blow

It takes a while to get it right, but suddenly everyone around you is doing this:

Congratulations. You've made fire.

Lunchtime. Lunch was a revelation. We hadn’t thought anyone would actually bring anything to share. People had made tonnes. Everyone was generous. It worked.

In the afternoon, Matt Cox demonstrated a pre-industrial method: the bow-drill. In which a hard piece of wood (the drill, made out of willow, hazel or ash) is pushed down into another hard piece of wood (the hearth, made out of ash) and spun. The bow is spun into pre-cut holes, which have little notches where the ember can fall down onto some material below. The spinning and the downward motion creates friction, and rubs off pieces of the wood, which creates heat, which creates fire. The bow drill started smoking at his feet. Magic.

We did it in groups of three. Two pressing down on the drill. One spinning. It was hard, frustrating, tiring. Matt introduced us to natural tinders – birch bark and King Alfred’s Cake in particular, again to help take the spark. That made it easier. The Clearing filled up with smoke, again. Everyone stank. I still stink.

Finally, we lit the main fire in the middle of The Clearing, too eagerly, rushing, going too fast. We started again. We talked about speed, about taking our time. We talked about whether we thought it would happen, this thing that surrounds us at The Clearing. We learnt how to sharpen our axes. We learnt how to chop wood. We learnt how to help each other get the fire going.

We talked about survivalists and preppers, sitting in woods in America, talking in clichés into their GoPros, and how the thing they’re missing, the most vital thing for survival, is community. We talked about the books in the library, inside the dome, about Riddley Walker and The Drowned World and Always Coming Home in particular, and how the vision of the future in that book is the most inspiring we’ve read so far.

We were going to cook potatoes on the fire, but everyone was still full after lunch. So we toasted some bread, heated up some of the leftover beans in their tins, and shared them around.

Congratulations everyone. We made it. End of workshop. Destiny's Child plays over the credits.

Matt is coming back for OUR DAILY BREAD PART ONE, on Saturday 20th May.