Is there a boy in the world who has not thrilled to the adventures of Bear Grylls? Who has not felt his pulse quicken as TV’s Born Survivor (aka Man vs Wild in the US) bounds through another hostile landscape? Who has not winced as the world’s Chief Scout snacks on insects, grubs and raw flesh as he Does What It Takes To Survive?
Yes there is. Such a boy exists. He lives with me and his name is Thomas. My 12-year-old son is an aficionado of deadly situations, but of the virtual variety. His preferred adversaries are Minecraft zombies and Team Fortress bad boys, not hunger, thirst and exposure.
This may be a good thing, a sign of civilisation’s progress, but it may be a bad thing too. Surely a boy needs exercise, the great outdoors – a bit of Bear spirit? Yet when I dangle the prospect of a hearty country walk, it is not snapped up. When I suggest that he should lose that gamer pallor, unhappy discussions ensue. It is drawn to my attention that, as a bookworm-turned-desk-jockey, I should keep my opinions to myself.
So the Bear Grylls Survival Academy sounded worth a shot. A new venture under the big man’s brand, it promises to teach the basics of survival in the wild. Courses for adults were launched last year in the Scottish Highlands but now Grylls is turning his attention to families.
“As a father of three young boys I love sharing my survival techniques and going on family adventures together,” Grylls says on the website. “It is not only exciting and fun but teaches them useful life and outdoor skills and what it really means to look after yourself when the chips are down.” Or the silicon chips, I thought.
Participants – up to six parent-child duos – learn about navigation, foraging, firemaking and other self-rescue necessities. They build a shelter and sleep in it overnight. Though Grylls doesn’t actually teach in person, the academy insists he has designed the courses, and that the leaders are drawn from his “close team of highly-trained experts”. What better way to prise a lad from his PC?
Grylls’ Discovery Channel expeditions involve helicopter drops into trackless tundra or unmapped rainforest. This one meant a train journey from London Waterloo to Haslemere in Surrey, then a taxi to a wooded estate near the Downs. Of course, any truly remote academy would never get the trade but the contrast still felt silly. The basics of survival in the stockbroker belt are a mobile phone and a minicab number. Bear wouldn’t have to run very far before he hit an A-road or a spa hotel. (Those recalling a muckraking exposé of 2007 would add that he would book in there as a matter of course anyway; but the BGSA staff firmly insisted that Grylls was no faker.)
As the weekend approached, my insouciance waned. The weather forecast was dire: unseasonable cold, wind and rain. My FT colleagues started to look at me with pity. On Saturday, as the train whisked Thomas and me down to Surrey, I noticed that the tops of the Downs were suffused in low cloud, an effect I shudderingly associated with childhood holidays in the Scottish Highlands. I did not mention this to Thomas.
But Survival Academy began gently enough, in a big bland corporate function room, complete with flip chart, in the estate offices. Sandwiches, crisps and soft drinks were served. If this was survival, it was the sort I was used to. I chatted with my fellow participants – four adults and four children whose size, given the 10-17 age range, varied from smaller than Thomas to taller than me.
I also met the instructors, Scott, John and Bruce. Grey-fleeced (with BG logo), stout-booted, crop-haired and weathered, they looked reassuringly the part – even their names carried no syllabic flab. Lead instructor Scott, it turned out, was a former Royal Marine who did the safety checks for Grylls on location, a job he must be good at given that Grylls still has all his limbs. He was certainly impressive here, instructing, chivvying, bantering, anecdoting and enthusing with a kind of infectious indefatigability: a Born Preserver, perhaps.
Lunch over, we put hats, gloves and spare clothes into our BG-branded rucksacks, threw in our BG-branded water bottles, attached our BG-branded knives – if you didn’t know whose Survival Academy this was, you’d soon twig – and set off into the chilly, squelchy woods. Scott advised us to abandon any hope of staying clean and dry. No point in those tentative steps you do to avoid slipping and tumbling over. There was ground to cover and we’d cover it like Bear. More: we’d cover it looking like Bear, with mud on our faces to blend in with the terrain. Probably this wasn’t strictly necessary but it felt liberating to smear it on – it also felt rather cold, and later dry and stiff.
Every so often we would pause among the dripping pines to be instructed: how to find north; how to know how far you’ve gone, on the flat and on a slope. Also what to eat, which is not an awful lot in Surrey woodland in mid-March. Anticipating this, our leaders had brought along some mealworms for us to try: “gross eats” are a Grylls forte. Really, it was another icebreaker. I was surprised to see Thomas, a culinary conservative, munching one of the tasty little grubs.
By late afternoon we reached our camp for the night, a patch of ground you would normally pass without a glance but was, we could now see, quick with survival virtues: about halfway up the valley side, not too far from and not too close to the river, sheltered from the wind, more or less level. Here, as the light faded, we threw together a shelter for the children, with low log walls, joists of long straight branches or fallen saplings, roof of plastic sheet and pine brushwood. And walls of brushwood. And floor. Everything brushwood: ever so cosy.
Our leaders, meanwhile, had got a great fire going and a kettle boiling; the shelter finished, we perched on logs beside the blaze and sipped sweet, milky tea from aluminium canteens as sparks gushed into the night sky and more knowledge was imparted: how to make a fire (Thomas instantly outdid me at striking sparks from the flint supplied with the BG knife); how to navigate by the stars; how to make and set snares; how to skin, gut and cook the resultant rabbit – a bloodily practical demonstration that yielded a gamey hors d’oeuvre to a main course of chicken and veg à la stock cube. All delicious, of course: there’s no relish like hunger, with cold air and woodsmoke stirred in.
At around 10pm the children turned in, carefully manoeuvring off their muddy boots and outer layers and slipping into their BG sleeping bags in their brushwood bunker – five mega-meal worms in a row. Actually, though there was something absurd about the ubiquitous branding (the man plainly has a range to shift), the kit did its job: those bags remained deliciously warm, even as the temperature dipped near zero. They even worked well under the plastic sheet that was the parents’ minimalist shelter – no brushwood luxury for us. But it was morning before I knew it.
Breakfast was army field rations – carb-laden foil packets of sausagey-beany glop warmed in clever little self-heating bags – washed down with more sweet tea. Then we embarked on another soggy fugue of training, this time big on ways of crossing water – by fallen tree trunk, by rope, by just wading through, knee-deep and hang the sloshing boots. Thomas did not balk: how I admired my boy.
It all culminated in a chest-deep crossing of a lake, excruciatingly, amazingly cold. The bed was a kind of indeterminate cloud of ooze through which we half-trudged, half-swam, before hauling our stunned and sodden selves up the bank and into the two waiting Land Rovers that would carry us back to where we started, to hot tea and dry clothes. What the survival point was escapes me – is there anyone who thinks it would be anything other than balls-achingly best-avoided? – but it was a blast. And it delivered on Grylls’ have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough motto for the academy: “It may hurt a little.”
In truth, the weekend delivered in more intangible ways. Back home, I felt weary but exhilarated, info-pummelled but vigorous, competent. Thomas admitted that he had not expected the weekend to be so good: high praise.
Within minutes of his return, he was immersed again in his virtual domains but he still proudly wore the mud on his face. There’s life in the old real world yet.
Neville Hawcock is the FT’s deputy arts editor
Neville and Thomas Hawcock were guests of the Bear Grylls Survival Academy (www.beargryllssurvivalacademy.com), which runs 24-hour family courses and 48-hour adult courses in Surrey and five-day adult courses in Scotland, as well as corporate team-building courses. The family course costs £398 for two (one adult and one child aged 10–17), including accommodation and food but not transport