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The Christine Smith Interview - Ray Mears: I will survive; WHEN BUSHCRAFT GURU RAY SAYS LUNCH AT THE IVY .. HE MEANS AN IVY CLUMP IN A SWAMP.

Byline: Christine Smith

WHEN Ray Mears proposes lunch at The Ivy, I immediately accept. It's not long before I regret my hastiness.

Instead of the fashionable London restaurant famed for its fine cuisine and frequented by A-list guests, it is a very different Ivy that Ray has in mind.

To be precise, a muddy wood covered with ivy leaves at the end of his sprawling Sussex garden.

And rather than tucking into a lavish meal washed down with a glass or two of champagne, TV survival expert Ray proposes we dig up some grubs, worms and pond roots and then cook our feast over a camp fire.

Oh, no. A day in the countryside in the middle of winter is not my idea of fun.

Throw in a plate of recently-picked pond roots and we're closing in on my personal vision of hell.

Old Ray really knows how to show a girl a good time.

But never let it be said that I am the type who breaks a date, even when it's based on a serious misunderstanding.

And that is why I find myself standing on the banks of a swamp with Mr Mears, the man who last year escorted Ewan McGregor on an intrepid mission into the Honduran rainforest.

Ray doesn't share my trepidation.

Dressed in fawn combat trousers, a waterproof jacket and walking boots, he is practically jumping up and down with excitement.

He has spotted some cat-tail, a plant resembling a stick that grows in the pond, and is apparently ideal survival food.

"It's full of carbohydrates," he says.

"Oh great," I reply, barely able to disguise how thrilled I am.

ADVISING me to take off my shoes, he then suggests we get in the cold water and pick several roots for our lunch. Is he joking? Ray shakes his head and I have no choice but to get in, bare-footed. Loud shrieks follow.

Ray laughs. "Getting closer to nature is my big ambition in life," he says. "I am more at home in the country than in the town.

"I think I am perfectly normal to like making meals from grubs. Being alone out in the wilderness is what I love best.

"I would hate to be a salesman. Why? Well, no disrespect to those guys but if I had to travel on motorways all the time, live out of hotels... urgh! And they have to wear a suit. Hotels are alien to me."

Pause. "Now lets make this meal."

Armed with plentiful supplies of cat-tail, we head towards the wood. "I love talking to trees," says Ray. "I like them. Trees don't have ears or eyes but I think they can tell who we are.

"They live out their lifetime within ours. Trees are like our cousins."

He points to an oak tree. "They are strong," he says. "Yew trees are potent. A bit highly strung."

And a willow?

"Flexible, tenacious, adaptable," declares Ray.

Listening to him makes Prince Charles's penchant for chatting to plants seem perfectly normal.

But Ray is not a mad wildman. While you or I may find tree-talking hilarious, he views our modern townie lives as a turn-off.

Ray's idea of heaven would be to sleep outdoors permanently. His record is 253 nights in one year.

But this broad-shouldered, 38-year-old is adamant that he never gets lonely and says he takes only the bare essentials - woollen jumpers, a knife and soap - on a trip. He refuses to bring along deodorant and shampoo while his only luxury items are hot chocolate powder and a radio. And his tips on urban survival? "You need to be alert," he says. "Just as you would not stand by an elephant's watering hole in the wild, don't stand outside a nightclub on your own."

Born in Surrey, Ray, the son of Leslie, a printer, and mother Dorothy, is incredibly enthusiastic about the art of survival, or bushcraft as he prefers to call it.

He is like a human encyclopaedia on the subject.

As a child, he read every survival manual he could find, camping out in the garden whenever possible.

He dropped out of the Cub movement early "because they did not do enough bushcraft" and his first wild encounter was with a fox whom he befriended by feeding the animal tinned sardines. He was five years old. After leaving school, he moved to London but hated the city and returned to Surrey to set up his own company, Woodlore, which runs survival courses, at the age of 21.

Four years later, he published The Survival Handbook and subsequently received invitations from the Royal Geographical Society, where he still lectures, and from the military, which called on him to teach survival techniques.

Then Operation Raleigh enlisted Ray's help to ensure all its applicants had the skills to deal with anything they encountered.

Two years ago, TV bosses spotted Ray's potential and signed him up to host his own series, Extreme Survival. "Our lives are becoming soft," says Ray, who has travelled around the world several times.

"We are becoming timid about going and touching nature, so if I can communicate on the TV and give advice, then great. I am swapping my anonymity so more people can learn."

SO IS he nature's answer to Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen? Ray is not thrilled by the comparison.

"Sort of," he says. "I just want to convey the magic."

Suddenly Ray lets out a shrill cry. He has spotted a tree which has been vandalised. Someone, he explains, has peeled off big chunks of bark. "I do not like that," he adds before walking off to collect wood to build a fire to cook our cat-tail. Thankfully, grubs and worms are not on the menu. Winter is the wrong time of year to find these particular specialities.

Phew.

"But they are delicious," he says. "I love palm grubs. Although I must admit, a burrowing worm does not taste too nice.

"It looks like a used condom."

He is very animated. Indeed, whenever Ray is chatting about the name of a plant, he comes alive.

His eyes twinkle, he waves his arms and he reminds me of an excitable schoolchild who has just been given a bar of chocolate. "We have so much to learn from the Aboriginal way of life," he declares. But get him on another subject, say his life as a family man or his favourite TV programme, and Ray clams up. The change in persona is startling.

He comes across as just a bit too worthy and, in my view, rather dull. He tells me he finds my questions "funny". I don't think it is meant as a compliment.

But perseverance is the key and, as he cooks the cat-tail, I quiz Ray on his scariest moments in the wild.

"If you dwell on them, you wouldn't do it again," he says. "I have been close to grizzly bears, crocodiles, poisonous snakes, had ice breaking from under me."

Isn't he terrified? "You learn to control your adrenalin," he insists. "I do not fear death. It is the only inevitable thing in your life."

I tell him again he is brave. "No, I love all animals," he says. "I am not scared of them. Badgers, foxes... I don't even mind mosquitoes and I have had malaria twice."

Ray has finished cooking the cat-tail. He likes preparing food at the Sussex home he shares with partner Rachel, who has two children from a previous relationship.

He is, however, reluctant to say anything about their life together: "We were friends and then several years later, we started going out. But that is between us."

Similarly, he does not give much away about his views on organic food. "Yes, I do eat it and I shop both at supermarkets and my local butcher's," he says. His favourite meat is venison. I ask Ray how he relaxes.

He looks at me oddly. Eventually, after a grilling, he confides he hates soap operas, finds some nature programmes "send him to sleep" and enjoys reading.

He likes Delia Smith cook books. Ah yes. One other fact. He drives a Range Rover.

Would he like to share any quirky habits?

"I suppose I fart a lot," he says. "But doesn't everyone?"

LUCKILY, his unexpected remark comes as he serves up the cat-tail. Given we are dining in the ivy - albeit the ivy wood - I change into my best frock.

Ray puts on a Moss Bros black tuxedo to mark the occasion. He never normally wears a suit but admits he owns the "odd one".

Unfortunately, I have neglected to bring him a bow-tie. Once more Ray comes alive. Declaring this is "no problem", he runs off excitedly to find a piece of wood and proceeds to carve out a tie.

My big moment has arrived. Taking the cat-tail by my fingers, I take a bite.

"Argh," I squeal before spitting the root back out.

Words cannot describe how dreadful a cat-tail tastes but, suffice to say, eating string would be more delicious. And I am sorry but I do not care how hungry I am. There is no way I am taking another bite.

Ray roars with laughter and promptly finishes the root. "This is delicious," he says.

Still appalled by the taste left in my mouth, I steer the conversation towards Ray's future.

He is not worried about turning 40 in two years nor does he have any regrets. His only wish is that he could "start again with what I know now".

His other goal is to sort out the hundreds and thousands of photographs he has taken on trips abroad. Oh, and he loves collecting sticks.

"My home is like a museum," he says. "There are bows and arrows everywhere. My most prized find? A decorated ostrich egg. I found it in an area where bushmen had not been for 300 years."

Putting out the fire, Ray suggests we make a move. It is music to my ears.

Escorting me back to the train station, he tells me how nothing can be more pleasurable than finding a grub in the ground, building a fire and then cooking it.

Sorry, Ray, but give me the real Ivy restaurant any day.

christine.smith@mirror.co.uk

-RAY Mears' latest book, Bushcraft, is in the shops now.

CAPTION(S):

PICK YOUR OWN: I root out a cat-tail; FUN GUY: Ray shows me a fungus; ARGH! Cat-tail's more like cat litter; SCUMTHING FOR MADAM? Ray and I are dressed to the nines for what turns out to be an al fresco lunch featuring a particularly horrid pond root; JUNGLE BUDDIES: With Ewan in Honduras
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 16, 2002
Words:1778
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