Words and photos by Nick Warner
The lemon drizzle cake has a white icing on it with those things, hundreds and thousands, all over it. The vegan carrot cake has some sort of icing too, but it’s much thicker and richer. It’s close, but the latter is my favourite. It’s Emma’s mum, I think, who makes the cakes. Emma answers the emails, meets and greets the guests, makes the teas and coffees and keeps things to schedule. Oli is the first aider but he also keeps the fire going, makes sure everyone is carving safely, gives tips and ideas when people are stuck. Andrew leads the workshop, tells you which tree is which, shows you how to use the tools and waxes lyrical about the beautiful symbiosis of the woodland ecosystem. Both him and Emma are what my mum would ‘call children of the earth.’
It’s a Saturday morning in mid autumn and eight other would-be-woodspeople and I are enjoying the opening preamble to one of Miscellaneous Adventure’s Woodland Woodcarving Workshops. Despite the alluringly alliterative title the thesis of the day couldn’t be more antipodal to the more pervasive ‘www.’ These workshops are designed, in fact, as a way for web-weary creatives to escape their screens and interact with nature. We’re all sat on tree stump stools in a rough semi-circle while Andrew briefs us on the day ahead. I’m watching him address the group on basic axe safety and early-disney style animated birds are nesting in his hair, squirrels are chattering on his shoulders and there’s a dormouse asleep in his breast pocket. I’m exaggerating, but he’s a pretty woody guy.
The ground is thick with leaves in deep copper hues, just a touch darker than those still on the trees. The only sounds are the crackling of the fire, Andrew’s voice (he’s detailing the anatomy of a tree now with an inch-thick cross section of Douglas Fir as a prop) and the occasional rustle of someone readjusting in their seat. Behind us there are nine, waist-high log chopping blocks each with a hatchet, folding saw and knife adjacent to it. It’s brisk out and dappled sunlight illuminates every surface. Wondrous toys await us along with the challenging prospect of carving our own spoon from fresh Birch, yet there isn’t an ounce of restlessness in the faces of the group. Every single one of us wants to know why drying wood often splits along the medullary rays, why the density of growth rings is greater in colder climates, why we want to work around the pith when choosing our carving wood.
Emma and Andrew have been running Miscellaneous Adventures since 2013. The couple left their lives in Brighton to travel Australia and in 2010 when they returned they answered the call of the wild by taking a rental property in rural Sussex. Emma was working in an administrative position at the university and Brighton and Andrew was working freelance as an illustrator. Working from home, sat all day at a computer, the daily chores of country life became Andrew’s great pleasure. Chopping wood and maintaining their house’s grounds gave him a chance to get fresh air and use his hands. Andrew started carving spoons and selling them online under the title Miscellaneous Adventures in 2011. The genius of the project, and that which has afforded it such success, is that the products, and later the workshops, are aimed at people just like Andrew and Emma. Once the couple had realised how much relief they got from spending time in the woods and performing basic, practical tasks they immediately identified it as an antidote to contemporary life.
Miscellaneous Adventures workshop aren’t geared at the bushcraft community or die hard outdoorsy types. You’ll rarely meet a spoon carver, bowl turner or forester at their events. Instead the workshops offer those that live in busy cities and don’t get outside to learn creative skills in a totally unfamiliar context. More than anything that impressed me about my day with Andrew and Emma is their understanding that contemporary urban culture and wilderness pursuits can go hand in hand. Their products celebrate quality outdoors apparel and quality design. The good-natured and earthy pragmatics of bushcraft neatly collide with the nostalgically stylised interaction with woodlore that is often dismissed at ‘hipster.’ Heavens, if I can sit by a fire on an autumnal afternoon and carve a spoon, why wouldn’t I do it with a tray full of vegan carrot cake nearby?