The Spark: Wild and Wonderful Woodcraft Folk

Will Simpson, February 4, 2016

The Woodcraft Folk, who celebrate their 90th anniversary this year, have long been regarded as a gentler, perhaps, even groovier siblings to the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, which as General Secretary Jon Nott points out is description he’s heard A LOT over the years. “Because we come from the same foundations there is always that comparison,” he laughs. “It’s always – some sort of adjective ‘version of the Scouts’. We prefer to focus on what makes us unique.”

He prefers “co-operative young people’s organisation.” Like the scouts they were inspired by Ernest Thompson Seton, the 19th century thinker who wrote widely about ‘woodcraft’ of the Native American peoples, their way of living and respect for the environment. 

Where Woodcraft Folk differs from those other groups is from the start the organisation was mixed gender, egalitarian and internationalist in its outlook. “We focus not only on the skills of living in harmony with nature but also living in harmony with other human beings,” explains Nott. “So we encourage young people to play a role in their community. Also instead of the adults telling the children what to do the Woodcraft Folk is run by and with young people and not just for them. Youth leadership is absolutely crucial.”

The organisation have over 350 groups in the UK and membership has been rising in recent years.  Bristol is one of the strongholds for the movement with six currently active groups and the possibility of a new one starting in St George soon. 

A gathering of Woodcraft Folk in the great outdoors

A typical Woodcraft meeting will begin with everyone sitting in a circle. “There is a lot of symbolism in the circle,” says Daniel Thompson of the Bradley Stoke group. “Everyone is equal and no one is more important than anyone else. Then people share their news and particularly with the younger age groups they’ll be co-operative games – in other words games where playing is the key ambition rather than winning. Then quite often they’ll enjoy a craft-focused activity.  In an older group they might be something more discursive – teenagers might talk about fair trade or where food comes from and. We try to introduce a sense of how what they’re doing is impacting on the world.”

At weekends and school holidays there are outdoor adventures, hiking and camping. “There has been a bit of a resurgence in the role of bushcraft – which is woodcraft, after all – in the organisation,” says Thompson. “This year our group held an event at a farm north of Bristol where we had very nearly no tents. All the kids were either under tarpaulin or in hammocks. It was very back to basics – cooking in a big pot on a fire.” 

Like any nearly century-old movement the Woodcraft Folk has changed much since its early days.  “Back then we used to adopt ‘folk names’ and there is less of that now,” says Nott.” Some of the mimicking of Native American culture has gone too. “Groups are now more likely to be involved in a youth exchange with people from a Native American community protesting against destruction of their land by oil companies than dressing up in head-dresses.”

Yet at a time when parents are finding it harder and harder to tear their kids away from electronic gadgets the role of organisations like the Woodcraft Folk that provide a wholesome, environmentally-conscious outlet for young people to make friends, develop and improve themselves is perhaps more important than ever. “I think the values the organisation was founded on like equality and inclusion are eternal values,” suggests Nott. “If you come to one of our groups you’ll see a bunch of young people having fun and learning skills that could not only be valuable to them in later life, but also the community as a whole.” 

For more information on the Woodcraft Folk and local groups go to woodcraft.org.uk