Bushcraft for vets

Back to basics offer for ex-military in Preston

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A four-acre, steep sided, boggy piece of overgrown woodland swamped with trees sweeping down to the River Ribble might not appear to have a lot of uses.

To many the piece of land on the outskirts of Preston was not an attractive investment proposition, but Paul Marriott saw its potential.

Formerly of Blackburn, he spent 14 years in the Royal Artillery and worked in a variety of different jobs after leaving the services, latterly as a tattooist. Four years ago he spotted the land was for sale and decided to invest his army pension.

Marriott, known as JP, 50, said: “Originally it was just somewhere I thought I could bring the grandchildren and have a campfire. I looked into growing mushrooms in the woods that I could then sell to the local restaurants like Northcote, but although they grew they also proved popular with the local deer.

“Then I had a friend who had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Iraq and I told him what camping in the woods did
for me and how it helped.”

Sanctuary

The land has been named Belisama’s Retreat because in Roman times the River Ribble was known as “Belisama”, a goddess whose name meant “most mighty one” or “most shining one”.

The organisation receives referrals from veterans’ agencies, AA and individuals. They share the sanctuary with an array of wildlife including deer, otter, badgers and game birds, while the Ribble provides for catches including chub, barbel, dace, grayling and salmon.

At times, other campers and visitors, including Scouts and Duke of Edinburgh participants, are allowed to use the land.

Storm damage

Together with fellow director Royal Signals veteran Steve Robinson, from Milnthorpe, and a small army of volunteers, they have begun to manage the woodland by removing dead trees, coppicing sections and digging drainage trenches to dry out sections of the land.

Last year they secured a £70,000 grant from the Positive Pathways programme of the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust and work has already started on access steps down the steep slope. A new decking area has been created and the lower part of the site now has an outdoor classroom from a recycled military cargo parachute.

However the recent storms created a landslide and other damage, which the directors are already attempting to clear.

“Cloud begins to lift”

Marriott said: “I have total belief in this project. This place works and I know that there are veterans who are alive today because this place has saved them.

“When you are in the services you don’t get the chance to experience the nature around you because you are there for a reason. Coming here takes veterans back but without the pressure and they can take their time to appreciate their surroundings.

“When they make a ‘basha’ [impromptu tent] and get into their sleeping bag, it reminds them of getting back to basics and they get to reuse their bushcraft skills.

“We have rations, sleeping bags, camp beds and tents, so they can turn up to use the retreat with nothing and we can kit them out to make themselves comfortable.

“Then they sit round the fire and talk, and that’s when they find they are not alone and the cloud begins to lift. That is my reward.”

Royal Artillery veteran John was living in Leeds and had battled drug and alcohol addictions along with undiagnosed PTSD. He visited the retreat with a military support charity.

He said: “It was just such a fantastic place. A couple of months down the line of being sober I relapsed and was made homeless. All I could think was that I had to get to Belisama’s Retreat. I spent three days in Preston trying to find it, stayed in a hotel one night just so I could shower and then when I got there I spent a week in the woods.

“It was the perfect place for me to be on my own. Then JP took me to Wigan to the service’s headquarters.”

He now has a council house and is hoping to rebuild his relationship with his five children.

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