And so it was on a glorious spring day in the Fens (Cambridgeshire, UK) when some 60 members of a very unique group called ‘Retro Outdoor Equipment’ began gathering for an event like no other. The atmosphere was bristling with expectation from people who had travelled far and wide. The scent of leather and canvas paired with a rejuvenating breeze wafting through the trees, and the glint of brass and steel catching the dappled sun from the canopy above. This was the perfect setting for what was to be a weekend to remember.
So what is this get-together some of you may be wonder? Well in short, men, women and children who are modern-day outdoor enthusiasts with an interest in traditional outdoors equipment were invited to the first ever Retro Outdoors Equipment Gathering. A meeting to share knowledge and skills, and to try out new things (of old), as well as admire the many bits of traditional equipment on show. Naturally, many who came are artisans following traditional ways of making equipment, such as canvas workers, leather workers, wood turners, blacksmiths and even a representative of a well known Swedish axe company took part.
So... if you don't know anything about this group, it has been running for a few years now, and was founded by my dear friend Steve W. Armstrong. I understand that he started the group for his love of traditional kit, adding like-minded individuals who share that same passion along the way. They offered help and support to each other or to those with retro-kit distress, as well as sharing their love and know-how. Now there are over 2,200 members worldwide. This is a huge group that keeps going from strength to strength, with a steady flow of new members. It attracts a certain pedigree of people; retro equipment lovers, folks who like to use their stuff as intended rather than having it sat gathering dust being neglected, men and women of the modern day world, practicing and enjoying the old ways..... folks who fall into one or more of the following categories:
Folks who like to look
Folks who like to feel
Folks who like to use
Folks who like to mend and maintain
Folks who like to make
I won't bore you too much about myself but I fall into the use/mend and maintain category. However, I can say that it was only fairly recently that I really discovered these old world ways. These are traditional ways used at the forefront by pioneering folks such as Sir Edmund Hillary, George W. Sears and Horace Kephart to name a few. These intrepid people set out on voyages of discovery, equipped with just a few things needed to make themselves comfortable as they embarked on their adventures. They were tough like their kit, and unlike the modern equipment (not all) which tends to be ultralight and packs down into a small compact unit, theirs was heavy, bulky and robust..... but there is something so very romantic about using the traditional stuff, in so much as it is almost like going back in time. It is like a form of escapism, but more about that later.
Having been involved in outdoor pursuits on and off throughout my life, I have bought a lot of gear. As I said earlier it wasn't until I met Steve W. Armstrong before my love affair of old world tech really came into play. I won't say I'm a traditionalist through and through, far from it actually. I'm more a person who likes to try out new things and there's a reason why retro equipment appeals to people. For some it's the re-enactment or the joy it brings when they use it, for others it's knowing they possess something old, perhaps handed down from a relative. Others may just like things that are handmade in a traditional way, and for some it probably strikes fascination in that kind of technology. People want to learn about the historical applications that these items had. Of course it could be a combination of all or some of the aforementioned. In any case, these tools of the trade were seriously loved and well made, and not mass-produced on a large scale, and as a result some of these items can indeed fetch a high price in auction.
We live in a world saturated with throw away items, that we can't escape. From a young age growing up in the Far East I've seen my fair share of throw away things. Folks always wanting the latest and greatest, fastest and most streamlined, and often the cheapest because it can easily be replaced. But with retro kit, you tend to be more selective and buy only once as the gear is made to last, and the designs are kept simple because ‘why change something if it already works’.
I've since replaced my mil-spec Bergen, which I would typically use for overnighter to a custom made canvas pack which I designed and was built by a highly skilled craftsman (Steven Henley of Poolebay Bushcraft).... does that mean I will always use the canvas? Probably not, as it's not always suitable to the task at hand. However, since acquiring that I've gone deeper down the ‘rabbit hole’ (it's a dangerous world out there so be prepared to spend some hard earned doubloons if you can't make these things yourself) and I find that I am gravitating towards the canvas and leather as not only does it feel and look great (that's my opinion and others will of course disagree), it's solid and I really feel an appreciation for the equipment and a connection to the craftsman and nature and on occasion to the explorers of old.
Over the 3-Day event ticket holders were able to participate in a range of activities, which included talks and demonstrations and getting hands-on with traditional basket weaving, blacksmithing, hafting a Wetterlings Hudson Bay axe (which regrettably I missed out on purchasing a ticket for), spoon carving, jerky eating and friction fire lighting to name but a few. Then of course there were the traders with a selection of their retro and handmade equipment such as Military Mart, Red Kite Leatherworks, Phil's Wood Turning, Paul Dore Bushcraft, Whetstone Forge, Poolebay Bushcraft, Journeyman Handcraft to name a few. All of whom are well respected for their quality and bespoke items.
Throw into the mix a family-friendly award winning campsite (not that I'm biased or anything because I work there) and the on-site distillery, as well as the beer and sausage tasting which is free to campers, and the two cooked dinners provided by Bramblebee Farm (their pigs are reared at the campsite). It was a winning combination of everything one could ever want for a lovely activity packed weekend away. To top it all off, all proceeds after costs support a children's charity (see link below if you would like to give).
HYPERLINK ""https://www.martinhouse.org.uk/?fbclid=IwAR0ApQZnBJMGmvV7262ykWKvwnLz2EOoo0mhXSDJtpxRBcilJaU9x82GgVo" \t "_blank" https://www.martinhouse.org.uk/
So there were many happy folks who perhaps didn't know exactly what to expect at the beginning from an event like this. I for one had high hopes for its success but you never really know if things will go smoothly or not until it's over. Having all spent time enjoying the sights and sounds not to mention the local flavours, trying their hand at something new, enjoying the campsite and what it offers, relaxing with like-minded folk, making fires and chopping wood with their tools, and creating memories for years to come, bonding together with new friendships born, the laughter and having this sense of belonging whilst sharing the communal fire underneath our canopy, it was indeed a memorable weekend. There was a strong sense of community, something that is lacking in some parts of society.
So I mentioned about escapism earlier. I'm sure many within the group feel this sense of community and despite our efforts to escape technology at times you can't argue the fact that such a community like Retro rely on it. So my point is that maybe, on some level, we belong in the community to escape the grind and the fast food culture and the tech and so on and so forth. Am I right to assume that? One thing is for sure - there were a lot of kindred spirits that weekend. I know that a lot of effort was put into bringing all these people together, amazing folks pulling out all their resources to make it happen, and I was humbled to be able to help facilitate the first ever Retro Outdoors Equipment Gathering (there will be more I'm sure and other sites will be jumping at this opportunity).
A special thanks to my dear colleagues at Fenland Bushcraft; Derek Smith, Simon Glasgow, and Franci Lawrence who in fact organised the spoon carving demonstation, jerky eating challenge and basket weaving activities respecitvely, and not to mention Phil Underwood and Ben Beaumont a couple of our Instructors, as well as the Joe Smalley of JSK Knives who did some of the photography and helped with the day to day runnings, so huge respect goes out to them for putting those on and for helping with this tremendous cause.
In summary, I certainly enjoyed being a part of it. I got questions answered about some of the equipment which I wasn't familiar with (and there was lots) by the folks who really have the knowledge, and the lovely thing really was that people were all wanting to share their own experiences and knowledge freely which is what made it such a successful event. I shall certainly be looking forward to the next Retro Gathering..... and if you haven't done so already, and this sounds like your kind of thing, definitely check out Retro Outdoors. There's a wealth of knowledge and friendly people there. Hope to share a fire with you one day.