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Meet the Cambridge family planning a campfire Christmas

According to the latest health advice, we should meet up with friends and family outdoors over Christmas - rather than elbow to elbow at the dining table - to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

Three households will be allowed to mix together for five days over the festive period, but experts are warning people to be cautious about meeting inside with vulnerable people or older relatives.

But is anyone really planning to celebrate in their back garden when there’s telly and Christmas pud to be enjoyed in the house?

It turns out at least one Cambridge family is planning just that. Rachel King from Horningsea says she and her husband Rob and two children Isla, 11, and Freddie, seven, can’t wait to kick back next to a roaring campfire on Christmas Day and reckon an outdoor Christmas is a magical experience that anyone can try.

Rachel King planning a outdoor Christmas with children Isla and Freddie. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43505481)
Rachel King planning a outdoor Christmas with children Isla and Freddie. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43505481)

Rachel, who works with Cambridge Forest Schools, says: “We will definitely be spending Christmas outdoors this year, especially as we want to visit my parents and my 100-year-old nan who lives with them.

“We have been so careful all year to be socially distant and only meet them outside. That won’t change at Christmas because we don’t want them to be at any risk of catching the virus from us.

“We will go on a walk with them and I'm planning to have a fire outside. I will have to be careful as my dad is a great host and will naturally want to keep handing us glasses of champagne. But we will be self sufficient and go prepared with food and drinks.

“We took picnics in the summer and set up a barbecue. This time, if we light our fire we can stay warm while being close by. It will be nice for them to see the fire in the darkness.”

The outdoor lifestyle is something Rachel says she has enjoyed ever since her childhood holidays. She explains: “I grew up spending holidays in Wales when we would sit around a campfire and I developed a love of spending time in nature without all of the trappings of modern life. I’m much happier somewhere naturally beautiful - it is much more my thing than going to a bowling alley or whatever with the kids.

“Even in winter we have always spent time outside when we go on holiday. At the place we often visit in Wales it is really chilly outside at night but the stars in winter are so much more sparkly and even on the coldest days it is often quite warm in the sunshine around the fire.

“There are not that many days when you can’t be outside, even when it is raining you can rig up a tarp and shelter under it. When you camp you have to accept that sometimes it will rain.

Rachel King enjoying a campfire with friends from the forest school. (43512761)
Rachel King enjoying a campfire with friends from the forest school. (43512761)

“We have always enjoyed wild camping with the kids and spent a lot of time around the campfire with them. It seemed natural for them to go to an outdoor playgroup when they were toddlers.”

And she has had no complaints from her children or nagging from them to sit inside staring at a screen.

“I think most children love being outside,” says Rachel.

“I think it feels magical to them. There's a sense of freedom that comes from being surrounded by nature and Christmas is connected with winter and when you are outside you feel that connection with the darkness of the early nights and the frost and different sounds out there. There is something really special about being outside this time of year and seeing nature sleeping and getting that sense of stillness.

“My kids love the freedom of being able to run around and not break things and not being confined by ceilings and walls.

“We sometimes sit in our garden but we are lucky we have an allotment that has more space than our garden and an even nicer view so we usually go there.

“In the dark when you have a fire it doesn't matter where you are - it feels different and exciting to be outside. Even if you have a small garden it is still fun.

“The other Saturday night my son was just in a t-shirt next to the fire at our allotment because he was warm enough. It was only when he stepped away and the ground was frosty he realised how chilly it was.

“I wouldn't want to tell people to take their grandparents outside if they wouldn't like being in the cold. Older people know what temperatures they feel comfortable in. The main thing is to keep them wrapped up in layers and rugs and make sure they are close to the fire and keep checking on them. They will get colder if they can’t move around as much.”

Five tips for an outdoor Christmas

1: Wrap up in lots of layers.

The key to staying warm is not thick coats and jumpers, but wearing lots of layers, explains Rachel.

She says: “Wool is a natural insulator and traps the heat better and you don’t sweat like you do with synthetics. Merino base layers and a wool sweater will help keep you warm.

“Really wrap up warm, wear a hat and keep moving, try dancing or going for a walk. And if you are not moving, stay close to the fire.

“I have a nice wool blanket my grandad gave me. I use wool blankets as you don't want synthetics close to the fire as sparks can melt them or even set them on fire.”

Rachel King with Isla, 11, and Freddie, 7. (43512763)
Rachel King with Isla, 11, and Freddie, 7. (43512763)

2: Don’t wear wellies

Try to avoid wearing wellies, as they get really cold. Wear boots and thick socks instead, preferably made from wool. Also, don’t sit on the ground. Try to sit on a log or a chair as you will quickly lose heat by sitting on the floor.

3: Be fire safety conscious

Rachel says: “When we do our bushcraft weekends we teach fire safety so always have a bucket of water nearby to put the fire out if it does get out of hand. Don't have a fire under overhanging branches, choose a clear area and try to burn dry wood so it is not too smoky. Your neighbors are unlikely to have the washing out on Christmas Day but you don’t want to annoy people.”

4: Cook campfire food.

Rachel’s family and friends are very adventurous with campfire cooking - even making roast lamb baked inside clay and parcels of roasted vegetables.

But for beginners, there are still a few alternatives to just toasting marshmallows.

“At the forest school, everyone enjoys campfire popcorn. It’s very simple to make. We put the corn inside two metal sieves lashed together and tied to a hazel stick. You just hold it over the hot embers to pop the corn.”

Rachel King and family around their campfire. (43512757)
Rachel King and family around their campfire. (43512757)

Roast chestnuts

A more festive alternative to popcorn is to roast chestnuts using this method.

Rachel says: “Toasting chestnuts on an open fire is a nice one to do on Christmas Eve. In the past we have foraged for them in Thetford Forest. But we now get ours from Costco. Actually they are excellent. It’s actually too late in the season now to forage for chestnuts anyway. It only takes a couple of minutes to cook them in our ‘popcorn maker’. We listen for the first one to crack and then take them off the fire because that’s when we know they are done.

“They are lovely, they have a nutty taste and are very fresh, hot and filling. We did them the other evening just to feel a bit festive.

“I have only cooked chestnuts in my oven once and got exploding chestnuts all over it so cooking them outside is a big advantage because it's not messy.”

Toasted cinnamon apples

“These are very simple,” says Rachel.

“You just slice the apple into chunky segments and then fill a baking tray with brown sugar and cinnamon and shake the apple slices in there. Whittle a stick to a sharp point (or use a metal skewer) and put the apple on the end of the stick. Then we just toast it over the hot embers.

“We normally use fresh sticks so they have some natural resistance to fire, but you should only toast the apple over the embers not the flame because otherwise you will burn it.

“These are great for when you are tired of toasting marshmallows. They are a bit like a toffee apple. The sharpness of the apple makes them a lot less sickly than marshmallows.”

5: Make mulled wine or spiced apple juice

“Mulled drinks are a really nice way of staying warm. You can put the pan on a grill or a tripod over your fire,” says Rachel.

“If you want your mulled wine to stay warm use ceramic mugs not tin ones as they lose the heat quickly.”

You will need cinnamon sticks, cloves, chopped fruit and a bottle of red wine to heat up over the fire.

For the children, make a spiced apple juice by heating up the juice with a couple of star anise.

“Another option is to use elderberry cordial if you want it to look like mulled wine for kids,” says Rachel.

6: Make edible tree decorations

“We have a Christmas tree growing in a pot outside in our garden which we like to decorate with popcorn garlands. They look really pretty and the birds enjoy eating them. It’s nicer than putting plastic up in your garden.

You just make some popcorn and then string it up with a needle and thread. If you alternate the popcorn with cranberries it looks really pretty.”

7: Play campfire games

“There are games that you play inside that can work just as well outside around the campfire, such as charades,” says Rachel

“Then there is one the children sometimes play which is called Jingle Bells. You have one person blindfolded sitting down far enough away from the fire to be safe if they point. Then another person picks up some keys or jangly christmas bells and the idea is they have to walk around the whole circle and get back to their seat without the blindfolded person being able to point to them and say where they are. So they have to walk very stealthily.”

Christmas roast lamb dinner recipe

The lamb is ready after about five hours. (43512753)
The lamb is ready after about five hours. (43512753)

This is Rachel's preferred recipe for an outdoor feast and was even the dinner they shared with friends for her husband Rob's birthday this year.

"First, you need to get hold of some clay," she says.

"If you have clay soil like u,s you can just dig for it. Otherwise buy a big bag of natural clay - not the air drying stuff.

Light a fire and let it burn down to embers.

Place the lamb on some foil.

Cover the lamb in herb leaves, rosemary and bay. Be careful to remove twigs that could pierce the foil.

Wrap it in four or five layers of foil.

Plaster a half inch layer of clay all around the foiled lamb.

Cover lamb in clay and cook it in the fire for a festive meal. (43512751)
Cover lamb in clay and cook it in the fire for a festive meal. (43512751)

Carefully place the wrapped lamb on the embers.

Add more logs around and over the lamb

Let the fire burn for about 3 hours.

Use a shovel to remove the lamb from the fire.

The clay should just crack away.

When the foil is cool enough to touch, unwrap the lamb.

Serve with roast potatoes cooked in a Dutch oven (cooking pot) or chopped vegetables cooked in foil parcels on the fire. Just shake them in olive oil and cook in foil parcels in the embers for about 30 minutes."

To find out more about Cambridge Forest Schools visit:

Family Bushcraft days

Bushcraft for families with children with special educational needs

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