Travel: Getting back to nature in Cornwall
Could your family survive a Bear Grylls-style adventure in Cornwall? Ben Mitchell and his clan give it a go on a nature weekend at the Haven Perran Sands holiday park
MARIE gives out a squeal of delight as she makes a ball of cotton wool burst into flames, sparks flying.
We have just learned our first survival skill at the Haven Perran Sands Holiday Park in Cornwall, with ranger Alice Lawrence patiently instructing us in the art of striking flint and steel rods together to create sparks essential for a fire.
:: Back to basics
Alice is guiding us on a path back to basics with the Nature Rockz 'How To Be A Ranger' course and, as soon as we have a fire going, we're taught how to use a Kelly Kettle – a steel camping stove.
This ingenious device has a chimney running through the middle, enabling oxygen and heat to pass through it, making it boil almost as fast as an electrical kettle.
We use cotton wool as our lighting material, but Alice informs us that a good natural alternative is coal fungus (it gets its name from its looks), which is also known as King Alfred's cake and is found growing on silver birch trees.
My daughter Marie (8) and her friend Ysabelle (7) are excited – they can't wait to put more sticks on the fire ready to toast marshmallows.
:: Blue Peter-style lesson
After the sticky treat, it's back to nature with a Blue Peter-style lesson in making bird feeders out of string, toilet rolls, cereal loops, peanut butter and worms.
I was doubtful that these would be to the birds' taste, but when we return the following morning to the tree where we place them, they have all been completely eaten up.
Site of special scientific interest
Our course is being held within the 500 acres of dune grassland that make up the Haven site at Perranporth, which is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
We may only be a stone's throw from our Geo Dome tent and a two-minute walk from the restaurants, swimming pool and other attractions, but I feel like I have been transported far away from the rest of the world.
After lunch, Alice leads us onto a nature trail where her enthusiastic and encyclopedic knowledge comes into its own.
:: Underwater farting beetle
Our first stop is a small pond, which at first sight is just green water, but Alice – a trained zoologist – quickly points out half a dozen creatures, including the highly amusing great diving beetle. We watch it swallow air at the surface, and giggle when bubbles pop out like an underwater fart as it sinks.
We climb to the top of a high dune as Alice explains how, in the past, authorities tried to stabilize them with marram grass, later realising it was better for the ecosystems to remain dynamic and made up of loose sand.
She explains that Haven is supporting projects to restore the dunes to their original state. This is only part of the park's environmental initiatives; recycling is encouraged across the site, which includes eco-friendly toilet blocks, complete with bird-nesting boxes installed below the grass-topped roofs.
:: Poo-eating snails and stinky plants
The girls are encouraged to pick up anything that interests them on our nature trail. Along with a rabbit's skull – the site used to be a rabbit farm – Ysabelle finds a small pointed shell which, to her great amusement, Alice explains is home to a tiny snail that actually eats rabbit poo.
Minutes later, Alice amazes us again by snapping some stinking iris leaves to unveil the unmistakable aroma of roast beef crisps.
The walk has triggered the inquisitiveness of the little ones, and Ysabelle calls Alice back to ask her why a yellow plant has a purple bit inside. She eloquently explains it's the plant's stamen for producing pollen.
:: Miraculous place
Towards the end of our walk, we pass the site of the oratory of St Piran who, legend has it, was pushed off a cliff in Ireland with a millstone round his neck, but floated away and washed up in Cornwall – giving his name to the area. What a miracle, to arrive in such a beautiful place!
After scones at the top of a sand dune, the girls sprint down towards the sea and can't wait to dive into the waves gently crashing on to the three-mile-long Perranporth beach.
:: And relax!
Our final challenge of the day is to learn how to build a shelter and Alice soon has us fluent in reef and bowline knots, ready to suspend a bivouac from two posts. Her example stands up well to the bucket of water test, but I wouldn't trust our attempt in a light drizzle.
On completion of our task, Alice leaves us with two fire-pit BBQs and, given our newly acquired fire-lighting skills, I feel confident we can keep the flames going long enough to cook some burgers.
Watching the girls scramble up and down the sand dunes in a final burst of energy before bedtime, I realise how relaxed I feel having spent the day with my family, learning and exploring a world away from the day-to-day bustle. The resort's swimming pool and slides is going to be a shock return to noisy reality in the morning.
:: How to get there
Nature Rockz activities are available at all of Haven's 36 holiday parks, with a bespoke Nature Rockz 'How to be a Ranger' activity running at Perran Sands on selected dates in September.
Haven (haven.com; 0333 202 5250) is offering a three-night self-catering holiday, staying at Perran Sands Holiday Park in Perranporth from £186 (saving 25 per cent) per family.
Price is based on a family of six sharing Geo Dome accommodation on September 21 and includes family friendly entertainment.