Meet Will: Suffolk’s Stone Age man
- Credit: Andy Abbott
With his reindeer-hide coat, striking facepaint and Stone Age survival skills, Will Lord is your man if you want to know about life 800,000 years ago. He tells STEVEN RUSSELL how we could all learn something from our ancient ancestors
YOU have to be careful what you wish for, says Will Lord, who to a large degree is a Stone Age man living in 21st Century Suffolk. “There are women who think ‘I could do with a caveman…’” he grins, “but it’s a bit like having one of those dogs that drags things through the house.
“There are often bits of flint falling out of my pocket, and there can be little trapezoid lumps of stone that land silently on the carpet, and when you walk around in bare feet they stick in your foot. So I’m quite often getting shouted at. It’s a bit like Fred and Wilma, you know? (From the TV cartoon The Flintstones.) ‘Fred!!’”
Will Lord arrived at his new home as a five-year-old child of the ’70s and left, 13 years later, a Stone Age man. The little pink cottage in the forest came with his dad’s new job as the first custodian of a prehistoric flint mine near the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Its “garden” was dozens and dozens of acres of grassy landscape that looked like the surface of the moon, thanks to the sheltered hollows of 400-odd filled pits. It proved a vast adventure playground for a lad and his sisters when the last public visitors drove off.
Even better, their dad had taken his new place of work to his heart. He’d been a silkscreen printer, with no prior involvement in matters historical, but caught the spirit of a place that’s still there, near Brandon – cared for by English Heritage and billed as the only Neolithic flint mine open to visitors in Britain. “When he first went to Grime’s Graves, he knew nothing about flintknapping; but what a wonderful environment we suddenly found ourselves in,” says Will. “He could have taken a straightforward custodian role, but he got involved in the mechanics of ancient ways.”
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As well as watching his dad shaping flints, Will enjoyed skinning rabbits, plucking birds, descaling fish and sometimes even tanning deer hides. Food was taken home for the pot.
His father got so adept at flintwork that bushcraft expert Ray Mears came to Grime’s Graves when Will was a lad.
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“My dad taught him the way round a stone. It was funny, because the first thing I did was try to attack Ray Mears… and came undone over it! I was one of those horrible little boys. I just tried to give him a jab; he lumbar-punched me and left me gasping for breath! He can handle himself!”
In 1987 the adventure appeared to come to an end, when his dad got another job – supplying flint to the construction industry – and Will started work as a mechanic. But the ways of the past had seeped into his soul and he couldn’t settle for being just a 20th Century boy. It wasn’t long before Will was attending events as a Stone Age re-enactor, demonstrating the techniques of 800,000 years ago – such as making spears with flint heads. It’s grown from there. Today, he works full-time as an expert on ancient survival skills, under the banner of “Beyond2000BC Prehistoric Experiences”. He runs his own workshops on flintknapping, arrow-making, longbows and bronze-casting, and also conducts flintknapping courses for Ray Mears’ company in Sussex.
Will has also appeared on many TV shows. In A History of Ancient Britain, presented by Neil Oliver on BBC2, he demonstrated a 100lb Neolithic bow with flint-tip arrows. His family was involved with supplying props and acting for National Geographic production Stone Age Atlantis. And for Channel 4 More series Jimmy’s Forest Will butchered a deer and made fellow Suffolk free spirit Jimmy Doherty a prehistoric-style lunch.
“Do you know one of the things all this teaches me? When people come in to do one of the workshops, they’re travelling at really high speed, in their heads, and they try to do something too fast. There are a few things I’ll say: ‘Can you start breathing?’ and ‘Can you start smiling?’ Smiling really stops people rushing. I’ll say ‘Just let your hands go… What’s the rush? It doesn’t matter if we complete this this weekend. What matters is that the next time your arm moves forwards, you’re 100% in control of it and you enjoy what it’s about to do and feel what it’s about to do.’
“You get this sensory emotion that locks you into your task. But if you stumble into it, it’s going to stress you out and you’re not going to like what you get. You’ve got to ‘stroke’ what you want in to being.”
How much does he manage to sidestep 21st Century western life? Does he kill or gather much of his own food, or does he nip to the supermarket like the rest of us?
“You have to live a realistic lifestyle. I pick some and kill some… but, yes, I do also go to Tesco’s.”
I CONFESS to Will that I wouldn’t last five minutes if I had to find my own food, make clothes and shelter, and survive in the great outdoors.
“You’re not alone,” he says by way of consolation. “Consumerism eventually becomes boring. There’s only so much you can own before you start falling over it.
“What you can obtain is a group of skills that makes you richer and more capable of standing on your own two feet. There’s a lot of people who really need to get started on that journey, because they’re not getting all they’re capable of.”
He bemoans the fact that “pre-history” has been neglected in the school curriculum, with the past appearing to begin with the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. “If we look at the timeline of Britain alone, from Happisburgh 800,000 years ago” – flint tools of that vintage were found there in 2010 – “and then at where we’re basing our focus on history – let’s call it 2,000 years ago – we’re really blindfolding ourselves if we don’t look a bit further back.”#
(By the way: When he’s talking about the Stone Age, Will’s referring to a period running from about 4,000 years ago to 800,000 years ago.)
And what could we learn from our ancient ancestors? Will pauses and grins. “When you say that, I see a sun with rays going everywhere, and every ray is a reason why we should look back. There’s everything to gain.”
One is that we learn our position in the food chain, which centres us.
If we have to kill an animal in order to eat, “we recognise that something passed for you to stay. It puts you in a position of responsibility. You use everything: bones, antlers, skin – everything”.
There’s a respect for the beauty and abundance of the natural world.
“Children weren’t packed off to school; they stayed close to parents – to avoid jackals and other threats – and the bond was tight. Every parent was a teacher. It was your job to educate your child about what was going to kill him and what wasn’t, and very fast! So even little children would have had some sophisticated knowledge about life.
“And they’d have played with nature in a way that would have been beautiful. Imagine, then, the lack of description about what a rainbow was, or shooting stars… you would have marvelled at things like that.” With nothing with which to compare their existence, Stone Age people would probably have thought every day a great one, Will suspects. “Well, you could have bad days, like you do now, but in general they knew how to take the best out of a day and, in general, I think they were very happy with what they were doing. It wasn’t a hard trip to live without these modern components.”
As time has marched on, we’ve seen more deviant behaviour: crime, atrocities against our fellow men and so on. “The first instances of war were when people started settling down and gaining possessions.”
A less cluttered existence, at one with nature and coupled with hands-on skills, certainly hooked young Will, growing up at Grime’s Graves, where they didn’t have TV. He remembers hunting rabbits to take home. “I’d sit on the bonnet of the Ford Cortina with an airgun and pop them off. It was a proper, rural, piece of Breckland, with pine backdrops. You’d hear the deer barking in the woods when you were going to sleep. You’d hear the nightjars singing.
“I think what really helped start the ball rolling was that the British Museum was doing a dig. There’s a pit which has a nearly-60ft shaft right at the back of the site, with a wooden pontoon and a rope ladder – an extremely dangerous environment, but down we went. I can never really get over the fact that at my age of five my dad let me down that rope ladder!”
The activity brought to Grime’s Grave experts such as archaeologist Phil Harding, who’d become well known through appearances on TV’s Time Team, and Nick Ashton, who has been a curator at the British Museum for more than 25 years. “There was a whole group of people doing this dig, which made the whole thing fascinating and brought it to life. It was like the past being dragged forward. It wasn’t just a site with a hole in it.”
After leaving Grime’s Graves, Brandon became home and Will did an apprenticeship as a mechanic, before going on to work with his dad. Other jobs followed. But the past had travelled with him. He says of leaving that evocative site: “We’d had a private road which went down to a great big monument space, which was mine at night, had how many thousands of hectares of forest that ‘belonged’ to me… and now none of it any longer did.
“It leaves you with this big hole inside. I started filling that hole when I realised it was almost in my DNA to know those skills, and found I was appearing at events that people asked me to attend. I’d take the skills of Grime’s Graves with me.”
This went on for years, as Will travelled the country to schools, museums, archaeological sites and bushcraft days. He found that some visitors to more general events weren’t the most mature of folk.
“I found people didn’t understand what you were. They couldn’t ‘place’ you. I’d be treated like a gorilla in a zoo and you’d get people tucking their hands under their armpits and doing monkey poses at you.”
Will shifted approach and did more at places such as Flag Fen, a Bronze Age site near Peterborough, and at an Iron Age farm. “Visitors there expected to see something like what you were and you fitted in more with the environment.”
For a long time this was his life, combining demonstrations with a “day job” in the scaffolding line. But as he grew increasingly busy on the Stone Age front, and the nature of the building industry began to change in ways he didn’t enjoy, he decided it was time to make a major leap. So four years ago, to all intents and purposes, he became a professional caveman.
Will enjoyed a bit of good fortune when a specialist from Stoke-on-Trent who made gunflints for civil war re-enactments retired. “I didn’t instantly pick up his client base, but I started making gunflints. In terms of basic bills, the gunflints have taken care of that. It’s left me with a great freedom to work, consistently, on everything else I’m doing: the teaching of the skills.”
He produces about 60,000 gunflints a year – they’re in demand across the Atlantic for muskets – and can produce about 300 a day at full throttle. Flints from the Brandon area are “pretty much the best on the planet” and he chooses carefully to get the beautiful black sheen he requires.
He works outside his home near Bury St Edmunds. “I get people walking past and saying ‘Doesn’t that bore you?’ but for me it’s like playing a grand piano. It’s such a beautiful material.
“Flint demands that you communicate with it, otherwise it will spit you out. It’s a bit like stroking a cat you love: you just calmly talk to it; and it does the same back to you. Every strike is almost like an out-breath: Uhh… It’s an amazing experience.” Although incredibly knowledgeable, Will insists he’s not well-read. Most of his skills have been honed by practice. “I’ve made loads of mistakes along the way,” he admits.
Some things he has read are so complicated and involved – and, he suggests, nonsense. He cites some instructions for making an English yew bow. He’d read you had to float the yew in a river for two years to wash out the tannins and spend 18 months seasoning it.
“One of my best bows I cut out of the tree on a Wednesday, made a bow on the Wednesday and I was shooting on the Wednesday. It moved around a little before settling down, but it was one of the fastest bows I’d ever seen and it lasted two-and-a-half years. That’s typical of sometimes having to ‘undo’ information. Sometimes, you just have to take yourself into the environment and explore it.”
Although some might think of the Stone Age as primitive, we shouldn’t be complacent. “People at events often have a go and say it’s more difficult than it looks. Like fixing a spear on the end of a stick: a lot of people think you cut a groove and glue it in. But even cutting a groove down the end of a stick is quite a complicated thing to do. I use a technique where I cut a green stick, shave it to a point, and bash it to separate all the fibres – so I’ve got something that resembles a paintbrush. I make a slot with the spear head, drift it around in the resin, then I put it in and pat it down. That way, the filaments bind back together. They get very strong and aren’t ‘fighting’ the flint.”
Will has been “modernising” recently – branching out into metal and making things like bronze swords. He’s built an Iron Age roundhouse in the garden, where such work can be carried out.
The ochre facepaint is metal – hydrated iron oxide. When Will first tried it, he’d scraped it from a rock and felt it was like putting on a mask. “It gave me a second skin against someone seeing the modern Will. But it was too thin. I wanted to really pack it on, like bad make-up!”
He uses white china clay, sometimes chalk, and both yellow and purple ochre. “It’s basically rust. I even dug some up in the garden. This was a smithy, and the iron bloom has reverted. I’ve got pure purple ochre out in the garden. It was a very magical moment. I got it when I was digging the post hole for the roundhouse.”
It’s not toxic, but Will says it can seep out from your eyes, like the “sleep” we sometimes wipe away upon waking!
We don’t know for sure that Stone Age man would have adorned his face like this, “but I would suggest very strongly that it would have been a cool thing to have done!”
Web link: www.will-lord.co.uk
WHILE Will Lord had faith that he could keep the wolf from the door as a Stone Age expert, life has had its moments.
He went full-time just before wife Sarah fell pregnant with son Xander, now aged three and a half.
“There have been times when we’ve got down to, like, 90p in the bank and I’ve sat down at the computer and started working, and later I’ve gone out of that door and there’s been £5,000 in the bank.”
The key is remaining focused, contacting people and working hard, he says, while admitting “I find thinking about money a pain in the backside, because it unfocuses me from what I should be thinking about.
“I think you do what you do well, and let the money take care of itself, and just keep really focused on what you’re trying to achieve.
“It’s a bit like January. We needed to pay our tax bill, a big chunk of money, and I didn’t have it. I said to Sarah ‘I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but I’m not going to worry about it.’
“A few days before it was due, the phone rang and someone said ‘Can I spend this money with you?’ It was exactly what the tax man needed. ‘Yeah; it would be great!’”
The couple met at Butser Ancient Farm, in Hampshire, where Will was running flintknapping workshops. Sarah has a “first” degree in archaeology.
There’s a certain irony in Will having things like a mobile phone and laptop. In fact, he says he now spends more time on the computer than he ever has.
“If it wasn’t for the internet, I wouldn’t have a business,” he smiles. “It’s about taking forward things that prove their value to you; being discriminatory” – and not automatically thinking that every modern advance is a retrograde move.