Meet the Flintstones with a semi! They dress in animal skins, hunt for food and love cave-dwelling (when not in Shropshire). They’re also part of a timely TV experiment about surviving against the odds
How gloriously autumnal the Stone Age capsule wardrobe is. A bit beige, thanks to all the buckskin, but the layers of taupe and moss and tawny brown work so well in a woodland setting.
Naomi Walmsley, 38, runs through her mix ‘n’ match items. There’s a skirt and a pair of trousers, a bikini of sorts, and a very versatile dress-tunic affair which can be worn on its own or over the trousers.
Alas, it has no pockets — the lot of the cavewoman wasn’t that different to modern woman’s, it seems — but it does have tassels.
‘There’s no way of knowing if our ancestors would have had tassles, but I’m going with it,’ she says.
Naomi’s husband Dan Westall — Fred Flintstone to her Wilma — seems to have fewer clothes, but isn’t that just typical? Men can wear the same thing over and over and no one notices. He has trousers and shorts and a similar tunic thing (no tassles).
Naomi’s husband Dan Westall (pictured together) — Fred Flintstone to her Wilma — seems to have fewer clothes, but isn’t that just typical? Men can wear the same thing over and over and no one notices. He has trousers and shorts and a similar tunic thing (no tassles)
They both have rather splendid furry Stone Age-style bodywarmers. ‘Coyote fox fur,’ explains Dan, 41. ‘We got a few other furs in our collection from the motorway. Roadkill is a very modern part of the Stone Age experience.’
Who are Naomi and Dan? They call themselves modern-day cave dwellers, even though that description is not technically correct since they actually live in a semi in Shropshire with fully running water, central heating, wi-fi and their two young daughters.
But the point is they could live in a cave, should the need arise. They have done in the past.
Ten years ago, when they first became interested in the period, they went on a ‘Stone Age immersion project’ in the U.S. and lived as cavemen would have lived for four-and-a-half months.
Interestingly, and rather improbably, the U.S. project was run by another British woman called Lynx Vilden (legally, she is Lisa rather than Lynx, but whatever her name, she’s viewed as a goddess in Stone Age survival circles).
Currently, TV viewers are getting to know Naomi, Dan and Lynx — and the rest of their tribe — in a new Channel 4 programme called Surviving the Stone Age. The series, filmed pre-pandemic, collected eight hunter-gatherer types and signed them up for their very own Stone Age adventure.
Currently, TV viewers are getting to know Naomi, Dan and Lynx — and the rest of their tribe — in a new Channel 4 programme called Surviving the Stone Age
The participants — who include historians, survivalists and bushcraft boffins — had to spend a month living in the wild, building their own shelter and catching their own food, using only the tools that prehistoric man would have had access to.
They’ve even constructed their prehistoric capsule wardrobes in a similarly historically accurate way, too. ‘You wouldn’t be able to do them on a sewing machine but to be authentic, we used bone needles and gut for thread,’ explains Naomi.
Though it turns out there was a little cheating: ‘We actually used a metal punch to make the holes for the needles, but that was because we were pressed for time. So the materials are Stone Age, although some of the processes were modern.’
What about shoes? Shoes, it seems, are the utter bane of prehistoric life.
‘Obviously if you are going for authenticity you can’t have proper shoes, but being barefoot isn’t always practical. It’s a problem.
‘In the past, I’ve made moccasins from buckskin but if those get wet you are wet all day. You end up wearing your moccasins inside and go barefoot outside, which seems like the wrong way round.’
Oh for a pair of flip-flops, eh? ‘And a pillow,’ says Dan. ‘The pillow is always the thing we long for most.’
Their American immersion experience gave them a taste of what to expect from the Channel 4 experiment.
‘It was hardcore,’ says Naomi. ‘But it wasn’t all hardcore. In the U.S., we lived in tents in the woods and there were training periods, where we learned to build shelters and make tools and prepare an entire buffalo with only the tools Stone Age man would have had. But at night, we could still go into the local town to the pub. They had a nice brewery, didn’t they?’
Dan nods. ‘A few times we had a pizza, too.’
However, there’s strictly no pizza this time. During filming, the diet was purely paleo, which means meat, fruits, nuts seeds — whatever a hunter, gatherer could find. And it was strictly Stone Age tech, which means flint. And more flint. And a bit of bone. And some gut sinew and rotted deer to act as glue.
Surviving the Stone Age sounds like a preposterous programme, like I’m a Celeb but without the celebs, but actually it’s quite fascinating. It’s beautifully shot (most of the filming was done in Bulgaria) and because the tribe is made up of proper academic types rather than soap stars there is a whiff of authenticity. As well as a whiff of decaying meat.
It’s quite bonkers to say that a programme about how we lived 200,000 years ago is timely too, but it absolutely is.
In these uncertain times, there has been a growing interest in self-sufficiency and in going off grid. There is a whole movement of survivalists, or preppers as they are sometimes known, preparing for either national power outages or zombie apocalypses, depending on their level of crazy.
On their first day in the wild, we learn how the tribe deals with the very basics of Stone Age living: a life without toilet roll. A useful skill given the UK’s penchant for panic buying the stuff. And we learn very quickly that it is entirely possible. Before Andrex, there was (and still is) the mullein plant, which has particularly soft-yet-strong leaves. Nature’s own little fresh-and-fragrant present to us. ‘Nature is amazing,’ says Dan. ‘But we’ve forgotten a lot of this. The point of a project like this is to remind us.’
The programme, while oddly escapist, does make you appreciate why most Stone Age souls died before they were 30. Maybe some of them died through boredom while fishing. There is a lot of fishing.
The first episode showed them attempting to fish with spears, then a home-made fishing net (made with animal gut), then their bare hands. Anglers hoping for fishing tips will be most disappointed, because the tribe resort to attempting to strangle their fish before bashing them against rocks. Brutal, and pointless. The fish still won.
Embarrassingly bad, admits Dan. ‘Between us we only caught a tiny tiddler. The fish were clever. Whatever we tried, they evaded us.’
There are moments when it looks as if the show will be entirely authentic, because everyone will starve.
The members of the tribe go off hunting and the botanists in their ranks are able to identify which plant roots will provide the most energy. A conundrum you don’t get with Ocado is whether the digging involved to unearth these roots will involve more energy being expended than gained.
‘These things were vital to think about,’ says Naomi. ‘And the hunger was extreme.’
We can’t give away too much about what happens, but there is some slaughter of animals involved and some feasting, which is completely wasted on Naomi who is intolerant to red meat. The fact that all eight members of the tribe return to normal life at the end of the TV experiment is a success in itself.
Back in the safety of their family home and reunited with their daughters, who stayed with relatives during filming, Dan and Naomi say they are hugely glad they took part. Although they did miss certain elements of modern life.
Dan missed toothpaste (Stone Age man cleaned his teeth by gnawing on twigs or charcoal) but Naomi isn’t thrilled to be back to the modern world of shampoo and shower gel.
‘We would bathe in the river and a sandy pebble is all you need to really clean the skin,’ she says. ‘My hair had never been in such good condition. When I came back, I tried not to wash it but with the pollution here, it’s just not the same.’
The real gains weren’t cosmetic, though. They talk of bonding, a heart-soaring appreciation of nature and the joys of being in the moment, particularly if that involves a canoe on a river.
As Naomi puts it: ‘There was a moment in the canoe where we just all burst into song and it was the most amazing thing, completely spontaneous. I felt complete and utter contentment. In today’s busy world, we are very rarely genuinely in the moment.
‘Even when I’m with my children, trying to focus on whatever activity we are doing, I’m aware that my brain isn’t still. Here, it was.’
They are jolly souls who don’t mind a bit of ribbing about their odd outfits — thank goodness, given that Dan has been known to go out with antlers worn as a necklace. Their day jobs involve teaching about the prehistoric period. Since prehistoric human history was introduced to the National Curriculum, they have been teaching bushcraft and going into schools to lecture.
Naomi has written a book extolling the virtues of nettle crisps. They adore their subject, and the dressing up that goes with it. Do they seriously wear their garb to Asda?
‘We have been known to pop into the supermarket while dressed like this, and you do get a few stares, although most people assume you are going to a fancy dress party,’ says Dan.
‘Although it’s odder when people don’t say a thing and just behave as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to see a man in full face-paint getting petrol.’
It’s the adults who make the Flintstone jibes. ‘The kids think more of something like Horrible Histories.’
The couple met while they were both working in a youth hostel in North Wales. He fell in love with her dreadlocks; she loved his outdoors vibe. They never quite lost the taste for adventuring.
Dan worked as a canoe instructor for a time, while Naomi trained to work in a forest school. They both started to teach bushcraft (ironically, the teaching of ancient bushcraft is a very modern phenomenon) and Dan worked as an advisor on a series of gung-ho type TV programmes.
They yearned for more real-life wild, though, hence the life-changing trip to the States for Lynx’s immersion project.
‘She was incredibly inspiring,’ admits Dan. ‘It was so odd when we met her. She was in London and we went down to meet her there and it was surreal to see her, in her buckskins, in a London park.’
The immersion project was exhilarating and illuminating, and on it they met other people who had children with them. ‘It was an eye-opener,’ says Naomi. They returned to the UK and started their own family, and — yes really — ran up a little buckskin outfit for their firstborn. ‘Maggie was about nine months old and she had a little tunic.’
While it was a nice idea to have feral children, they never went fully down that route. Maggie, now nine, goes to a mainstream school. Wren, four, attends nursery, and the kids don’t, as a rule, do the Stone Age dressing up. ‘It would be a bit odd with their friends all in anoraks’.
They do have a small patch of woodland which serves both as a workplace for Dan and Naomi and a magical play park for their children. The ultimate goal is to live off-grid, though. ‘It’s the longer term plan, but to do it properly, you need money to buy land.’
Obviously since they have come home they have gone into lockdown, and have encountered completely unexpected parallels with their Stone Age tribal experience.
‘One of the most magical things about that is the sense of community you get when you all have to work together just to survive,’ says Dan. ‘But we’ve been seeing that replicated here since we got back. All the neighbours have been pitching in in a way that wasn’t normal before.’
Have they stayed in touch with the other members of their Stone Age tribe? ‘Of course!’ they say. They have a WhatsApp group.
n Surviving the Stone Age: Adventure to the Wild is on Saturday nights on Channel 4 at 7.10pm
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