Despite pork being on the menu, not to mention pork scratchings in the shack, the free-range pigs snorting in the neighbouring field were remarkably relaxed, knowing that homemade ciabatta was on its way at the end of the day.
Marcus Bawdon, from BBQ magazine and CountryWoodSmoke, has cooked more fire food than you can shake a chimney starter at. With his UK BBQ School headteacher’s apron on, Marcus, with his school based in Cullompton, Devon, has taught many to barbecue, including yours truly, a lesson that led to the birth of this publication two years ago.
But this was to be a tutorial like no other, not just in the art of fire control and fine food, but in courage and humility – a realisation how the simple joys of outdoor cooking can have such a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing.
For the students this spring day were Armed Forces veterans Rachel Williamson and Paul Colling, brand ambassadors for Help for Heroes, the charity that had, quite simply, saved their lives.
Rachel had only recently returned from captaining Team UK at the Invictus Games at The Hague in the Netherlands, garlanded with two gold medals and a silver in swimming, as well as a rowing gold, in the presence of Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.
The Games, an international sporting event for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women, were set up by Prince Harry to ‘harness the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for those who serve their country’.
This year’s Invictus Games were layered with a whole new level of poignancy as tributes were paid to the Ukraine squad, with team members fighting on the frontline and others set to return after the Games to continue the extraordinary battle against the Russian invasion.
We were tucking into dirty steak with chimichurri sauce, racks of lamb and pork, all cooked over the wood and coals, but the signature dish on the menu was labelled perspective.
Rachel’s story is one of great sporting potential cut short – twice. She showed rich promise in the pool from the age of seven and only just missed out at a shot for selection for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Rachel joined the RAF in 2007, initially as a physical training instructor, before becoming a medic, with her tours of duty including the Falklands.
Disillusioned by swimming, Rachel, from Rutland and a huge Leicester Tigers fan, switched to rugby, again showing rare talent and soon representing the RAF. Then came a sprained thumb during a training session – on the face of it an innocuous injury, but it affected her fingers, then her hand and shoulder and eventually, diagnosed with a lifelong neurological disorder, the complete loss of the use of her right arm and an RAF discharge in 2018, the year she competed in the Sydney Invictus Games.
“I kept thinking it’s my fault; it’s sports fault, despite my love for it. I was put in touch with Help for Heroes, which then led to the Invictus Games. Without Help for Heroes I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
That we are even conversing this freely, pausing to check the temperature of the steak or sniff the cherry wood smoke in the air, is remarkable.
“Before I would never have the confidence to come to something like this and meet new people. Help for Heroes has taught me not to be afraid and being made captain of my country at the Invictus Games has given me the confidence to help others.”
Rachel was originally cared for at Headley Court in Surrey and now works at its successor, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre Stanford Hall near Loughborough; Forces life coming full circle.
Paul’s journey is the tale of a man for whom the Army has been a way of life for him and his family. A physical trainer in the Royal Signals, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and trained recruits, sharing not just his knowledge but his passion – before a traumatic ankle injury suffered on an endurance march led to multiple operations and the brutal realisation his Army career was over.
“It was like my world ended. Who you are, everything you’ve worked for, everything you wanted to achieve – just gone. That was the first time I’ve ever been mentally broken. It snapped me and I thought of killing myself,” says Paul.
“Help for Heroes saves lives. It saved mine. A Help for Heroes course made me see life from a different perspective and has helped me help others along the way.”
There are tears among the tomahawks, but mostly laughter, a lot of laughter led by Rachel and Paul as they learn the tips and hacks to cook great BBQ food simply. Paul will never forget the meat temperatures; Rachel will never relinquish the tongs and both have the vision of a lump of charcoal sizzling and smoking the nduja butter on the meat seared in the memory.
Paul Turner of Alf Turner butchers is with us and isn’t just there with the meat; his butcher’s is at the Aldershot home of the British Army in Hampshire and his sausages, seasonings and rubs, not to mention the pork scratchings and Dragon’s scotch egg, have helped raise nearly £250,000 for Help for Heroes, honouring his grandfather Alf, who served in the Royal Army Service Corps and in 1956 opened the butcher’s shop from his front room.
Paul Turner secured Dragons’ Den investment from Peter Jones in 2012 and 25% of the business was purchased this year by Hilton Food Solutions, with the company represented at the BBQ by managing director Peter Hounsome, commercial director Michael Robinson, marketing manager Lucy Sands and account manager Danielle Simons.
Fire, food and outdoor living is a seasoning to improve and enrich anyone’s mental health. As the last of the embers flickered and remnants of the ciabatta that had encased the meat cooked by our heroes under Marcus’s expert guidance were thrown to the pigs, Paul Colling said: “That was so peaceful. I have never felt so relaxed – the setting, the people, the food. There is a serious mental health tool here and so much love for Help for Heroes. Thank you for being there in the darkest of times.”
And thank you Paul, thank you Rach. To cook with heroes, to hear their stories and recovery journeys was as humbling as it was inspiring. We salute you.
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