5 years sober, 7 stone lighter and smoke free. Cooking in the great outdoors has been instrumental in Harrison Ward’s (the Fell Foodie) turnaround, boosting his mental strength and keeping darker thoughts at bay. It’s been truly life changing.
Here’s Harrison’s story of how he took his passion outside and went on to become one of the UKs best known outdoor cooks.
I have suffered with a crippling depression for most of my life. Whilst at university, I was consuming over 20 pints daily, smoking and had ballooned to 22 stone. I tried to hide my double life, but alcohol was destroying me and the relationships I had with others. It was after I was unfaithful to, my then, girlfriend, I vowed to change. I left the area, my job, my flat, friends and completely removed alcohol and cigarettes from my life. I threw myself into fitness and even began to run.
A fortnight later, my friend Ryan arrived on my doorstep and said, “We are going hiking up Blencathra”. Under the haze of substance withdrawal, I struggled to take this in. I’d never owned a pair of walking boots, how could I possible climb a mountain? Kindly, Ryan stopped at an outdoor shop en route and bought me a pair. A slow and demanding vertical plod commenced. I was never going to give up despite my struggle and eventually we reached the summit. Whilst descending Ryan said, “Helvellyn next?”.
I’m not sure I answered, yet a week later we had parked up at Swirls car park, close to the path up Helvellyn. It was a magnificent day with barely a cloud in the sky. I pulled on my boots once more and began marching up the steep ascent. We finally reached the trig point and with it, something had sparked in me. Looking east over Striding Edge I knew a new addiction had been ignited. Gathering breath, I heard “Scafell Pike?”
Harrison Ward giving a talk
Many other Lakeland fells followed along with the classics; Snowdon, Crib Goch and Ben Nevis etc. Hiking boots were now interchangeable with trainers as slow walks advanced into technical runs. Eleven months on from my dramatic life change, I even completed a marathon in just over 4 hours. It felt like redemption.
Today, the outdoors remains a key component of my lifestyle as I have based myself in the heart of the Lake District. I’ve now ticked off half the Wainwrights, frequently wild camp and I even made the cut to be an Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion, a far cry from my days propping up the bar!
Harrison Ward's mountain top dishes
Taking my passion with me
What’s more, I’ve taken my longstanding passion for cooking into the outdoors and this is now what I’m known for. Nutrition is important when exercising outdoors and when I first started walking, I would prepare some more extravagant lunches to take up the fells with me as opposed to the generic clingfilmed sandwiches. This, of course, brought some comments from peers and one friend joked that I should “get a stove and cook” my lunch on the hillside. Not one to shirk a challenge, this is exactly what I did and the rest has snowballed from there.
The Fell Foodie
Cooking on summits
For me, cooking is a very mindful practice, adding different elements and combining them into a dish is a feast to all the senses. It’s relaxing! Taking that practice into the outdoors, another mindful place, just clicks for me. I’ve always enjoyed good food and this wasn’t something I wanted to leave behind just because I was out walking for long periods of time. Combining cooking with hillwalking though, is certainly a challenge but is rewarded when sat on a summit with a sizzling pan, taking in the aromatics of the dish and looking out at a spectacular view. It’s a sensation that certainly elevates flavours.
Harrison Ward with Mary Berry
How I started
The first dish I prepared outdoors on my camping stove was a poached egg, bacon and caramelised onion relish on a toasted muffin. I chose this because it required testing a few different techniques out in the open air and also because it was breakfast time. Initially, I walked on low level ground and made sure I wasn’t too far from the car. It was a lovely little peaceful spot by the edge of Rydal Water.
I guess I was a bit nervous about doing something different but once I got walking, I loved it. I often struggle to be unoccupied, I’m not someone that can sunbathe on holiday for example. So, despite sitting in a beautiful location, having to chop up some veg and keep an eye on a pan was far more relaxing for me than just sitting in nature.
Bringing people together
regularly walk and cook alone, I also enjoy cooking for other people. I adore
how food makes people gather around a table, a fire or in this case a stove. I
love the joy and satisfaction food brings to people and how it can stop people
in their busy lives and bring them together. I haven’t cooked with others in
the outdoors (I like to have the ‘kitchen’ to myself) but I love sharing my
culinary creations on a hilltop with friends.
Harrison Ward cooking for others
Favourite food and views
People always ask me what my favourite thing to cook outdoors is. It doesn’t matter on the recipe as such, but the enjoyment I get from being outside and cooking. I love Italian and Greek cuisines and I would love to prepare a fresh camp-stove meal outside in a stunning setting in those countries one day.
Closer to home though, my favourite place to cook is in the mountains, but choosing one is as hard as choosing a favourite dish. No location is the same and each is memorable for different reasons. My favourite place to cook is my next summit!
Harrison Ward at the Kendal Mountain Festival
Simple 5 ingredient recipe
I knocked up a delicious white bean stew recently up in the Greenburn Valley. It’s a nice easy one-pot dish to try outside if you’re new to cooking outdoors.
- 1 White Onion
- 2 or 3 cloves of Garlic
- 400g give or take of Butter Beans or a similar white bean
- Fresh hot vegetable stock (pack it in a flask)
- Big handful of kale or leafy cabbage to stir through
- Salt and pepper are required too but they don’t count as the 5
- Finely chop the onion and pop in a pan on a medium heat with some oil. Cook until softened, we aren’t looking for any colour on the onions here!
- Add finely chopped garlic and cook for 3-5 minutes.
- Slice up your leafy greens and stir those through the mixture before adding all the beans (drained).
- Add enough stock to just cover and season to taste. Simmer the mixture until stock has reduced slightly and then serve.
Cooking in the Lake District
Cooking responsibly is all about leaving the environment how you found it, leaving no trace, even if it’s just food waste and peelings. An avocado wouldn’t grow in the fells of the Lake District so has no business being left there. I pack everything back out again after I cook. I also don’t wash my pots and pans in the outdoors to avoid contamination in natural water sources. If using a lot of oils or starches this can have a negative impact on small, delicate ecosystems and wildlife, so it’s best to pack out and clean everything at home or on a campsite.
Another thing to consider is the heat from your stove, I don’t light open fires when cooking outside but instead use a controlled camping stove. However, occasionally these can still leave scorch marks so be careful about the placement of your stove and place it on a large rock if you can. When removing pans from the heat, be sure to place them on a heatproof mat or a rock to avoid burning any grass and leaving unsightly marks. The most important thing is to leave everything looking exactly how you found it.
Harrison Ward cooking by a river
Top tips for cooking outdoors
- Try something you are familiar with cooking at home.
- Start small, prepare ingredients at home first if you like or even make up the sauce and reheat on location.
- When feeling braver, make sure you are decanting things down especially spices and oils etc. You don’t need the whole pot so don’t carry it. Putting spices in smaller containers will also spare you excess weight in your pack.
- Check the weather, you don’t want to be cooking a slow, long dish if the wind and rain are roaring through. Plan your recipes accordingly, you may just want a quick refuel and to get back on the trail.
- Finally, as mentioned above, be sure to leave no trace. Outdoor cooking can be great fun but make sure the outdoors is left as it should be left as natural as possible.
For updates on Harrison’s mental health journey and passion for cooking in the hills, follow @fellfoodie on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.