August 20-28, 2016
Round Hill Campsite, The New Forest, Brockenhurst, England
H. Helene McGall
I first met Neil Johnson and some of his students in 2013 when they were on a Dishu, Fujian Dog Boxing training session with Master Lin Zai Pei in Fuzhou, Fujian, China. Master Lin’s youngest son, an oral English student of mine from the Agricultural and Forestry University of Fujian Province, had invited me along to meet Neil and to have an introduction to his father, brother, and the martial art of Kung Fu.
Little did I know how this single event would change my life forever.
In China, my life revolves around Kung Fu training, Thursday and Sunday morning. Master Lin and his sons are my source of “enlightenment”. By that, I mean that every training session is a journey into self-discovery: mentally, physically and spiritually. How fortunate I am to have the opportunity to study with such important and committed teachers. It is a cultural experience that I greatly respect, appreciate and am thankful for.
The idea of going to summer camp was something that appealed to my inner child, so when Neil reported that summer camp would be in August, I decided that this would be my chance to hone my kung Fu skills, visit some old friends, and enjoy a little bit of merry old England.
My dear friend got me to Winchester, and from there, I boarded the train to Brockenhurst. After the taxi dropped me off at Round Hill Campsite, my good buddy, Imogen, just happened to arrive at the same time, so off we went to look for the campsite.
And wow, what a site we had! A whole field to ourselves! Everyone set up their tents and parked their cars in a kind of circle that enabled us to practice our work in the center of the field. It was kind of like the wild west idea of “circle the wagons”. Before long, all the tents were up, tea was on, lunch was made and then we had our first training session.
The focus of this camp was learning Double Dragonfly Dipping Swords, improving Dishu Quan, Tiger Crane combinations and practicing the series of exercises known as Damo. In addition, we spent one morning with a focus on strengthening the body with a conditioning regime known as the Iron Shirt. It was an amazing opportunity to involve oneself in total Kung Fu immersion, without the pressures, computers, cell phones, tablets or other distractions that we face in the everyday work world. What a treat it was to wake up in the morning, completely refreshed, have a cup of coffee or tea, relaxing conversation with wonderful and interesting people and then to head off, through the forest, in the glorious sunshine, to Damo training.
During the sessions, Neil reminded us of many things relating to why we enjoy Kung Fu so much. He told us that our wealth is indeed our health, and it must come from the inside of our beings, and work its way to the outside. We must train our minds, our bodies, and we must engage our spirit to fully experience the gift that participating in Kung Fu brings each one of us. Key elements to focus on were breathing and practicing tension leading to release in all that we did. Further, he reinforced the concept that the martial arts are ways in which one moves in combat. Each flick of the wrist, finger, hand, arm, leg, foot or any other part of the body has a specific job to do. Learning what that job is helps to refine and focus the movements precisely. Details, details, details. That is what makes Neil such a fabulous instructor, and professional educator. He not only talks the talk, he walks the talk.
Round Hill camp ground was a sensational setting for the camp. The weather was beautiful, and there were many interesting stories that happened while we were there. Every day, herds of cattle, donkeys, or horses freely roamed the area. How wonderful it was to be able to have these critters so close to us. One day, when we were practicing our moves, the donkeys made themselves well acquainted with Neil’s cookhouse set up. They tippled Mark’s hot sauce, chomped on Neil’s coffee, and made a mess with the garbage—but how could you be mad at them, they were so cute!! These same friendly donkeys also loved walking into tents, looking for anything to eat. Everyone learned to zip up their tents, and put their bikes in front!!
Of course there were many other campers there as well. Two little girls came over to see what we were doing. While one child had her eye focussed on Max, the other had a little, tiny spider jump on her neck, and I am sure that the whole camp ground could hear her scream and sob, “spider”!!! And then, there was the little girl who went missing, and the night was filled with flash lights, and the sound of her name. Fortunately, she was found, and she was seen the next day playing happily with her friends.
Neil made each day fun and exciting by mixing up the activities. Everyday started with the Damo and the Shuang Yang soft boxing form, then there was breakfast, followed by lunch packing, and perhaps a cycle somewhere interesting for some practice, tree climbing and hugging, lunch, more practice, a return to the camp for a rest, and perhaps a practice, dinner, and if we were really good, an ice cream from the ice cream man and a movie! The camp challenge, fire making, proved to be an exercise in futility!! Not one team successfully ignited a spark. One might say it was all smoke and mirrors!! Ah well, the challenge stands for another time!!!
And food-did I mention that Neil is a Renaissance man. He can do anything. His cooking was gourmet and over the top with chicken curry, bangers and mash, chicken and vegetable skewers, and spaghetti bolognaise. We also had fish and chips and pizza. Every meal was a celebration. Imogen’s morning porridge was also a hit of the camp.
The time went so quickly. Everyone worked hard and played hard. We all enjoyed each other’s company, and developed a keen sense of family, community and team spirit. The mix of ages and ability levels was a key factor in creating an atmosphere and environment of positive energy exchange, skill development, and spiritual enlightenment.
It was a long way to travel for a summer camp, but the experience exceeded my expectations, I have learned new skills, made new friends and have found a focus that will last for the rest of my life.
Thank you, Neil Johnson, and the members of the White Crane Fighting Arts Association for making me feel so welcome, and for allowing me to join you for an outstanding cultural exchange. I will have much to share with our Kung Fu brothers and sisters back in Fuzhou this coming winter.