One of the things I most enjoy about country walks in the autumn is the abundance of free food available in the hedgerows. In fact the whole business of foraging wild plums, blackberries, elderberries and apples adds a new and entirely pleasing dimension to the walk. Some of these walks are old favourites of mine chosen especially at this season because of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years of where a particularly good blackberry bush or crab apple tree is located. In this sense the walk is like an old friend, a provider of bountiful gifts.
We live in South Cambridgeshire and the other day my son and I took a walk from Shepreth over to Harlton and back. He was soon to start Sixth Form College after the long summer break; it was a good opportunity to spend some time together before his life becomes very busy again. We took some containers with us and went off to see what we could harvest. It was a pretty wild and windy day, strong westerly winds were sweeping in and the still leaf-covered trees swayed violently. The idea was to keep our eyes open for any fruits and berries on the way out and then do the harvesting on the return leg.
Leaving Shepreth, we trod a footpath across open fields to the bridge crossing the river Rhee. We paused to observe the gently flowing water, making its way to Cambridge and then on to the far away Wash. From Barrington we took the path from behind the village up onto a wooded ridge, an eastern spur of the Chilterns, and turned on to the ancient track known as the Mare Way. Once an important passage, this is now a meandering path through a narrow belt of the trees. After a mile or so we took a side path, descending to Harlton, via the old clunch pit dug in to the side of the hill. The pit, no longer used as a quarry, is now overgrown with trees, bisected by a multitude of paths. We took some respite from the wind, down in this man-made dell. Reaching the outskirts of Harlton we picked up a good supply of elderberries then walked back up onto the Mare Way. Returning to Barrington, we stopped for blackberries and crab apples in a hedge boundary between two fields on the exposed hillside. By now the wind was blowing a gale and the crab apples were lying about on the ground, easy to collect. It did not long to fill a bag. The blackberries were a different proposition: they were few in number and hard to get at being low down and set back amidst the Hawthorne. But we made a good team, my son holding back the bramble whilst I stooped down to garner the fruits. All the while the wind howled across the exposed hillside. Finally, all done, we were glad to troop back to Shepreth for a well-earned cup of tea and piece of cake.
We had enough blackberries for a crumble at dinner and later that evening I simmered the elderberries and crab apples separately, combining the extracted juice with sugar to make a mixed fruit jelly. We shall store this for use in mid-winter and then perhaps recollect that slightly crazy windy walk. There is something about the taste of elderberries that is quite unlike anything else. I sometimes make a homemade elderberry wine, which has a dark velvety, taste, slightly earthy, and quit delicious to drink.
We view the free food of the hedgerow is an integral element in our domestic family economy, supplementing the fruit and vegetables grown in my garden and on my allotment. More than this, garnering, scavenging, call it what you will, is fur us an unconstrained act of liberty; consumption unfettered by the trammels of the commercial food chain.