Category Archives: ecology

Lines to River Cottage

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Often a journey begins in stillness, an anti-action, a passage in a book, an overheard conversation or a program on TV sparks a wish to explore and experience. The journey is traced out in mind or map, fingers crossing miles, tracing flat planes and pressing down contour folds. The map is as distracting as the landscape itself, lines draw out the gaze, shapes on the horizon encourage tangents to be taken but when you have a goal in mind a map is the key to it.

I wanted to find the original River cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s first location of his experiments to live off the land. The TV series had inspired me a great deal in my early twenties and at that time Dorset had seemed a very distant place, an old England with an ancient landscape of crazy paved fields and endless hedgerow. Growing up in the industrial landscape of North Lincolnshire it has always seemed a world away from the landscape I knew.

Industrial farming has left much of the flat lands of Lincolnshire open, hedgerows no longer border fields, points of reference are lost as farms seem to drift in a sea of ploughed earth. There is very little topography to speak of and what is there is so over used it cannot hope to hold any secrets. The landscape has been opened like a map and like paper lies flat for all to see.

It had not been a planned journey, Liz and I had decided to go camping for a fortnight and explore Dorset will no real itinerary but to just drift from place to place letting one place inform the next. The idea of finding the River Cottage had come to me as I sat in the car navigating through the winding Dorset roads, with a road map on my knee. As we traveling east my finger mimicked the direction on the map and I noticed Chideock was to be the next village we were to pass through, which I remembered was one of the places mentioned on the series. I’m not sure I mentioned it to Liz at the time but it started me thinking that the cottage must be somewhere close by. It was purely by good fortune that we decided to go next to Britport choosing a campsite north of the little town. The campsite was an industrial affair like a golf course housing refugees from the city, we took ourselves as far from the madding crowd as we could, hiding our tent behind a hedge in the hinterland between lawn and the fields beyond.

I had been given a small printed map, which gave little information other than the main road in and out of the site with places to eat being the main points of reference. However luckily for me whomever drew this little map had added a clue in the form of a single line with the words River Brit written along it. I had a clear memory that this was the river to which River Cottage got it’s name and that in one episode Hugh had traversed this river by canoe down six miles to the sea. It instantly struck me that this campsite must be four or five miles from the sea and so the cottage must not be far away.

Having explained this good fortune to Liz and armed only with a road map and the little printed map we somewhat foolishly set off there and then down to the river in the beautiful warmth of a late summer afternoon. By another stroke of good fortune we found a small bridge and footpath which led to the other side of the river, the wrong side for the cottage but an easier route than pushing our way through the mass of overhanging Willows. The path led through a timeless meadow lit by the low sun and dancing with flies, lying in the long grass we found a full badger skeleton, I took the skull as a momento of our journey.

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We seemed to have walked for at least two miles and be getting further from the river as we went and I was becoming increasingly anxious as the sun was beginning to set over the hills, it would soon be dark and we would soon be lost within it. Finally the path skirted around to the left and another bridge took us back across the river and into a steep stubble field, in the bottom corner was a gate through which you could see a lane and beyond that the sun setting behind the rolling hills of Dorset. It was one of those views that shires of this typography have in abundance and never fails to grasp the imagination of this Lincolnshire lad from the flat lands.

Beautiful this view was but a cottage it was not, the lane seemed to imply that we had somehow missed this elusive abode, my natural irrationalness had clouded my perception and it was Liz who pointed out the little house through the hedge to our left. There it was, River Cottage, leaning up against the hedgerow as if in a game of hide and seek, we had found it. The little porch was unmistakable and I was so taken in by the details I had remembered from the series before I knew it I was at the front door. I don’t know why I went through the gate and up to the door, I had found the place but I needed to get closer, the door was ajar and the light was on inside, as if welcoming travelers. If it had not been for two loud blasts of a gun coming from the other side of the house I think I would have gone inside but the shock brought me to my senses and I turned and joined a grinning Liz in the field, where she took a photograph of myself looking rather shocked.

In a country where every square mile has been mapped, every inch turned, chopped or grazed, there seems little to explore but for exploring’s sake but setting out to find a location is no less a task because of it. Distances, contours and spot heights may all have been collected but the landscape still is in constant flux, it is still new to new eyes and surprises can still be found when we peer through hedgerows.

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Sea cabbage and the politics of foraging.

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Sea cabbage Brassica oleracea

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Not sure if this is a lucky accident or deliberate but useful having such a lush green veg by the back door.

Went for my first coastal forage of the year on Saturday armed with everything I’d need to collect a large haul of shellfish, so I was a little disappointed when I couldn’t find a single mussel. Tried a beach Ive never been to before, Staithes then walking along the beach to Port Mulgrave and back along the cliff tops. Its a beautiful place just a little further up the coast from Whitby.

However even though I was without protein I was delighted to find Sea Cabbage in abundance, for a plant which is quite rare it was everywhere. With such a profusion of plants I thought it would be fine to take a couple of handfuls but there lies the problem, not can I take but should I take? The media recently seem to be focusing in on the ‘gangs’ of foragers stripping the countryside of it’s native plants and fungi. Recently 15 people were in court for collecting fungi from Epping forest.

For those people who collect commercially I have no sympathy, nothing is going to give foragers a bad name more than people who turn a resource into a commodity. Like most wild food collectors I take what I need and only when I can see it in abundance not stripping a solitary plant or picking every fruit from a bush. Even if you take out the ethics and conservation issues it makes little sense destroying a harvest for the future, making sure there is enough to set seed or keep on producing means you can keep coming back to it, surely that’s the whole point of foraging? tapping into a resource not destroying it.

I think that as a forager you feel a sense of stewardship for an area, the life of the insects and birds etc which rely and have always relied on that patch are all part of it. Considering the bigger picture is important for me, I don’t need to pick and gather from the wild, I want to, I need to remember that I’m sharing this resource and it’s not just there for my benefit. Pick mindfully.

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A few of the rare wild greens.

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Foraging everyday

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Bay Bolete Boletus badius

Foraged food is never going to make up a huge amount of my daily food and unless I spend all my time out looking for it I doubt it ever will. I’m not as committed as Fergus Drennan but I’m keen and try when I can to incorporate it into any trip I make out of the front door. There in lies the point not to see foraging for food as an exercise outside my daily routine but as part of it.

Without making much of an effort I’m slowly changing my habits to incorporate foraging into my life, simply changing my route to the supermarket ( I can’t live without hot pepper sauce) takes me through a park, an open field and a woodland and it only adds about 10 minutes to my journey. I’m opened up to the wild larder before I even get to the shops, the low shelves for mushrooms, the middle for berries and the best apples always on a high shelf that I need to ask a passerby to reach for me.

I can’t seem to help exuding enthusiasm for foraging at the moment I’ve dabbled for years nibbling blackberries and scrumping, sorry ‘picking’ apples but this year I seem to have jumped in head first, perhaps it’s the brilliant hedgerow harvests this year that have wet my appetite but I think that it’s my true belief that eating Strawberries in February is wrong and buying apples in autumn is ridiculous. Eating with the seasons makes meal times better, whatever reason you do it for, knowing that a certain food is about to come into season, planning recipes for it or preserving it for later in the year makes food more exciting and if that’s not enough to wet your appetite then I’ll let you into a little secret, all this food that you can get, which you can just go and pick is FREE!!

If I had a dog it would be easier as I’d have more of an excuse to walk the streets and parks everyday but just changing my route to the shop has made life better, cheaper and sweeter and it is a change I intend to stick to.

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Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria Yeah I know this ones not edible unless you want to dance with the fairies but it’s a great photo.

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Going foraging crazy

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