Friday, 13 September 2013

Hedgerow harvest

There's an expression you commonly hear in Scotland at this time of year (indeed, my husband, who was originally from Speyside, used to say it nearly every day in September). "Aye, the nights are fair drawing in." Roughly translated, it means: "Yes, the evenings really are getting darker."
It's a time of year I love. You still get lots of sunshine, the weather is still mild, even if it is raining, and the hedgerows are full of blackberries, elderberries and sloes. It's the perfect time of year to go for a walk AND come back with something to eat.
Where I live, in the Cotswolds, the hedgerows tend to be the classic mixture of mainly hawthorn, with field maple (Acer campestre),  native hazel (Corylus avallana) and wild rose (Rosa canina). You find brambles, ivy and Travellers' Joy (Clematis vitalba) scrambling about too, with the inevitable elders (Sambucus nigra) that seem to self-seed everywhere in the Cotswolds.
A mixed hedge supports a greater diversity of wildlife than a single species hedge. This makes them much more fascinating - there's a greater seasonal change to observe, and all sorts of creatures use the hedge as a larder or a home. At this time of year, they are humming with activity as bees, wasps and other insects gorge themselves on blackberries.
Perhaps it's childhood memories of blackberrying that makes me love traditional hedgerows. It's that element of serendipity - you never know what you are going to find, but it's always going to be interesting.
So today I took Rufus and a pail and headed up the hill to see what I could find.

This is one of my favourite walks: a public footpath which runs alongside the fields. There is a project going on here to encourage native wildflowers and skylark habitats.

 The sead heads of wild carrot (Daucus carota), which look like mini upturned crinolines.

Rufus likes this walk too. He just wishes I'd stop gawping at plants and get a move on.

September is a busy time for farmers, who have finished harvesting and now started ploughing. The fields are a patchwork of beige, chocolate and green.

Travellers' Joy, our native wild clematis, also known as Old Man's Beard. The funny thing about this plant is that I only ever notice it at this time of the year, when its silky seedheads are on display. I never seem to notice it when it is in flower.

The footpath leads up quite a steep hill (puff, puff), but once at the top, you get a fantastic view of the village, looking as if it is dozing in the late afternoon sun

Blackberries! Not the best crop I've ever seen or the sweetest, but there were enough to fill my pail. I wonder whether being able to buy cultivated blackberries (unheard-of when I was a child but now easily available in the supermarkets) has spoilt our taste for hedgerow brambles?

There were other berries in the hedgerows too. Hawthorn, above, 
which always looks so cheerful. 

Elderberries, from which you can make wine or cordial. I thought about it, but then reality stepped in. I knew I'd never get round to it. Don't eat the raw berries - always cook them

So here we are back home with a hedgerow bouquet (don't worry, it's all from my garden or creeping over the wall into my garden) and some blackberries. Walking home, I pondered what to make with them. Crumble? Apple and blackberry pie? In the end, I settled on bramble jelly, because it seemed to offer the best long-term reward for the time and effort involved.
The trouble with autumn is that one is overwhelmed with enthusiasm for new and interesting ways to use up fruit and vegetables. I'm the only person in my household who eats chutney, so there is absolutely no point in making jars and jars of it. On the other hand, everyone eats toast and jam, and a batch of bramble jelly will last for months. I'm going to cheat and use preserving sugar that has pectin added to it. Give me a break, I've just been on a really long walk!