A couple of weeks back we went, with some friends, to one of Berkshire’s pick-your-own farms. These provide probably the tamest sort of back-to-nature experience possible: a controlled, regimented and essentially wholly manmade environment that still allows a frisson of contact with our inner hunter-gatherers. Freed from our suburban shackles, we were a band of plundering monkeys, with eyes, noses and taste buds fixed on the tasty prize. Sweet, yielding strawberries, sherbert-sharp rhubarb and unpromisingly tart yet ultimately delicious gooseberries: all this and more could be ours! So for once we really worked for our supper, labouring quietly in the hot sun. If we spoke at all, we employed language only for what I recall reading is supposed to have been its original purpose: telling each other where the ripe fruit was.
The only potential draw back of the PYO I can think off (besides sunstroke, nettle stings, cleaver-induced rashes, etc.) is that our ancestral urge to gather as much good fruit as we can combines with temptingly low prices to ensure that one often comes away with a nearly unmanageable haul of rapidly decaying fruit. So what followed after our afternoon’s picking was a rather frantic few days in the kitchen attempting to capture the fresh, fruity, floral flavours at their best before rot set in. Jams, sorbets, ice creams, cordials, fruit sauce, curd – two kitchens can seldom have been more productive in such a short space of time (nor, alas, can dirty dishes ever have mounted up so fast).
Rugged, rambling, and jutting remotely out into the Atlantic from Britain’s southwest corner, Cornwall is a land on the edge. Its dramatic topography forces most wild inhabitants of the county to exist in similar fashion, living in unpromisingly bleak or weather-beaten surroundings that are often quite literally on the edge: whether of a cliff, quarry, moor, wooded valley or strandline. Fortunately nature does not shy away from extremes and, more importantly, she thrives on contrast. Edge habitats are amongst the most diverse and productive; they teem with life.
On our first evening in the county we attempted to join in with nature-on-the-edge, just for a few minutes, down on the beach at Porthtowan. But the cold, wind, and stinging rain was simply too much for us vulnerable apes, even wrapped up in waterproofs, and we soon fled to the warmth of our rented shelter. Behind our retreating backs fulmars wheeled and soared down the sheer edge of the cliff face whilst rock pipits skipped on the sandy beach amongst stolid unmoving black-backed gulls. Bad conditions don’t make life easy for the birds; nevertheless, they are far better equipped to defy them and carry on with the normal, necessary routines of life.
At the end of a morning’s bird surveying I often treat myself to an extra wander, especially if I’ve ended up somewhere particularly lovely. Freed from the pressure of getting in another count before the late morning lull, it’s finally possible to relax and pay attention to the myriad other sights and smells of spring. For example: earlier this week I finished up next to the adjacent wildlife trust reserve’s information board, which sported a tiny picture of an early purple orchid. Thinking this sounded a good object for a quest, I ignored my stomach’s persistent rumbling requests for the fat rascally deliciousness waiting back at the car, and plunged into the woods in pursuit of the real thing.
Perhaps due to the stop-start-stop nature of this spring, most floral displays I’ve chanced upon so far this year have been of one or two species, desperately throwing their energies into flowering at the first sign of a decent weather window. In one little corner of Berkshire’s Moor Copse, however, the ground flora has got itself organised and put on as varied a display as one might see in a shop window, as if preparing for a one-stop field guide photography session. The show began just a few paces in from the wood’s edge, and I immediately began to lose myself in a reverie of petals and sunlight.