When Felucca first set sail on 7th April, there was ice on the car windows, and after one of the coldest Marches for years, many of the trees were still bare. Where was spring?
It arrived in May with a great riotous explosion of buds, leaves, birdsong and blossom. We picked wild garlic for salads. Families of ducklings whizzed along the cut; Mother Nature trilled a jaunty whistle, etc.
By June, the meadows along the Llangollen Canal were buttery with buttercups and we filled the boat with wild flowers picked from the towpath.
Now, following an impressive summer, the verges and woodlands around the canal are preparing for another change of gear. The horse chestnuts are heaving with conkers and sweetcorn ripens in the fields; mellow fruitfulness abounds. Most noticeable of all: the blackberries are coming out.
Last week, when poet Seamus Heaney died, my cousin posted his poem “Blackberry-Picking” on Facebook, and I thought I would repost it here as it’s rather good.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
Today I got involved and went blackberry-picking on the Caldon Canal.
It took an hour to pick about 600g of blackberries, though most of this was taking a jaunty stroll in the countryside: when you find a decent load of brambles, you can actually do about half a pound in five minutes.
Whilst it would have been rather jolly to grow a rat fungus in the bath, we decided to actually eat them.
I have wonderful childhood memories of the blackberry harvest and subsequent gluttony: Grandad would don his boots and flat cap and go stomping out into the fields, returning with umpteen ice cream tubs full of fruit.
Grandma would then spend several days cooking a vast warehouse-full of absolutely delicious pies and jam to feed her voracious family. (My favourite: a straightforward blackberry pie. Adding boring apples was an insult to the beautiful berry.)
Today we made a crumble. And jolly good it was too. I hope my grandparents would be proud; I imagine Mr Heaney would have found it a revelation, though perhaps less of a subject for a depressing poem.
I highly recommend getting yourself a bucket and getting involved; there’s nothing like foraging off the land to give you a wholesome meal and the frisson of light trespassing. Now, I wonder if it’s legal to shoot rabbits on Canal & River Trust land…