Episode 1: Food for free: foraging in summer
Hello, and welcome to the Ashwell audio tour Episode 1. Food for free: foraging in summer. My name is Sally Fletcher and I have lived in Ashwell for eighteen years. I wrote this audio tour about some of my favourite spots to gather wild fruits in Ashwell and also to share some of the village’s history with you along the way.
Most people ignore the amazing hedgerows we have around Ashwell but they are full of interesting plant species that are an incredible resource for thrifty cooks. I am fond of elder, bramble, blackthorn, dog rose, and hawthorn, which provide seasonal goodies from May through to October. But by far my most favourite hedgerow fruits are the wild plums that grow in abundance around the village.
You are welcome to collect Ashwell’s hedgerow fruits but please be mindful that these lovely old hedges deserve to be treated with care. Don’t bend and break branches or be greedy in your gathering. The hedges also provide food for birds, insects and animals so make sure you are only collecting ripe fruits. The fruits mentioned in this audio-tour ripen at different times from early August through to late October. Check the ground for fallen ripe fruits and berries, if there are none it’s too early to pick. Most importantly – as with all wild plants and fungi – be certain of what you are picking and how to prepare it safely. If you are unsure, do not risk a stomach ache (or worse) and leave well alone.
Our walk begins on the eastern side of the village, at the Ashridge Farm caravan park. We will travel along Ashwell Street to the western end of the village and then back again via a short section of the High Street. It takes roughly an hour to complete. If you need to drive to the start, there is a small area you can leave your car just beyond the caravan park entrance.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached the Ashridge Farm caravan park then re-start it.
As this audio tour is all about summer and autumn fruit, we will begin by visiting an old orchard. With the caravan park on your left walk from the surfaced road onto a wide dirt track passing a house – 1 Ashwell Street – on your right. Walk on passing a field on the right and the caravan storage area on the left until you reach a double gateway with one entrance into the field you have just passed and the other leading to the orchard (If you reach tennis courts you have gone too far). Sheep used to graze beneath the trees but now there are geese and turkeys living there (you will probably hear their squawking before you spot the orchard). You can’t walk into the trees – it’s private land – but you can see them through the gateway.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached the gate.
As you look through the gate you will see the apple trees are much taller than a modern orchard would be now, modern cultivars are grown on dwarfing rootstock for easier picking. This orchard appears on Ordnance Survey Maps made between 1924 and 1949, but didn’t exist on maps dating to 1901. It is therefore somewhere between seventy and a hundred years old. Hertfordshire once had a significant number of orchards supplying wholesale markets in London. They grew local varieties of cherries, plums, apples and pears. Now these have almost all disappeared due to lack of demand, and competition for land, either for arable crops or development. The East of England Apples and Orchards Project is working to highlight how important old orchards are for wildlife and future crop sustainability. Their website lists apple varieties that may still be lurking in people’s gardens waiting to be rediscovered. They have fabulous names such as Captain Sanders, Shooting Star or Flower of Herts.
Turning back the way you have just walked on the right side you will see elder trees. In May they will be covered in cream flowers. By July they are festooned with berries in umbrella-like clusters that are just turning from green to a deep purplish-black. The berries ripen from August to October and are poisonous unless fully ripe. Even when they achieve their final dark glossy colour they should be cooked before eating. Like sloes however, they can be used to flavour liqueurs or be made into a sweet cordial. Now walk on past the caravan park until you reach number 5 Ashwell Street on the left.
As you walk, let’s talk about why hedgerows are so important. In the past, the hedgerows around fields and orchards provided an additional area of land to crop that farmworkers could exploit for themselves. Crops and animals in the fields and orchards belonged to the landowner, but foods grown in the hedges around the edge of this land could be picked, dried and preserved for the winter or sold on by farmworkers, providing valuable extra food or income. Varieties such as blackthorn were easy to propagate and highly valued during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries not only for the viciously effective barrier they created around newly enclosed fields, but also for the additional harvest they provided through the autumn. Wild plum and blackthorn bushes dotted all around Ashwell are therefore the ghosts of a bygone era and reflect the long history of settled farming in this area. Many orchards and fields have gone as the village has changed and expanded, but old field systems and plots can still be traced by those with a keen eye and the patience to seek them out.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached 5 Ashwell Street.
Turn to face the high hedge opposite 5 Ashwell Street. An Ordnance Survey map dating to 1901 shows that this was the edge of an orchard that once grew in the area of Philosopher’s Gate (now houses). Here you are looking at several varieties of old cherry plum trees. In spring the hedge is a riot of sweetly scented white blossom but by July the small round fruits can be seen. You may need to peer up through the branches to spot them. Some are yellow with a pinkish blush, others a deeper red. The plums should be picked when they are ripe enough to fall off the tree at the slightest touch, which happens from late July on into August.
Cherry plums are one of the wild varieties that our modern plums were bred from by creating crosses with sloes. Both species of plant can trace their origins back to the Caucasus Mountains, which are located across modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. From these two types of quite unpromisingly small and sour fruits, most plums, gages and damsons were bred.
As you continue to listen, walk on to the junction with Station Road, cross this road and continue on the dirt track of Ashwell Street. You will pass more plum and elder trees, see if you can spot them. As you continue your walk you will notice that the trees are taller and well-established and the road is a sunken track leading to the top of the hill. The route is part of the ancient Ickneild way, an Iron Age routeway that runs from Norfolk to Wiltshire. More locally, it forms an easy walk or cycle from Ashwell to Littlington. Keep walking up the hill until you re-join a tarmacked road. A short distance further on you will find Woodforde Close on the right.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached Woodforde Close.
Ordnance survey maps show that in 1877 the area that is now Woodforde Close was once a sizeable orchard reaching down the hill, to Jessamine Farm on the High Street. Sadly, it no longer exists. A little further on, on the left you will see Cliff House. This was built in 1873 in the space left by a chalk pit. The house looks very grand and imposing but hidden behind the stucco facing the walls are made of clay bats; a mixture of clay, chalk and straw, shaped into a block and allowed to dry in the sun. The clay bats are quite fragile and need to be protected from the weather – especially rain. If you look closely at the base of the walls you will see brick footings that keep them off the ground. The stucco facing is made from Portland cement, lime and sand and is therefore waterproof. Together, these feature mean the clay bats remain dry and solid.
Continue straight on crossing Kingsland Way with care and walk up the short rise on the other side. The area of houses in Broadchalke Close to your left was once a chalk quarry with a lime kiln. Ordnance survey maps suggest it went out of use between 1901 and 1925. Kingsland way was once called Lime Kiln Lane. Chalk was extracted for use in agriculture (it reduces soil acidity) and when heated in a lime kiln, makes quicklime, which is used in the building trade to make plaster and mortar. As you walk on, see if you can spot the white face of the quarry edges above the house tops.
Walk on, passing Angell’s Meadow and Ashwell School to the right and Claybush Road to the left. Do not be tempted to turn downhill and follow Bear Lane back into the village but continue straight on to the point where Ashwell Street divides either side of a cluster of houses. Take the right fork and walk a short way down this street until the dirt track begins again on the left opposite 80 Ashwell Street.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached 80 Ashwell Street.
Now follow the dirt track. As the track begins, on the right you will pass several more cherry plums growing in the hedge. These have small red fruits and are a common type found across East Anglia. They were a useful hedge crop and were used as rootstock for other domestic varieties. Like the cherry plums at the other end of Ashwell Street, these will be ripe in July and August. They can be made into jam but their skins tend to be sour so they are even better made into ketchups or chutneys. When dried they are most similar to a dried cranberry and can make an interesting addition to Christmas puddings or fruitcake.
A little further on, where there are houses on the right side of the track you will come across damson trees that bear fruits similar to the Early Rivers Damson bred by the Rivers Nursery in 1834. Established in 1725, the nursery was at Sawbridgeworth and remained open until 1985. It successes included varieties such as the conference pear. The damson trees grow on either side of the track until allotments can be seen on the right. These trees are usually prolific fruiters often covering the track in ripe fallen fruit during late August and early September. The fruits tend to be sour so are best used for jam or to add a little tartness to an apple crumble.
As you walk on you are still following the ancient Ickneild Way. On the right you will see Foresters Allotments. These were established by the Ancient Order of Foresters (now known as the Foresters Friendly society). There have been allotments on this site since at least 1901 according to Ordnance Survey maps. There is a lovely old apple tree standing out above the vegetable plots – see if you can spot it. The Ancient Order of Foresters was founded as a friendly society in 1834. Friendly societies provide their members with savings policies and insurance against sickness and death. Members generally pay small amounts of money over a long period so that when they are ill, or old, they will receive financial help.
After the allotments there are three houses on the right after which, you may spot another old orchard (also on the right), although it is often obscured by vegetation. Then look out for a driveway leading off to the right. Shortly after this you will be able to spot a crab apple tree on the left. If you reach the entrance gates to Lane Head you have walked a little too far.
As you walk there, I will say a few things about crab apples. The trees have pinkish white blossom in May and the fruits are large enough to spot from July. They won’t be ripe until about September and can be gathered from then until November. Crab apple trees can become quite gnarled and twisted, and this 'crabbed' appearance may have given them their name. In folklore they are associated with fertility, love and marriage. The small, tough apples are extremely sour so need to be cooked with plenty of sugar to make an amber-coloured jelly. They are full of pectin so can also be used to help other jams or jellies to set. After you have spotted the crab apple tree, walk onwards to the end of Ashwell Street to the point where it meets Partridge Hill at a T-junction.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached the T-junction.
At this junction, Ashwell Street meets another track running up Partridge Hill. Turn left and walk up the hill until you reach a white cottage on the right side. As you walk you will see the hedges contain abundant quantities of hawthorn. Few people realise the flesh of the red berries, known as haws, is edible. They have the floury texture and flavour of an over-ripe apple. They ripen to a deep red colour around October. The seeds however, are toxic so the fruit is best cooked and the seeds discarded. A tasty hedgerow jelly can be made from cooking ripe rosehips, hawthorn, rowan berries, sloes, crab apples, blackberries and elderberries and sieving the fruit to remove all the skins and seeds. This pulp then boiled with the same weight of sugar makes an interesting jelly.
The hedges on either side contain wild roses, also called dog roses. The pale pink flowers have five petals and can be seen in May and June. The rosehips are bright red and are ripe in September and October. Rose hips are high in ascorbic acid so rose hip syrup has health-giving amounts of vitamin C. To make this, the hips are chopped, boiled in water and the pulp strained twice before boiling with sugar to make a cordial (or syrup). The double straining is needed because inside the fruit the seeds are covered in fine hairs that are extremely irritating. They are much beloved of naughty schoolchildren as itching powder so beware!
As you climb keep an eye on the hedge to your left. Here and there you can see it is a double hedge, with two rows of planting. In places you can walk up the gap in the middle. Thick, double hedges are often found along old drove roads, used to move livestock to market. Drove roads avoided tolls and were safe route for the drovers moving flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, or perhaps geese. The double hedges provided shelter, contained the valuable livestock and helped to keep the animals moving together in the right direction.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached the white cottage on the right side of the track.
Just after the white cottage a gateway leads into an open field. The Iron Age hillfort at Arbury banks can be seen on the horizon to the right, but we will save walking there for another audio-tour. On the right, behind the cottage you will see an old plum orchard. Both plums and green gages can be seen on the trees from July. A gage is like a plum, but greenish-yellow in colour and has a thinner skin. Braver foragers may feel like tackling the nettles and brambles to collect any fruit hanging over the fence. Others may be content with the mass of brambles which are laden with blackberries in July and August. Folklore says not to collect blackberries after Michaelmas, the feast day of the archangel Michael, because this day is associated with Lucifer being cast out from heaven. When he fell he landed, painfully, on a blackberry bush so he cursed the fruit, breathed fire on them, stamped and spat on them making them unfit to eat. Slightly confusingly, Michaelmas, falls on September 29th in the Gregorian church calendar or October 10th in the Julian church calendar. Either way, the superstition probably relates to the fact that late blackberries may have been frosted and therefore are poor eating.
On the other side of the gateway there is a dense tall hedge of blackthorn trees. In early spring these are covered in white blossom, and by late July you can already spot the ripening sloes. These are small, oval, blueish-purple fruits, which should not be gathered until much later in the autumn, preferably after a frost has been on the fruit, otherwise very little of their flavour escapes from their tough skin. I often subject the sloes I gather to an extra hard frost by giving them a brief stay in my freezer. To capture the rich, intensely plummy flavour of sloes they are best left soaking in gin or vodka for at least two months. Prick the skins as much as possible and fill a sterilised bottle with the fruit and sugar to taste. Add your choice of alcohol, taking care to cover the fruit. Leave in a cool dark place for the flavours to come out then decant into a different sterile bottle to store. Discard the spent sloes.
If you are here at the right time to gather sloes or blackberries linger a while then walk back down Partridge Hill, passing Ashwell Street where it comes in on the right, and walking all the way to the bottom where you will meet the main road, into the village.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached the T-junction with the road at the bottom of Partridge Hill.
At the bottom of Partridge Hill you will meet West End. Do not cross the road but stay where there is pavement and turn right and to walk back into Ashwell village. On your right you will pass another crab apple tree opposite the driveway to number 34 and damson trees opposite the driveway to number 32. Walk on, crossing Back Street and keeping to the main road. You will pass Colbron Close and then John Sale Close on the opposite side of the road before reaching Wilson’s Lane on the right.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached Wilson’s Lane.
Wilson’s Lane marks the point where West End becomes High Street. Cross High Street with care to stand on the pavement in front of Ash Farm House, which is 110 High Street. The 1877 Ordnance Survey map shows that the land behind and to the right side of this house was once all orchards, reaching all the way to Dixies Cottage at 90 High Street ahead. The fruit that was once produced here could be moved easily by rail to markets in London using the station at Odsey, 2 miles away. If you walk on a little until you reach the open area known as Donkey Meadow and look to the back of the houses you can still see a few remaining fruit trees that now grow in gardens. Older residents of the village can also remember donkey’s grazing between apple trees on Donkey Meadow itself. Walk on passing 90 High Street on the left until you reach Bear Lane on the right.
Pause this audio tour until you have reached Bear Lane meeting High Street on the right.
Bear House is built on the right-hand side of Bear Lane. It is one of the oldest buildings in the village and was probably built about 1385. Here the word ‘Bear’ is probably the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘barley’. Look at the front of the house. To the left of the arched wooden door and set above head height into the wall are seven wooden quatrefoils. A quatrefoil is a shape with four round lobes. These were originally open to the air and provided ventilation to cool the room inside, which was used to store food. This room is at the north-east corner of the house and is therefore the coldest part of the building. Continue up Bear Lane until the road curves round to meet your outward route at the top of the hill then re-trace your steps along Ashwell Street back to the Ashridge Farm caravan park.
This short walk captures a small but significant part of Ashwell’s farming history. The sweetly scented white plum blossom that blooms all along Ashwell Street in early spring lifts your spirits with the promise of the harvest to come, and it is heartening that so many people continue to pick and use the fruits in the autumn. If you own, or know of an old orchard in the area, or have old fruit trees of unknown variety growing in your garden, then try contacting the Apples and Orchards Project though their website (see www.applesandorchards.org.uk).
You have been listening to the Ashwell Audio tour Episode 1, Food for free: foraging in summer, with Sally Fletcher. I do hope you have enjoyed our walk together. I certainly enjoyed thinking about it and making this recording.