Belfast Telegraph

Why I'll hedge my bets on blackberry picking

When the late lamented Seamus Heaney wrote his poem about blackberry picking, it was with a yearning nostalgia for the simple pleasures of a distant youth:

"... 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."

And it was in exactly the same spirit that I set off last weekend, with a Tupperware box and a pair of gardening gloves, on a mission to reap the benefits of the bounteous hedgerows and to recall a seasonal tradition from my own past.

The idea of spending a day foraging in the countryside with your family sounds quite idyllic nowadays, doesn't it? But when I was a kid I never actually enjoyed our annual blackberrying trips, for a number of reasons.

First, the dreaded wellies. We had to wear them when we went for days out anywhere because dad said so, and you just didn't question dad. However, when you have seven brothers and sisters all scrabbling at the same time for a matching pair from one giant pile – all still caked in dried mud from the last day out – well you usually end up with a mismatch. One bigger than the other if you were lucky, or two left feet if you weren't. So before we even left the house I was usually squirming in discomfort.

And then there were the nettles, spikes, thorns, insects, maggots, earwigs, spiders and wasps to contend with once you got there. In my memory there were more creepy-crawlies than actual fruit, and they surrounded every single berry like they were guarding them, just waiting to bite or sting little tiny hands that came too close. And I hated creepy crawlies far more than I liked blackberry jam.

Then, of course, there were the ethical problems that arose from it all too. Ok, I was only a kid, but I was a mad keen birdwatcher and animal lover (Still am!).

As a member of the Young Ornithologist Club and a bit of a precocious expert about British Birds, I was well aware that by picking blackberries I was depriving migrant birds such as redwings and fieldfares of their dinner. And they had flown such a long way from Scandinavia to get here for them!

It just seemed wrong, when the Spar shop did jam for 19p and that was only down the road.

I did try to raise the argument with my mum but she only laughed and said: "There's plenty to go around for everyone, including all the animals and birds!" I decided not to mention the fact that Spar jam was actually far nicer than our homemade version, which never set properly and went mouldy after a few days (yet mum would simply scrape the mould off and use it anyway, without a thought for health and safety).

So, all things considered, blackberry picking wasn't something I looked forward to. And yet looking back on it now, with growing kids of my own, I felt that this was an absolutely essential experience that nobody should be without! Nostalgia, eh?

So off we went, with an empty Tupperware box and a pair of gardening gloves, on a mission to reap the benefits of the bounteous hedgerows, and in doing so, to recall a seasonal tradition from my own past.

I didn't have too far to go. The coastal path from Crawfordsburn to Hollywood is the place to be, apparently – a fabulous walk in itself at any time of year – so I brought the dogs along too and we made a day of it.

Now, I have to admit that after a very cold winter and a very dry summer the blackberries we did find weren't anything to write home about. Seamus would not have been impressed by the tiny beady-hard fruits we managed to dislodge after much scouring and searching almost every bush along the North Down coast. Nevertheless, I did eventually fill my tub while the boys and the dogs had a fun afternoon in the great outdoors.

As for the jam? Well even though I say so myself it's far better than the supermarket variety, or even any of the more expensive posh brands, because every mouthful comes with its own happy memory.

And that, like the advert says, is priceless.

Belfast Telegraph

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