Bedford is blessed with some pretty wonderful places in which anyone can exercise or enjoy nature – entirely free of charge. And Priory Country Park on Barkers Lane (set your sat-nav for MK41 9DJ; it’s just a mile from the town-centre) has to be one of them. But now, as we slip into the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (see Keats’s ‘Autumn’) there is an added attraction. Because the great summer we’ve had means there’s a bit of a bonanza there for anyone who enjoys foraging.
Anyone who regularly visits the location will realise that it’s a treasure-trove for those who like to pick fruit, and that’s something which families love to do together.
This year the dark and yellow plums haven’t fared too well, probably because most of the blossom was blown off in high winds during the spring. But the elderberries are better than usual, they’re ripe now, and they make great wine. The blackberries have been pretty good but what’s left of the crop will go with the first frost. And the cherries, though they’re long-gone and always a target for magpies, were luscious.
Now there are apples, though the yield has suffered a little from this year being the hottest summer on record. But the rose-hips are going to be the best for decades. Meanwhile the blackthorn sloes are looking good (though you’re supposed to wait until after there’s a frost).
So you can think about making sloe gin (pierce each one just once with a pin and add sugar - with almond essence - to a bottle of dry gin; what could be easier?) And there are the odd nuts around too. We’ve not seen any mushrooms yet but watch this space.
See below an example of how easily we humans are fooled. Cow parsley is edible. But only just. Yet poison hemlock and fool’s parsley (the clue’s in the names) are amongst several almost identical plants that are dangerous and can be lethal.
COW PARSLEY - WHICH is EDIBLE
POISON HEMLOCK – WHICH is LETHAL**
FOOL’S PARSLEY – WHICH is TOXIC and CAN KILL
**The ancient Greeks used it to poison prisoners and it killed Socrates (the philospher, not the attacking midfielder). Some 2,500 years later there is still no antidote.
Priory Park reeds and bulrushes aka cattails (which make excellent tinder when dry). Photo: Paul Dunwell
However what is a great, right now, is the news for avid home-brewers who want to make beer and brag that it’s costing only a few pennies a pint. Because the crop of hops is absolutely epic. Hops are everywhere but especially along the north side of the lake. And wild barley is found around the park too (though it’s a little late for that and most has gone; you may be lucky). Since beer is made from just water, a glutinous grain (which is most commonly malted wheat or barley), yeast and hops, then foragers are getting most of what they need to make beer for free. Hops are easy to pick too. (You don’t need many; only 2 ounces or 50 grams for every 5 gallons of beer you make. So please don’t take more than you need!) And this would all be a great hands-on education for your kids.
I should mention that one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever spent in the park was recently when I pitched up to help Jon Bishop (the Country Park Warden and a man who’s responsible for several sites in the region), along with another dozen or so volunteers, to do a bit of lumber-jacking.
It seems that the summer drought has led to an increased risk of branches falling, and so every month a gang of enthusiasts is pitching up to help remove those branches and entire trees that might constitute a danger. It’s hard work, certain to burn thousands of calories, and a marvellous way to tone up whilst losing some weight. But it’s a bit of a social event too, with some real characters getting involved so the hours fly by.
If you’re interested in being a Priory Country Park Volunteer (you’ll be paid in drinks and biscuits) then you can get hold of Jon Bishop by emailing him using email@example.com. Sessions are usually on either the first or the last Sunday of the month (yet are subject to change, so check first) and the meeting-point is the park ranger’s compound behind the Cloverdale Retreat café. But the next session is due on Sunday 30th September. Volunteers will meet at 9.30am for a 10.00am start. And, if you cannot get away on a Sunday or you’re a glutton for punishment, other opportunities are available during the week.