Summer treasure 12: Blackberry picking

Blackberries 229/9/2018 Blackberry picking became a fixture in my calendar when I moved to Suffolk. To begin with, only simple enjoyment was involved. I revelled in the knowledge that this was my new life. Instead of crossing a city on the underground for the purposes of recreation, I could step out of the house and go for a walk in the countryside. I was finally ‘in place’.

There was no need to grow blackberries myself, as I could find them without even looking, and the hedgerow variety taste infinitely better. The individuality of each blackberry is startling: one soft, one slightly crunchy, one huge, one tiny, one too sweet, one so tart it makes me flinch, one tasting of autumn so much more strongly than the next…

And autumn, rather than summer, is the season of blackberries as far as Suffolk and I are concerned. When blackberries are over in London and the southeast, here they are just beginning. This year was an exception, however. I was expecting no blackberries at all after the summer drought, but perhaps the wet start to the year got them through, because in the middle of August I came upon a fat blackberry bounty on a walk in the Stour Valley. I could barely believe my eyes. I wasn’t, strictly speaking, in Suffolk; I was just over the border into Essex, but it was close enough. I went back the following week and picked three large punnets.

The blackberries near my house followed soon after. I was delighted: this year and last I have taken a two-week holiday in late September, a decision that has the disadvantage of causing me blackberry-related anxiety, due to its shortening the time I have in which to pick a year’s supply. It is a major calamity if the jam runs out, and last year was a poor blackberry year. Although they ripened early, the only place I found good ones – along the footpath to the Hobbets – the farmer cut the hedges in the first week of September. How inconsiderate and antisocial, to animals and humans alike! Of course, farmers have more pressing worries than whether they are causing blackberry deprivation, but nevertheless I considered this act unforgivable for at least a week. I left for my holiday knowing that blackberry jam would have to be rationed until next autumn.

This year, the same hedge-cutting crime occurred further down the road. Again, I was upset, but the difference this time was that juicy blackberries were to be found in almost every hedgerow. I hardly needed to venture that far to pick several years’ worth, which of course I wouldn’t have the time or necessity to do anyway. So I gave my irrational emotions a talking to, and focussed my attention on the bountiful hedgerows nearer my house.

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I feared that blackberry picking might take on the feel of a chore once the elements of necessity and urgency entered the equation, and this was the first year it would really be put to the test. The leisure time I have to pick them has decreased – even without the holiday issue – and now I need to pick more to cover the jam requirements of my B&B.

I found out this summer that it had lost none of its charms. And I discovered that making the time to do it is in no way an extravagance. It may be partially a duty now, but it is one that can be combined with exercise, daydreaming and relaxation. Taking time out for a walk is all the easier to arrange with myself if it accomplishes other goals. I feel refreshed and more creative afterwards, and I have something to show for the time I have spent dawdling in the countryside.

It was a warm, gusty Sunday afternoon in mid-September when I set out on a blackberry walk. A proper one, where the walk was as important as the blackberry picking, and I would feel well-exercised and run out of fruit-picking stamina well before I had to get home. I knew there was no guarantee of many more such blissful days this year, and I felt I had earned, and needed, a good dose of outdoor meandering.

The wind blew my hair in my face and the brambles away from my outstretched hands, increasing the frequency of thorn pricks and snagged clothing. I caught myself feeling mildly irritated. Becoming aware of this reaction gave me the unusually easy opportunity to rid myself of it instantly: these were inconsequential side effects of the most glorious late summer afternoon. The warmth and sunshine, the freedom to roam in the fields and daydream, and the generous harvest were all much too precious to be detracted from by such minor inconveniences.

I knew then that blackberry picking would never become a chore. It is one of life’s gifts.