October 21 2014 Latest news:
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Natural springs, an ancient oak tree... perhaps even some fairy shoes. Sheena Grant rekindles childhood memories on a walk with forager Julie Foster and explores the possibilities of a gadget-free summer for 21st Century kids.
Julie Foster has made me think of Enid Blyton. She may not be too happy to hear that but, really, she shouldn’t mind too much. It’s a compliment.
After an hour or two in her company I am yearning for the impossible: to return to my childhood and seek out the white dead nettles at the bottom of the garden, looking for the shoes I was sure the fairies had hidden there after a night spent dancing in circles under the summer stars.
Julie, you see, rolled back the decades and made me remember the magical tales of Faraway Tree folk that peppered my formative years and fired my capacity to dream of a fantasy world.
How did she do this? It was very simple. She took me to a real-life “enchanted” wood, with pools of clear water to kick off your shoes and wade through, springs that bubble up from the earth like a torrent of some underground genie’s fury, and a real-life embodiment of that fictional Faraway Tree − an ancient oak with spreading limbs and a trunk so vast it seemed to encompass time itself.
And as we walked she told tales. Tales generations long gone would have passed down to their children. Tales of how washing your face in the spring over-hung with hazel trees would bestow eternal life, of how eating too many blackberries would turn your skin crimson and of the malevolent mermaids that lurked in the depths of rivers and ponds, waiting to pounce on unwary children. Julie is a forager. She forages wild foods but that’s not all. She also forages links to the past through the natural history of the landscape, fossils and folklore. And she shares what she finds with others: on walks for children, families and other groups through the landscape around her home at Newbourne, near Woodbridge.
Julie aims to introduce children to the sorts of things that children of yesteryear took for granted − the idea there’s adventure to be had in the countryside, away from gadgets and commercial attractions created to entertain them.
“Often nowadays the view is that if there is not a playground somewhere there isn’t anywhere for children to play,” she says. “But actually there are lots of playground activities in the countryside.
“I help people to learn how to identify what is safe to forage and how to enjoy this countryside playground. You don’t even have to forage any plants − just take photographs of your experience and keep them to enjoy.
“What I’m doing now is an extension of what I’ve always done. I’ve always been interested in the countryside since I was a small child, when we were encouraged to see the countryside as a place of adventure. I was a young child in the ’60s, when there wasn’t the foreign travel there is now. We fantasised about travelling and exploring. The countryside fulfilled those fantasises for us − if you went up a stream you could be winding up the Amazon in your imagination.
“The whole foraging thing for me is about encouraging families, but particularly children, to see their local area as a place of excitement and adventure. Foraging is about finding out about things. That’s plants but it’s also fossils and social history, so I might tell children about how youngsters would have lived in the past. All children know about mermaids but how many would know that in the past mermaids weren’t the Disney vision we have today? They were monsters that would jump out of the water at unsuspecting children. Parents years ago told their children these stories to put them off going into potentially dangerous waters.
“Similarly, blackberries were called scaldheads. The idea of that was to stop children eating too many of the fruits they had been sent out to gather. Parents told them the berries would turn their heads red if they ate too many.”
Julie’s own love of foraging for wild foods was inspired by the humble dandelion. To her, dandelions are not weeds (although her husband and mother-in-law beg to differ). They are a thing of beauty, a source of food and even medicine; something that’s important to her as she’s also an aromatherapist. Julie is sharing her love of foraging with me and photographer Sarah Lucy Brown. Our first stop is the village churchyard, where Julie picks a few leaves of lemon sorrel for us to munch. It’s got a beautiful, delicate lemon flavour. She tells us how to distinguish it from the superficially similar leaves of poisonous bindweed. An important skill.
Before leaving the churchyard she points out a century-old penny, embedded in the church wall. It would have been left there by a young man off to fight in the First World War, hoping he would return one day to reclaim it.
We head towards Newbourne Springs nature reserve, the real life “enchanted wood”. There we find marsh mint in abundance and butterflies flitting across the marshy meadows, where orchids and other rare wildflowers grow.
Julie tells us about the geology of the place, where sandy soil gives way to London clay in the space of a few footsteps. She points out cow parsley and plantain (an excellent insect repellent), yarrow (good for treating wounds) and cranesbill, so called because the seedheads resemble a bird’s bill.
Then it’s on, deeper into the woods, where Julie shows us a badger latrine and stops by a hedgerow festooned with wild hops. Before long we are ducking under overhanging brambles, after Julie tells us that, years ago, doing just that was said to be a cure for aches and pains. Then, at the brow of a hill, the “Faraway” oak comes into view and we pick our way through the ferns until we are under the cool shade of its branches. It’s a favourite spot with children on her walks, who picnic here, using the roots as natural benches.
Then: time for the highlight of our trip − the springs themselves. There are 12 on the reserve, says Julie, where water literally springs from the ground. To reach the best one we have to wade through a stream.
Julie has clearly done this before. She jumps straight into the cool, clear water, paying no heed to the fate of her jeans and red canvas shoes. Sarah goes barefoot and I take to the water in my Crocs, one of which has to be pulled free by hand after getting suck in the oozy mud.
The experience is exhilarating and rekindles childhood memories of wading up shallow rivers on the lookout for pike, feeling a mix of excitement and fear at what could be lurking.
Then it’s back to Julie’s kitchen to try a few of the foraged ingredients. As she prepares the food, she tells me about her “day job”, teaching aromatherapy in China for several weeks at a time each year. She sold trucks for Mercedes-Benz before retraining as an aromatherapist in 1996 and starting her own business, Potions and Possibilities, which supplied the Royal Palaces and House of Lords. She later sold the business to concentrate on teaching and setting up an aromatherapy training school in Beijing.
She loves to use foraged ingredients in her cooking and, with her daughter, gives demonstrations of her often-instinctive recipes.
“It’s all about health and mindfulness,” she says. “Walking through the woods, foraging for things, induces a feeling of wellbeing. You get so much from your surroundings − even down to noticing the sounds the wind makes when it blows through different tree leaves. For example, the wind through oak leaves sounds like rain on a caravan roof.”
To me it sounds like something else: the wisha-wisha-wisha of Enid Blyton’s enchanted woods, still whispering their secrets all the way down the years.