There is something magical about shopping in the wild for food. Eating for free, my father used to call it. From a young age, he taught me how to survive on food from the hedgerows. I often wonder if what I ate was meant to be eaten! But here I am to tell the tale.
Quite often we would sit by an open fire outdoors, upon which a heavy saucepan sat, with something or another boiling away, usually nettles or rosehips. This was often followed by a bowlful of blackberries and the leaves (quite edible) or gorse flowers, red clover flowers and sticky grass. Sometimes we'de boil up cleavers, goose grass (galium aparine) which were also quite appetising.
My father would catch a fish or collect cockles or a crab, sometimes a bowl of prawns and shrimps and we would have a feast. All for free, and cooked on a fire on the beach.
Looking back on those carefree days of eating for free whist my head was permanently in a book full of adventure, there is no wonder I turned out a free spirit. I can hardly resist anything growing wild that is edible and a stories full of mystery! But one should invest in a good reference book if you’re not sure of what it is that you can eat. Take for example mushrooms. These can vary enormously, from toadstools to the delicious girolles (yellow-orange mushrooms) so be careful what you eat.
During the summer months, my father would make a salad of hawthorn leaves, hedge sorrel and hedge mustard, sprinkled with the gorse flowers and marigolds. I can’t say that I liked everything he gave me, and sometimes I would fill my pockets with leaves I couldn’t eat, not to disappoint him. He made such an effort to teach me how to survive in the world.
And so it is, that I am happiest roaming through woods or along the beach near our home for waifs and strays.
In our garden for waifs and strays, you will find a wizards’ tree. Once known as ‘Fid na ndruad’, the rowan tree has been associated with witches and magic. This is probably because of its bright red berries being the right colour for fighting evil. So it is no wonder that people in Wales who once believed this superstition, would often plant a rowan tree in a churchyard for protection. But there is no evil in the garden for waifs and strays, just magic!
Rowan, or Sorbus aucuparia (its scientific name) has many uses, from its berries to its wood. The berries are rich in vitamin C and quite edible once cooked. They make wonderful jelly and jams. But be sure you are picking the correct berries.
- 1 kg Rowan berries, cleaned
- 400 ml Water,
- gelling agent (pectin)
Place the berries in a pan, add the water and cover. Heat to simmering, then cover and let it sit overnight. Strain through a cheesecloth. Follow the instructions on the gelling agent package to make the jelly with the resultant juice. Should make about 1 litre of juice.
Walking sticks are carved from the rowan trees smooth and silvery grey wood, which is strong and resilient. Spinning wheels and spindles were traditionally made and the bark was used by the Druids as a dye.
So this incredible small tree that can live to be 200 years old, can sit in our garden for as long as it likes. Whether or not it has magical powers, it is magical just looking at it. And a song was also written about it in 1822 by Lady Carolina Nairne (1766-1845) that went like this.....
Oh rowan tree, oh rowan tree,
Thoul't aye be dear to me.
Entwin'd thou art wi' mony ties,
O' hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o spring,
Thy flowr's the simmer's pride:
There was na sic a bonnie tree,
In all the country side.
Oh rowan tree.
The first time we ever saw daylight was when she rescued us. Though why she bothered, I'll never know. We weren't a pretty sight and we didn’t smell good, either. We were scantily dressed girls with dull eyes and toe nails like
claw hammers, which made us look like we were walking badly in stiletto heals.
‘Hello girls!’ She had the voice of an Angel.
The girls were nervous and began to scramble and scream.
'Calm down,' I mumbled as I watched from the corner of the cage. I had just laid an egg and as usual I was trying desperately to stop it from rolling away. I wanted my egg, it was the only dream I ever had!
‘I'm not going to hurt you,’ the Angel spoke again but this time she reached in and grabbed Gerty. She bwaked and squawked and was followed by Twiggy, Twilight, Midnight, Starlight (they chose their own names!) She hesitated when her hand reached in for me. You see, she had spotted Featherpin, lying breathlessly on the iron bars besides me. I could smell her blood. Poor Featherpin, she was my dearest friend and wasn't as strong as the rest of us. She had been injured in the scurry, an accident, of course!
The Angel clasped both hands around Featherpin, and tucked her inside her coat. I felt a lump in my throat. I knew we were all in safe hands. How I knew all this, I’ll never know. Maybe my mother was the same, I will never know that either, because I never met her. Perhaps, like me, she tried to save her egg and lost. Perhaps she had no alternative but to watch me roll away.
‘And last but not least!’ said the Angel, her head almost reaching mine. Then she stopped! I held my breath. She was looking at my egg that was slipping slowly from my grasp.
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘so you want to take it with you? No problem!’
I felt her hands around me, they were warm and gentle.
'Why there's more meat in a sandwich than on you!' she said. And that's how I got my name! Sandwich! Not a very glamorous name, I thought, but I later learned that glamour would get you nowhere.
In a blink of an eye, I was placed in a box with the others. Not one of them said a word. We were so bewildered. And as if by magic we left the only home we had ever known.
In the darkness, I thought about Featherpin and my egg. I wondered if I would ever see them again.
Many years before Christ was born and even before the Great Flood when Britain was still attached to Europe, a young man lived and hunted the barren moors and deep valleys in the wilds of Paviland, a place that would one day be known as the Gower Coast in South Wales.
He fished in the river that would one day become the Bristol Channel and lived in a cave, surviving on roots, berries and reindeer. And although he died in his early twenties, this seemingly ordinary young man would hold the interest of the world in his hands forever more. You see, someone found him, buried in a shallow grave, some 33,000 years later.
Not far from our home for waifs and strays, is this famous cave, known as Paviland, which is easily recognized from the sea but extremely difficult to get to by foot. However, in 1823, long before my kind and unassuming husband and I were born, the Reverend William Buckland, a paleontologist, found the remains of the young man in the cave, behind the skull of a large mammoth, during an archaeological dig.
As daylight poured down the chimney, some 20metres above the chamber where the young man lay, the Reverend made a discovery that would become one of the World’s most important archaeological finds.
The Reverend also noted the red staining of the bones, made by the natural earth pigment, (red ochre) which was sprinkled on the young man at his burial. He also saw the small pile of perforated seashell necklaces and immediately assumed the skeleton to be a woman. Probably a witch, he thought, or a Roman prostitute. So the misidentification led to the young man being called, ‘The Red Lady of Paviland’ which remains today.
There has been much debate regarding the young man’s final resting place, as at present, he is resting at a university in Oxford. I for one, think he should return to his spiritual home in Wales. Perhaps not the magical shamanic site where he was found but certainly let him rest in the area where he was well respected and respect should still remain.
Just like the tale of A Chicken called Sandwich over on my ‘small page’, we once had a sheep called Sandwich.
I found Sandwich (named because there was more meat in a sandwich than on the poor lamb) in a field, close to death. It was obvious that he couldn’t walk though he did try to stand. I went to tell the farmer, but was told he had died that morning. The family informed me that they would see to the lamb straight away. I trusted this would happen, but a gut feeling told me to check on this the following day. Sandwich was still there and still suffering.
So I went to the farm again and told them about the lamb.
‘I will take the lamb myself if that would help you!’ I said to the obviously grieving family.
‘Take it!’ was the reply and so that’s exactly what I did.
Without even consulting my kind and unassuming husband, I carefully laid the tiny lamb on the front seat of my car and drove home. I didn’t stop to consider what I would do with it, apart from taking it to the vets for a check up.
Back at our home for waifs and strays, we were greeted by three fat cats and a curious husband.
‘I have something on my front seat that is very precious,’ I said seriously, ‘and there was nothing I could do but to bring it home.’
My kind and unassuming husband opened the door and stared at the little lamb sleeping contentedly on my coat. He picked him up gently and without questions, carried him into the house.
‘We have to take him to the vet,’ I said, so I went inside and called him.
With the help and advice from the vet on the phone, Sandwich soon had a bottle of proper lamb’s milk and a lot of love. He looked at us and bleated whilst his woolly tail wagged. He couldn’t walk but I took it that he was feeling a lot better.
But later that day the vet x-rayed poor Sandwich and we learnt that his back was broken, probably hit by a car. We decided to let Sandwich stay in this world until the following morning, with the help of pain relief, so that he would know what love and kindness was before being put to sleep.
Although Sandwich lived such a short while, even the daffodils lived longer, he died peacefully, knowing someone cared.