Henry VIII falls face-first in the fen and a lone heron stalks the rooftops in my Guardian Country Diary this morning… (click on image for link)
It’s been a quiet year or so on the blog, partly due to family illness and months of home-schooling – the kinds of issues many of us have been dealing with in our lockdown lives. But I’ve also been completing a Diploma in Advanced Non-Fiction at the University of Cambridge, continuing to write for The Guardian Country Diary and contributing to the anthology Women on Nature.
Last month, I was delighted to be one of 12 writers longlisted for the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize in association with Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre, judged by writers Damian Barr and Frances Wilson, and Catherine Cho, a writer and literary agent.
My piece is an extract from the book I’m currently writing, which explores ways of engaging with everyday landscapes based on my own experiences as a displaced Northerner, a stay-at-home mum and someone dealing with long-term fatigue – a symptom of coeliac disease.
Frances Wilson commented that it was ‘an ambitious meditation on memory and the senses, with its roots in the soil of John Clare’.
If you’d like to explore these new voices and also read my piece (with guest appearances from a puss moth caterpillar, memory-saving bombweed and my two-year-old binoculared self), all 12 extracts have now been collected in an online anthology available to download here.
Meanwhile, I’ll be back on the blog with a series on wild flowers in the garden very soon.
Images from the Spread the Word website
Went for a lovely walk this afternoon that reminded me how vital our wild places are, especially at the moment. This is a piece on the importance of my local patch, first published Friday 9 October in The Guardian Country Diary.
There’s a spring-fed sliver of alder carr shaped like a thought bubble near the source of the River Purwell. Before the pandemic, I volunteered here with the local wildlife trust and I’m often drawn back to this swampy woodland in search of solace and inspiration. Alongside the holloway that skirts the carr’s eastern edge, I learnt to lay a hedge, or ‘plash’ it to use an old Hertfordshire term. On a raised bank unceremoniously named The Dump, I’ve coppiced elder and hazel to allow light to reach the understorey and when life is too loud and angular, I sit with the mosses or settle in the sedges on the riverbank and watch the little egrets fly by, trailing their washing-up glove feet behind them.
As I dip into the wood on this hazy autumn morning, the lopsided basketry of the laid hedge looks familiar and welcoming. After several grim housebound weeks recovering from Lyme Disease, the act of walking into the carr feels like an exhalation, a gentle homecoming. In front of me, as if anticipating my return, the wood’s last surviving black poplar has lowered a drawbridge – a vast plank of riven bark, taller than a woman, now lying across the path. The top half has fractured, sending corky chunks drifting off into a sea of dog’s mercury and hedge woundwort like a disintegrating life raft. This poplar’s days are numbered; already the wood is reclaiming its bare trunk in alder, elder and bittersweet spirals.
Mired in glassy black pools at the heart of the carr, titanic common alders rise twenty metres above the water. I walk across the spongy woodland floor, picking my way warily through the marshy areas, leaving a fenny trail in my wake as each footprint fills behind me. In the waterlogged soil, alder roots are engaged in symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi and the nitrogen-fixing bacterium Frankia alni in a mutually beneficial exchange of nutrients. I rest my head against the nearest alder trunk, feel the rasp of lichen on my cheek. I stand rooted here for a long time, transfixed by the fecundity of life beneath my feet and its invisible impact on the superficial layer – the tip of the iceberg – that we call wood.
It was lovely to have some of my nature writing included on the Landlines: British Nature Writing, 1798-2014 site this week. I’m celebrating the daily renewal offered by the nearby wild…
Snicket steps, Gyffin, image credit Rob Carter
We are delighted to announce the start of a special series of blog posts throughout July, August and September featuring new work from emerging nature writers. First up is Nic Wilson’s beautiful meditation on memory and the daily renewal of our contact with the land.
‘All locales and landscapes are … embedded in social and individual times of memory. Their pasts as much as their spaces are crucially constitutive of their presents.’
Christopher Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape
Snicket, n. – a narrow passage between houses, an alleyway, origin obscure.
Oxford English Dictionary
There are many different types of snicket and each has its own story to tell. I surface in these riven-pathways early; they tower above my head. The stones at eye-level jut out of the mortar and despite their unforgiving corners I’m compelled to run my fingers along the broken edges, remembering…
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spring when the world is mud-
when the world is puddle-wonderful
So wrote the idiosyncratic American poet e.e. cummings in Chansons Innocentes: I, expressing a child’s wide-eyed wonderment and joy upon encountering puddles in early spring. We are all born with this sense of awe but as we grow towards adulthood a lack of exposure to the wonder and intriguing ‘otherness’ of the natural world can blunt this fascination and ultimately extinguish it.
Nature in the Garden
Last year, when I asked readers why we love to garden, many of the responses linked gardening with an innate connection to nature and the landscape, often first experienced as a child. Joanne explained that when she was young:
I felt this connection, an enjoyment, a love and nurturing feeling and my passion for plants, flowers and soil was born…
and another gardener, whose love for growing began in 1938 when she first entered ‘the wondrous kingdom of the allotment’, wrote:
[to] sit and watch our own small wildlife going about their daily lives is as good as it gets.
Whether it’s the ability of my tithonia to produce its flaming blooms at the height of my daughter’s head within a year from sowing the claw-shaped seeds or the subterranean mycorrhizal networks connecting the plants in our borders, it’s this fascination with the power and precision of nature that draws many of us into a lifelong relationship with our gardens.
Nature in the Wider Landscape
I’ve been captivated by plants, their habitats and the ecosystems which they support, for as long as I can remember, fostered by a childhood spent in red wellies (if the family album is to be believed) helping my dad dig in our vegetable patch, foraging in the Welsh countryside with my grandparents and birdwatching as a member of the Young Ornithologists Club. Since the 1970s and 80s – the decades of my childhood – there has been a dramatic reduction of natural habitat in the UK and an equally rapid decline in populations of a whole range of species, including farmland birds, hedgehogs and insects. In addition, shifting baseline syndrome adjusts our collective memory as each generation believes that their baseline is the original ‘normal’.
Even with the statistics from the 2016 State of Nature Report readily available, with the evidence that in terms of biodiversity we are ‘among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’¹, we continue to sanction the destruction of natural habitat referring to passive ‘losses’ of species like the apple bumblebee, the frosted yellow moth, the Kentish plover and the wryneck, instead of extinctions brought about by human action. As Sir David Attenborough states in the introduction to the State of Nature Report:
Our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help
as never before.
For this reason, I joined the People’s Walk for Wildlife last weekend: a peaceful family event attended by around 10,000 people. We walked from Hyde Park to Downing Street to express our shared love of nature and highlight the catastrophic consequences of continuing to destroy our ecosystems and wildlife. Chris Packham and six young conservationists handed A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife to the government. This draft manifesto is a collection of short essays and practical steps written by 18 experts, which if implemented today would make a huge difference for wildlife tomorrow.
A Part of Nature, Not Apart From It
Within our private gardens, enclosed by boundary hedges, fences and walls, it’s easy to believe we exist apart from the surrounding countryside, but in reality each garden is a part of the whole landscape – the way we treat the plants, insects, birds, animals, water and soil in our gardens affects what happens beyond our boundaries, on a local and national level and, conversely, changes in the countryside directly affect our gardens.
On a practical level, our gardens need access to healthy populations of beneficial insects – bees, butterflies, moths, and even wasps to pollinate flowers, creating seeds for subsequent years and fruits to harvest; we need ladybirds, toads and birds to act as pest control in place of the chemicals that simply exacerbate the ecosystem problems. At a deeper level, we need nature in our lives to enable us relax, to feel part of a seasonal, more natural rhythm of life, to inspire, give solace and to improve our general mental health. Fortunately, the symbiotic nature of the relationship between our gardens and the wider landscape means that any practical steps we take to improve the natural health of our gardens can have far reaching consequences…
With over 400,000 hectares² of garden habitat across the UK, gardeners are in a position to make a real difference. Here are a few ideas arising from A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife…
1. Rewild Our Gardens
We’re unlikely to be in a position to reintroduce beavers or longhorn cattle as Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, have on the Knepp Estate (as Isabella recounts in her ground-breaking book Wilding), but we can all make a space for the wild in our gardens. We know that introducing ponds, long grass, log piles, trees and hedges, and leaving stems and seedheads over winter in our gardens creates food and habitats for a wide range of animals. Even in a small garden, containers with plants for pollinators (single flowers, rather than doubles) and a bird feeder can bring in wildlife from the local area.
This August, at the Great British Birdfair, I met the Butterfly Brothers. Their award-winning wildlife garden designs focus on attracting butterflies to the garden, but they also spoke passionately about the dragonflies, moths and birds which visit the gardens. Jim and Joel have a YouTube channel with practical ideas for encouraging wildlife into the garden and also more information on British butterflies like the ringlet and the chequered skipper. And even if you live somewhere where ringlets are unlikely to visit your garden (we’ve had whites including green-veined, gatekeeper, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell, but never a ringlet), adding a bird box for tits or house sparrows or a hole at the bottom of the fence to give hedgehogs a passageway, makes every garden a little wilder.
For more information, George Monbiot’s proposals regarding rewilding on a wider scale are available on page 33 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.
2. Garden Organically
Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, bee expert and author of a number of books, including A Sting in the Tail, has written the proposals addressing pesticide use. Whilst these proposals are primarily aimed at agricultural use, there is still the issue of pesticide use in gardens and by commercial growers.
The RHS advice to its members and to ‘millions of other gardeners’ is ‘to avoid using pesticides’. Organic methods help create a sustainable environment for beneficial wildlife like blue tits and ladybirds, which act as natural pest control. Using physical barriers and biological controls is often extremely effective, and if I have holes in some of my hosta leaves when the slugs breach the copper tape barriers, at least I know my plants are part of a natural cycle and nothing I’ve put on the garden will have harmed the toads, hedgehogs and birds that live alongside us.
The manifesto pesticide proposals can be found on page 22 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.
3. Embrace your Growing Space
Garden writer, Kate Bradbury has written the proposals for urban spaces in A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. She begins by discussing the RHS report which found that 24% of front gardens had been lost to paving, concrete or gravel by 2016, as compared to only 8% in 2005. The report suggests that by 2016 more than 4.5 million of Britain’s front gardens were completely paved, and 7.2 million mostly paved. As these spaces disappear, as back gardens are given over to offices, fake grass, decking and low-maintenance paving, and as more gardens become fenced, Kate points out that wild creatures such as amphibians and hedgehogs are excluded from our gardens. Without access through gardens and with the added dangers of roads, it is difficult for many animals to travel through their territories. By making our gardens accessible, we can help to create wildlife corridors and improve the chances of these animals.
If car parking or paving is necessary in front or back gardens it can be kept to a minimum and integrated with planting spaces. The RHS has some excellent advice on how to green your grey front garden to create a practical and wildlife-friendly space. Kate’s other proposals can be found on page 41 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.
4. Support Wildlife Charities
Charities like Butterfly Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trusts, The RSPB, The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Woodland Trust and many more organisations, work tirelessly to conserve our wildlife and the habitats upon which they rely. Supporting their work helps to protect plants and animals which then become an important part of garden life.
I joined Plantlife earlier this year when I read that the RHS (of which I’m also a member) has around 500,000 members whilst Plantlife, a charity working to save threatened flowers, plants and fungi, has only 11,000. I love my garden and believe that growing ornamental and edible plants is one of the great joys of life, but my garden is part of a wider landscape – a landscape I treasure and want to help conserve.
¹ Introduction to The State of Nature Report, 2016
² For more on garden statistics, Gardens as a Resource for Wildlife by Ken Thompson and Steve is an interesting read.
I believe that the only way to create a truly balanced garden is to put nature at the heart of it, and then it lives.
2018 has brought me not one but two almanac treasures, each a joy to read and written nearly 200 years apart. The first is a beautifully illustrated hardback: The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide To 2018 by Lia Leendertz which I bought a couple of months ago along with copies for friends, but hid away so I wouldn’t be tempted to read it cover to cover before the new year commenced. The second is a book of John Clare’s poetry published in 1827: The Shepherd’s Calendar which follows the progression of the year for the rural labourers of Helpston.
This is another attractive hardback illustrated with evocative wood engravings by David Gentleman which capture the essence of the rural Northamptonshire landscape and its people at work and play. Like Emma Dibben’s illustrations in The Almanac, Gentleman’s engravings use simple lines to build up precise detail, whether it be the grain of a particular wood in The Shepherd’s Calendar or the characteristics of different sheep breeds in The Almanac.
The Almanac‘s entries for January include many facts to entice you out into the new year, even when skies are lowering and footpaths slippery with mud. I’m enjoying the supermoon tonight – where the full moon is particularly close to earth and at its brightest. With the times of the moon’s rising and setting noted for each day, I started my watching at 15.49 precisely and there it was, a huge orb perfectly framed by the silver birch tassels outside my study window.
One of the statistics for January which brings a glow to my heart is the fact that during the course of the month, day length increases by 1 hour and 12 minutes (in London). That’s nearly an extra hour and a quarter by the beginning of February to get out in the garden or walk along the footpaths. This is a fact which would have been of the utmost importance to John Clare’s community, relying as they did, on occupations out of doors. In ‘January: A Winter’s Day’, Clare conjures up the winter landscape:
While in the fields the lonly plough
Enjoys its frozen sabbath now
And horses too pass time away
In leisures hungry holiday
whilst, in the cottage:
The shepherd from his labour free
Dancing his children on his knee
Or toasting sloe boughs sputtering ripe
Or smoaking glad his puttering pipe
The Almanac describes ‘Wassailing’, a festivity which celebrates the cider crop, involving drinking ‘warm cider and apple juice with spices, sugar, oranges and lemons, and a dash of brandy’, as a way to fill the indoor hours, or there is marmalade making – one of my favourite preserves made with Seville oranges, and a ‘date, apricot and pecan sticky toffee pudding’ for indulgent winter suppers. Gardening jobs for January include pruning and planting fruit trees – jobs redolent of summer jams and autumn crumbles – although personally I’ll pass on the ‘Glut of the Month’ for January as one swede a year is too many; the thought of a glut of swedes brings me out in a cold sweat!
Finally, the section on ‘Nature’ documents the monthly treats in store in the garden and countryside throughout 2018: the bulbs appearing (I saw my first snowdrop last week), hazel flowers with their filigree winter beauty, and fieldfares and redwings (a frequent reason for the dash for binoculars in our house as the redwing flock lands on next door’s cotoneaster – or even, one year, a museum of waxwings.) Clare also celebrates winter birds as:
…flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush
although this comes in March, January being far more concerned with daily freezings:
The ickles from the cottage eaves
Which cold nights freakish labour leaves
set once more against the cosy cottage interior where:
…[the] keetle simmers merrily
And tinkling cups are set for tea
Both of these almanacs are objects to be used – with ribbon bookmarks for dipping in and out of sunrise times, recipe ingredients and monthly nature observations. I’d been looking forward to the publication of The Almanac for many months as I was involved, along with many other supporters, in crowdfunding the book through the publishers Unbound. The company has revived an old method of publishing whereby a network of supporters help fund the process, allowing authors to write the books which their audience wants and enabling them to get a much fairer percentage of revenue than they would from standard publishing.
It is particularly apt that The Almanac has been published in this way as it also revives an old tradition of annual volumes which, in Clare’s words, give us details of ‘frost and snow’ and ‘wisdom gossipd from the stars’. More than this, almanacs connect us to the particularities of each year, through the combinations of the weather, the phases of the sun and moon, natural cycles of plants and animals, and our traditional festivities. It is heartening that the support has been there to enable Lia Leendertz to create this delightful volume, hopefully the first of many new almanacs. Although our modern lives are rarely as intimately entwined with the natural calendar as those of John Clare and his contemporaries, knowledge about the natural world, its cycles and constant changes is no less vital today, perhaps even more so, and traditions like the almanac help us to keep this information alive.
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
Love’s Labours Lost
Cerise snapdragon heads (Antirrhinum majus) nod gently each morning as I pass the garden at the top of Benslow Hill. The flowers are doubly surprising – out of season and out of time. This snapdragon has persisted well into November, whilst all around it leaves drift or hang with marcescent tenacity on the low beech hedge behind the fence. Along with a couple of renegade scilla and bluebells, it is a survivor of an earlier garden, carefully tended by an elderly lady for the eleven years I walked the path and probably for many years before. The small front garden had a central circular depression in which her chaotic, life-affirming collection of spring bulbs and summer blooms, like a miniature amphitheatre, charmed me anew each year.
When the plot changed hands three years ago, the garden was excavated to make way for a new house. In its place appeared the mandatory paving, drive and hedge, but around the peripheries, echoes of the former garden remained. For a while, I felt wistful that the eclectic cottage planting was gone, that this once cherished space existed now only as garden in memory. Then I mentioned it to a friend and she remembered it too; she’d also felt the joy of the gardener in the exuberant planting and even now, like me, sees the old patterns beneath the new when she passes the garden. It pleases me to think of the collective nature of this recollection and I wonder how many more share these local memories and see this garden as a botanical palimpsest through which different layers of plants and memories can be unearthed.
The snapdragon itself possesses a collective past which exists in shared childhood memories. I remember the intensity of colour and texture when I made the hinged mouths yawn, the sudden transformation to mythic beast. The sugar-candy flowers never wore their colour as easily as the low mats of Mesembryanthemum, but their tactile heads drew me in – to squeeze, peer and dream. Now I grow tall red and white snapdragons: Antirrhinum majus ‘Royal Bride’ and ‘Crimson Velvet’. They don’t fit with the more naturalistic, largely compound flowers in the rest of the garden, but they’re comfortable companions, connecting my past with my children’s present as they pinch and wonder, much as I did. My plants also self-seeded this year – the resulting seedlings didn’t flower until late, but they persisted. Generally Antirrhinum majus (a short-lived tender perennial) is grown as an annual or biennial, but more recently it’s been surviving the milder winters in local gardens and now seems more able to spread by seed too.
It is, perhaps, apt that this Janus-headed flower spike simultaneously faces the past – our childhoods and the memory of landscape, whilst also looking towards the future – a plant which no longer needs the attentive gardener to raise it from seed or buy it as a bedding plug in milder areas of the UK. The snapdragon now fills a perennial niche in my local area and though its post-aestival blooms cheer the eye on a dank November morning, the fact that they owe their success to our warming climate makes their unseasonable flowering a bitter-sweet pleasure.
‘Crimson Velvet’ and ‘Royal Bride’
Thanks to all the gardeners who have contributed their tales of plants from the past and layers of history beneath their own gardens on the Blog, Facebook and Twitter.
I’ve also been receiving reports of snapdragons still in flower all over the country, some are now on their second flush – and overwintering during the past two to five years as far north as Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Skye.
There are also plants still flowering in Edinburgh, Staffordshire, Derby, East Yorkshire, North Wales, Lincolnshire, Midlothian, Hartlepool, Worcestershire, Manchester, Cornwall, the Midlands and 500ft up on an exposed hilltop wall in South Yorkshire! Also reports of snapdragons blooming in Portugal and in the US in Portland, overwintering in NE Pennsylvania and in North Carolina they are winter flowers, put in during autumn as the summer weather is too hot for them. It’s been a fascinating insight into snapdragon growing around the world – thanks!
I was asked recently to write a piece on where my personal gardening passion came from. The origins of inspiration is a subject which interests me in both my work with children and my writing. This is what emerged when I put pen to paper…
As a child scrambling though the scrubby heather on Conwy mountain, a world of sensations stretched out in every direction. Buzzards and herring gulls calling, the honey scent of gorse: a back note behind the salty warm air, bilberry foliage leading to the ripe, tight capsules, each a burst, a sharp tang, hidden treasure on the wild slopes.
Nature was a constant thread in my life, from my two year old self in red wellies gardening with my dad, to a teenager walking the Welsh lanes with Granny, who loved nothing better than knocking hazelnuts down with a long stick, teaching me about wild flowers and scrumping in nature reserves, much to the horror of my father.
When I look back to where this connection with nature began, how it evolved, the end of the thread eludes me. It is woven into my past by inspiring individuals, my father and grandmother who spoke the language of the natural world, biology teachers who revealed the minutiae of plants and my English professor pointing out the spots where Wordsworth saw the Borrowdale Yews and the ‘host of golden daffodils’. My first garden gave me space to experiment with blackberries, daffodils, pelargoniums and mallow; each an exciting foray into new botanical worlds. Twenty years since this first garden and my love of working with plants and making garden spaces has grown far beyond the reach of secateurs or loppers.
The family allotment often sees three generations enjoying planting, sowing, harvesting or simply watching as the red kites and green woodpeckers fly overheard, or the wild poppies and purple salsify attracting bees in the verges. We share our astonishment at the immense size of our sweet tromboncinos and I wonder if the teachers will be concerned when my children tell them that raspberries are yellow or carrots purple.
Our garden is a place of fascination, experimentation and happiness. A modest space where edible and ornamental plants lovingly cohabit. Flowers for cutting are welcome residents in the vegetable beds and our front garden, ostensibly suburban in style, conceals a hidden allotment in its Chilean guava hedge, thyme path and green-roofed binstore. The side strip of garden, a blue drift of drought-tolerant planting with globe thistles, lavender, Russian sage and morning glory, is all the more satisfying for its communal nature as we garden it with next door who own half of the border.
There’s so much joy in reaching out to others through gardening. My adventitious roots are now firmly buried in my local community garden, I design outdoor spaces for local families, often surrounding areas for play and relaxation with edible, wildlife-friendly and scented planting. Engaging others through language, design and the sheer exhilaration of feeling your hands in the soil completes the growing cycle, this tapestry of intertwining natural threads that teaches, nourishes and inspires.
This piece was one of three written for a Gardeners’ World magazine competition which I was fortunate enough to win. The feedback from the Gardeners’ World panel really made my summer:
‘stand-out winner of the writing competition: it’s Nic Wilson. Lovely writer, lyrical and reflective but also showed the strongest appreciation of style – general journalistic tone and magazine voice.’
It’s so interesting to consider how people first become engaged with the natural world. As a teacher, it has been fascinating to see the different responses from my students – some are inspired by their reading, their peers or their teachers, others by childhood experiences or learning new skills as young adults.
I’m keen to know how other gardeners first became engaged with the natural world. Please leave me a comment – I’d love to collate responses for a follow-up blog post (if respondees don’t mind). The answers will also be helpful to inform my work with children and my writing – I’m currently working on the chapter of a book considering how our relationship with nature begins. Many thanks and happy gardening!
Quick update: the response to my question about where our gardening inspiration comes from has been overwhelming. There have been stories about RAF gardens and air raid shelters, Victorian coal cellars, memorial gardens, knowledgeable friends and family members, and wonderful pictures of gardens and the people who inspired them. I’ve spent the past few days reading and responding to over 200 gardeners who have shared their stories about the origin of their love of gardening and nature.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to over 25,000 words about a love of plants and where it began. I’ll be reviewing the material in more detail over the next few weeks for a follow-up post and working it into a book on our relationship with the natural world. But in the meantime, the most common ways gardeners have been inspired are: through friends and family, individual plants or gardens, smells, tastes and textures, for gardening’s healing properties, through childhood experiences at school, through a desire to interact with nature and attract/protect it and through an early reading of the fabulous I-Spy books!
If you’d like to follow my blog and read the follow-up post based on the responses, you can click below to subscribe…
I went on an early cycle round the Greenway yesterday, with the field margins and hedgerows full of movement and vigour, wildflowers, birds and fruit, whilst the field itself seemed stilled and characterless, until a skylark gave it life. This is the prose-poem I wrote when I returned…
Silver lifting, undersides of leaves blown back in the dancing hedgerows, flashes of sloe gin, damson jelly and hazelnut brittle. This foragers’ fringe, ablaze with ripening abundance and the verge beneath, a study in vetch and clover, irregularly spiked with pink sainfoin beacons. Finches thrill above me, flocking, dipping, two-dimensional as they turn, absorbed by the air then wheeling, blackening the sky with their profiled presence.
Within all this elasticity, this marginal vigour, an absence: the ploughed void. September movement stilled, the colours muted, diversity subdued, until my eye adjusts to a sharper focus. Then a skylark twitches and, for a moment, dun uniformity is replaced with form and colour. Tawny feathers shake against the fissured landscape and the lark assumes its customary stillness, its pebbled mantle absorbed again by the ploughed earth.
Today I had nettle soup for the first time in over 30 years. Wind the clock back three decades and I am sat at a small kitchen table in a terraced house by the river Gyffin in Conwy, North Wales. A place of childhood culinary excitement mixed with not a little apprehension as Granny served tea for the family. I remember rich steak and kidney pies, soft chicken liver pate, sweet Welsh cakes and my particular favourite – chicken, chips and curry sauce. The kitchen smelled of mellow spices and ripening fruit; a pervasive smell which, even now, connects me with that past in a very tangible way.
Granny was an excellent self-taught cook – intelligent, exacting and experimental. She used local produce, often gathered from the hedgerows or bought on our walks in the country lanes from local farmers or producers. Her food was comforting and tasty, but also different, challenging, often because of its unfamiliar ingredients. Game always came with a warning to watch out for the shot and kale came with healthy looking caterpillars more often than not. Bilberries and hazelnuts were ingredients which I looked forward to having on my visits, especially if we got to forage for them first, but nettles had rather less appeal. I remember strong tasting dark green soups which I rather dreaded and the adults drinking dried nettle tea, whilst I, thankfully, had Granny’s lovely fresh lemonade.
Many years ago I gave her a blank recipe book which she gradually filled with her own recipes and her thoughts on food (including how best to remove the skins from chestnuts and how to make an effective substitution of different gluten free flours for wheat flour.) After she died, nearly 5 years ago, I found the recipe book and now keep it in my kitchen to refer to when cooking for my family and to provide a link with the person who inspired my love of cooking with ingredients closely linked to the natural world.
The book lists 14 soup recipes, but makes no reference to nettles – maybe it wasn’t her favourite soup either. But this week I noticed the fresh new growth on the nettles beside the path on the way to school and felt a desire to reinterpret the past by cooking for the first time with this free natural resource.
I love making soups – they are so quick, versatile and economical. Curried root vegetable soups defrost even the coldest fingers after winter forays outdoors, green Thai cabbage soup deals with spring gluts and fresh tomato soup celebrates the bounty of the summer garden. The success of a good soup often rests on the quality of the stock, and Granny used boiling fowl as meat for chicken pies and carcasses for stock to improve the flavour of all types of soup. Although I do use powered stock, when we roast a chicken the stock made with the carcass (in addition to some vegetables and herbs) is as prized as the roast dinner which precedes it.
My nettle soup began with a chopped large onion, a chopped clove of elephant garlic (because that’s what I happened to have in my garlic bag left over from last year’s harvest) and a chopped large potato, all fried in butter until softened and then barely covered in homemade chicken stock (you could, of course, use any stock). I simmered the soup base until the potato was fully cooked and then added two large colanders of well-washed young nettle tops and leaves.
These took only a minute or two to steam (which removes the sting) and then I blended the soup and passed it through a sieve to ensure a smooth consistency (not essential and not a step which I imagine Granny would have approved of, but I wanted to give the soup the best opportunity to succeed.)
After blending I added a cup of single cream and salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Then we had a lunch packed full of vitamins and iron, which even my 4 year old daughter described as ‘delicious’. The flavour of the nettles was much more delicate than I remember and the frugal nature of the meal, alongside its fresh, spinach-like taste will definitely secure nettle soup a place on our lunch menu in the future.
If nettle soup doesn’t appeal to your sense of nostalgia in the way it does to mine, then nettles can still be used as a compost ‘tea’ to fertilise the garden for free. They are rich in nitrogen, so can be used as a feed for leafy greens or can be mixed with comfrey (high in potassium and vitamin B12) to make a balanced feed. Nettles can be harvested, crushed up and weighed down in a bucket, then covered with water and left for a couple of weeks to decompose. The resultant liquid can be diluted about 10:1 (water:nettle feed) until it resembles the colour of tea and then watered onto plants to encourage strong, leafy growth. (Avoid use on young seedlings as the nutrient concentration is too high and might cause damage.)
I would advise using a bucket with a lid to avoid the interesting experience we had a few years ago when our compost tea became filled with rat-tailed maggots, most often larvae of the European hoverfly or drone fly, Eristalis tenax. I was astonished by the size of the tail or siphon, which can be as long again as its body and which is used as a breathing tube whilst the maggot is submerged. I must admit, shamefacedly, to enlisting the help of my husband to evict the inhabitants – although by the time we discovered them I think they were probably dead as they would have been unable to crawl out of the bucket to pupate. A salutary lesson in covering the bucket in future!
NB: Just goes to show how your attitudes change as you become more knowledgeable about wildlife – 5 years on from writing this I have become fascinated with the lifecycle of hoverflies. If we are lucky enough to have so-called ‘rat-tailed maggots’ in our new pond this year, I’ll be highly delighted!
This year I will be using the free resource provided by nettles to feed myself and the garden in our own different ways. And I’ll be celebrating a woman for whom the natural world was both resource and inspiration for her love of cooking for her family.
If you cook nettle or other foraged soups, I’d love to hear about it. Please share by commenting below as it’s always interesting to learn new recipes to add to my list of old favourites.
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Thank you very much.