A bumper crop of blackberries and memories

PUBLISHED: 07:00 15 August 2020

Blackberry picking is ripe with memories for Keth Skipper. Picture: Keith Skipper

Blackberry picking is ripe with memories for Keth Skipper. Picture: Keith Skipper


Blackberry season brings back sweet memories for our columnist.

We marked our wedding anniversary with a steamy jam session. Plenty of old-fashioned spooning, stirring refrains and bubbling anticipation.

Yes, a bumper crop of blackberries in our back garden-cum-jungle called out for collection to provide perfect symbolism for our union since 1983. We took turns to dip into the kitchen cauldron with 
juicy sentiments.

Ripening together. Picking the right one. Showing good taste. Fruits of our labours. My wife handed over a big wooden spoon as a kind of antidote against over-spicing the marital menu so far. I took a hint and demonstrated a scum-skimming technique we both thought I’d forgotten.

She did most tasting and testing, pouring and labelling while I peered through all the jam-making mist lifting over yesterday’s burgeoning hedgerows. Bumping into Irish wordsmith Seamus Heaney is always a delight when washing-up beckons.

His mesmerising verses on our shared delights of countryside rambling with a purpose “where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills” came back on a breeze of stains and winces.

When you ate the first blackberry from a glossy purple clot “its flesh was sweet like thickened wine. Summer’s blood was in it, leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for picking”. Brimming cans and pots were well worth hands peppered with a scarlet rash of thorn wounds.

My poetic reverie gave way to reasonably practical overtures towards saluting a smart new regiment on parade to follow a host of others onto the pantry shelf preserved for home-made treats, with winter Sunday teatimes mainly in mind.

A glance outside confirmed there’s plenty more to come from a rewilding programme offered rich encouragement by our decision to leave nature well alone throughout enforced confinement to barracks by a global pandemic.

In any event, my general idea of gardening ends somewhere around turning things over in my mind. I have been known to declare the whole business gets on much better without my cack-handed interference.

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We watched berries form, develop and darken as they pointed to an earlier harvest than usual. Birds, bees and butterflies made regular inspections while a handy cluster of raspberries joined a tasteful exercise outside our kitchen window in another freewheeling patch.

Nature’s spectators find inspiration and time to nip into well-worn pastures for vibrant images stored away in memory’s larder. I used to find poetry of a kind in passing traffic. That was early in my blackberry-picking career when jam-jars were just as familiar on country roads as they were along generous hedgerows.

We acknowledged a toot from every vehicle. A greeting as much as a warning, it broke the brambled spell as we turned with scratched knees and stained fingers to show we’d seen 
and heard.

It was most unusual not to recognise the driver as a car, van or tractor sauntered past. We knew many number plates by heart. Here comes Ted from the village shop in his green van – OPW 708. There goes the lady from the riding stable in her little Austin – ANG 522.

No points for characters on bikes … although you could savour quite an illuminating mardle from the time an old boneshaker groaned into view until it disappeared through the hemlock and hogweed. “Mind how yew go, ole partner”.

Those spluttering jam-jars of blessed memory usually belonged to first-time buyers graduating carefully from learning sessions on the old aerodrome. We chuckled as they struggled towards us, the driver peering and pinching the wheel. It was affectionate laughter for a local trying to get on in the world.

A motor-bike and sidecar combination signalled appearance of him in goggles made for Biggles and her in tightly-knotted headscarf destined for Nora Batty’s wardrobe. I often wondered if he was ever allowed out on his own as they sailed past our hedgerow hive.

A pony and trap, brisk and businesslike. A horse and cart, both dealer and his cap set at a jaunty angle. The green bus collecting human cargo around the villages for a day out in town or city. An occasional milk-float thundering in or out with fidgeting churns …

Wonder I ever managed to do any serious picking with all those waving distractions. This virtual summer is different.

Extra time for those of an age group invited to stay close to home to relish a thought that there’s no shielding against golden nostalgia.

Blackberries and memories come best in bumper crops.

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