Among the stones and heather of our rockery and dotted about in our herbaceous borders are generous clumps of wild strawberries. Spread by the birds, they pop up every year providing sweet red berries from early July – usually just enough to sprinkle on our breakfast cereal. This year I was still picking them in November – truly ‘“food for free’! I’m reminded of childhood expeditions when my friend and I knew just which areas of our local branch railway line produced the best strawberries, our foraging given spice by risking – ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted – Penalty £5’. Not something we’d wish our grandchildren to do in these days of electrification and high-speed trains, but safe enough then, it seemed. The overgrown embankments were treasuries of unusual wild flowers – pink columbines, sliver-blue bell-flowers, early violets and bluebells, and, of course, the fruit – raspberries, blackberries, even one patch of bilberries – and more. In the 1940s children were encouraged to collect rosehips to be made into vitamin C-rich syrup for infants. Take these to school and you could get 3d a pound for them. I remember my thumb nails being black with a sticky tar-like substance for most of September and October – the deposit from the passing steam engines.
My branch-line’s long-closed, and the embankment’s now so overgrown its treasures have been shaded out. However, I still have a keen eye for nature’s harvest, and this has been a very good year. The holly bushes in the hedge beside our local footpath are positively clotted with berries. I thought this might be because of their low-lying and quite sheltered location, but no. We walked the lane between rough pastures above Middleton village, and the straggling bushes in the hedges there were similarly laden – berries as big, lustrous and numerous as I have ever see. As we strolled along, we spotted a small party of birds winging away across the fields and landing in some stubby hawthorns. Binoculars revealed the branches were actually crowded with winter thrushes enjoying the crop of haws. The rowan harvest has already been eaten and, in our garden, the blackbirds and thrushes have moved to the dark blue evergreen honeysuckle berries – and, also, to pink yew berries. Surprisingly, birds can safely enjoy these poisonous fruits: the flesh is digested and the seeds pass straight through the gut and out to seed more trees