Herbs on a Hillside

The secret valley close to where I live is encircled by hills.  The steeper slopes as well as the valley floor, which is subject to regular flooding, have not been ploughed in living memory and, quite probably, not at all.  As a consequence, providing the sheep or cattle haven’t grazed them too heavily, the grass sward is peppered with wild flowers.  In the spring there are cowslips and, as the year advances, orchids and the delicate, nodding flower heads of Quaking Grass can be found.

Wild Flower Meadow copyright

over 97% of old flower meadows have been destroyed since 1930

Although the orchids are a joy, the plants that excite me most are the wild, culinary herbs, the scarcest of which is wild thyme, for it grows only on the driest and steepest of the banks.  Thyme can, of course, be readily bought in supermarkets all year round, either dried or fresh, and it is easily grown at home in a pot or window box.  All it requires is sunny spot and a free-draining and not over-rich potting compost to thrive.

Wild thyme copyright

Shakespeare’s wild thyme

Whenever, I see the wild thyme I always think of Shakespeare’s immortal line, I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.  The secret valley is only about twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Stratford-upon-Avon and so there is a rather satisfying sense of connection across the centuries, as well as the miles, whenever the tiny flowerheads peep out from amongst the grass.  In fact, Shakespeare’s words and the secret valley’s meadows were inspiration for an early blog post of mine on creating wild flower meadows way back in 2009!  You’ll find that one by clicking on this link.

Thyme’s cousin, marjoram is nowhere near as diminutive in both its scent or its flowering.  Standing tall on wiry, strong stems it is a magnet for bees and butterflies.  Once again, it is a useful garden plant not just for kitchen use but also good as a front of border edging.  It spreads steadily but is never a nuisance.  In the wild, grasses and other plants prevent it from becoming too dominant but when you discover a good stand of it swaying in a warm, summer breeze the perfume is unforgettable.

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A Ringlet butterfly feeding on Marjoram

One plant that is often overlooked although it is quite tall is Salad Burnet.  Its dark red, tightly buttoned flowers can be used in floral arrangements but it is only the young leaves that are edible.  Used in salads and also added to sauces, they have a mild and slightly bitter cucumber flavour.  Sharp eyes are needed to find it growing amongst tall grasses for its rosette of pinnate leaves hug the ground.  Fortunately, once again, there is no need to forage from the wild for they grow happily in the garden.

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You need to look carefully amongst the taller grasses to spot Salad Burnet

Along the lane that leads out of the valley, and also somewhat surprisingly, growing amongst trees close to our house, chives can be found.  A common kitchen ingredient and native to Britain they have a remarkably widespread range over much of the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.  Although they are plentiful, how much easier it is to pick them from a pot close to the kitchen door!

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chives growing through the leaf litter of open woodland

It is one of the pleasures of summer to seek out these wild food plants for it is reassuring to know that, if ever the need arose, they are there to flavour my meals.  However, even under lockdown, there is never a real need to harvest a wild plant; how much better to leave it for the bees and butterflies?

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Marbled White butterflies thrive in old meadows

Discovering the Five Senses in Lockdown

It sometimes takes a crisis to make us re-evaluate what is of importance in our lives and the present one of Coronavirus/Corvid-19 surely has to be the greatest that we will collectively face. Now, several weeks into lockdown we have all been developing new patterns to our daily regime, one of which may well be taking more exercise. Never before have we placed so much value on fresh air and being able to walk freely whether it be in our parks, gardens or open countryside.

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                           Riverside path, Higginson Park, Marlow (before social distancing).                                 The river is the River Thames in Buckinghamshire

Living where I do in the Cotswolds surrounded by fields and with woodlands and the river close by it is relatively easy for me to enjoy the open space. For others able to take advantage of their enforced free time, it may involve a longer walk and I have certainly noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers and cyclists here in the valley. I have also noticed that for many of them one aspect of their lives hasn’t changed: as they walk their eyes are glued to the screen of their mobiles and headphones are clamped to their ears, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. It has made me think all the more of our five senses and how we use (or should use) each one of them when out exercising.

Nr Fingest copyright

Cycling in the Chiltern Hills

SIGHT For those of us blessed with the gift of vision, perhaps sight is the most important sense we use and perhaps the one we most take for granted.  Without it, it is still possible to enjoy one’s surroundings for the other senses become heightened but I doubt if anyone would deny the pleasure of seeing the beauty that surrounds us on our daily walks. Even within cities there is much nature to be enjoyed although I admit that sometimes it has to be sought with more vigour and awareness.

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Look everywhere – self-sown violas peep out from overhead guttering!

At this time of year, more than any other season, there is much to see. Tight leaf buds unfurl into an explosion of vivid green foliage, iridescent wherever sunlight filters through; young ducklings tumbling into the park pond to take their first swim. But it isn’t just the natural world to be seen anew, there are other things too. Although it had been there for more than a hundred and forty years (and I’d walked past it very day for twenty) the date scratched into the stone on this wall had gone unnoticed.

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Who scratched this date into the old stone wall and why?

HEARING Along with sight the second most important sense we use on our daily amble. Apart from the glory of birdsong there are other sounds that bombard us when out walking. The wind flurry that makes the catkins tremble and shed their pollen, the stronger breeze that make the twigs and branches clatter gently against one another. Then there’s the rustle in the undergrowth. Stop and wait silently and with patience you may be rewarded by the sight of a little field mouse going about its daily chores or a rabbit venturing out to feed.

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patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

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… and also this rabbit

The sound of the river alters constantly. The smooth, barely audible glide of the water changes to a tinkling of soft musical sounds, its flow interrupted by a fallen branch. A few yards further downstream they rise to a crescendo as they crash and tumble over the old millrace before returning to silence as the flow stills in the calm of the millpond.

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The old millrace 

Radford Mill watermark

the calm of the millpond

TOUCH   In the present crisis we are sensibly being discouraged from touching things unnecessarily. Out on walks perhaps care may be advisable when opening gates or climbing stiles but, if you do, take a moment to think about what you feel. Heed the cold steel of the metal five-bar gate and the way it slowly warms beneath your hand; feel the rough timbers of a stile worn smooth from much use over the years. Of less concern health-wise – and all the more pleasurable for that – become aware of the softness of new horse chestnut leaves; later in the year they will become as harsh as sandpaper. Run your fingers across the twisted, grooved bark of the sweet chestnut tree and stroke the furry softness of the aptly named ‘Lamb’s Ears’, the favourite garden herbaceous plant Stachys byzantina.

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The deeply grooved bark of the Sweet Chestnut tree

Stachys byzantina  Lamb’s Ears

SMELL   The scent of spring is everywhere at the moment and to be delighted in. However, the sense of smell is also a powerful trigger of long-forgotten memories. In a few weeks’ time the sweet scent of drying hay in the meadows may recall childhood farm holidays but for now there is the unique smell of new-mown lawns. Both start off as freshly cut grass yet their scent is so surprisingly different. Likewise, compare the subtly differing fragrance of apple and cherry blossom, both in their full-blown glory right now.

Drying hay before baling

The smell of freshly-mown grass…

Without even leaving home, squeeze the leaves of the herbs on the kitchen sill and notice their variation in scent, their colours and textures too. Early morn in the woodland, especially after warm rain, the delicate perfume of bluebells quickly disappears as the sun becomes stronger. Half-close your eyes and glory in their colour, in the silence and in their perfume and leave all cares behind you – if only for a while.

discover the different textures & scents of herbs

The vivid greens & blues of an English beechwood in spring

In town, the scents are also there just waiting to be noticed. Rain falling on roads and pavements or scorched by hot sun both produce delightfully tarry smells, one mild, the other strong. In the formal beds of the local park flowering bulbs stand in regimental rows; each have a unique scent which rises in the air to mingle with the vanilla fragrance of wallflowers. The wallflowers, their dull green foliage barely noticeable throughout the winter, now shout out the arrival of spring through the colours of their flowers of brick red, orange and yellow.

Tulips & wallflowers – a favourite park bedding combination

TASTE   In shaded places where the soil stays moist you may be greeted – even before you arrive – by the pungent scent of wild garlic. A prolific carpeter of the woodland floor its leaves and flowers make a useful ingredient to spring salads. Wild garlic or Ramsons to give it it’s country name, is fickle where it will grow. In some places that would seem suitable, not a single plant can be found. A less common member of the onion family to be found in the wild are the chives of our gardens, they grow along road edges and field boundaries locally. It is thought that they were spread by the old drovers of centuries ago so that they could harvest them along the way to liven up a bland meal. There is no doubting its identification, disturb the tubular green leaves and the familiar scent is immediately released.

Ramsons grow in damp, shaded places

It is not only the onion family that can be nibbled en route. Richard Mabey in his book Food for Free, published many years before foraging became a ‘craze’, suggests nibbling on the half-open buds of hawthorn. Many a country child has done so over countless generations and perhaps that is how they got their old name of Bread and Cheese. To me, they only have a slightly nutty taste and texture.

Hawthorn leaf buds are not really worth eating!

As a boy, brought up close to the River Thames, the hollow stems of the common reed were a regular source of pleasure for the soft pithy centre could be drawn out by pulling the stems through clenched teeth. Close to my present home there is also a small reedbed. These tall reeds have something to offer every one of the other senses too: sight – the pleasure of watching petrol-blue damsel-flies sunbathing on the stems; hearing – as they sway and rustle with the slightest breeze; touch – the coarseness of the leaves, a contrast to their smooth stems; smell – those of the river as it seeps around the roots, a heady mix of wet mud and wet greenery.

Only the male of the Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-fly has petrol-blue wings & body

So, within the bounds and restraints of the Covid-19 advice when out on your daily exercise, remove the earphones, place the phone in your pocket and use, really use, every one of your senses. Not only will you notice more, you will wonder how you never managed to notice them before. Stay safe, stay alert and take this unique opportunity to discover a new world on your doorstep.

Finally, one word of warning. Only try tasting wild plants if you are confident they have been identified correctly. If you decide to forage, do so responsibly and only pick a few leaves at a time. Make sure that all plants for consumption are free of pesticides and other contaminants, especially those growing in or near water.