I am really lucky in that I have qualified for a long service gift at work which is six months of paid absence which I am taking at the end of May. Actually, I tagged a couple of pre-sabbatical notables on the front before it has started and a Wilderness Survival Skills forage with Joe O'Leary is one of them (with the other being a day with John Rhyder).
You may know Joe from a course but equally from his writing, everything from magazines articles to a written contribution to the Scout Association's Outdoor Adventure Manual (Facebook page here) and also his own outdoors book too. One of his 'how to' articles caused me to spend ages out of my comfort zone but the moccasins I made were well worth it.
I had the chance to camp over for the night the wife points were too low so I set off early to the site near Salisbury and I passed what I think might or might not have been a rather elaborate Victorian folly on the way. As I was heading in a Westerly direction my joining instructions said to cross an A road and look out for a set of gates which I was a little concerned I'd miss. I needn't have worried as the instructions were bang on the money, and the banner helped too. I had arrived in good time so whilst I waited for the gates to be opened I parked up and had a mooch around the nearby area and I'm glad I did.
As we were doing a forage I paid some attention to the flora and was really pleased to discover some Woodruff and Soloman's Seal right by the gates, two plants I've never seen before and I only thought the latter occurred across the Atlantic.
I got some shots and not long afterwards Joe rocked up with Dave and Russ, and after parking up securely a small crowd of us headed off on a short walk to meet up with some clients who had stayed over from another day course. Despite the fact that I had entered the site from a busy A road the noise very quickly abated as we worked our way in through the Bluebells which were still in pretty good nick.
We soon arrived at the base camp and the first thing that hit me was the fantastic array of 'outhouses' which comprised of a communal area, a kitchen and a work station. We also met the rest of the team for the day; Caro and Theresa, and we were offered a brew before we started and with real milk on offer too.
After a safety brief and general day overview Joe said that as it's only a day we can't possibly cover every plant that's relevant to the scope of the course as there are too many and it proved to be the case. Joe's a lucky boy to be running courses at this location which is massive, as in thousands of acres massive, as well has being historic. We took various digging sticks, spades and containers, the above being the basket that I rocked for the day. after our forage we would prep some pigeon, have dinner and then have an ID quiz to round off.
Barely out of camp and we stopped at a copious amount of Pignuts, Joe made digging them up look easy. Hmm the one I'm rocking in my palm is of average size but they are good eating regardless.
And on we went stopping at different stages to look at edibles, non-edibles and trees and plants with nonfood usages with Joe and Theresa chipping in with details.
And then a test for a forager, to pick nettle shoots without gloves. I successfully picked mine but then Joe then usurped that by stripping a whole nettle...I still recall doing my first and remember the trepidation. Nettles are full of iron so I only harvested one tip for this rather annoying reason.
Useful stuff kept coming and as an example I now know that the thin green edible growth on the left lingers on the palate and is at odds with our modern tastes, and which of the two fleshy leaves on the right is good to go and why...
Oh, this is Joe listing the virtues of a Burdock leaf before we even discuss the starchy goodness. I was also in the zone and I was pleased that I was knocking out names of plants and trees when we were asked, and pleasingly Joe asked me about other plants from time to time included a big umbellifer that I was absolutely certain I knew but with it being the family that it is I didn't dare go for it. I was chuffed that I got it correct.
Yet more useful stuff; The leaf on the left helps me establish something significant about the plant from a similar more useful one, whilst the leaf on the right is the good version of several species to be avoided that can look similar.
And to a satisfyingly large patch of Ramsons which to me is a plant that shouts out Spring, and is the scent of Spring too in many ways. Joe knelt down and had a go picking...
(LHS picture credit:Joe O'Leary).
Then we all knelt down and had a go at picking! A lovely Spring edible of course but as Joe mentioned earlier with the Pignuts it shows that good ID and all the parts attached together is good practice because there were some Bluebells in this patch too.
Although not discussed on this walk I noticed a small bank of Cowslips just before dinner. The reason for mentioning them is that it reminded me that Richard Mabey makes reference to a 17th century angling book in his Food For Free publication that mentions them as a flavouring in a Minnow dish. You're welcome.
Talking of dinner we were a little behind schedule having looked at, and foraged, so much (remember Joe saying about trying to squeeze everything in?). We headed for basecamp but had a hill to climb first to really get the appetite going. We had had a gorgeous morning and part afternoon in a gorgeous setting and therefore no one moaned. Caro had been very industrious and prepared all the accompanying dishes.
And to the fruits of our labour. I suspected that there wasn't a magazine food stylist on hand so I added my own foraged items to the est of my ability, although I may have misblobbed the creme fraiche a tad. Again, only a small amount of pigeon because it's red meat and therefore I wondered if it was potentially iron rich. A shame since I was getting on top of my 'lame game' palette. As well as my little foraged display and pigeon in the bowl there's also a lovely ratatouille and a salad which had amongst others things home cured ham and pignuts in. I left this at home and I'm glad I elected to.
I also had enough stuff for half a cup of needle and herb tea. I could have easily got up and sourced enough stuff to make a full cup but I thought that there was sunshine, good company, I'd just had a great dinner and I was comfortable so that half a cup would do me fine.
And onto the quiz. As I said to Joe just before we did it quizzes make you quizzicle but tests make you? Anyway I got twenty out of twenty one, simply because I didn't see the last one. As you can see Joe runs a disciplined quiz and felt the need to administer the cane to leaf number fourteen for something or other.
Home time and a walk back through the lovely surroundings again to the cars. I'm last in the gaggle due to taking yet more pictures and it reminded me of the top picture in this blog I did so much. I bid Joe farewell and said that I really felt empowered by the day.
When I arrived home I had a few foraged odds and sods left over from styling my dinner which I got my family to try, and I used the remaining Ramsons to good effect by knocking up a dip, and wrapping some chicken for tea the next day. Bloody lovely even if I say so myself. Have a look at Wilderness Survival Skills' Facebook page album here for more pictures.
Now I'm going to finish with an in joke from the course, I often find them a bit cliquey and boreish but I to give in to this one. I just have to say 'Twizzle'. Sorry Theresa but it tickled me more than it perhaps should have and I'll have worked it out of my system by say, the Autumn?