As the world shuts down around us the uplifting role that wildlife plays in our lives becomes more vital than ever. So, for my own sanity as much as anything, I’m going to keep a daily diary of what I find around my garden. Photograph the wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden and post your pictures on the ‘Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table’ page.
I planted a native hedgerow in the garden a few years back and the Blackthorn was blooming lovely this morning. I took my morning stroll (20 metres there and back) to the bottom of the garden to get some photos for you.
Each spring the Blackthorn hedges bloom across Sussex. Their brilliant, white flowers blanket the countryside, temporarily creating snow-white drifts against the woodlands and along our roadsides. These ephemeral petals soon fall and the Blackthorn becomes cloaked with small, oval leaves capturing the energy which powers production of their berries in autumn.
(Blackthorn hedge in bloom / photo by Richard Cobden)
Reaching up to photograph these beautiful Blackthorn flowers this morning reminded me of my childhood. Each October my Grandad would load me and a bucket into Betsy, his faithful 1963 Ford Anglia. Together we’d cruise the county’s back roads. Every few miles he would ease Betsy to a halt and inspect the landscape until finally declaring “this is the place”. My bucket and me would be hoisted high up on his shoulders from where I’d get a Grandad-stand view. From up there it felt like I could see the whole world: the Oak trees adorned in summer’s fading leaves, the fields at harvest, the city far in the distance. More importantly though it’d put me within reach of the treasure. The jewels we sought on our expeditions were sloes, the round purple-black berries that bedecked autumn's Blackthorn bushes. My Grandad was convinced that the finest fruits were located high on the hedge. And the best sloes made the best sloe gin.
A 1963 Ford Anglia Deluxe - not Betsy but one just like her (photo by Niels de Wit)
A Blackthorn bush is a prickly character, as approachable as an enraged porcupine. Each twig is armed with spikes which deter cattle and Grandads from helping themselves to its leaves and berries. This spiny spinney is a fortress which also safeguards a wealth of wildlife. Nightingales, Turtle Doves and many other birds nest under its protection and the elusive Brown Hairstreak butterfly lays its miniature sea urchin-like eggs on the bush’s black bark.
(Sloes / Photo by Derek Middleton)
Many years after my Grandad and Betsy had departed, I decided to honour them both and concoct my own sloe gin. I found an online recipe and, in what was and still remains one of the biggest disappointments of my adult life, I discovered that the main ingredient in sloe gin… was gin. The sloes only provide the flavour and colour to the alcohol. After watching my Grandad making his moonshine I had genuinely believed that by submerging a load of sloes in a bottle my Grandad could turn water into booze.
It seems my Grandad couldn’t perform miracles, indeed looking back our hedgerow pillaging raids could easily be dismissed as forced child labour. Was he exploiting me and my tiny hands to bypass those thorns and reach the best berries? A few decades earlier he’d probably have sent me down a mine or up a chimney.
But my Grandad wasn’t some Fagin-like character, he was a lovely fella. And, now I think of it, I never once saw him actually drinking any of his sloe gin.
Perhaps just being out in the countryside in the autumn sunshine on an adventure with Betsy and his grandson was the only intoxication he was looking for.
(Sloe times with my Grandad in 1979 - by then he'd also recruited my sister too)