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How stopping to connect with nature can bring so much joy

Vicky Marr
By Vicky Marr
24th July 2023

Vicky Marr shares her experience of a CPRE Hampshire foraging day at Compton Down near Winchester

Hedgerows are such an established and natural part of our countryside landscapes, it’s hard to connect with the idea of them as a human made feature. But, in fact, they are, and we have been been reaping their benefits for 100’s of years, if not more.

There is evidence as far back as Saxon times with the word for hedge, ‘Haw’, coming from the plant that was mainly used. Hawthorn. Its thorns and dense foliage made it perfect for creating boundaries to contain livestock. Today, hedgerows continue to be the very arteries that keep our countryside alive, providing food and shelter for wildlife, protecting the land from soil erosion and flooding, and even storing carbon, helping to mitigate climate change.

I was fortunate enough to learn this and much more on a recent CPRE Hampshire ‘Hedgerow Foraging Walk’ in the heart of the Hampshire countryside. Led by the award winning wild jam maker and highly sought after foraging expert, Jennifer Williams, myself and my teenage daughter were delighted to learn more about the secrets of the hedgerow. What and how we could consume and nourish ourselves, as well as what might be useful for medicinal or other purposes.

It was a beautifully sunny and dry Autumnal day when we met with our fellow foragers on the outskirts of Winchester. Kitted out with a basket and scissors, Jennifer began with a bit of history on the hedge and by encouraging us to take our time on the walk. To stop. To really look, up, down and around, and to consider what was contained in the hedgerow. The same advice that she also gives to many of the top Michelin starred chefs she works with. Those who look to nature for taste, texture and colour in their most top quality food.

Setting off with our flasks of hot water, the idea was to collect ingredients and stew our own wild tea as we went. With blackberries being rife this time of year, I popped in quite a few of these. As well as the ripe berries, Jennifer encouraged us not to dismiss the red berries left. Many of these wouldn’t ripen but could be added to the tea or taken away to pickle.

My daughter was interested to learn about how the flower on Ribwort Plantain, a common feature in many of our green spaces, could be picked, pulled apart and dry fried to bring out a strong mushroom flavour. I was interested to learn that clover was edible – and full of oestrogen. Jennifer explained that all roses are edible and can be used to make produce such as rose water, tea, jelly, jam and hand creams and more. We collected rose-hips, sloes, more blackberries and hawthorn berries that were used to make jelly back at our makeshift kitchen at base.

As well as being full of interesting facts, Jennifers clear commitment and passion for foraging was inspiring. Her stories of working with top chefs and wild adventurers such as Bear Grylls, as well as travels across the world, foraging with local guides in the wildest of places and working as a super taster in Brussels, left you keen to hear more. The few hours flew by. Dawn Sibley, fellow forager shared her experience:

“We have had an amazing time today. We know a little bit about the countryside but we’ve learnt so much about foraging and just basic things we never knew before. We make jams anyway but I’m now thinking about how we might use dandelions and other plants to create the honey-tasting product Jennifer was talking about.”

Please take careful advice before foraging yourself. Many plants, including leaves and berries, can be poisonous. They can be delicious at Spring time but their toxins build throughout the year. It’s important to know what you’re doing. Top tip: avoid anything at dog level! As well as advising to be careful not to take too much from nature – it can effect what will be available the next year – Jennifer’s main advice was to take the moment to stop. To look. To reconnect with nature and all it has to offer.

This event was held as part of the ongoing CPRE Hampshire Hedge project, The Hampshire Hedge, connecting up the New Forest and the South Downs National Parks with a green corridor of hedgerows and wild spaces.