Spotted on an estate in Sherwood, Nottingham, is this miniature brash pile at the foot of one of the many lime trees lining the avenues (known as ‘the Dales’). The adjacent garden featured a lovely ramshackle corner of chopping-block-sized trunks, sculptural logs and rotting wood meshed together by English ivy and bristling grasses. Somebody knows their bugs and loves their birds.
You can never have enough rotting wood lying around in the city, particularly brash piles that provide habitat for a greater variety of tasty insects than a single large log or pile of the same. These are the handy take-aways for local bird life, and the idea of an inconspicuous little pile like this at the foot of the tree that provides all the building materials is brilliant. It can’t have taken any longer than five minutes to build from the mess of twigs and tree litter found at the base, materials that would otherwise be crushed out of existence or swept away by Man or flood. It’s hard enough for a bird to survive on our city streets, so anything that helps…
On this avenue it is evidently working. In the handful of minutes it took me to walk it, I heard or saw blackbirds, sparrows in abundance, pigeons, doves, tits galore, magpies, robins, a sparrow hawk, tree-creeper and woodpecker.
Anybody who has walked the moors of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire (in them, rather than round their edges) will appreciate how easy it is to get ‘turned around’ on a dull day offering poor visibility. In bad weather, when you can’t see a hand in front of your face, they can be treacherous, though these days steering as straight a course as possible will see you to a tarmac road and feeling safe within a maximum of two or three hours of walking.
As recently as a hundred years ago, crossing the moors by anything other than a valley road was a tricky business, even following tracks. The earliest road signs appeared as a result of pressure from cycling organisations in the 1880s and any way posts that appeared where cyclists didn’t ride were locally knocked-up, painted wood constructions with short lifespans. In the sandstone regions of the Midland’s moors the solution was tall stone pillars engraved with the nearest town facing your direction of travel, and maybe a three-fingered pointing hand.
This short film is an armchair stroll around what are called ‘guide stoops’. At six minutes thirty, it is a little longer than necessary but the wonderful original music composed by Duncan Ward has made it worth adding a postscript about the modern ‘companion stones’ recently created by local artists. Duncan composed the piece in memory of his grandfather, who enjoyed nothing better than stomping around the moors. It’s called Greenhurst Way, the name of the street where his grandpa lived.
A holloway is a footpath or trackway that time has worn down until its bed is dramatically lower than the surrounding land such that it is now flanked by sizeable banks if not small cliff faces. Frequently carved into an escarpment and usually indicative of an historic thoroughfare, the agents of erosion will have been animal hoofs, feet and the steel tyres of cartwheels plus, of course, run-off from downpours. In wet weather and during thaws, many become appreciable streams. In storm conditions, I have struggled up holloways that were indistinguishable from local brooks in full flood. Due to their narrow width, few have been paved for modern traffic, though Holloway Hill in Godalming is a a fine example of one that is asphalted. If wide enough to take a tractor, as in the case of the local holloway near Hartswell Farm on the minor road linking the A6097 to Edingley, they are generally private farm tracks widened by agricultural plant. More often than not holloways have become narrow strips of wilderness – tangles of brambles, nettles, bracken and dead wood, impenetrable unless you have a machete handy – and often look like a chaotic hedge row from a distance. Of course these thickets remain functional thoroughfares, but for nature rather than us lot.
By virtue of the sandstone much of the county sits on, Nottinghamshire has a number of holloways worth seeking out, though to stumble across them is more rewarding. One certainly worth the extra effort runs southeast of Welbeck Estate’s strangely named South Lodge (which isn’t south of the estate). Boasting a wonderfully gothic display of tree roots and a gallery of inscribed graffiti, it carries what is now know as the Robin Hood Way but has much longer been known as Drinking Pit Lane, for some unknown reason. Presumably once an extension of Broad Lane to its west, the bridleway carves through the soft rock of Busaco ridge (named after the 1810 battle the Sherwood Foresters were engaged in during the Peninsular Wars) and heads off towards Clumber Park, past a ruin that once was a forester worker’s cottage.
While you are there, it’s worth having a poke about South Lodge, where people still live, so be discreet. The fifth duke of Welbeck, one William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinct, a triple barrelled aristo, aka the Marquis of Titchfield, was a bit of a recluse and something of a fruitcake. He built a warren of underground tunnels, hollows, apartments and even a ballroom beneath his estate. If he travelled anywhere, it was often in disguise and always in a curtained carriage. Let’s just say the man had issues, but you will see one of the grand entrances to his subterranean world between the two wings of the lodge. The woodland is now owned by the county council after an appeal for the rightful owners in the Sixties failed to produce any claimants.
2017 has been an exceptional year for foraging. We are now in the tail end of autumn and the mushroom season should be coming to an end. But where I pick my dinner, it seems they just keep on raising their curious heads, demanding to be plucked. We’ve been eating Parasols and Shaggy Parasols ( macrolepiota procera and macrolepiota rhacodes respectively) for a good three months now, and they’ve been more delicious than in previous years, possibly because this year the rain has fallen in this country at all the wrong times!
Some of the tufts on the cap will wash off, but it’s not imperative you remove them. They’re edible.
Quite rightly, the Brits are very cautious about foraging for mushrooms, entirely because the tradition and ability to identify the safe varieties has been lost. If you find a woodland that’s been cleared, it will probably be the Eastern Europeans who are enjoying the fruits of the harvest. Those I meet laden with produce are continually surprised at our refusal to trust anything not packaged in a plastic tray and clingfilm, and sold through a supermarket. Yet edible varieties aren’t that difficult to identify if you forage with an excellent handbook like the Collins Nature Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools. And there is a failsafe – when frying them, if the oil turns yellow, chuck ’em!
Parasol Mushrooms before they open out.
I have a preference for Parasols because they are scrummy fried with a few onions and garlic, but equally excellent in stews where they soak up flavours and are chewy, reminding me of the beef I ate before turning veggie. For somebody like myself who is colourblind, they are also so easy to identify. Remove the stalks, give them a good rinse (and you can squeeze them like a cloth to wring out the water) then chop. If you pick them before they open out, when they are shaped like a fat sausage, they can be stuffed and baked. Otherwise, go for the open ones that have brilliant white gills underneath. They’re at their freshest.
One of the many delights of walking are the little ironies one sees and sometimes photograph while on the hoof. Below are a few of my recent smiles that kept me buoyant while my tootsies were throbbing…