My teenage daughter and I are picking berries. Our fingers move swiftly, dodging thorns, as we work along the hedge. The sloes, with a faint bloom on their purple skin, will be soaked in sugar and gin, making a ruby-red liqueur we will bottle for Christmas presents. The rosehips my daughter drops into a basket will be crammed in a jar with sugar and left on a windowsill for three months. The pale, sweet syrup that forms will soothe the sore throats of winter. Brambles, sticky and staining our fingers, are just for eating as we go.
We share anecdotes and memories and recall, from previous years, the places where the best berries grow. A slight breeze brings the sound of traffic and the call of recently fledged buzzards. The sun is low, not quite evening, but the softening light of an autumn afternoon as the day slowly cools. The field beyond the tangle of thorny hedge has recently been ploughed and a few crows wheel above the faint hump and fold of the land where a Saxon homestead once stood. It’s easy to miss this trace of what was once Styrmyn’s Manor, which long ago stood on the edge of a large common, now split into two and linked by the thin strip of the track.
I wonder if the women of the manor ever picked berries along this hedge, their fingers deftly stripping the predecessors of the bushes we reach into now. This was, surely, always women’s work, although for them, this would be part of preparing for the dark days of winter, like the hay stacked and dusty for their animals, the barns of grain and dried or smoked meat. Even so, I would be happy to bet that they talked as they worked – gossip and jests or the stories of their families. In an essay called ‘Unnatural Writing’, American poet Gary Synder speaks of a writing school he ran in the Californian mountains, in a place called ‘Squaw Valley’. Snyder does not expand on the name, except to say that the early white settlers mapped numerous valleys with the same words, because they saw groups of Native American women foraging there – collecting bulbs or berries or roots. When I read Synder’s words, I am left with an image of women laughing or singing snatches of song, shouting to a small group of children, telling each other stories and passing on the knowledge of the good places to gather food. When I was a child, the best tales were told when the women of my family worked together; the memories were shared as we shelled peas or beans, snipped the tails off blackcurrants for jam and peeled apples for chutney. I was reminded of this recently, at a talk by Romani storyteller, Richard O’Neill, a man who can hold an audience from infants to the elderly bound in the spell of his words. Richard said his stories grew out his childhood, listening to the adults as they made pegs or baskets or puppets for busking. As Richard pointed out, an oral culture passes on wisdom in stories and these are told not just in ceremonies or events, but among the everyday work of peoples’ lives.
Scottish Traveller Betsy Whyte was also a gifted teller of tales. Her childhood memoir, ‘The Yellow on the Broom’, opens with her family picking berries in Perthshire in the 1930s. Harvesting raspberries, loganberries and tayberries was a source of income for Travellers, locals and families from Scotland’s cities. I too spent my childhood in Scotland, in the 1970s. Not where cool winds carry the fresh air of the hills, but in a town with the dockyard smell of oil and seaweed, where nearby coal mines fingered their way beneath the bed of a cold, grey sea. Each year, a few school friends spent some of their holidays ‘at the berries’, returning with accounts of camping and working and running wild among the woods and the streams beyond the farms. I did the same work, when I was a student in Kent; a group of us stood on a street corner in our village in the morning, where we were picked up by a rattling blue van and driven to fields where we were paid by the punnet in cash. My back ached from crouching for strawberries, my hands were lacerated by gooseberries bushes and there were no toilets or water in the fields. Most of the pickers were women with their children and their accents suggested the Thames estuary or the edges of London. They all seemed to know each other well and I wish now I had had the courage to ask them their stories – how long had their families being coming here; did that tradition stretch back to the days when the orchards and hop fields of Kent provided a seasonal income for Gypsies and Eastenders?
In recent decades, the piecework of fruit picking has been taken over by contracted gangs, hired through agencies and often from Eastern Europe. I have seen their white minibuses, hurtling down summer lanes in west Norfolk – blackcurrants one week, kale or cabbages the next. I wonder, as my daughter and I get ready to leave, what will happen now Britain has divorced itself from Europe. Who will pick all the berries now?
On the way home, my daughter and I link arms. She has the same red-brown curly hair as me, but is taller and leans over me as we walk. In a year or so, she will probably leave home, fledging into the world like the young buzzards that still circle above us. I wonder what she will carry with her from this time – the stories of our family I have told as we picked, the way to make presents of sloe gin or rosehip syrup and the connection between stories and work that extends across cultures and time. I hope, in the last of the sunlight, that the world has not changed so much that each of these is no longer considered important.