By Nigel Tomkinson, Countryside Warden - East Cornwall

Autumn has always been a magical time, but is often is missed as we rush about in our daily lives, perhaps only noticing that the alarm clock appears to be going off a lot earlier in the darker mornings, making it even harder to get up. 

So why not ignore the instinct to hunker down, and go out and explore the changing season? For, as the days slowly drift shorter, it brings fresh crisp air and clear skies, which means, especially in Cornwall, we get some great weather to get up and go and see what autumn is all about.

For me, early autumn mornings are best. It’s a chance to feel the colder air, breathe in the damp mists, see the dew on spiders’ webs and witness seeds and fruits, full of harvested summer sun, slowly turn sweet and ripen, while above, house martins and swallows circle, gorging the last insects, before heading off to Africa.

Of course I blame this interest on the parents, for as a child, even on the wettest, darkest day, I was never in. Always out, always exploring. Something, thankfully, my father encouraged all of his family to do, though it was mainly to get us out of the way if the football was on.

Despite my youthful enthusiasm for the great outdoors, there was one thing I really hated and that was being dragged out on our Family (minus father) Annual Autumn Blackberry Foray – though I couldn’t get enough of the crumble (or brumble as my mother called it) made from them! Collecting the fruit was such a boring and arduous task, best avoided by an overactive, inquisitive lad that inevitably had to be cut out of every spiny thicket or rescued from any adjoining ditch.

My mother quickly learnt that in order to keep me (and my sister) happy, she had to turn the outing into an adventure (anything to get away from the football) and changed dull blackberry picking into ‘Let’s go on an autumn scavenger hunt!’ It became a game where we went to the local woods and had to find things that defined autumn to us. As we were easily entertained and fooled in those days, we would excitedly scramble into our boots and coats as my mum looked uninspired at the drizzle and my dad put the telly on.

My sister, a competitive and devoted girl guide, was always up for the blackberry task but would also enjoy the challenge of scavenging. Always the first to return, laden with an array of golden leaves, rose hips and acorns, she’d place them proudly on the damp grass before yelling, ‘I won Mum!’

Hearing the call, my mother would magically appear from deep within the nearest blackberry bush, somewhat dishevelled and scratched, bucket in one arm and wearing a pair of pink juice-stained Marigolds. More than often than not, she was accompanied by her best ‘It’s only drizzle’ smile.

Her job was to go through our finds, my sister’s first, and see what we knew and what she could teach us. Each time we got an answer or learnt something new, we got to pick and eat a blackberry and put one in the bucket for later.

We got questions like:

‘Now this leaf, do you know what it is and why it’s turned brown?’
‘Oh an acorn! What tree is that from?’
‘What sort of berries are these?’

When she turned to the muddy-kneed me (I always fell over), she always sighed and said, ‘And what you got there?’ The conversation would then follow something not to dissimilar to below:

‘Err…a rock, a slug, he’s called Arnold, and a bit of a spider's web, but I think I dropped it over there’…Well what would you expect from a boy thrown out of the cubs for wearing odd florescent socks and getting his fingers stuck in his toggle?!

‘Oh that’s wonderful’ my Mother would say; she wasn’t good at hiding disappointment.

‘What’s with the slug ‘n’ the rock…’ my sister would ask. She always wanted explanations for my finds.

‘Well Arnold looked hungry, so I thought he could come have some blackberries and the rock is for him to sit on!’

‘That’s very thoughtful’ my mum would say, probably casting a raised eyebrow at my sister.

‘Now, how does a slug move about?’

And so the questions and the learning would continue. I would even manage to voluntarily pick a few blackberries in the process, the reward for such an action being a hot slice of brumble ‘n’ custard that evening (yes my mother’s custard often came in slices!)

Picking and scavenging done, we’d run back home to proudly tell my Father what we had found and learnt (Arnold was probably left behind proudly sitting on his fruit laden chair before being eaten by a passing blackbird). We always arrived just before final score, which I have since found out was deliberately to wind my father up for not coming blackberry picking! Then it was all hands on deck to help prepare the dinner and brumble.

This tradition of autumn scavenging in my family still goes on; my sister did it with her kids and I imagine she’ll be doing it with her grandchildren. As for me, I find it’s a great excuse for a day out - a reason to head out to witness the autumn season. I still hate picking blackberries, and I still fall in ditches and have to cut myself out of brambles. But the thing is, it’s still magical.

Things I learnt from the lady in pink Marigolds (excluding autumn migration, hundreds of wild food recipes, folklore and life in general):

  • Blackberries (Brimbles) – The lowest berry is the first to ripen (and the sweetest) – it’s also usually the hardest to get to. Never pick a Brimble after Halloween as the devil spits on them! (This probably has more to do with the berries no longer being at their best).
  • Rowan Berries (right) – Wait for them to fully ripen before picking for a jelly, but it’s probably best to leave them for the birds as the grocers sell good jam for a sixpence.
  • Crab Apple – Good for pectin and makes a nice pink jelly, but don’t fall asleep while picking them as the fairies will carry you away and don’t eat them raw as your belly will dance.
  • Rosehips – Good for vitamin C, but let the frost soften them first and make sure you strain the hairs. Prepare them soon after picking and don’t leave them as all the goodness (vitamin C) runs out!
  • Hazel Nut – A filler in a boring salad
  • Elder – is your father and they smell the same!
  • Sweet Chestnut – The spiky nut case goes through Marigolds - don’t confuse them with conkers
  • Sloe Berries – make great gin!
  • Acorns – make awful coffee!
  • Mushrooms – Look but don’t touch, unless you’re an expert! The fairies will haunt you if you so much as dare pick one (well it kept me safe).
  • Slugs – Don’t make good pets