Tweet of the week: 12/09/21

AFTER last week’s trip to the Westmoreland fells, this week’s social media feed finds us at the opposite end of the country, exploring the wilds of Dartmoor.

And in the same way that shepherdess Alison O’Neill’s @woolismybread account offers followers a welcome escape from the pressures of city life, our social media host this week is equally rooted in the great outdoors.

Sea Witch is the Twitter monicker of @fenifur or Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

An able writer and photographer, she launched a modest blog in 2018 dedicated to encouraging people to make the most of nature – without feeling under any pressure to document it beautifully or do something unusual in order to really be experiencing it. 

“I spent the first half of my life almost permanently submerged in the sea or out on long walks on the South Downs, but even then I recently began to feel anxious that I wasn’t doing nature ‘right’,” she writes.

“I can only imagine how unsure some people who have grown up in urban places who have not had access to wild spaces for one reason or another may feel. Perhaps especially so when we are told that nature will ease our anxieties, yet taking part seems to involve additional uncertainties and planning.”

As somebody with ADHD, insomnia and chronic pain from hEDS and autoimmune conditions, Jenny understands that getting to grips with the natural world may not always be as easy as it sounds.

Yes, we know it can be beneficial for our mental health and how gardening or rambling can alleviate depression or anxiety. But what if you have a chronic pain condition that doesn’t mix with the bending and kneeling of gardening, or find it stressful trying to keep several things alive, or can’t afford compost and seeds?

If growing up in the south coast cathedral city of Chichester gave Jenny a lifelong love of the sea, it’s Dartmoor which has in recent years provided her and partner Pat with a place of respite and relaxation, as well as exploration and discovery.

When a serious illness left her with post-viral fatigue, exacerbating her joint pain and autoimmune problems, exploring the moor seemed to provide the perfect challenge to help her regain her strength, using John Hayward’s classic 1991 book Dartmoor 365 as an inspiration.

His book highlighted interesting features to be found in each of the 365 square miles of the park, prompting Jenny to follow in his footsteps, using a separate @DartmoorSquares account and her Instagram feed, @jennynaturewriter to build a photographic map of her walks.

“I put a pause on this during lockdown because Dartmoor was really suffering with an excess of visitors and it didn’t seem right to post walks to some of the less well trodden places,” she says. “Hopefully my posts will encourage people to appreciate and enjoy Dartmoor respectfully.”

Jenny’s explorations are about the simple pleasures in life, from picnics and river swims to foraging for mushrooms, elderberries, sloes or wild raspberries, following deer paths, watching the ponies or soaking up the last rays of a particularly spectacular sunset.

Her rambles also immerse her – and us – in the history of the place, and allow us to savour those discoveries too, from the abandoned villages and tin mines to remote “letterboxes” where visitors can still leave a calling card to show they have found the spot.

Back in Victorian times no one was better known to visitors to the district than James Perrott of Chagford, who for more than half a century acted as guide to tourists wanting to explore the wild landscape, and became known as the “father of letterboxing” – after setting up a cairn and bottle for calling cards at Cranmere Pool in 1854.

Here, luminaries of the day like Charles Dickens could leave proof that they had accompanied Perrott on the arduous 16-mile round trip from Chagford, and it remains one of two permanent letterboxes on the moor, though hundreds of others exist, hidden from view from all but the most determined explorers.

Those weekend “route marches” across the South Downs as a teenager may have given her a certain level of confidence about going out alone into spaces away from towns as she got older, but chronic joint pain and a year almost bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome means she has a particular understanding of those who find such feats difficult or impossible.

Her six-part blog is a work in progress but provides a lively introduction to walking, wild swimming and foraging, with the promise of more posts to follow.

Her @DartmoorSquares and Instagram feed provide a pictorial record of rambles around bogs, tors, and ancient settlements, capturing some fascinating places of interest along the way, like Crockern Tor, where the ‘Great Parliament of the Tinners’ would meet from the early 14th century to legislate in relation to stannary law, regarding tin-mining.

But immersed as it is in the wonders of nature, there’s nothing cutesy about her personal Twitter account, which sometimes feels as wild and untamed as the landscape she loves so much.

“I would LIKE my Twitter feed to be a way for people to learn more about nature and the environment in general, Dartmoor, history, walking, maybe a place to inspire people to go out exploring,” she says. “However it is also my personal account so this can turn into vents now and then! Everyone who has met me in person knows that I rarely take myself seriously, though my humour is very dry and that doesn’t always come across online.”

Perhaps it’s the intensely personal nature of the account which makes it so appealing to her 2,800 followers. She has certainly proved to be no fair-weather friend, with more than 54,000 tweets since her account was launched in 2010 maintaining an almost daily presence, many clearly posts shaped by her health issues and her decision after a few years working in wildlife charity and university admin to retrain as a medical herbalist.

“Without trying to sound dramatic, Dartmoor literally saved my life,” she says. “I got sick all the way back in 2016. I’d been in hospital with liver adenomas and heart issues, and had been given four types of intravenous antibiotics, so my system was defenceless when I got a norovirus a week later.

“I had to go to part time, sleeping in my lunch break on working days. I had an eight-month wait to see a specialist, so spent that time researching on my own. I was eventually diagnosed with various things which the PVFS had exacerbated. Before the specialist I’d been seeing my GP who didn’t ‘believe in’ PVFS though, so I spent a lot of time worried I was dying with some kind of rare disease.”

Depressed and ill, daily visits to Dunsford nature reserve provided a change of scenery, but did not offer a linear recovery. “Some days I could only manage a mile, and that could take me two hours,” she recalls. But one day she made it the two miles to a meadow which was full of meadowsweet, a plant used by medical herbalists to treat stomach issues.

“I couldn’t tolerate omeprazole or ibuprofen and was desperate not to be on codeine or tramadol, so I tried meadowsweet tea twice a day and it changed everything! Suddenly I could eat without searing pain every time, it was the glimmer of hope I needed.”

More years of ups and downs were to follow, but the Dartmoor walking challenges would help immensely. “Having a challenge to complete helped motivate me to get up when it felt like the last thing my body wanted, and I had the privilege at the time of having savings in the bank to live on, which meant I could just do temp work and volunteering when I was able for a whole year,” she recalls.

That’s when she chose to qualify as a medical herbalist – although taking that leap in the dark with another two years to qualify has brought its own anxious moments.

“With 150 clinic hours under my belt I’m qualified to treat ‘self-limiting’ conditions under my own insurance, and any patient with supervision in my course’s clinic,” she says. “It’s evidence-based plant medicine, and for me the gentle, holistic approach is much more friendly towards bodies and systems that are in distress and attacking themselves.

“It’s my aim to help people with chronic illness live with less pain and if possible get back some if not all of their physical health (and therefore improving mental health).

“I live every day in pain and I have to watch out for flare-ups, but without Dartmoor and the plants I found there to help my body heal, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

It’s doubtless that searing honesty, as well as her compassion, wit and irreverence, which makes Jenny a welcoming online presence.

In the same way that we know how much she hates drones, waste and noisy neighbours, we can also relate to those flashes of impatience over family expectations, gaslighting by doctors and her ferocious reaction to injustice or unfairness.

“Dartmoor saved my life” could be her mantra – and long may she continue tramping through the bogs, streams and prehistoric sites that make her beloved moor such a place of discovery and adventure.

Thanks to Jenny for permission to reuse pictures from her Twitter feed.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Hip hip hooray for rosehip syrup

By Olivia Rzadkiewicz

I FEEL very fortunate to have spent 2020 in relative freedom in the Buckinghamshire countryside. 

I’ve watched the seasons roll round with every daily walk showing a different detail in that annual cycle of change. 

On one walk a couple of weeks ago, I noticed gleaming red rosehips punctuating the greens of the hedgerows, and I was reminded of an impulsive foray into foraging that overtook me a few years ago.  In one go, I had made a batch of rosehip syrup and an elderberry cordial. 

Nostalgia swept over me and before I knew it, I had armed myself with a plastic bag and my sturdy walking boots. 

I have never really been good at remembering exact timings for seasonal fruits, and when I got up close to the hedgerow, I realised I had cut it very fine.  The rosehips were nearly all soft and all the best ones had already gone to the birds. 

Undeterred, I picked what I could – a mixture of hard and softening fruits – and zoomed off to another site where I vaguely remembered seeing dog rose blooms earlier in the year. Alas, my fears were confirmed – I was late to the party. 

What followed was a maniacal spree around the whole of south Bucks searching my favourite walking haunts for rosehips.  The actual picking of the hips is quite meditative – you can get lost in the repetitive action of twisting the fruits away from the stems but be warned that the thorns often snap you painfully back to reality! At the end of the day, I counted hips from ten separate locations, with a meagre 1.3kg to show for it. 

Making rosehip syrup is something of a labour of love.  When you have your harvest, you have to wash each hip carefully (to get rid of animal pee and car fumes), and then top and tail each hip.  This takes some time, and I managed to get through a whole radio comedy series in the process.  Make sure you have a sharp knife and a sturdy chopping board for this. 

Next, roughly chop the hips (some recipes suggest popping the fruit in a blender for a quick whizz but I did it by hand).  You’ll notice that the insides of the rosehips have little furry seeds stuck pretty firmly to the fruit wall.  These hairs are used to make itching powder, so be careful when handling them.  You can choose to remove the hairs and seeds at this point but I didn’t- it’s too fiddly and time-consuming and everything gets strained in the end.

Pop all your chopped hips (soft ones and hard ones alike) into a large saucepan and cover with water (1 litre per kg of fruit).  Let it boil for 15 minutes.  You’ll notice the most heavenly aroma coming off the water – it really is a happy and beautiful scent.  Somewhere between rhubarb and custard boiled sweets, candy floss and strawberries. 

Next, strain everything in the pan through a muslin cloth and set aside the clear liquid in a clean pan.  Take the pulp that you have already strained once and boil it in a fresh litre of water for another 15 minutes. 

Then strain everything in that pan through a muslin cloth, letting the liquid run into the pan containing the first batch of strained liquid.  Next, add a kilogram of sugar per kilo of fruit you started with, and stir while boiling until the syrup is at your desired viscosity.  Bottle it up and it will last for a few weeks in the fridge. 

Rosehips contain more vitamin C than oranges so don’t feel too guilty if you find yourself taking shots of the stuff – it’s irresistibly delicious.  Alternatively, it goes really well on pancakes, porridge or drizzled over fruit or ice cream – all the ways you’d use maple syrup. It’s also delicious as a hot or cold cordial, so take your pick and enjoy the fruits of your labour!

BREAKFAST FEAST: porridge with grated apple, cinnamon, blueberries and rosehip syrup

Rachel relishes a taste of the wild

LOOK at a hedgerow and what do you see? Rachel Lambert sees a feast – or a satisfying meal, at any rate.

Nettles and elderflower, dandelions and heather tea, gorse and seaweed – no wild flower is too much of a challenge for Rachel to rustle up a hearty meal, it seems, and the recipes all look frankly delicious…

From pink elderflower and rose cordial to gorse flower ice cream, wild moorland tea and home-made blackberry jam, this is all about harnessing the extraordinary colours and unique flavours of nature, and Rachel’s prolific foraging has seen her featuring as a guest on morning TV and her recipes popping up in every food magazine from Sainsbury’s to Waitrose.

Her wild food journey started many years ago by a crumbling Devonshire stone wall where friends introduced her to edible pennywort. “It quenched my thirst and tasted as fresh as peas – and my world changed forever,” she recalls.

“To me, foraging is a fun and enlivening way to appreciate the environment and access to fresh, seasonal food. It’s also an excuse for outdoor adventures, as well as quirky and labour of love investigations in the kitchen.”

It was back in 2007 that she started teaching other people about foraging, with that early discovery of pennywort building up into an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to harness the best of more than 100 other edible wild plants and weeds.

“Foraging is the glue that brings together the things that I love; nature, good food and people,” she says.

On hand to capture something of the atmosphere of her unusual lifestyle was Rick Davy, a photographer also based in Cornwall who has produced an extraordinary visual documentary of the lives of dozens of local people from different walks on life, featured on his A Day In The Life Of website.

His pictures – some of which are reproduced here – capture Rachel on a couple of foraging expeditions, including one to pick gorse flowers.

She recalls: “Last winter I went crazy about these flowers. I even made a little video about Foraging Gorse in Winter – such was my love affair with them.

“In my first foraging book I share a Gorse Flower Rice Pudding recipe, and I’ve made so much more with them since then. That day I was trying to perfect gorse flower truffles, and also wanted to dry some flowers for future syrups and cocktails. La, la, laaaa, the joys of foraging for gorgeous drinks and food.

“Those days that I shared partly with Rick are the good days – the outdoor days. As a forager I manage to get outdoors everyday, into nature. The rest of my time is spent cooking, preparing, writing, doing administration and contemplating new ideas and adventures.”

She published her first foraging book in 2015 and it sold out withing six months. She promptly created a second a year later focusing on edible seaweeds.

Having learned from many skilled nature teachers and previously worked within the arts, health and environmental education and community food projects, she was well placed to lead group foraging expeditions with adults and children from all walks of life – some even laced with the odd song or two.

“You may also find me singing my heart out (if no one’s listening) on clifftops and beaches and occasionally sharing one of those foraging songs on courses. It is a new love; that makes me, the plants and others smile (or so I’m told!).

“Joy and pleasure are key to my teaching style and life as a forager. With a self-confessed sweet-tooth, wild desserts and sweet treats made from foraged ingredients feature regularly in my courses and blog posts, as well as savoury delights!”

Rick didn’t need much convincing about the merits of foraging. “I’d be the first to admit that I do love a bit of foraging,” he writes in his photo-essay about Rachel. “Foraging for Rachel has brought together many different things she loves, walking, nature, plants, food, the senses and creative cooking.

“I joined Rachel foraging one early spring morning. She started picking stuff from the hedgerow and to you and I it might pass off as nothing other than weeds.”

Back in her kitchen the wild alexanders were transformed into sweet filo tarts, while she uses bright yellow gorse flowers in jewelled savoury rice, sugar syrups for ice creams and rice pudding, powdered sugar for truffles and cocktails.

“I enjoyed furthering the art of foraging and discovered some new recipes and food along the way,” says Rick, who has lost count of the number of “lives” he has featured on his site, from a beekeeper to a wildlife artist.

“The project will continue to evolve – it has no end,” he says. “I’ve shot and documented the coastal lives project for the love of it. I love what I do for a living.”

Rick Davy is a creative commercial and lifestyle photographer based in Cornwall. All the photographs in this feature are reproduced with his kind permission from his website documenting the lives of individuals living and working by the Cornish coast.

Rachel Lambert is an author and forager based in Penzance who runs wild food foraging courses for groups, families and couples.

Capture the colours of Caledonia

EXILED Scots wanting to capture something of the atmosphere of the Highlands should take a trip round Stoke Common this month.

Amid the ferns and conifers on this slice of ancient Buckinghamshire heathland, the gorse and heather are springing into bloom, giving the common a distinctly Caledonian feel.

No distant mountains or deep, dark lochs to complete the illusion, of course, but the yellows, pinks and purples create a carpet of colour as the heather bursts into flower at the end of the summer.

The iconic British moorlands of Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles fame are depicted as bleak, windswept and foreboding – but all that changes by the start of August.

A large proportion of the world’s moors and upland heaths are in the UK, making our moorland habitats internationally important – and none more so than this one, since these 200 acres of land represent the largest vestiages of a landscape that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.

So there’s no need to head for the hills of the Scottish uplands to savour the late-summer spectacle. The lowland heaths of southern England and south Wales also have the heather showing off at is best alongside the golden yellow of gorse, and Stoke Common is a perfect example.

And if you think the yellow flowers look good enough to eat, forager and author Rachel Lambert has some intriguing recipes on her website; fancy a wild rice pudding, anyone?

Find out more about Rachel at a website documenting the lives of people living and working by the Cornish coast.