This time last year, I was busy concocting personalised alcoholic Christmas gifts: specifically, sloe gin and blackberry brandy. The presents were well received even if folk fell over after half a teaspoon of the brandy. They soon re-grouped and decided to tone it down. With champagne. Alternatively, the gin was deemed delicious and left imbibers in a pleasant, if slightly soporific state of well-being.
This year sees a bumper crop of blackberries; there’s no stopping them and hedgerows have been lined for the last three weeks by Tupperware toting foragers. No waiting for a never-to-arrive frost in this mild part of the world. My blackberry brandy and blackberry vodka have been suitably shaken every day for a fortnight. The ruby red potency sits alongside another newcomer – damson brandy. I foraged the damsons locally by attacking a small child who’d been released from Sports Direct for the day to flog plastic bagfuls of fruit outside her aunt’s bungalow on something worse than a zero hours contract. ‘My cousins have been allowed to go inside due to the heat’, she cried plaintively. ‘Do I care, small person?’
Yesterday, I went with my friend to Longham Lakes in search of sloes. S was looking, rather late in the day in my opinion, for blackberries. S doesn’t do brandy. At ten past nine in the morning, I’d already tried her blackberry wine. It goes down well after a Sainsbury’s sausage sandwich and I can see why her husband had brandished the whip and sent her off to reap this year’s provisions. Last year, Longham Lakes was abundant in sloes. This year, nothing so I was forced to help her with the blackberry harvest and save her another beating. And this is why, today, I went to Wareham Walls.
Many years ago, in a time we never mention, I harvested my first crop of sloes on Wareham Walls. I didn’t even know what they were and was forced to take a late-in-the-year trip to France in order to purchase gin. Why? Who knows. Now we just get it from Lidl. To this day, I can see the precise location of those sloes. Well, let me tell you: not only are there no sloes, the bloody bush has disappeared.
No problem. This is September in Dorset and the month is outdoing itself in terms of last minute heat and sunshine. In February, these water meadows will be flooded beyond recognition. Today, it’s simply glorious – a pleasure to be part of it all. And what I really like is the conversation with strangers.
In truth, I pass a great deal of my life in awareness of the fact that no-one has a clue what I’m talking about. And if they do know, they mostly don’t understand my choice of topic. Not today. Today, ambushing total strangers with questions relating to my search for sloes, not only did a single person fail to brush me aside, they all had an input to the conundrum.
I met people who had been stressfully commissioned by their son to provide 100 miniature bottles of sloe gin to act as favours at his wedding. Favours? I’d say it was a favour to get invited. It reminded me of those horrendous birthday parties in the past where visitors were returned home with exotic goodie bags and I gave away a piece of cake wrapped in a serviette. Wedding parents were in despair: they’d travelled over from Swanage where Ballard Down is, apparently, suffering a dearth of sloes.
Nancy and Joy had come from Weymouth. Can you believe that? No wonder there’s no bloody sloes on Wareham Walls if folk are coming that far on safari. Nancy was troubled because she’s seen a train on the other side of the river. How can that be? I helpfully pointed out that Wareham station is on the other side of the river. Nancy said she’d lost her bearings. Get out more, Nancy.
I left the walls and wandered into who-knows-where. Places I’ve never been: wide open spaces and ancient earthworks. Cows sufficiently far away not to cause alarm, but large fresh pats to make me wonder what or who else was in the vicinity. And never a sloe in sight. I walked for two and a half hours and it was sublime. The sun beat down, the midges hovered and the heron that I saw earlier sat soaking the warmth for so long that he was in exactly the same place when I returned sloeless.
I live by the water and it occurred to me that sloes might be found nearer to home. Exhausted, I dragged myself around the nature reserve where I met Jean. ‘I’m looking for sloes’, I said. And Jean tells me that not only is it a bad year for sloes, but that other fruit is a non-starter. Last year, Jean had more pears than she knew what to do with. This year, she’s hardly managed a plastic bag of fruit.
And if that wasn’t enough bad news, the apples are rotting on the trees, both in her garden and here on the reserve where I took this photo. Actually, all of these photos were taken today. Even if it’s a bad year for sloes, and even though no-one’s getting gin for Christmas, they do illustrate what else a September in Dorset is offering.