Friday, 21 December 2012


Dear Readers, I know that you are all waiting until the threat of the Mayan Apocalypse has passed before you shower me with Xmas comments, home-made gifts and cards…
Fortunately, one person took the precaution of sending my gifts beforehand, just in case…

Eleanor Woodcock (even named after a bird), aged 11, is a keen watcher of wildlife and birds. She has a wonderful blog (Birding in the Garden) - I suggest you go and look at it.
Eleanor has written bags of brilliant bird poems on her blog; she knew that I was interested in trees and wrote some terrific tree poetry for me.
Eleanor also sent me a lovely jar of her Epic Plum, Blackberry & Spiced Apple Jam, which we will be testing shortly.
In the meantime, enjoy the Winter Solstice, light a Yule fire tonight and keep it burning till Christmas, enjoy Eleanor’s charming poems and drawings and pray that tomorrow does actually arrive, so that you can finally deliver my presents…
If I don’t have time to post again or cannot struggle out from under the mound of cards and gifts, have a lovely, super Cool Yule!
the Urbane Forager

Friday, 14 December 2012

Winter Fayre

Silver Pine Cone Decorations
Last year at the school Winter Fayre, we sold Christmas decorations and little bunches of mistletoe, it proved a very popular idea and amongst the tsunami of children and parents. We completely sold out of mistletoe in a very short time. Obviously, we thought it would be a good idea to do it again this year.
The loss of traditional orchards has led to a shortage of easily harvestable mistletoe and a consequential price hike but with a little improvisation and determination it can still be obtained for free.
A Big Ball of Mistletoe at Dusk
I had spotted some large balls, fairly low down in a tree at a local park and like a good boy scout, I have a pen knife. Among the many blades and tools contained within my Swiss Army special is a small but effective saw…
See Saw
With the enthusiastic help of my son and a couple of his school friends, we selected and coppiced ourselves a suitably lengthy hazel stick (about 3m long). Then using gaffer tape, I attached the tiny saw to the end of our pole and hoisted it up into undergrowth.
Weapon of Choice
It was impossible to get any downward pressure on the small saw, but by shoving it quickly up and down, I eventually managed get a couple of large bunches (as big as my boy) down, before my arms finally gave out. Last year, I used my woodworking pull saw, a far smarter solution that exploits the weight of the pole; this time I didn’t have my weapon of choice with me, but at least the vigorous exercise kept me warm.
Tied into Bunches with Ribbons
Later on, back at the ranch, the branches were broken down into nice sized bunches; they were then tied up with pretty red and silver ribbons to complete the Christmas effect.
Good to Go
Soon the bundles were all boxed up and ready to sell at the Winter Fayre. From there they will be taken into people’s houses and dangled above sweethearts in an attempt to cultivate the love kisses and hugs that we all require, no matter what the season.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Misty Eyed Mistletoe

As December rears its frost encrusted head, we realise that just because we have had a windy spring and wet summer, it doesn’t follow that the winter will be mild. I didn’t feel at all cozy this morning as I cycled to work with sub-zero fingers and frozen tears streaking my cheeks.
I Could Easily Climb That!
On a brighter note, the children are anticipating Christmas; lights and inflatable Santas have started crawling over houses. I like to entertain myself by asking people, Have you got all your presents sorted out yet? I have a friend who always leaves present buying until Xmas eve, he swears that it is the quietest time for shopping and he can be seen stalking the streets of Southampton late into the evening, loaded down with bags, wearing a large red coat.
Big Balls of Mistletoe
As the season of goodwill draws near, Mistletoe starts to appear in greengrocers; normally accompanied by media reports that there is a national shortage of this parasitic passion arouser. Mistletoe can cost a fortune (£3.50) for a tiny sprig but it is also available for free on a deciduous tree near you. I always begin spotting the romantic freeloader around this time, and we are going to gather some again for the children to sell at the school Winter Fayre, it went down a storm last year.
A Mistletoe Seed Growing Legs
Last year I decided to attempt to grow my own but you do need the patience of a saint to achieve this. You initially need to smear a sticky mistletoe berry onto a deciduous tree, the berry contains the seed. After a long wait (provided the seed is not gobbled up by a Mistle Thrush), it sends out a couple of small tentacle like roots, which latch into the tree and tap into its nutrient supply.
Tapping Into a Young Oak
Once the seed becomes established it continues to leach the tree’s sappy goodness and gradually grows into the familiar plant. While on the subject of parasitic, freeloading passion arousers, Justin Bieber’s hair apparently went through several similar developmental stages; a fact that he allegedly attempted to celebrate with his ingeniously titled stocking filler, Mistletoe.
Stand Here With Me For a Moment x

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Delightful (Home-Made) Drinks

The British Government has made a proposal for minimum unit prices on alcohol. This legislation is not about abstinence but is designed to turn the tide on the reckless drinking culture that exists in some groups of people, for health reasons. Although this regulation is not designed to punish responsible drinkers, a new era of prohibition might persuade more people to try home brewing and start making their own country wines.
I have experimented, with making my own wine, beer and cider for many years; like a young boy with a chemistry set, I relish the alchemy of it all. So, I thought it would be useful to create a simple guide here, to show how easy it is to accomplish and also how entertaining it can be.
Cost-wise, there are obvious clear savings to be made; a basic starter kit is inexpensive and much of it can be found for free or will be available from your local recycling centre / Freecycle site. Always make sure all equipment is Food Safe.
Essential Kit List...
You may want to buy an inexpensive hydrometer, although this is not actually necessary, it does give you more control over the flavour and alcoholic content of your hooch.
A full demijohn will produce one gallon of wine, which amounts to about six bottles. However, as with home baking, producing your own drinks is not only about saving money, I simply enjoy the process. You will be unlikely to create something that tastes exactly the same as what is available in the shops but this is part of the fun. As well as being exciting, wine making is also easy, recipes and advice are readily available all over the internet, I tend to rely on the spirit of adventure as much as heavily stained archaic books.
Your friends and family may playfully mock your endeavours - mine do - but you can guess what I’m going to give them for Xmas!
Always Drink Responsibly J
Some strange and interesting drinks we have made are listed below...

Monday, 26 November 2012

Ancient Court Leet Preserves Mansbridge Community Orchard

the Urbane Forager with Southampton's Town Cryer 
The Court Leet is a wonderful occasion and also and important ancient rite. It is a place where the citizens of Southampton can air their grievances in front of a Jury of Alderman (including past Mayors and Sheriffs) and the 575th Sheriff of the City (Councillor Ivan White) as Foreman. The Court was originally held at the Cutthorns, a raised dais at the top of the common but nowadays it is ensconced in the more comfortable surroundings of the Council Chambers in the delightfully light and airy Guildhall.
Starting to Feel the Nerves
Last year, with the help of the Court Leet, it was established that picking fruit and nuts with families was legal on Southampton Common and also the other Southampton parks, provided no unnecessary damage, such as digging up trees was caused (although quite why anyone might want to vandalise trees in this way is a mystery to me). 
All Rise!
This year our aim was to get full permissions established for the development and improvement of the Community Orchard on the Octavia Rd. Open Space at Mansbridge. Louise Owen spoke for the Southampton Woodcraft Folk, who have taken an active interest in the orchard, I was there in my guise as the Urbane Forager and we were ably supported by Claire Diaper and other friends.
The Woodcraft Folk Perspective
The court was opened by our city's Town Crier and presided over by the Head of Legal and Democratic Services. Many interesting articles were discussed and a good number of them were passed swiftly, including (I’m pleased to say) a 20mph speed limit in residential areas of the city and several cycle path improvements. The court is always attended by school children and the youngsters of Bitterne Park confidently laid a presentment to the court regarding parking and access near their school. It’s great to see children getting so actively involved in the democratic process; a lot of adult citizens could learn something valuable from these youngsters.    
the Urbane Forager with the Sheriff of Southampton
As it came to our own turn to stand up and deliver our own presentment, the nerves began to kick in a little bit but the trepidation soon abated. Unsurprisingly, everyone in the Jury agreed that the Community Orchard was a wonderful idea; they saw that it would benefit the good citizens of Southampton and they wholeheartedly passed the motion without further ado.
Hear Yea, Hear yea, Orchard saved in Mansbridge!
After the court had been closed by the Town Crier we were invited to attend a feast, laid on by the city; the sandwiches were tasty as were the apples and, although I’m not sure they were organically grown or locally sourced – but they could be next year, if they want…
You can download or print off a copy of our, Presentment for a Community Orchard in Mansbridge here.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Deadman’s Plack: Skulduggery in Harewood Forest

Ever since watching a charming documentary on the A303; I have wanted to hunt down the Deadman’s Plack. I have frequently travelled the length of the A303 but urgency has often prevented me from turning off and exploring. The evocative name of this monument was enough to pique my interest but the legend behind it is even better and gives a fascinating glimpse of the intrigue constantly underpinning England’s monarchic history.
Autumn is always a good time for an adventure and a vague objective makes it more interesting (I knew our target was somewhere in Harewood forest). If you know where you are going, the trek to the monument from the road is actually a short walk through mixed woodland. We did not know where the path was though, so we took a rather scenic route and arrived, more by luck than judgement.
The memorial, in many ways reminiscent of Rufus Stone, is constructed from stone and has a large plinth supporting a tall cross; it was thoughtfully commissioned in 1825, by the entertainingly named Colonel William Iremonger. The inscription on the front is much worn and states the following epitaph.
About the year of our Lord DCCCCLXIII (AD 963) upon this spot beyond the time of memory called Deadman’s Plack, tradition reports that Edgar, surnamed the peaceable, King of England, in the ardour of youth love and indignation, slew with his own hand his treacherous and ungrateful favourite, owner of this forest of Harewood, in resentment of the Earl’s having basely betrayed and perfidiously married his intended bride and beauteous Elfrida, daughter of Ordgar, Earl of Devonshire, afterwards wife of King Edgar, and by him mother of King Ethelred II, Queen Elfrida, after Edgar’s death, murdered his eldest son, King Edward the Martyr, and founded the Nunnery of Wor-well

To modernise…
King Edgar (the peaceable!) sent his friend, Earl Athelwold to determine whether a local lady Elfrida, who was said to be very beautiful, was a suitable marriage candidate (for the King). On meeting the striking Elfrida, the devious Athelwold was so besotted that he neglected to explain his mission to Elfrida’s folks, and accidentally married her himself. On returning to report to King Edgar he explained that she was quite plain and unworthy of his royal highness.
Probably suspecting dishonesty, Edgar arranged to meet Elfrida himself. Fearing detection, Athelwold begged Elfrida to look dowdy and dull for the visit but she ambitiously made herself as glamorous as she could for the King. Athelwold was subsequently invited on a hunting expedition, in Harewood forest, where he received a complimentary javelin in the back for his troubles, with thanks from King Edgar, who promptly married his gorgeous widow Elfrida.
Subsequently, the King and his new Queen had a son Ethelred, half-brother to the Kings eldest Edward. Shortly after Edgar’s death Ethelred and Elfrida were suspiciously close at hand when Edward was murdered by his retainers on another hunting trip near Corfe Castle, his body was apparently left in a bog, for over a year. Ethelred (later known as the Unready) then acceded to the throne but showed his Mother such lack of gratitude for her support, that she beat him senseless with a large candle! So ferocious was this beating, that he feared candles into later life. However, when he came of age he was avenged by banishing his Mother, who, in an act of apparent penitence, established a nunnery at Wherwell on the Test River, close to Harewood forest.
Many a penknife has been blunted over the years by (possibly sympathetic) visitors carving their own monograms into the ancient stone base. Next to the Deadman’s Plack, someone had also built a nice den out of long sticks, which the children immediately made a temporary camp in.
Both my daughter and son were armed with cameras that they recently received as birthday presents and they were snapping every interesting looking tree, branch and leaf they came across. I might let the kids take over this blog at some point; a child’s eye view of our winter trips could make an interesting diversion.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Mystic Medlar Wine

When I initially sliced the medlars and put them into my bucket, I was not at all sure that things would turn out well. This was at least in part because these curious fruits are not especially pleasing to the eye but also the smell reminded me of tasting a freshly picked one; YUCK!
However, after 5 days soaking in water with half the sugar added, the juice smelt quite tasty; although it still looked distinctly unappealing. I skimmed off the brown fruit pulp and then strained the murky liquid through a jelly bag.
The resultant juice now magically changed colour, turning a soft pastel yellow. In the interest of science, I tasted some - it was pearesque and quite delicious; I swear you could have bottled and sold it just as it was.
I was here to make wine though, so I added the remaining sugar and the yeast and decanted it into a demijohn. Within a couple of hours the pale and interesting medlar wine was bubbling away enthusiastically next to the unpretentious crab apple.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Pressing Issues - Juicy Gossip

We decided that we needed to press the remaining apples, which were hanging around in the house in two huge buckets.
The children had let it be known that this time they wanted to be rewarded for all their hard work and contributions, by something like their own weight in apple juice. They said it was unfair that the last five gallons all got turned into cider, which they cannot drink.
As we had four children on hand to help us with the carrying, pressing and milling, I figured that a bottle each, as well as several cups, of gorgeous fresh apple nectar would be sufficient payment.
Once the procedure got underway everything started to happen, swiftly. The Head Chef was slicing and the kids were ferrying buckets of chopped apples up the garden to the mill; here, the crank was turned enthusiastically until the big bucket underneath was full enough.
Then the bucket load of pommace was emptied into the press, which was in the workshop this time, and the screw was turned down until the juice cascaded into our waiting buckets, bottles and cups.
I have to say that the children did a fantastic job, their boundless energy was a valuable resource and I was mainly relegated to making sure fingers stayed out of the scratter, occasionally applying a little extra muscle to the press and of course hosing all the kit down afterwards.
Once the youngsters had drunk their fill and been sufficiently paid off with bottles of juice for later, I was left with two gallons that I put into demijohns to ferment. I added a little cinnamon stick to each batch because I think this adds a subtle extra essence and somehow seems appropriate as the cold and gloomy evenings creep in on us.