Late on Bank Holiday Monday, I went for a run.
It was more of a walk, really - especially when I came to a stretch of footpath lined with blackberry bushes. Suddenly I was nine years old again, just old enough for us kids to be trusted out among the brambles unsupervised. Out we’d go, armed with our trusty tupperwares and our greedy little fingers. Nine or fifty-nine; you can’t not stop when you see those bright spots of shiny blackness, ripe for picking.
And yet, here I was on Monday, on a well-used footpath, surrounded by unpicked blackberries. What was everyone doing over the Bank Holiday, if not grazing along hedgerows, pricking their outstretched wrists, and dying their fingers purple? Did they not know about these footpaths? It seems impossible to me that anyone with a free hour on Sunday can simply have not cared. Had they forgotten that late August means blackberries? Or did no one ever teach them the joy of picking? Here, ignorance is not bliss.
Save your kids from this tragic fate and, please, take your kids blackberry-picking. If your kids are grown, take them anyway. You’ll all feel small again in no time. Fumbling around among the brambles and tramping through bushes is so clumsy, daft and slow that no one can look stylish doing it. How wonderful.
The love of this strange sport is nonsensical and hard to muster out of nowhere. It seems that, like languages, you’ll never really get it unless you were brought up with it. Something about hunting for those little black gobbets makes everyone think back to their respective Good Old Days. So, the blackberry-dance gets passed down. Generation upon generation takes their kids out, and sows the seeds of love again.
Don’t have kids? Take your best friend. Take your dog, your husband or your wife. Blackberry-picking is not a solo sport, but it’s not quite a team game either. People pursue the common goal independently. Like frowning partners over a jigsaw puzzle, pickers mumble inaudibly, sharing in the near-silence of concentration, mindlessly drifting closer together and further apart as each person follows their private constellation of berries. Intermittently, people call out random pieces of information: “There are some huge ones over here”; “I just ate a really sour one.” Even though we laugh at the absurd lengths we go to, just to reach one more berry, everyone agrees that it’s acceptable to call in reinforcements when there’s a perfect cluster just out of reach: “Here, borrow my gloves. You hold that branch out of the way, and I’ll go in.”
Like the movement of migrating birds, the decision to turn home is made silently amongst the members of the group. You’ve all exhausted your respective spots. Your bowls, bags and boxes are full, and you’re all ready for supper. I’m almost certain that no one has ever gone blackberry picking in the morning. Besides, it is the God-given right of any blackberry to make its way into a crumble (accompanied by its old friend, the good British apple) and, if that crumble warms bellies after sundown, so much the better.
Part of the magic of blackberry-picking is that both the fruit and the season are fleeting. When Seamus Heaney thinks back on his childhood in his poem, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, he remembers only ‘a full week’ of ripe blackberries. Don’t worry – there’s still time. I saw plenty of red ones that’ll still be there next weekend, waiting to be picked.