Blackberry season in the East End
It is blackberry season. In Spitalfields, I always feel a pang to be reminded of the seasonal delights that I am missing here in the midst of the city. When I was a child, I thought the chief virtue of growing up was the opportunity to reach blackberries that grew higher in the hedgerow. I spent so many seasons trailing behind my parents on blackberry picking expeditions down deep lanes and along the banks of the river Exe, carrying baskets and plastic bags – and armed with umbrellas or walking sticks to pull down elusive branches from above. It was an exciting yet risky endeavour, if you were to avoid getting scratched by thorns or stung by nettles, but we were prepared to endure these petty hazards for the sake of blackberry jam to enjoy in the Winter months ahead.
As a consequence, even today I feel that a Summer without picking blackberries is incomplete and so, in order to exercise my ability to reach those higher branches, I set out to find some blackberries in the East End. I took a bus to Bow and got off at the church, walking through the streets until I came to Three Mills Island. Just fifty yards along the towpath of the river Lee, I found blackberries growing in profusion, cascading from the old walls of abandoned factories and set to work picking them, pulling down those top branches that are especially heavy with fruit. Within minutes, a mother and her two children who had been similarly occupied came past clutching their bags of blackberries and, without a second thought, we exchanged greetings. It was the natural camaraderie of purple-fingered blackberry pickers.
At the end of August, the variety of Autumn berries was already diverse, scarlet rosehips, shiny black elderberries, delicately segmented pink spindleberries, red hawthorn berries, purple sloes and even golden greengages. I lost sense of time absorbed in picking blackberries, making my slow deliberate progress along the hedge. The quiet river was covered in green pondweed where moorhens made aimless trails, and I stood to watch the lonely heron in contemplation, until it gave flight when a District Line train rattled over the bridge towards central London. I followed the towpath North, aware that I was walking a narrow passage of green between the new housing developments of Hackney Wick on one bank of the river and the Olympic site on the other. High winds sent clouds racing across the sky and the sunshine I had been granted for my blackberrying expedition was shortlived, turning to rain before I reached Bethnal Green.
In Spitalfields, I tipped my modest haul of blackberries into an old bowl. Gleaming berries that come for free and incarnate all the poetry of late Summer in England. I was satisfied that the annual ritual had been observed. It was the joyful culmination of Summer. My passion for blackberry picking is sated for another year and there will be blackberry crumble tonight. Within weeks, the flies will get to the bushes and blackberries can no longer be picked. Each year presents this momentary opportunity, once they become ripe and before they are ruined – weather permitting. You are given one chance to pick blackberries before Summer is over. It is a chance which, for someone like myself, ever eager to seize the ephemeral pleasures of existence, cannot be missed.
The House Mill at Three Mills Island, a tidal mill built on the River Lee in 1776.