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Blackberry season in the East End

August 25, 2010
by the gentle author

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.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Rhianwen Guthrie permalink
    August 25, 2010

    Ah… Beautiful…

  2. Joan permalink
    August 25, 2010

    Been really disappointed that this year the berries are so small. Kept coming across stunted ones while youth hostelling in Suffolk last week. Guess its the general lack of rain at the right time. Have had to resort to buying supermarket berries!

  3. August 25, 2010

    All I can say is wish I could have joined you — for the quiet tow path, the moorhens, the old church, the berry picking, but most of all for that blackberry crumble to come!

  4. August 25, 2010

    Love the cat and that you can still find wild blackberries in the East End

  5. August 25, 2010

    I recently made blackberry jam with last year’s harvest from the freezer (Had to make room for this year’s pickings) and for the last two nights we have feasted upon blackberry & apple crumble, last night with ice cream and tonight with custard. We both love your postings, they have become part of our daily ritual.

  6. August 26, 2010

    Your blackberry post and the earlier comments really make me wish that there might some hidden corner of New York that I knew about … where I could head out to tomorrow morning, empty container in my hopeful hands.

    Your photographs are so beautiful!

  7. the gentle author permalink
    August 26, 2010

    When I lived in New York, I once found blackberries growing in the wasteland on Rikers Island surrounding the gaol. Even though it is close to Manhattan it is surprisingly rural, although also rather sinister. Undoubtedly, a hidden corner!

  8. Rowena permalink
    September 3, 2010

    Sweetly inspiring post. I am going to go off and find some blackberries now by the towpath near where I live. But first I am going to make some sloe gin with the sloes I picked on the Isle of Wight the other day; would be good to find sloes in London. London sloes in London gin. Perhaps that could be a subject for another posting?

  9. betsy permalink
    October 27, 2010

    the fattest juiciest blackberries i found this year were near muswell hill in a churchyard.. and there were tons of them….made jam and froze many, for my son, daughter-in-law and grandaughter….in order of picking height.

  10. nitasha permalink
    November 8, 2010

    hello – i really like your site…

    thought you might like my post on blackberries and a good recipe for crumble.

  11. September 13, 2013

    This is a very inspiring blog post for a novice forager.

    Living right by the Eco park along the Regent’s Canal between Mile End and Bow, I’d love to forage for sloes – any idea where these might be found locally? – I’m very novice you see… and newly moved to the area. Thanks so much!

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