October 22, 2011 12:51 am

Autumn walks with the FT: the Avon

Grapes, wild rocket and damson gin: discover the rich bounty available from a West Country forage

It’s not what you’d call the archetypal starting point for a walk whose primary point is to gather leaves, wildflowers and berries. An anonymous terraced house on a street in Bristol’s Redfield district. In the background, tower blocks stare down at me sceptically, there’s no number on the door, and the only clue telling me I’ve found the right place is a sheet of A4 taped behind the glass. “I don’t eat junk food,” it states. “I have a taxi number, I don’t own this home and so can’t improve it. I don’t need a psychic nor do I need to be saved by your god. I give enough to charities and I bin all junk mail. So please think twice before using my letterbox. Thanks!”

This is the house of Andy Hamilton, author of Booze For Free and The Self-Sufficientish Bible. When he moved in, Hamilton did not imagine that his new home could be an ideal place from which to indulge his foraging habit. But then he set off along the Avon, in the direction of Bath, on a version of the same walk he will take me on today, and was amazed at the wealth of edible foliage, and ingredients for wines, ales and cordials. “The truth is, you can forage anywhere,” he says, pausing for a beat, before adding, “apart from maybe Birmingham.” Just yards from his front door, he lifts up some rough-looking ivy on a wall to reveal several bunches of succulent grapes, a few of which he hands to me.

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Hamilton, who has had more than 70 different jobs in the past, is now a full-time forager, dividing his time between making beer and wine and soft drinks, writing about his craft, and taking parties of foragers to his favourite spots, offering tips on what to pick and what to avoid. “The downside of that is that some of them are coming back here themselves now and nicking my supplies,” he laughs.

As follow along in his wake, I’m reminded of a day I spent, aged seven, with a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast two years my senior, marvelling as he jotted down arcane notes with a look of concentration on his face (the “GE” Hamilton has just scrawled in his notebook, he tells me, stands for “good eating”) and rolled a series of oddly shaped dice. Hamilton doesn’t carry dice, but he does carry an attractive knife with a wooden handle of which the druids in many a mystical role-playing game would no doubt approve. When he cuts himself with it, while picking some mugwort, he knows exactly what to do, finding some yarrow nearby with which to stop the bleeding. “I don’t shop at chemists unless I absolutely have to,” he says. “There’s almost always a better alternative.”

Though Hamilton’s idea of heaven is the somewhat mature-sounding pursuit of “picking berries while listening to Woman’s Hour”, his main reason for foraging (apart from the social pluses of brewing your own) is “the playground aspect of it”.

After we pass over Netham Common – the former site of a chemical plant, whose main product was sulphuric acid, now greened over and full of sloes, blackberries and rosehips – we walk along the river in the direction of St Annes, and the foliage builds up around us. It’s the kind of woodland that begs for tyre swings and dens made from old sofas, a little semi-urban idyll punctured only by a slick of odorous creosote on the river, about which Hamilton immediately calls the local environment agency.

I point to an apple tree overhanging the river, and, from nowhere, Hamilton produces what I can only describe as an extendable scrumping stick, with which to reach out and pick the fruit. A few moments later, he is climbing into the precarious upper branches of a tree to pick some staghorn sumac, one of his favourite suburban plants, with whose droops later today he will make sumacade: a simple alternative to lemonade.

To walk with Hamilton is to suddenly feel like you have spent most of your rambling life blind. He’s constantly bending and kneeling and handing you things to try. Had someone told me I’d ever pick some wild rocket this close to a car showroom, I’d have expressed surprise. Had someone told me it would taste as fresh and peppery as it does, I’d have been shocked. Hamilton wears cargo pants, but these are not a fashion choice: they are the only trousers with sufficient pockets to accommodate the cornucopia of berries and leaves he will collect on an expedition like this.

Only once has he been poisoned, and that was due to a pocket mix-up: he reached in and got what he thought was some wild garlic (Allium ursinum) to taste, but ended up eating some lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), which he’d been carrying to demonstrate to his party how toxic it was. “I realised pretty quickly, thankfully,” he says. “It just meant I had to spend an afternoon in Devon spitting in front of old ladies.”

As we progress further towards the mid-point of our linear walk, Keynsham train station, we stop at Beese’s Tea Gardens, a picturesque café which we must take a ferry (fare: 50p) to reach. It seems impossible that the bustle of Broadmead shopping centre is only a couple of miles away, as Hamilton talks about the problems of a life where booze is inescapable. From what I can work out, there aren’t really all that many, and he doesn’t have the face of a 37-year-old drinker.

He tells me that now it’s only when he drinks supermarket lagers that he gets hangovers. Staring at the river, I’m swept away with the lifestyle fantasy, remembering going dandelion and elderberry picking with my parents in the late 1970s, and living in a house full of bubbling demijohns. Later, back at Hamilton’s place, he will offer me tastes of his rosemary ale, horseradish vodka and damson gin, and that will pretty much seal it. “Is this what adult life is?” I wonder. “A gradual succumbing to the loves of your parents that you’d formerly written off?”

First, for me, there was walking: a pastime I moaned about as a child, then realised I clandestinely loved. Now home brewing: not an outmoded hippie indulgence, but a social pastime that can be good for both body and soul. A teenage part of me thinks about resisting, out of pure stubbornness, but by the time I’m home and find myself Googling “fermentation bins”, I know it’s too late: the heady, hopsy aromas have got to me, and I’m past the point of no return. 6

‘Booze For Free’ by Andy Hamilton is published by Eden Project Books, £9.99

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