England, autumn, blackberrying time. Time to head out on still-warm, golden autumn afternoons armed with boxes and bags, colanders and bowls, just as the fruit swells to perfection in glorious purple-black bobbly globes, and before the first frosts snap-freeze the fruit resulting in an unusable mush.
The best place near us to find the juiciest berries was on the moribund and dilapidated periphery of the local RAF airfield, among the abandoned concrete-bunker relics from the Second World War. The bramble bushes straggled up and over, creating exciting landscape of hidey holes and secret dens. Brambles are not finicky, in fact, the more decayed the landscape, the more brambles grow in thick profusion and the more abundant the fruit.
My father marched decisively ahead, humming a tune, twirling his walking stick. If he didn’t have his stick, he always carried a penknife with which to whittle himself a thumbstick from the young whippy Ash bushes that, like the brambles, seem equally devoted to the disused and forgotten places.
He would carefully select his branch, checking to make sure it was sturdy and straight, mentally assessing whether it was the perfect length before it branched. A thumbstick must be straight to about chest height before it branches neatly in two. You cut your stick just after the fork, making a cradle into which your thumb fits comfortably.
We would beg Dad to make us one, too, custom sized for a child.
How we loved walking alongside Dad twirling our very own sticks! And they came in very useful to push aside the thorny prickles to get to the most succulent berries.
My mother would always remonstrate: ‘Be careful! Don’t snag your pullover’. ‘Don’t make yourself sick’.
And we would peer guiltily from behind the brambles with purple stains, like blotchy bruises, smeared across our mouths.