I’m walking Lola over the woods in the pouring rain, and I’ve stopped to collect some chestnuts, when I hear a sudden, peremptory pheep! – and then I see them, Molly and her GSP, Elliot, watching me from the path. I wave my bag as if to say Hello! and Look what I’ve got! in one go, feeling a little guilty for some reason. Molly raises her stick, Elliot, his nose.
I walk over.
Lola runs in the other direction.

Molly is about sixty. She has the kind of vigorous but off-kilter demeanour of someone who doesn’t know the war’s over. She’s wearing a khaki field cap, green waterproof cape and leggings, green walking boots, and she’s standing to attention with the thumb of her right hand through the V of her hazel walking stick. Elliot is sitting bolt upright next to her, appraising me with his golden eyes. I feel the urge to salute, but instead I say: ‘Hi Molly! Don’t worry. I’m leaving some for the badgers.’
‘Nonsense! There’s plenty for everyone,’ she says. ‘You’re welcome to them.’ Then adds, for the record: ‘Not that it’s any concern of mine, of course.’
Elliot can see Lola nosing around in the undergrowth a little way off. He follows her progress with professional interest, and gives a haughty little sniff.
‘I’ll tell you what I had the other day,’ she says, producing a handkerchief from deep inside the cape and blowing her nose so suddenly and violently it’s as if she’d whipped out a double-barrelled shotgun and fired it over my head. ‘Cobnuts!’ she says at last.
‘Cobnuts? Is that hazelnuts?’
‘Yes, yes!’ she says, stuffing the handkerchief back under the cape. ‘It’s been a good year. They’re not the dried rubbish you get in the shops. They’re a bit fiddly to open – got a splinter under my thumbnail and it hurt like the devil – but goodness me! So delicious!’
‘I’d love to try some.’
‘Well you can’t,’ she says. ‘The leaves have all fallen ‘orf and there’s none to be had.’
‘Oh. Maybe next year.’
She shakes her head.
‘Won’t be the same,’ she says, sadly. ‘This was a vintage year.’
The rain eases a little and we both look around.
‘There’s an awful lot of die-back in the woods,’ she says. ‘Have you noticed?’
‘Yes. Particularly in that far corner.’
‘You see – they’re just not managed as well as they used to be. Ash isn’t good for anything more than firewood, and besides, the volunteers have neither the skills nor the equipment. You can’t just cut it down and hope for the best, you know?’
I nod as if I do.
‘So what do you end up with?’ says Molly. ‘A lot of rotten trees just waiting to fall on top of you. It’s getting increasingly dangerous to walk in these woods. You wouldn’t get much warning. You’d hear a great big crack, then you’d have seconds to decide which way to run. Seconds! And you might not get it right.’
‘I suppose if it’s windy you’ve just got to be mindful of the hazards,’ I say. ‘Not walk under any rotten trees. Or any with big limbs. Like oak. Or beech. I suppose you do what you can to mitigate the risk.’
‘Hmm,’ says Molly. ‘Well – you know – there was a large oak went over a few months ago, and there was no accounting for it. It wasn’t exposed. Good firm ground. Tucked away in a sheltered spot. And yet – over it went! But then – you never know what’s going on under your feet, do you?’
She gives the ground a speculative poke with her stick. I look down at it. Elliot looks down, too, and even leans in to sniff. Molly blows her whistle. Me and Elliot look straight back up again.
‘Enjoy your chestnuts!’ says Molly, and they wheel about, and march off together down the path, side by side, perfectly in step.


the anxious forager

Mushrooms are great, but you have GOT to be sure.

It’s a salutary story, the one about the two families who went out mushroom picking, both thinking the other knew what they’re doing, both ending up on dialysis a few days later. Because the trouble is, the differences are often subtle and really hard to spot.

I’ve got a field guide to mushrooms & toadstools (first lesson = there’s no real, scientific difference between a mushroom and a toadstool), but I don’t find it easy at all. There are handy logos at the top of each page – a knife and fork on a plate, a knife and fork on a plate in brackets, a knife and fork on a plate with a line through it, and a grinning skull.

It’s the grinning skull that puts me off the other three.

The distinctions between each specimen are often extremely subtle, and go against your natural inclination. Take the smell. Strong odour of cucumber, or cedar wood? Or prussic acid? Which amongst those would you want to eat? That’s right – the prussic acid odour. Belongs to the Fairy Ring Champignon  – delicious, apparently, if you could ever relax enough to force it down.

The whole thing seems rigged. For example, the Deathcap – the mushroom vying for friendliest name, along with the Destroying Angel – well, apparently when it’s young it’s encapsulated in a ‘universal veil’ which gradually disintegrates. Before it does, though, it looks exactly like an edible puffball.

Great. Thanks.

If all that wasn’t enough, the deadly varieties like nothing better than to sneak in amongst the edibles. The Deadly Webcap has been known to grown next to hallucinogenic Liberty Caps, so you’d get way more of a trip than you bargained for.

Although there is the Contrary Webcap, which you can eat.

It’s supposed to be reassuring that most of the poisonous varieties will only give you severe cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting and a mild longing for death. There are only two or three with no antidote and a guaranteed one-way trip to complete renal and liver failure and a plot of your own for the mushrooms to spring up in. *shiver*.

All of which is to say that I’m a complete coward when it comes to picking mushrooms to eat. I did actually go on a one day course once, to get more confidence. The woman running it was amazing. In her late seventies, keen naturalist all her life. She looked more at home in the woods than anyone I’d ever seen. Well – at one point she cut a mushroom, held it up for a while, and said Hmm. I’m not sure about this one. So I’m content with taking a few pictures, and buying the cultivated kind from the supermarket.

I prefer this, anyway. To be really sure about a mushroom you have to cut it and have a good look. (You’re not killing it. What you see above ground is the fruiting body, with the mycelia extending underground to a surprising extent). You have to examine the thing carefully, the gills, the stipe and so on, slicing it in half to see what colour the flesh is and what happens to it. But the mushrooms look so beautiful in situ, it seems a shame. I’m not ruthless enough to be a collector, or a (safe) forager. I’ll content myself with taking pictures, and leave the rest to nature.

Here are a few I took today. (Once you become aware, you start seeing them everywhere…)