21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 35

Country Life

Free for all

Peter Quince

People do not seem to bother as much as they once did about the free gifts which the countryside offers at this season. Hazel-nuts, wild plums, crab-apples, sloes — almost everything is left to the squirrels and the birds. To be strictly accurate, the Squirrels in my part of England do not leave us much choice in the matter so far as hazel-nuts are concerned. I think there used to be many more nut-trees, and many fewer squirrels; at any rate I can remember gathering nuts galore years ago, Whereas today I consider myself lucky, to amass a handful But apart from that, the Other fruits are there in plenty but few take the trouble to go and collect them. Country people have more money to spend nowadays and are more accustomed to Obtaining their supplies from shops than from hedgerows.

The conspicuous exception is provided by the blackberry. There are, of course, enough of these to meet any conceivable demand, and this autumn the supply has been particularly generous; all the same, I have been impressed by the zeal with Which some people in the village set about gathering them. There are a few places, notably at a small and long-disused gravelPit, where the blackberries grow large and luscious and, what is of prime importance to the gatherer, in comfortably accessible places. More than once I have passed that way lately and noticed that pretty well the entire crop of fully-ripened fruit had been efficiently removed.

It was mildly puzzling. I yield to none in my admiration for the flavour of this fruit and I acknowledge that no apple pie can be brought to perfection without it. Still, a few blackberries go a long way. It was not until I came across two of the ladies of the village filling vast plastic bags with blackberries, and doing so in a lively competitive fashion, that the explanation was made plain to me. They were gathering fruit in bulk for their deepfreezers.

This adds a new dimension to the traditional autumn practice of harvesting the hedges. Even so, I cannot foresee these natural free gifts ever being as eagerly sought after as once they used to be, when hunger (and also, I suppose, selfsufficiency) played more significant parts in rural life than now. Village boys, even, no longer display anything remotely like the ruthless adventurousness which the young showed in 'what used to be called, in the north of England at least, "scrumping." This means, or meant, illegally raiding local orchards. It was part of the cycle of the seasons, like bird'snesting and collecting conkers. The owner of an orchard had to maintain a constant alert at this season if he wished to enjoy the whole of his crop, and the police were often called in to investigate the more ambitious forays. I never hear of anyone being troubled by this sort of thing today.

It is instructive to read William Cobbett's advice on laying out a fruit garden in his English Gardener. He planned the place as if it were a fortress, giving what today seems to be a colossal amount of ground to enclosing it within a system of defences — a high wall, girdled first by a dense and thorny hedge and after that, believe it or not, a dry ditch six feet deep. This from Cobbett, the friend of England's starveling and dispossessed peasantry! He confessed to feeling remorse "in plotting thus against the poor fellows," but he saw no other possible course if the crop was to be saved. The threat of robbery had to be taken as seriously in the matter of fruit as a rich man must take it today with regard to his jewellery and his silver. If modern village boys feel the pangs of hunger they are far more likely to go down to the sweetshop than to mount a risky raid on a neighbour's fruit trees, or even to help themselves to wild fruit from the hedges. One could draw various sententious conclusions from the change, but I forbear to do so. I find it definitely puzzling, though, that when a local, amateur fruit-grower of my acquaintance put a sign outside his gate saying, "Free apples for the picking," no one took advantage of his offer.