Drovers paths and the Moulton Packhorse Bridge

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I still nurse a childhood fascination with drovers and the romanticised images I held of these men as they tramped along the ancient walkways that cross-hatched the British countryside, etching them deeper and deeper into the land as they escorted their charges to market, to summer pastures or sheltered locations for overwintering. The census of 1890 lists the details of young men who worked as ‘ankle beaters’, using a sharp rap with a stick to drive the livestock forward towards market.

As a child I read The Woolpack by Cynthia Garnett and thought about the sheepy-smelling wool merchants of fifteenth-century Cotswolds as they smuggled, double-crossed and pirated their way into actions that reverberated across Europe. I explored the wool towns and villages of South Suffolk- Lavenham, Long Melford, Sudbury and Hadleigh -where wooden frames houses line narrow streets which wend their way towards ornate, dramatic churches constructed with wool money, imbued with lanolin and self-importance.

These sheep, which dotted the fields and pastures of Suffolk, earned the county untold wealth and influence. The animals moved from field to field, farm to farm and their fleeces and cloth were sold in local markets or transported overland or by river barge to the North Sea via Kings Lynn, along the river Stour at Sudbury, or taken to London and  transported onto mainland Europe and beyond. Suffolk wasn’t strictly all things ovine although records of 1440 show that around Bury St Edmunds, the profits from the rearing of sheep had superceded those of cattle. The annual cattle shows in villages such as Melton, Hoxne, Woolpit and Woodbridge drew the attention of Scottish cattle farmers in the early 18th century who sent down animals in fine condition although there is evidence that cattle have been driven to England as far back as the fifteenth century. These could fetch prices as high as seven shillings for a handsome short-horn. Suffolk and East Anglia as a whole were geographically convenient, being within reach of the London markets and home to some of the best ‘finishing’  grazing where cattle could fatten up and rest after the long and arduous drive from the Scottish highlands and lowlands.

East Anglia had adopted Flemish methods of livestock farming which included supplementing grazing with the feeding of fodder such as clover and root-vegetables- highly attractive to cattle farmers wanting the best return on their livestock. Indeed, Daniel Defoe (in the quote below) had remarked that East Suffolk became the first English district which fed and fattened its sheep and cattle in this manner and by the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south from Scotland. His account mirrors modern day food debates about the merits of grass versus grain-finished cattle and their respective flavour and textures and it is also thought that the Red Poll breed that came out of Norfolk and Suffolk is most likely a result of polled Scottish red Galloway bulls being put to local cattle.

GEORGE WILLIAM HORLOR (1849-1895) CATTLE DROVERS, SUNSET
GEORGE WILLIAM HORLOR (1849-1895) The Cattle Drovers at Sunset

“This part of England is also remarkable for being the first where the feeding and fattening of cattle, both sheep as well as black cattle with turnips, was first practised in England, which is made a very great part of the improvement of their lands to this day; and from whence the practice is spread over most of the east and south parts of England, to the great enriching of the farmers, and encrease of fat cattle: And tho’ some have objected against the goodness of the flesh thus fed with turnips, and have fansied it would taste of the root; yet upon experience ’tis found, that at market there is no difference nor can they that buy, single out one joynt of mutton from another by the taste..

The feet of turkeys would be tarred and sanded to protect them on a journey that could take up to three months (according to John Chartres in Chapters from The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume 4) and a typical journey in 1696 saw turkeys driven from Newmarket to Epsom, whilst cattle were fitted with iron shoes. Geese would have iron booties making me wonder whether the term ‘a gaggle of geese’ accurately described what must have been an infernal racket as they clattered and scuttered across the landscape on route to market.

4 Driving Turkeys
Victorian turkey droving from Norfolk to London

Suffolk cattle drovers would place notices in the local press during the month of January, advertising where they would be present to collect stock to drive onto London’s Smithfield Market. They gathered at Oulton Blue Boat Inn and Rushmere Hall, at the Ufford Crown, Martlesham Red Lion and the Woolpack at Pakenham. In Cockfield, a large parish lying between Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds, the drovers assembled at The Greyhound Inn and records by the Suffolk Institute mention a Mr James Howlett of Brome who took a ‘more westerly route’ which included Bury St Edmunds on the traditional Wednesday market day. On this day, he could be assured of like-minded company, a place to gather and catch up on all the news and seek lodgings should he require it.

These Scottish cattle droves were mightily impressive with each drover responsible for fifty or sixty heads which comprised herds over two hundred, reaching paces of between ten to fifteen miles per day.  As in classic American Western style, a mounted topsman would ride on ahead, operating as an alert system and charged with securing night-time pasture, water and shelter. Paid approximately twice the going rate for a farm labourer (3/4s per day, 10s for their return journey), this had to cover their lodgings and their food.  As the time of the fairs approached, local village lanes and pastures were hemmed in by herds of steaming, snorting beasts, tended by drovers in their hundreds and picked over by local graziers looking to add to their stock. The hostelries and local businesses ramped up their hospitality, serving meals and advertising the time and location of these. Indeed, the Melton fair was held on land next door to the local inn.

Suffolk and Norfolk are watery counties and maps show a lattice of rivers and streams, marshes, bogs, creeks and man-made drainage channels. As many a would-be invader found to their cost, navigating the region was complex and attempts to replicate the flight path of a crow were doomed to failure. Whilst navigating on water might seem as simple as building a craft fit for the purpose of carrying humans, fitting hundreds of heads of cattle, sheep and flocks of stroppy, birds onto one is an entirely different matter. Trying to ford what appears to be a shallow body of water with livestock in tow or mounted on horseback can swiftly go very wrong indeed as William Camden wrote in 1582 after trying to ford the River Wharfe “…for, it hath such slippery stones in it that a horse can have no sure footing on them, or else the violence of the water carryeth them away from under his feet.” 

Therefore, a drover generally needed to travel around or over water and when time is money (packhorse transport was considerably more costly than horse-towed barges on water), going around might necessarily involve considerable added mileage. So began the construction of packhorse bridges along main routes at a time when the large-scale trading of livestock and their produce began to factor greatly in the regional and national economy. Dating mostly back to the seventeenth century, packhorse bridges were largely used to transport wool, cloth, sheep and cattle. Designed to be narrow in width with low parapets to allow clear passage of the heavy, goods laden panniers that were carried on the backs of animals, these bridges began life as planked-in wood with supports constructed of logs. Later on as the design was improved, the wood was replaced by piers and arches made in the local stone and some of them were widened to allow safer and more efficient passage of the significantly more wide bodied cattle. By the eighteenth century, the construction of turnpikes (after the 1773 Turnpike Act) rendered some of the bridges obsolete although away from the ‘main drags’ they continued to be used to navigate free routes. Drovers did much to create the seemingly meandering patterns of lanes in our countryside as they tried their best to avoid costly turnpikes and toll-gates, most of which straddled the straighter routes between markets, ports and towns.

The village of Moulton is four miles east of Newmarket and has its own Packhorse Bridge. The village is recorded in the Domesday book although the settlement of Moulton predates 1086 and is older than the its much larger neighbour. The name is Old English for the Farmstead of a man called Mula although an alternative explanation suggests the name may be derived from the Old English words ‘Mula’ plus ‘Tun’= as a place where mules are kept.

Moulton
Moulton from the top of the Packhorse Bridge

Bounded by meadows and farmland, the River Kennett runs south-north along the eastern borders of the meadows, carving a gentle pathway through a chalk landscape which folds itself into two hills, Primrose Hill to the east and Folly Hill and Thrift Covert to the west.  The parish is bordered on its north side by the prehistoric Icknield Way which went on to be modified by Roman engineers to follow the chalk uplands which bisect England from the Wash to Wiltshire. The Icknield Way was one of the longest used drover routes and a popular route for merchants travelling between the towns of Royston and Newmarket, with higher vantage points at Gazeley and Dalham. Although its name is suggestive of a single defined route, it actually grew from a medley of braided tracks, lanes and greenways which lie above the lowland chalk that runs underneath Breckland, past Newmarket and onto Knettishall Heath, ten or so miles from Thetford. The Roman route of Peddars Way continues on from Knettishall to the red sandstone layers of Hunstanton’s cliffs on the North Norfolk coastline.

Out driving last week, I crossed and recrossed the borders of Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire and I encountered the 15th century Pack Horse Bridge quite by accident after getting lost trying to find my way to Newmarket from Sudbury via the back roads and lanes. The bridge itself traverses the old Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds packhorse route, one of the main arterial runs for the latters wool trade which, by 1440, had outpaced cattle farming in revenue and if you draw a straight line from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds, it passes straight through Moulton. Stockily built in local flint and stone and spanning twenty metres, the bridge possesses the classically low parapets although it is wide enough to allow the passage of smaller carts. As you walk over, the view ahead is of acid-jazz fields of oil seed rape, a road snaking its way up a hill and scudding clouds. The curve of the bridge is far less gentle underfoot than its appearance from the roadside might suggest and after a week of torpid sun and a night of rain, my sandals scudded across its gravelled surface in their search for traction, and I imagined the slip and flinty clatter of horses or mules hooves as they struggled to gain momentum, panniers laden and possibly pulling a cumbersome cart behind them too in trains of up to fifty animals. The surface most certainly would not have been user-friendly gravel back then and surely must have been made more treacherous from animal manure and other detritus.

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The vantage point is a gift that keeps on giving: views of the old rectory school on your right, dating back to 1849 and beyond that lies the churchyard and St Peter’s church set above the river. The west face of the church presides over fields dotted with copses and the misty silhouette of Ely Cathedral lies on the horizon amid the low-lying Cambridgeshire fens. Ask an East Anglian about ‘The Ship of the Fens’ as we call the Cathedral and many of us will be able to name our favoured spot where we go to gaze upon its spires from a distance. This is now mine. Gazeley Stud lies beyond (this is prime horse country) and nearby pastures are home to some of the best horseflesh in the world.

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The road by the bridge was dry when I visited although a few days later the skies dumped a months worth of rain in one night but I didn’t go back to see if anything had changed. Back in February (2014), heavy rainfall did cause flooding and the bridge was once again fording torrents of water as the Kennett burst its banks and the environment agency issues flood warnings from Ousden to Freckenham. The River Kennett is home to kingfishers, egrets and the healthy chalk favouring stickleback population which feed them and further downstream, a similar old flint footbridge curves over the waters which have shrunk somewhat since the bridge was first built. The size of this bridge shows us this because had the Kennett been a small narrow stream back then, a single arch would have sufficed. However the Moulton bridge has a series of four smaller arches which allow for a gentler slope towards its apex instead of the steep slope a single arch of the size needed would have resulted in and each arch, shaped like a bishops mitre, is faced with brick as are the cut water buttresses. The arches were constructed via the creation of a timber framework to provide a template for their shape and form and support for the brickwork. Once the bricks had been laid in place, the supports (formers) were taken away. The bricks are rayed outwards and bedded down against knobbly flints and rusty red sandstone rubble.

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I was able to walk underneath and alongside the bridge because a concrete surface, like a platform, has been laid down alongside and over the top of the stream. A close look at the undersides of some of the arches revealed a micro climate: slightly steamy and dank, feeding and housing the lichen, ferns and moss which like to lodge themselves in all the damp places. When I pressed my hands against the flint and stone rubble, water leached and seeped through my fingers and my childhood self, enchanted by the subterranean and grotto-like atmosphere, would have fashioned a world of water fairies on leaf boats with beds of maidenhair fern and toads as friends and guardian of the arches.

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The edges of the stream had all the verdancy you would expect from a Suffolk waterway in July. Rushes and reeds, rosebay willowherb, ferns, trefoil and clover, potentilla, flag irises and water hyacinth, flattened down in places here and there; possibly because of the passageways of voles and rats and perhaps, otters which have been returning to our local rivers. Waterways overlaying chalk (which the Kennett is) are vitally important for local widlife: sometimes intermittent in nature, they possess clear, pure, oxygenated water with a relatively even temperature all year round and would be especially useful to drovers, who were always on the lookout for water sources for their livestock and themselves. Additionally, the abundant fenlands that are proximate to this part of East Anglia are dependent upon lime rich waters which feed and support their unique biodiversity.


I wasn’t singing this, but the Song of the Skewbald was recorded under the middle arch of the Moulton PackHorse Bridge. There’s a wealth of local folk songs that are most appropriate for humming under ones breath or listening to on an ipod should you want a musically immersive experience. This Moulton and three churches walk is a pleasure to do  as is this walk. The Moulton Packhorse Inn is next to the bridge and locals speak highly of it for ambience, food, beer and location.

Thank you to Dr Harvey Osborne, senior lecturer in History at University Campus, Suffolk for his generous help in locating primary and secondary sources.

Has the nightclub had its [night and] day?

Dance_floor_2_by_harmon

Figures released this week by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) show that the number of nightclubs open in the UK have halved in a decade: in 2005 there were 3,144 nightclubs in Britain but now this is down to 1,733. As a teenager, the local nightclub was a kind of Valhalla, a glamorous place which automatically conferred adulthood upon anyone who crosses its threshold. Has that glamour faded?

When I was fourteen, my own private Valhalla was to be found down a lane surrounded by salt marshes in north-east Brittany. Each night I would putter down the rutted track on my mobylette then kick down the stand and sit there in the dark waiting for the groups of French locals to arrive at ‘Le Nightclub’ as they called it then. I loved watching them but I dreamed more of being allowed in, preferably on the arm of Fabrice Michel, the lad from the nearby town I had a crush on and who taught me to windsurf in a seaweed-choked  corner of France.

This bastion of glamour was a converted old cattle barn, in the back of the Breton beyond and lit up by strings of fairground bulbs that flickered with a low voltage hum. Their colours matched the blue and orange-striped awnings and the lights looped over rows of tiny windows. These permitted only the weakest of breeze to pass through, barely stirring the fug of cigarette smoke, body odour and perfume. Sitting by the door, I would catch snatches of music as it opened and shut- Spirits Having Flown by the Bee Gees, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger, Kim Larssen’s Donnez Moi du Feu and Bambou (it wasn’t a time for great music in France) – and there was laughter and arguments (because even Le Nightclub did not escape the French passion for philosophical debate it would seem).

The women wore little sequinned shrugs, pencil skirts, heeled mules and languidly held cigarettes until they spoke whereupon the lighted end would gesticulate wildly in the dark, becoming a tiny, furious firefly. The men were immaculate, wearing the same sweaters around their shoulders they sported in the little harbour town of Paimpol during the day in primrose yellows, blues and greens or they wore Breton-striped matelots, pressed jeans with perfectly aligned creases and oxblood leather loafers with little tassels. In England those same loafers were worn by Rude Girls but in France they lacked that anti-establishment air. The men held doors open, offered cigarettes and as they dipped down to catch a light, their curls shone like onyx from hair gel and genetics.

Couples would drive up in cars strewn with children who would be left to run around in the nearby fields and the stone-chipping car park until the kids returned to their cars and fell asleep in a tangle of legs and arms. Their parents would come out occasionally, clutching a sandwich for them or a bottle of Orangina, which was my personal favourite because of its dimpled glass and cool logo and the parents would fire off a stream of rapid French which acted as lion tamer to these unruly children who were accustomed to occupying themselves.

Le Nightclub turned the surrounding lanes and roads into death traps as its patrons lurched home at 2 am in a convoy of Citroen 2CVs and those sky blue DS’s which rose up like a breaching whale on their hydropneumatic suspensions. Pissed on pastis, campari and soda and a lethal honey based liqueur, they’d drive home two-abreast conducting conversations through rolled-down windows. On one memorable occasion, the passenger of one car and the driver of another managing to keep their lips passionately locked together as they half hung out of their respective car windows and trundled side by side down the track which led to the Paimpol road. What the other driver and passenger thought of this seemingly illicit menage, I could not tell as I pootled along behind them.

I longed to put on a little dress with a skirt that might clung to my thighs and ride up slightly as I sat down, slightly breathless between dances to accept a cigarette and a light from the most handsome man in the room. I wanted to be casually unaware of myself, to be that woman with her head thrown back in laughter to reveal a long line of white throat and neck, slightly sweaty from dancing and talking and life. I wanted to be someone other than a strawberry blonde English girl in her blue and white striped seersucker pants, rolled up at the ankle, a moth-eaten navy blue fishermen jersey loaned by my host family’s father and espadrilles smeared with oil from my mobylette. I sat there for many nights, hoping that, by chance, Fabrice might turn up and I had my casual speech rehearsed, I knew what I would say when I saw him, how I would pretend that my bike had broken down, that “non, ce qui est ce….place?  when he asked me if I knew where I was and was I thirsty and would I like him to buy me a drink?

I never found out what lay beyond those doors and I never tried to go in and find out although I crept closer and closer. This little French club was where locals went to shrug off the day, to meet people or to remember what attracted them to their partners and see them afresh. Their evening glamour made them slight strangers to people they saw every day, made them giddy and slightly, dizzily off kilter with the breathless possibilities of new relationships or relationships renewed.

The George Robey: image by Ewan Munro

Fast forward to London from the late eighties-onwards, the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park (later to briefly become the Powerhaus) was my local haunt and as wonderfully scuzzy as it is possible to get with its saxe-blue painted exterior and high, arched windows on a corner plot opposite the Rainbow Theatre. The Robey was a typically North London, rangy kind of pub with a tardis-like interior and nobody knew how many rooms it had: it was a constant guessing game for patrons. One of the DJs carried the moniker Vik Valium although his musical acumen was much sharper than the name might suggest and another went by the name of Boney Slackburn and his name was regularly plastered across tatty flyers. I saw Hawkwind play a live set in the late 80s and I capered about to them with a giant unicorn horn strapped to my head. Blur and No Doubt all played in their earliest of days as did John Cooper Clarke, Desmond Dekker, Carter USM and Bad Manners. Buckwheat Zydeco and Wilko Johnson also came to the Robey in 1986 (although don’t quote me on that as it might have been 87, my memory is understandably fuzzy).

The floor was sticky with pernod and black and the slops from pints of snakebite, the atmosphere sometimes snarled from the all-day punk and ska gigs and the chemical help needed to get through them. On really busy nights punters overflowed onto the Seven Sisters Road and had to be assisted back inside by the Met who waged a constant battle against the place and especially the Club Dog all-nighters, which mated a free party vibe with squatting.  The ability to squat was made easier by a lack of legislation in those days- indeed the Ministry of Transport had granted licences to squat to many East London properties that were located on the site of the soon to be built M11 extension that would run from Wanstead through to Hackney Wick. One of those squatters was my then boyfriend who went on to become the father of my son. The squatters saw Club Dog as their High-Church as they danced to the musical crossover between rave, punk, psychedelia and celebrated its high priests, The Cramps.

I watched as a newbie tried to convince regulars that they weren’t the Old Bill (they were wearing loafers, socks, looked very very tidy but had made an effort to blend in by adding in a clip on nose ring) and ended up tipped out into the street by an irate Ragga girl with rainbow dreads, a purple string vest, combat pants and sky-high strappy heels. The Robey was a rumour mill and we wove skeins of stories about infiltration, busts, celebs in disguise, laundered money and police special ops which travelled fast in the airless fug above the dance floor and by the bar. Later on, I did hear that Nick Hornby based the Harry Lauder music venue on the Robey in his book, High Fidelity. I don’t know if this is true but we were all gutted when the venue closed down in 2004 after being gutted by a fire. It had been taken over by the Mean Fiddler Group in the mid-1990s and renamed the Powerhaus which I also went to- it was hard to let the Robey go.

The Powerhaus attracted a slightly more clean cut, studenty crowd, starry-eyed and newly arrived in the city. They danced to REM, U2, Stero MCs and Arrested Development after the live bands cleared the stage around midnight (on one memorable night, Rammstein played a set). I remember dancing away to REM and, feeling a tap on my shoulder, turned round to see a young guy with a fresh and hopeful look on his face which dropped dramatically as his eyes ranged down to my six months pregnant belly. I still laugh today, over twenty one years later thinking of his disappointed face. I was surrounded by a crowd of friends from Suffolk who would come up to the city and stay with us and, by Sunday, pregnant me would be worn out by and craving a sedate bath, TV and bed far away from clubs and pounding bass. I was starting to grow tired of avoiding pavement pizzas and fighty, grabby groups of men and women at 3 am on Brick Lane as we awaited the delivery of freshly baked bagels through the hatch. Brick Lane was not hipster then at all and neither was Hackney although they were cool and the little flat we stayed in, with its wooden shutters and doors left unlocked to save having to continually repair them after break-ins, was pretty and airy with high ceilings substituting for the space I had left behind in Suffolk.

We don’t lack opportunity when it comes to escape these days. We no longer have to go clubbing to get a late-night drink: late-night licensing has put paid to that. Sadly, we have put such a high price on urban space that clubs struggle to generate enough revenue to keep themselves going in the face of developers waving an open chequebook and nearby residents waving the Readers Digest Guide to Complaining About Urban Noise. Gentrification has taken its toll and the ability to get a TEN license to host a music event in, say, a warehouse or other private space, has become very difficult. As clubs close down, this further reduces our ability to find locations for live dance music and hire charges skyrocket as a response. DJing might  be more democratic now because anyone can download the software required to turn a laptop into a DJ system and music production systems too but there needs to be the places available to practise the art and the costs associated with event management need to be less prohibitive.

Ministry_of_Sound
The Ministry of Sound

We don’t seem to develop close emotional ties with venues either. We called ourselves Blitz Kids or Kinky Gerlinkers and identified with the lifestyle, politics and attitude of clubs such as Trade, Ministry of Sound, Madame JoJo’s, Heaven or Club Dog and felt defined to a certain extent by them. The Robey was a bed of reds and you checked your political apathy at the door. As John O’Farrell writes in Things Can Only Get Better’… sometimes it was Billy Bragg supporting Hank Wangford and other times it was Hank Wangford supporting Billy Bragg” and for me, fresh from university in Cardiff having watched the police waving their overtime checks at striking miners, it was the sin-qua-non of spiritual homes. I didn’t just dance: I listened (yes, we made ourselves heard above the strobe and bass) argued, learned and the kernel of socialism within me grew and hardened. And also growing up in the streets surrounding the Robey were the Finsbury Park Fleadh and the Red Rose Club which housed a stand up night where the likes of David Baddiel and Jerry Sadowitz cut their teeth. A good club raises the neighbourhood game, you see.

But now, as I walk through town and city centres late at night, I don’t see this anymore- in fact the arrival of a club is seen as a death knell for modern civilisation, the noughties version of Fightnight or the Christians V the lions. There’s no glamour, not even the slightly faded and slightly louche Roxy Music kind. I see queues of people who are looking for any venue to continue their drink-fuelled night and an infrastructure of police and security designed to corral them as they blunder drunkenly in and out of each others space. The dancing is more vertical expression of the need to shag, in the manner of a basket of chaotic puppies rubbing up against each other or it is a cock strut, designed to show off the suburban male in all his t-shirted glory. The creative competition has been subsumed to the sexual meat market- there is no erotic currency, no desire in the fullest sense, no possibility of actualisation through sound, shape or potential. The lights have been turned up and we stare, bleary eyed at our surroundings and wonder how the fuck we got there and who the fuck we are with.

The old club rule of keeping the lights low on has been broken and we cannot go back. Nobody needs to see the scratches on the wall, the ceilings turned ochre from years of filter tips, the burns in the velvet flock and the make-up-smeared, sweaty faces of the people who, until recently, were part of the churning and thrilled masses on the dancefloors of England.

A little sugar and a plum

Cherry plums in abundance- free too!
Cherry plums in abundance- free too!

In ‘Aller Aux Mirabelles’, the writer Jacques Réda recalls his thirties childhood spent in the town of Luneville, a place where the wild cherry plums grew abundantly, reminding him of “big blond smooth shiny pearls spotted with a few reddish freckles, and underneath their shininess the pulp is dense like a chunk of mashed sun.”  To Réda, a cherry plum is one of life’s small and significant things, punching its way through the ruins of twentieth century reality. You may know them by another name, the Mirabelle plum.

Hedgerows and the scrubby outskirts of urban and suburban areas all benefit from its sparse leafy shade and these low spreading trees provide essential food for birds.I was reminded of this as I walked to the supermarket and heard the squabbles of two blackbirds in the thickets of rowan, birch, plum and ornamental cherries shading the pavement. There, in the straggly and friable branches of the cherry plum tree, were mother and (nearly grown) fledgling, fighting over the ripened fruit which dropped around them as they fluttered from bough to bough, clamouring angrily at each other. Ripening as they do on low mother-branches, the fruit is often mistaken for a cherry when it is actually a member of the plum family and these ones were barely hanging on by the slenderest of stems, the thickness of a hair in the bright light. And then with a second glance, the fecundity of the tree was impossible to miss, festooned as it was with tiny yellow orbs, some with a faint-pink blush and others displaying vein-like striations of darker yellow, back-lit by the sun.

The word harvest comes from the Anglo-Saxon word haerfest meaning autumn but the fruits of the forest, meadow and hedgerow start coming long before August wanes. There’s bullace, damsons and medlars; crab apples, elderflowers, and wild strawberries as small as my little fingernail; the fungal harvest of puffballs and chicken of the woods alongside the wild-garlic, sweet cicely, cobnuts, hazelnuts and acorns (the latter can be ground into acorn flour). Some of these wild foods are hard-won, refusing to yield their fruits without a fight through thickets of thorns, protective girdles of stinging nettles and great clouds of wasps, bees and other insects. These protective devices are right and proper, ensuring that foragers leave enough for wildlife to see itself through the winter hunger gap.

Hedgerow and woodland plants possess miraculous skills and which the sloe is a good example, developing a dusty-blue hue which is actually an UV-reflective yeast bloom designed to stand out to birds whose eyes have evolved to detect this. When you go out gathering sloes to make gin, remember this and the words of Alison Uttley who was perfectly capable of grasping the science (being a physics graduate) but could also spin it into something ethereal and, in the process, captured on the page the essential mysteries which science always seeks to unravel: “The bloom on fruit always interested us, and we were careful…regarding the bloom as something mysterious, like lace on a dress, or a feather on a bird, or a decoration not made by man.”

In my house, cooking with fruit needs to happen immediately because I possess the self-control of the poet William Carlos Williams around it and he had no qualms about raiding the contents of the kitchen:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Alongside popping plums into bottles of brandy in homage to Manet’s The Plum, with its mournful depiction of a prostitute leaning on a marble-topped Parisian bar where a large green-flushed plum plugged the top of her glass of brandy, there are a myriad of things one can do with a bowl full of cherry plums. Their flavour is less tart, sweeter and subtly spicy, the skin thinner and the stone smaller. Perfect with tiny goat chevres and plum tomatoes (I have had them sliced, in a small hand-sized tomato tart, the similarity to the yellow tomatoes used as a visual pun), fresh basil and peaches, they have a sharper, vegetal undertone, a grassy-green note which cuts richer foods brilliantly.

The well known combination of cherries with meats such as duck, pork and mackerel would also work here and their colour, both cooked and uncooked, is pretty. They can be turned into mellow and gentle preserves (I would add some vanilla sugar) or a soft-set coulis if you add a slug of Chambord with its darkly-berried flavours and eat with ice cream. Or why not celebrate their long British history (plum stones were discovered on the the Mary Rose when it was saved from the sea) and use them in a classic crumble, a fruit pie or one of the chutneys we do so well? Bottle them with tomato, spices (star anise is good), chilé and tomatillo for a pickle that is visually confusing and very pretty to look at.

The Poles and Ukrainians are skilled at preserving wild fruits and my old Ukrainian neighbour would give me tall bottles of plums and cherry plums, preserved as pickles with brine and vinegar or bottled in vodka and brandy to make a glorious cherry plum liqueur. He would include their leaves too, pressed dimpled and dark green against the glass sides of the jars and sometimes he added the stones too although I won’t recommend you do that for health reasons- it is hard to accurately gauge the risks. For more information on the cyanide risk from fruit stones, this blog post makes for interesting reading. If you want some fabulous suggestions for fruit pickles and preserves, read ‘Mamushka‘ by Olia Hercules, a Ukrainian chef and food stylist who lives and works in London.

Here’s the method for cherry plum vino. Chin chin!

2.8 kg cherry plums, washed and dried.
1.4 kg sugar (I use brown caster sugar to add caramel tones to the flavour although it will affect the colour)
approx 4 litres of water
1 sachet wine yeast – doesn’t matter what red wine yeast you choose
1 tsp yeast nutrient
1 tsp pectolase

First you’ll need to extract their juices and the most efficient way to do this is boil 1 litre of water and carefully pour this over the fruit. Use the end of a rolling pin or similar sturdy tool to crush the fruit then eliminate all the stones by sieving- they are quite small so you will have to allow some time to do this. Leave this for a couple of hours then add the remaining water and the pectolase, the latter breaks down the pectin from the plums prior to fermentation. You don’t want the wine to be hazy so not only does pectolase stop this, it also increases the yield of juice from the cherry plum pulp as pectolase liquifies this.

Leave the resulting micture for two days, somewhere cool and clean then strain it through a fine sieve. Put the juice into a large pan, bring it to the boil then switch off the heat straight away. Do NOT omit this step or you will produce acetone because the mixture will not have been sterilised.

Pour the hot juice over the sugar and stir until it is totally dissolved then allow to cool down to room temperature. Add the yeast and yeast nutrient then pour it all into your demijohn using a funnel. Add the trap then rack off into a sterilised demijohn after four to six weeks and again a few weeks later if you prefer. Bottle when clear but don’t worry if it doesn’t ever completely clear- bottle it anyway as it will still taste as good.

Here’s a method for Cherry Plum-Cello:

Inspired by the proper Italian Limoncello’s I have drunk in Alghero, Naples and Palermo and various other locations, I thought I’d have a go with cherry plums. The drink is milder, obviously lemon is far more dramatic but the grassy fruitiness of the cherry plums work well and if you add a tiny sprinkle of Jamaican long pepper to your poured drink, you’ll have something quirky and very delicious.

200g of super ripe cherry plums, stones removed.

750ml vodka

200g granulated sugar

Put all the ingredients in a large, sterilised jar then seal securely and leave to infuse for 2 weeks. Every few day, invert and shake the jar to ensure the fruit and sugar is well distributed. After two weeks are up, sieve and strain into a large jug and keep the strained cherry plums to one side. Taste and add more sugar if necessary then pour into sterilised bottles and store in the fridge. Drink in three weeks and don’t waste the discarded fruit- eat them with cream, ice cream, piled into a brioche and dolloped with clotted cream for a riff on a Cornish Split, scattered under a crumble crust…

Shine on you Krazy Horse

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I spent the wilder half of my teenage years hanging out with a local bike club called the Coggeshall Bastards who used to drink and play pool at The Christopher and Royal Oak pubs in Sudbury. Despite the fact that quite a few of them didn’t actually possess their own bikes (!), I have fond memories of summer afternoons spent outside in the pub’s cart-lodge watching various hirsute men strip down motorbikes, pop the caps off long-necks and enjoy the flattery as we vied for a ride on the back of their Kwak 750 limiteds, Nortons, Harleys and other hogs. As we passed seventeen, many of us girls went out and got our own bikes although it didn’t always compete with doing a ton clinging to the back of the leader of the pack, trying not to get smacked in the face by locks more flowing than our own.

I’ve always loved bikers. They tend to be family-orientated people, funny, droll and practical with the intense love of life which comes from burying so many of their friends who have been killed in road traffic accidents over the decades. As a teenager I too went to my fair share of funerals, ceremonies in church which saw the Coggeshall Bastards turn their potentially offensive denim cut off waistcoats inside out to avoid offending the vicar. We bowed our heads to Shine on, You Crazy Diamond, Freebird and Led Zep’s Tangerine at a time when it wasn’t as accepted to play non-religious songs during CoE and Catholic services. The coffins would be draped in the colours of their occupant, a pair of heavy-set boots and a crash helmet placed on top. Poignantly, the helmets were not always pristine either, sometimes bearing the dents of the collision that killed their owner alongside the many scuffs and stickers these gentlemen of the road accumulated. Then afterwards we’d follow the heavy tread of their boots down the gravelled paths of the church yard and join the convey back to the pub for a wake. The tradition then was to ride ‘lidless’ after a funeral, something that simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen now.

It can be tough, looking back on those heady days of youthful irresponsibility and those friends who will remain forever young in our memories. Krazy Horse is a local motorbike-customising business which used to have premises on Looms Lane and has now moved to the (larger) Mildenhall Business Park. Hanging out with the new-gen bikers can sometimes make loss feel worse. My old mates should be there, standing outside with a mug of tea, comparing fairings, complaining about how their new sissy bar spoils the lines of their machine and planning pension-enabled routes around the USA on the bike of their dreams. In my minds-eye, the only squeaks and creaks that can be heard are those which come from unbroken leather pants: in my minds-eye, we are ageless.

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My son visits Krazy Horse most weekends for breakfast and the chance to drool over some of the best custom-jobs around whilst benefiting from the experience and knowledge of bikers who have managed to stay alive on two wheels. I finally went with him on my birthday last weekend, ostensibly for the enormous all day breakfasts but also because they sell Levi’s for forty quid and some pretty cool Dickies olive-green wool-rib sweaters which I have been coveting. Downstairs the bikes are lined up, front wheels turned out like show ponies. There’s Green Jessies, Eckerslike Flyers and a Kiwi Indian in a rust-red, cream and leather-seated livery. There’s a Norton Commando and a rangy Swede Dream in asparagus-green and cream, all five-speed transmission and stainless-steel exhaust, the Greg Allman of bikes, perfect for a blond leggy rider. There’s the speedy and sleek Italian Patons that are road-going versions of the one that raced last years TT…. the list goes on and the dreams of a never to be lottery win taunt us as we wander around.

The Rockers Cafe is upstairs on a balcony overlooking the main showroom full of custom bikes with swing tags upwards of 20K.  Established in collaboration with the world famous Ace Café , the original cafe has existed in the same spot on London’s North Circular since 1938 and is an icon of British transport-caff history, even appearing in the 1963 Sidney Furie film The Leather Boys, which starred Rita Tushingham, Colin Campbell and Dudley Sutton.

The rise of the teenager, an increasing post-war disposable income, the growing popularity of driving as a leisure activity  and the start of the ‘Ton-Up-Boys’ meant that the appeal of the Ace Cafe dovetailed with the growing British motorcycle industry. This is the vibe that Rockers Cafe is seeking to not only emulate, but develop in its own way.

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Image by Rockers Cafe

At Rockers Cafe, you’ll find a Wurlitzer and an industrial cum Americana vibe with a diner counter, silver pull-up stools and about eight or so tables arranged in semi circle. Behind the tables are shelves full of clothing, (including some gorgeous nubuck leather biker boots suitable for downtime as well as bike time), a spares bar and order books. Windows look out onto the business forecourt and the coming and goings of the bikes. A particularly throaty roar will either draw a nod of recognition, “That’s Mike, get a brew on,” or craned necks as the regulars strain to identify what this unfamiliar blat might be. It’s bloody popular on a Sunday morning and the floor is littered with crash helmets like rows of miniature drumlins. You swiftly learn to look behind you before moving your chair out- these lids are expensive and regarded in a similar way to the baby Jesus and many of them actually get their own chair at the table. DON’T ask them to put their lid on the floor- it’s contrary to protocol, let them offer.

The staff are young and well-intentioned, dressed in Krazy Horse tees, weaving their way expertly around the tiny kitchen space as they pass plates piled high with syrup lashed pancakes and bacon and huge breakfasts with circles of red-purple black pudding, hash browns, sausages and eggs any way you want them. Bottles of Salubrious Breakfast Sauce are a great alternative to the ubiquitous Heinz. You can have your burger patty stacked high with jalopeno’s, guac and sour cream. You can have it Bangkok veggie style with sweet chilli mayo, baby gem, beef tomato and melted cheese or Italian with mozzarella, sundried tomato, rocket leaves & pesto. Lunch menus list jackets, salads, panini’s and various mains such as lasagne, chile, soups, toffee apple pies and crumbles. The counter has plastic cake stands covering lemon, chocolate and coconut layer cakes and piles of cookies, brownies and flapjacks.

Got a dry throat, parched from a long ride and road-dust? You can order Crabbies ginger beer, root-beer and vanilla coke, all imported from the USA, and the ice-cream, syrup and milk thick shakes taste pretty authentic. Coffees are flavoured with syrups and Belvoir mandarin and orange pressés are available alongside beer and ciders for non drivers.

If you have bike mad kids who are old enough and well behaved enough to not touch, prod or try to clamber on, Krazy Horse makes a great and inexpensive place to bring them for a good look, something to eat and might trigger the early stirrings of a hobby that could, ultimately, prove rather more costly in the long run.

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