Country diary: a bittersweet harvest at the end of summer
Blacka Moor, South Yorkshire: The bilberry bushes have borne fruit, but you have to take the sour with the sweet
Whisper it, but high summer in the Peak District can be rather flat. The greens are lacklustre; birdsong is muted. But as August wears on, the heather flowers open to lift the dull brown moors with a broad sweep of purple, although sometimes that sweep can seem too broad. I prefer my heather as part of the chorus rather than solo artist, matched against bilberry and birch, cowberry and rowan, all of them now beginning the shift from summer to autumn. Blacka Moor has these in abundance, and also stretches of boggy ground filled with moss. For me, moorland is richer as mosaic.
The mornings now are fresh, especially this year; the morning light more sidelong. There are spiky seedheads on the burdocks; willowherb is fizzling out, like a near-spent firework. But while these are the first intimations of winter, something at least is happening. And then, of course, there’s the fruit. Cowberry, known also as mountain cranberry, is not much eaten these days, although a friend makes jelly from it, which she brings out at Christmas. Having a sweeter tooth, it’s the bilberries that fix my attention. The better bushes are away from the paths and I immerse myself among them, like a contented bear.
Like most plants with a long and useful human history, bilberries have many names: across the Pennines and in the Welsh borders they’re wimberries, in Scotland blaeberries, down south they’re whortles. The lore around their medicinal properties is ancient; modern science has probed the anthocyanins in bilberry that give the berries their rich, purplish colour and may, or may not, offer protection against cancer and heart disease. I use them for protection against hunger. But while friends in mid-Wales collect pounds of bilberries each year and freeze them, I scoff each one as soon as I pick it.
“Do it like this,” my wife says, holding out a palm full of berries and then cramming them in her mouth all at once. When she can talk again, she says: “That way the sweet ones balance the sour.” Like days, I think.