Devon Trip & Beechleaf Gin

Last Leg

Back from a short trip to/around Devon. Highlights included:

1) – Hitching down. A few long waits near the start and more dickheads & misanthropes than on previous occasions (one guy pulled over, asked if I was homeless, asked if I needed work, offered to pay me £10/day to ‘push around a wheelbarrow’, and drove off when I declined). Otherwise some really nice, friendly people: old and young; ex-hitchers and first-timers; male and female; hatchbacks, 4x4s, rundown trucks and even a beamer (! – almost never happens); retired ex-military, off-duty policeman, builder, electrical engineer, council worker, hippie type, housewife; Surrey to Devon in around nine hours

2) – Meeting Robin Harford and going on one of his ‘Wild Food Foraging Courses‘ – super-informative, mixing history, politics, recipes, personal stories, nutritional info and the all-important hands-on taste tests. I met hemlock for the first time (taller than I’d imagined, not as bad-smelling as the books had me believing, kindof a thrill knowing here was a plant that could kill me – R had a charming story about an American family who got paralysed for several days in the woods from eating a not-quite-lethal dose: the conscious waiting to see if you’ll die or pull out of it and whether some animal is going to come and “eat my face” in the meantime…), picked & ate my first raw stinging nettle (super-tasty & nutritious: treat it gently but firmly, pick a young, light-green top off at the stem, roll it all up into a ball inside one of the leaves and squash all the sting out of it between thumbs and forefingers, pop in mouth – prepare to get stung while practicing!) and saw the famed coast-hugging colonies of Alexanders, left by the Romans back in the day. Felt rather overstuffed at the end of two hours, but plenty of (wild) food for (wild) thought to take away with me and work on back home.

It was nice to meet somebody who has read a lot of the same books as me & synchs up to my way of seeing. Good talks about Alice Miller, Derrick Jensen and others… R and his partner had even tried to raise their daughter on continuum concept principles (failing largely because of a lack of community support), and there was a nice moment when he asked if I’d read Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth, and I replied that yes, I had a copy in my bag right there & then! So thanks to Robin and also to Chris who very kindly let me camp out on his land for a couple of nights.

Sleeping arrangements

Morning view

3) – Driving around, and later wildcamping with H on Dartmoor.

4) – Coastwalking from Beer to Lyme Regis, with an especially nice stretch along the ‘Undercliff‘ which has reverted to woodland over a couple of centuries after a big landslip in 1839 eventually rendered the land unsuitable for other, more ‘productive’ uses:

One of the most spectacular landslips occurred on 24 December 1839, 3 miles (4.8 km) west along the coast in Devon belonging to Bindon Manor and known as “The Dowlands Landslip”. About 45 acres (18 ha) of fields growing wheat and turnips were dislodged when a great chasm was formed more than 300 feet (91 m) across, 160 feet (49 m) deep and 0.75 miles (1.21 km) long. The crops remained intact on the top of what became known as “Goat Island” among the newly formed gullies. On 3 February 1840, five weeks later, there was a second landslip nearby but much smaller than the former. This strange phenomenon attracted many visitors, and the canny farmers charged sixpence for entrance and held a grand reaping party when the wheat ripened. (link)

The whole area was positively buzzing with life, providing a tantalising glimpse of what this country could look like in the (hopefully) none-too distant future.


(The way I saw it there, and the way I’m seeing it more often everywhere I go: we humans are going to have to prove that we’re worth more than our weight in manure in helping the land get where it wants to go – if we want any chance of playing a part in that future, that is.)

5) – Meeting up and staying with C & M, old neighbours of ours who moved to a rural village near Honiton about ten years ago. Great to catch up and exchange shower & bed for tarp & sleeping bag for a couple of nights. More thanks!

6) – A day and a night in the New Forest, ‘wild’ ponies galloping through the campsite. Perhaps it was the wrong area, but the whole place felt ‘wild’ in a pretty sterile, managed, aesthetic-appeal-y kind of way. Great meals though, mixing in wild greens into ‘omni-mush’ mixes of, variously:  rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, dried veg, chicken curry, chili con carne … etc. Plus hearty helpings of hot porridge in the mornings, all over my little gas stove.

Anyway, I came back more-or-less in time to take the young beech leaves out of the gin they’d been soaking in for a little over a fortnight:


(Actually I left them in a cupboard, but outside looks more impressive. This (above) was the before shot; after the leaves had blanched a little and were going brown near the surface.) I got the idea from Food For Free where Richard Mabey has a recipe for ‘Beech Leaf Noyau’. After the soak, squeeze the lime-green gin infusion out of the leaves and simply mix with a cooled syrup (I followed Pamela Michael’s instructions in Edible Wild Plants And Herbs, where she halves Mabey’s amount of sugar to 225g, boiled for a few minutes in 125ml water – this for 75cl of gin) and add a few healthy glugs of white rum (Mabey suggests brandy but Michael opts for rum because she’s ‘afraid to alter the ethereal colour’). Bottle & serve. It goes down a treat – a smooth spring flavour and deceptively strong.



Possibly I’ve waited too long to post this and you won’t be able to try it until next year (I don’t know how it might turn out now that the leaves have toughened and darkened) – sorry! I’ll make up for it by telling you in advance that you can eat the nuts too, when they start to drop in the Autumn. I had good times in September/October laying my jacket under low-hanging branches, shaking out the pointy brown kernels and continuing my walk with a pocketful of them, which often wouldn’t last the journey home. You just need good thumbnails to open them and snack away! Handy tip: the ones that flatten when you pinch them are empty. Look, they’re starting to form already:

Baby beechnuts

So yes, the Beech tree. I think it’s my current favourite. Check out this beauty soaking up all the sunshine at the top of my road:

Beech beauty

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6 Responses to “Devon Trip & Beechleaf Gin”

  1. steve Says:

    “I’ll make up for it by telling you in advance that you can eat the nuts too, when they start to drop in the Autumn.”

    Good info! I will look forward to trying that on the far side of summer.

    And thanks for the heads up on the new blog. Here’s to outdoorsism!

  2. Ian M Says:

    Hi Steve,

    Glad I could help! Yes, I like this outdoor stuff too – feels like I can breathe much more freely somehow…

    PS – I can mail you your books back if you like. I read and enjoyed Est, but 1492 has been in my To Read pile for long enough to make me think I never will. Too bad cos it looks really interesting!


  3. Wild Food June – pt.1 « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] – Stinging Nettles. Further to picking & eating them raw as a wayside snack / test of manhood, I felled this lovely bunch from a shady part of the local […]

  4. steve Says:

    Oh yeahhh…. books. Far too summery to worry about that now. But perhaps I should suggest some kind of forage-y meet-up in the countryside in September to share your knowledge and retrieve my property ;).

    Also, mea culpa, my major fail in May was not harrassing you to come along to the Dark Mountain festival. You would really have liked it, I think. To my mind, it answered a question you asked me a long time ago.

    Anyway there is some stuff online and on youtube if you are interested. This, for example, still makes me laugh:

  5. Ian M Says:

    So finally I get round to posting a reply… sorry for the delay – I was going to try & be more responsive with comments here and not do my usual thing with email replies after a fortnight… I’d be much better suited to pony express or passenger pigeon communication, I think 🙂


    Yes, a ‘forage-y meet-up’ sounds pretty good to me if others are keen on that sort of thing.


    Yes, I think I probably should’ve gone along to the Dark Mountain festival, but let money/travel concerns and other more mundane lifeplans get in the way. Also, there was something about the ‘tone’ of the project that put me off a little – I can’t think of a less shabby way of putting it than ‘too Liberal for my tastes’ – but I guess that’s kindof bullshit, and really I should welcome any breaching of these subjects (and feelings) into a broader audience. Maybe…

    To my mind, it answered a question you asked me a long time ago.

    Sorry, I’m drawing a blank on this. Just remembering the question about what you saw in your cat’s play behaviour beyond selfish-genery (a question that rather embarrasses me now!)

    Thanks for the link to the Gupta speech, though what was it that made you laugh about it? It all seemed pretty deadly serious to me… Watching it for the second time just now I liked the opening line about not noticing the war because ‘we’ had already won, and cringed again at the part where he tells us to ‘stop being violent’. Tell that to the lions and gazelles… (maybe he just needed a narrower definition of the term?)

    Also, the fact that he’s an impressive speaker almost slipped the naive thinking about the Kerala Development Model past me. Wikipedia research uncovered the perhaps inconvenient facts that only 17.2% of the economy is taken up by farming & fishing (although these do support about half the population) while the ‘service sector’ (‘tourism, public administration, banking and finance, transportation, and communications’) accounts for 63.8%. And it seems the emphasis on education and the much-vaunted literacy rate (what’s so great about reading again?) led to a ‘brain drain’ phenomenon:

    […]a large proportion of the population has moved away. Kerala is extremely dependent on remittances which total over a fifth of its total output.[2][3] Many emigrants have found construction and other jobs in Gulf countries.[4] S. Irudaya Rajan describes the situation as “Remittances from global capitalism are carrying the whole Kerala economy”.[4]

    These involvements in the global economic system make statements like ‘they have broken through the sustainability barrier’ and ‘everybody could live like the people of Kerala and we would be something like one third under human biocapacity’ problematic for me.

    But I like his style!


  6. steve Says:

    Nae worries re: delay. I would be well up for a pigeon-based analogue internet.

    One more punt of the ball over the net and then we can get back to beechnuts!

    Interesting critique of Vinay’s talk. I took the Kerala thing with a stick of salt anyway – ‘right, this is the “hope for the future” bit; too many variables; note and await further data’ – but I’m guessing Kerala is more in the right direction than many other places.

    I think it made me laugh cos I know him and how much he was enjoying doing the ‘this is what’s on the end of your colonialist fork’ thing.

    There is lots of similar criticism of DM online – “liberal wankfest” etc. To me, the actual programme was less interesting than the opportunity to have loads of people interested in these issues in one place, connecting and interacting and getting real-world feedback on stuff they had previously only fretted about in an isolated online capacity.

    Which brings me to my horrendously ambiguous “question” reference: it was about the connection between all this “civilisation” malarky and the inner work of psychology / meditation etc.

    Beyond my basic position – the structures of civilisation operate on the basis of installing micro-fascism in the head of the individuals who make it up, so working on head-stuff is required to sort anything out – my experience of the DM weekend was just a continual hammering home of the fact that attempting to deal with the problems of civilisation without changing your headspace will inevitably reproduce the same problematic ways of thinking (and hence outcomes) that got us into this mess in the first place.

    The best talks dealt with this (directly or indirectly) and the worst ones demonstrated it even more explicitly! It was pretty easy to tell who had been through the Kubler-Ross death-of-civilisation mangle and come out the other side with a positive, self-actualised, empowered viewpoint and those who had got themselves stuck (or had yet to come through) and were still trying to get out of the trap by thinking, worrying, reading more stuff online which confirmed their worst fears for the future. I think there was some really interesting alchemy occurring from the mixing of the two.

    The reaction of people to Al’s improv workshop, for example, was amazing to behold: to have turned up to a conference to intellectualise about abstract ideas of future doom and then suddenly to be plunged into an immediate, social, communicative, playful exercise – where the only way to “win” is to not try to work out what’s going to happen in the future, to not try to control the situation, to give as much positivity as possible to other people and to stay as open as possible to what they are doing – had a pretty big effect on a lot of the participants.

    So anyway, yeah… that. I guess you are kind of on board with the general principle now, anyway. I’m sure there is a perfect fulcrum point between critique/reform of global systems and personal development/insight, but I haven’t quite found it yet…

    Enjoy the rest of the summer! I’ll be off burning up my share of the earth’s remaining oil in August so maybe we can do some foraging in September.



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