Foraging in Milton Keynes
If you are the sort of person who has ever wondered if there are pears in Peartree Bridge or walnuts in Walnut Tree, then you are probably the type who likes to gather food for free from the hedgerow. Alternatively, your foraging expertise may not extend further than doing a bit of blackberrying as a kid. Whatever your experience, Milton Keynes has an abundance of fruit for free on offer and now is the prime time to get out and gather it.
Most people will have been out to pick blackberries at some point in their lives and this is often our introduction into foraging. They are easy to recognise berries and grow abundantly in most areas of the UK. Milton Keynes certainly has lots of bushes, often along the edge of Redways and in the hedges at the edges of our parklands and within patches of woodland. The side of the canal or along the River Ouzel are always good places to go too. Being fairly low growing, it is easy for children to help with the picking and, as long as you avoid the thorns, it is an activity that the whole family can enjoy. It is best to avoid bushes growing next to roads as the berries could well be polluted from traffic here and with so many parkland areas away from roads on offer in Milton Keynes, this should be easy to avoid.
Beyond blackberries, many people would hesitate to know what else is safe to pick and eat from our parklands. We are often taught as children not to eat anything picked from plants and especially to avoid any red berries. This is a sensible precaution and it is a good idea to teach children not to pick and eat anything without first checking with an adult. However, there are lots of easily identifiable fruits growing across Milton Keynes that largely go to waste and yet are perfectly safe to eat.
The end of September sees the end of the plum season so it is not the best time to go out and forage for these but it is worth mentioning here that Milton Keynes’ hedgerows are awash with plums from July to September, most falling to the ground and rotting. Once you start spotting them, you will find it hard to walk, cycle or drive past a patch of hedgerow without spotting the fruit hanging there or scattered on the Redway below. Mirabelles, a delicious yellow plum, are particularly easy to spot and there are also often red and purple plums, damsons and gages growing in the same area.
We are, of course, right in the middle of prime apple season and this year has been a particularly good year for apples. We are in the very fortunate position within Milton Keynes of having three community orchards. These are public access orchards, planted up for the benefit of the whole community, to which people are activity encouraged to go and pick the fruit. The orchard in Stony Stratford was only planted recently and is yet to reach fruiting maturity. The one in Downs Barn does have some fruit, although damage to the trees in the past has hindered their growth. The orchard in Woughton on the Green is laden with fruit, and not far from there, in Peartree Bridge, there is another row of apple (and a couple of pear) trees heavy with fruit. Chances are there are other apple trees planted within the estate you live on that are on public land so freely available for picking.
In even more abundance are crab apples. These underappreciated fruit come in all sorts of colours and sizes and can be very attractive (such as the mini red ones in Campbell Park) or just prolific! Often they crop so heavily and drop so many fruit onto the path below that it can be like walking on marbles when you pass under them. I would say that by picking them up, you are doing the users of the path a favour by making it easier to get past! They are not generally as sweet as apples and would be fiddly to eat straight from the tree with their disproportionate amount of skin and core to edible fruit, but they can be cooked up and strained to make crab apple jelly. A tasty preserve on its own, it can be brought up-to-date with the addition of chilli to make chilli jam.
With over 20 million trees, Milton Keynes has a tree density of a forest so it is not surprising that there is so much fruit available within it. Other classic forager delights that can be found all over Milton Keynes include elderberries, hazelnuts, rosehips and sloes. Creating elderberry wine takes a bit of specialist equipment but sloe gin is a cinch to make. And if you have ever come back from a conkering trip with armfuls of conkers and wished they were edible… well, why not go to Bow Brickhill woods to collect sweet chestnuts instead?
Having read this, there are probably two nagging doubts in the back of your mind. Firstly, is all this gathering of fruit for free legal, and, secondly, am I going to end up poisoning myself?
Legally you have the right to forage fungus, flowers, fruit and foliage for your own use from any public accessible land, with the exception of any species that is protected (these include wild flowers such as bluebells). You may not dig up roots without permission. Within Milton Keynes areas of public land include land owned by the local authority and The Parks Trust. As with any rights, there also come responsibilities so be respectful to the environment, avoid climbing trees or causing damage and leave plants capable of regeneration. Do not take all that is there; leave some for other people and wildlife. Also, don’t pick for the sake of it. Know what you wish to do with the fruit before you set off foraging and check the quantity you require so that you don’t under or over pick the amount you need. It is as easy to get carried away whilst foraging as it is at a pick your own farm. And should the fruit you are tempted to pick be in someone’s garden, on the grounds of a church, school, business or other privately owned land then seek the owner’s permission before picking it. They might very well be happy for someone to make use of their fruit but you should check first otherwise it is theft.
As for poisoning yourself, if you are in the least be unsure, don’t pick it. If possible, go with someone who knows what they are doing. However, the fruit I have mentioned here are easy to identify and difficult to get wrong. Look up pictures before your go if you are in doubt and remember to check the shape of leaves and smell of the fruit as well appearance to help with identification. Although it is a good idea to be cautious, you should be reassured that there are very few cases of people poisoning themselves accidentally whilst picking fruit and it would be almost impossible to do if you stick to the common species. Fortunately, poisonous species tend to taste so bad that you are unlikely to eat enough to cause poisoning anyway. Often fruit is not picked and left to go to waste just because people are innately suspicious of it and so used to only buying their fruit from the shops that they figure there must be something wrong with the stuff growing on the trees. This is a shame and coming back from a family walk or a trip to the park with the ingredients for a tasty crumble makes the trip even more rewarding.
For more information on the parks in Milton Keynes firstly, pop over to Facebook and join our Parks in and Around Milton Keynes groups and also look at our Google map that we are in the process of making for the play park locations. The Parks Trust page is another website worth visiting and they have produced a map showing some (although by no means all) of the locations of food for free on their land.