Bleckberry Picking At West Wycombe - a Memory of West Wycombe.

Dear Readers, This is a brief extract from a book I have written called 'The Old Time' about West Wycombe and High Wycombe between 1947 and 1961 describing a day when we went over to Hell Bottom woods picking blackberries. I was in West Wycombe primary school then, in my last year or thereabouts. It was the best school day I ever had.

Mrs Robertson had brought some huge aluminium cooking pans from the canteen and set them up in the middle of the picking area. As soon as we had filled our bowls, we ran back and tipped the blackberries in. The mound of blackberries seemed to get bigger and bigger by magic.
The brambles stretched into the distance across the common with a few spindly elderberry bushes poking through here and there. We were all over it, picking with the fury of animals, and the shouts and the screams of triumph reached us from all sides. We jumped in and out of the bushes, we hid, we came out fighting: fifty of us pelleting each other with blackberries and cramming blackberries down each other's necks, and we ended up a glorious mess of stained and pricked fingers, purple as the plague: purple faces, purple hands, bits of blackberry all down our fronts. It was the wildest we had ever been, and the closest to paradise. We didn't want to stop either and it was only the teachers blowing their whistles time and time again that brought us to our senses.
'Come back here,' they bellowed, 'or we'll never take you out again.' But even then a few of us had to be dragged out of the bushes by the scruff of our necks and have the backs of our legs slapped. But at least we'd had our fun.
I don't think we can have misbehaved as badly as the teachers made out, but all the way back we heard them complaining, 'We're never bringing you blackberrying again. You've spoiled it forever. You're going to stay in the classroom and work.'
Gaffer stormed off ahead, face like thunder. We followed him in a single line, hardly daring to say a word.
But it was all talk. The teachers said one thing one minute and another the next. Once we were back in school, and the great pans of blackberries were set out on the tables for us to admire, it was all smiles again.
'We'd like to congratulate everybody,' Mrs Robertson gushed, 'for a wonderful effort, even though it was almost spoiled by one or two people, the same people as always, who were determined to go their own way and not take any notice of what we told them to do.' She glared round in the silence. 'But well done the rest of you.'
We clapped and clapped until Gaffer had to hold his hands up to quieten us down. The teachers were far more bad-tempered than we were.
We had blackberries and custard for weeks on end until we were practically sick of them.
I kept on blackberrying even when I was grown up. Something must have stayed in my mind about it, although it was only when Ma took me into the meadows around Branch wood near where we lived that I learned to be a real picker. You have to be dedicated to be a good picker. You have to have a passion inside you to get every last blackberry, whatever it costs, and you can't blackberry properly without a stick with a hooked end. You need to be able to get those far-away sprigs that everyone else has left, the ones with the biggest clusters of berries on them.
'Don't leave any,' Ma used to insist, and I can picture her leaning out, reaching right across the brambles in her mac and wellington boots as far as her short arms could reach. She didn't mind getting pricked as long as she got hold of the blackberries. 'You might as well get them while you're here. If you don't, someone else will.'
Ma picked with a fever inside her as if her life depended on it. That's where the sense of achievement lies, because once you've got them home, what are they? Just a few berries in a dish. It's getting them, and getting them for free, that really counts.

Best wishes, John Comer

A memory shared by John Comer on Feb 1st, 2010. Send John Comer a message

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