Aged gravestones, inscriptions effaced by time, sit heavily at angles in ancient rows. Carved angels and women, draped in sorrow, melt into the stone plaques, their faces covered in lichen, their feet hidden in tufts of grass. Surrounding, covering and emerging from these stony beds: the unstoppable verdant life of goosegrass, bramble, hawthorn and nettles. Cherry trees, dandelions and ground elder. Between crumbling graves stands a proud lime tree, flushed with new spring growth. Beneath this tree I stand together with a group of people, hands stretching eagerly upwards to meet drooping branches. Searching through glossy leaves, fingers dismiss the large heart-shaped leaves for the younger tender greens newly forming at the branch tips. Prizes secured we examine the specimens in our hands, scrutinizing their form, texture and scent. And then, with a mixture of bravery and trepidation we place the vibrant green leaves into our mouths and chew. Mouths working, heads nodding, we perform the thoughtful, purposeful chew of people attempting to work out a new flavour, and deciding whether or not we like it. With mutters and murmurs of assent we add more lime leaves to a bowl that’s filling with foraged greens for our communal salad.

We’re not actors performing in some post zombie apocalypse survival movie, we’re a bunch of Londoners on a foraging walk through Old Paddington Cemetery on Willesden Lane, Kilburn. The walk is led by Michael Stuart, local resident and core member of Transition Town Kensal to Kilburn. It is Michael who has taught us to choose the smaller lime leaves, explaining that, just as with the “bread and cheese” hawthorn leaves, the younger the leaf the tastier it will be. It is Michael who also teaches us the diuretic properties of the dandelions clustered at our feet and Michael who warns us to avoid the deadly Hemlock, killer of Socrates and ignorant foragers alike.

Michael was introduced to foraging through blackberry picking expeditions as a child. This yearly tradition eventually led him to start the local fruit harvesting group, Kensal to Kilburn Fruit Harvesters, which nurtured his growing concern for avoiding food waste. Members of other fruit harvesting groups that Michael connected with encouraged him to join foraging walks in and around London. Embarking on his first edible plant exploration five years ago, Michael has since become a seasoned forager, building his knowledge from year to year. Now he leads his own walks, sharing his expertise and passion for foraging through regular ambles with the general public and nearby school groups through his local patch at Old Paddington Cemetery.

It is at the gates of the cemetery that around forty people gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon, bags and notebooks ready, eager to harvest and learn. Michael started the walk through showing and describing his favourite foraged treat: bittercress.  Full of flavour this small leaved smidge of a plant grows almost everywhere and seems particularly well adapted to an urban environment. Michael says to look “where the wall meets the pavement” as this is where you’re likely to find bittercress waiting to be snapped up.  This introduction highlights how foraging awakens a completely different way of seeing and responding to the world, encouraging a deeper multisensory experience with our environment. Those straggly weeds growing feebly between the concrete cracks become tasty snacks. The cemetery, a place of sombre peace, dog walkers and quiet wanderers, becomes a veritable food store. I see different layers of reality coexisting in one space, superimposed upon each other, with the knowledge gained on our foraging walk unveiling an edible world, previously obscured by a curtain of ignorance that denoted these plants as worthless weeds.

Michael’s knowledge seems boundless as he introduces us to plant after plant, explaining the variety of culinary uses, the etymology of the plant names, and historical footnotes such as their introduction to Britain. From Michael we learn that Ground Elder was brought here by the Romans, probably as a food crop, but that it has now been reduced to a floor covering, edible, weed. Lesser Celandine was once connected to the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ its pile shaped tubers once thought to cure the aforementioned bodily discomfort that its form resembles. We also learn about an inconspicuous plant called “garlic mustard” so called for the two distinct flavours of the leaf that, just as when Alice tastes the shrinking potion, come in sequential order: garlic...and then mustard.

Michael does warn us that he has built his extensive knowledge slowly, gaining complete confidence in identifying around one new plant per guided foraging walk. This is said not to deter us from pursuing our plant hunting adventures but to highlight that it is common sense/important to really know what you’re doing when eating wild plants, or to be with someone who knows what they’re doing until you build solid knowledge for yourself.

Having said this, Michael explains that he values the regaining and passing on of knowledge that foraging entails and throughout the walk he encourages people to share any experience they may have. Many of the plants we look at and taste would once have formed a common part of peoples’ diets, perhaps providing essential nutrients as the winter stores waned and the new farming year was just beginning. The knowledge of how and when to forage for them, how best to eat them, and, importantly, where to find them, would have been passed down from generation to generation in the times before supermarkets, refrigeration...and going back even further, before agriculture.

Michael, sitting on a tree stump, garlic mustard and hogweed rising around his feet, branches of nearby shrubs partially obscuring his face, seems to morph into an urban variation of the mythical green man. It occurs to me then that foraging creates a bond between forager and place, a connection that intertwines nature, the seasons and a particular locality with the person who forages within that space. Michael has created a hand drawn map of the cemetery marked and keyed to denote what grows where and when. Built over the last few years, it is a beautiful representation of his ties with this particular place. His foraging knowledge and mapping extend beyond the cemetery patch into the wider North West London area; he knows where to find local almond trees, birch trees (to make birch water syrup) and also knows the location of one of the five Stone Pine trees (for pine nuts) that currently grow within the borough of Brent – also knowing when to harvest the nuts before the squirrels get to them! Michael is not the only forager on the walk who describes his or her foraging ground as their ‘local patch”. Others discuss their foraging routes with equal familiarity and warmth. One man regularly runs a foraging circuit of Hampstead Heath. Starting with an empty backpack he runs and stops to forage at his known patches, arriving home with a full backpack ready to make a freshly foraged soup.

The walk finishes with us back at the local pub eating our delicious foraged salad and reading through foraging cook books. I take the opportunity to ask some of those around the table what has brought them to the walk today. One fellow forager runs a local restaurant and has come to see if she can include locally foraged food into her cuisine. Another is an experienced forager who takes every opportunity to gain further knowledge. He foragers because he believes in the health benefits of increasing the variety of freshly picked seasonal food into our otherwise potentially stagnant supermarket restricted diets. Yet another, when asked why she enjoys foraging, states simply that “it’s free!” and connects this back to her interest in “Freeganism” – a whole different level of foraging that would need a blog post to itself!

On the walk Michael had crouched beside a clump of chives growing happily amidst the nettles and ground elder. He termed this herb an “escapee”, laughingly describing how he imagined this domestic plant “jumping” to freedom from a local back garden into the wild. I reflect on our walk through the cemetery, goosegrass plastered to our coats, bags full of wild greens and mouths chewing on blackberry buds as we move amongst the trees. We are human escapees leaping from the urban streets of London to reconnect with our wilder beginnings. But afterwards in the pub we leave our hunter gatherer past behind us and search through botanical books to identify a plant picked up by one of the walkers.  In the end the book falls short and it is through crushing and smelling the small green rosette that we discover it to be camomile (another garden escapee?!) I say my goodbyes and, with a recipe for sorrel and wild strawberry smoothies in my head, I walk home from the pub observing, somewhat proudly, the chickweed and bittercress growing where “the wall hits the pavement”. 

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