Kensal to Kilburn Fruit Harvesters Fryent Country Park Event

Sunday 2nd October 2016

Fryent Country Park, Fryent Way NW9 9SE

The undergrowth within the hedgerow is a tangled mass of thistles, bramble and nettles held together in stringy nets of coiling bind weed.  Littered amidst the tangle lie misshapen spheres of brown, gold, green and red: fallen apples. Crumpled flesh softens through brown bruising, the doomed early apples slowly rotting to feed the soil. While the sun is hot and the leaves still green on the surrounding trees, these windfall apples signify the change of season and that the time for apple harvest has arrived.

With this purpose in mind I join the 40 or so people gathered in the carpark. Empty cardboard boxes, salvaged from street vendors, are held in ready anticipation. Metal pickers, gripped like spears, stand proud above the crowd, their pronged crowns pointing upwards. We are at the Fryent Country Park pick, the largest annual harvesting event for the Transition Kensal to Kilburn Fruit Harvesters. Joined by wellie boot clad enthusiasts from Transition Willesden and Mapesbury as well as other interested locals we split into three groups and spread out across our allocated portions of the 108 hectare expanse.

To step through a field in Fryent Country Park is to step through time. The medieval partitioning of the land is on such a smaller scale to the grand vistas of contemporary farming. Enclosed on all sides by majestic, dense hedgerows, the fields feel simultaneously expansive and intimate: nature wild and abounding yet also contained. The field boundaries and hedgerows conform to the layout as recorded in the 1597 Hovendon map of Kingsbury currently held at All Souls College, Oxford. Maintained and restored by Brent Council and Barn Hill Conservation Group, the park hedges are a beautiful, gnarled and living connection to the past.  Oak, ash, maple and elder with damson, blackthorn, hawthorn and roses interspersed, the park also contains over 25 varieties of apple tree. There are naturally occurring crab-apples and ‘back-cross’ apples while pre-1900 varieties have been deliberately planted to imitate the local farmstead orchards of that time. This includes the rare Pinner Seedling, a variety discovered around 1834 in Harrow. As an example of traditional Middlesex countryside the park is a site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation to London. Walking through the tall grass, eyes panning the varied greens of the trees against the sky, you can’t help but feel that this is a special place. Listen closely and you may even hear, echoing across the centuries, the regular refrain of the slicing scythe through the hay meadow, the wild flowers dropping swiftly and gently to join the grasses on the ground  to then be gathered, dried and carted to Hay market  as rich, sumptuous feed.

Excitement permeates the group of harvesters now spreading across the Park. We disperse and station ourselves at regular intervals along the field boundary. Boxes are laid out on the dewy grass, visual signposts for the industrious activity hidden behind the screen of greenery. Every so often someone will  clamber out, shoulder bags stuffed with apples to empty into the waiting box. A stretch of apple trees that runs parallel to Fryant Way is named “Apple Heaven” by one of the children in our group. And to an apple picker this is an apt description. Everywhere apples cling tentatively, often bulging in bunches, the branches burdened and bent beneath their weight. Cries of joy run along the line of harvesters as the telescopic picker reaches and secures its target. The lower apples we pick by hand, my favourite method by far. Palm cupped under the fruit, a gentle twist then the easy snap as the apple comes away with  reassuring solidity into my expectant hand. Then the soft thud as the newly picked apple joins the satisfying weight of the others in my bag. Crashing through the path I emerge, encrusted with broken vegetation, to join those seated by the boxes. Kneeling on the  wet grass I tip my bag and watch as the apples tumble rhythmically into the now brimming box. A toddler sits eyeing the enticing bounty in front of him while two apples lie ignored on his lap, tiny bite indentations in each. “You can’t take a bite from each apple. You have to finish one first and then start the next.” his mother patiently explains. She turns to me, “I had hoped that we would pick enough apples so that the kids could have at least one each on the way home.” We both look pointedly at the enormous quantity surrounding us and laugh.

And then, the culmination, the big weighing in. Retrieved from the midst of tangled, almost impenetrable hedgerows come the clean crisp contours and warming colours of the apples, piled to overflowing in box after box, bag after bag. 418 kilos of them. The bulk of the harvest is donated to Sufra Foodbank in Brent and Hawkes Urban Orchard Cider, a London cider company who value local produce and food waste reduction. The rest of the apples are distributed between the proud and joyful pickers.

To celebrate we forge through fields and find a sunny sheltered spot. Picnic blankets unfurled and food piled high we eat and drink, languid and lazy after the morning’s work. The children perch by the pond, entranced by the lacy wings and crimson body of an obligingly motionless dragonfly. Or else they follow me, pied piper like, and harvest the jewel like rosehips that, along with the hawthorn berries, shine red in the sun amidst the myriad of greens.  Amongst the adults talk turns to recipes for rosehip syrup and tea. Knowledge is shared about best methods for drying and removing the ‘hairy’ seeds. I’m encouraged to try one, the flesh a persimmon orange beneath the smooth scarlet skin. Soon I adventure to try a sloe. The sour taste is less offensive than the drying chalky effect it has on my mouth. Now I understand why we only make them into gin. More foraging wisdom is imparted such as how to tell horseradish leaf from dock leaf and tales of the green ‘bread and butter’ hawthorn leaves of earliest spring.

The clouds come over and unanimously we start to pack up. New friendships are confirmed: ‘what was your name again?’ and ‘Hope to see you next time’.  Walking back through the park my eyes can now distinguish the hawthorn from the blackthorn, the bullace from the damson. I’m reminded of the magic eye pictures where suddenly you can see, emerging from the homogenous patterning, a clear picture, just waiting to be discovered. However, in this case, my increased knowledge doesn’t leave me cross eyed...instead I feel a deeper connection with the surrounding landscape and the bounty hidden within it, waiting to be picked.

Home again, a pile of apples and a container of rosehips on the table, I sit down and look up a recipe for sloe gin. 

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