After twenty years in the noisy, fume-filled, urban paradise that is London, I moved to the country and realised I had forgotten almost everything about nature. Names of trees, leaves, wildflowers, birds, information I had taken for granted as a child seemed simply to have vanished. A foraging walk with Lucie Cowles, coppicer and all-round nature head proved the perfect antidote.
The walk was billed as a ‘Fungi Forage’ and although Lucie warned us that an unseasonably warm October had reduced the likelihood of finding mushrooms, I’d say the 16 of us gathered hopefully with our canvas bags were privately expecting to tuck into wild mushroom risotto that night. Lucie caught our attention instantly by announcing: ‘I can guarantee that 98 per cent of any mushrooms you spot today will be poisonous. ‘ She enthralled us with stories of exactly how deadly some mushrooms can be - the Destroying Angel gives you a nasty bout of food poisoning within 24 hours but then kills you off two weeks later when you’re least expecting it. We were here to find safe mushrooms and had a hit list of five types – Jelly Ears, Spiny Puffballs, Parasols, Chanterelles and Boletus Porcini. It was a beautiful sunny day up in Bonsley woods near Durweston, Dorset and Lucie was an entertaining and informative guide. We picked yarrow leaves for salad and learned that the almost identical wild carrot leaves were poisonous. In a birch-lined field we began to search for mushrooms, constantly learning about the surrounding trees along the way. Lucie’s mission is to get people reacquainted with their natural habitat and she is brilliant at doing it. In a computer driven world it felt wonderful to be outside in a stunning landscape learning about the environment. Silver birches with their dark buds in winter and catkins in spring, beech trees with their edible nuts, under Lucie’s tuition all that childhood information came flooding back. The first mushrooms we spotted were Liberty Bells, more commonly known as magic mushrooms. Not what we were looking for but Lucie said it was a good sign: ‘It’s all about getting your eye in,’ she said. ‘Spot one and you’ll start spotting loads.’ Four hours of ambling later and our spoils were small – a handful of beech nuts (which make great pesto apparently), another of yarrow leaves. We’d seen a few mushroom varieties but all of them were poisonous. Mushrooms need cold, wet weather to flourish and it's been one of the warmest autunns on record. This is the point of foraging, though – you might be lucky, you might not – but you’ll still have a great walk along the way. I took my twelve year old son along and though he was disappointed by the lack of mushrooms, he scored two skulls – a badger and a deer – and Lucie explained how to clean them (soak in bleach and water). We didn’t take a hearty supper away with us but instead left enriched with knowledge about the eco system; I'm hoping to retain it this time. Lucie is holding two more walks this year: on Saturday 5 November The Final Fungi Forage and on Sunday 6 November The Mysteries of Trees, explaining which fungi live beneath which trees. The walks cost £10 per person and take place in Bonsley Wood near Durweston and last between two and four hours depending on the weather. Contact Lucie at The Natural Path