Respect your elders: the joy of Sambucus Nigra

A tree reflected in a puddle in a woodThe spectacular Nidderdale in North Yorkshire lies a little west of (and inexplicably outside) the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Yet, as we found, this relatively unexplored land more than repays with breathtakingly uninterrupted views and undiscovered, delicious treasures of the season: elderberries.

We strode out from the village of Lofthouse, following the river Nidd north. The autumn sun shone weakly but reliably in an unending blue sky and ungainly pheasants grown fat for the shoot clucked angrily out of the grasses and trees as if fired from cannons. Through the occasional, remote farmyards and up a steep path to the side of the dale, elder flanked us in thick fringes, hemming in the old track we walked on. Like stumbling into a vineyard, each trees’ fruits drooped with the weight of miniature liquid, red-wine-black clusters.

It was an opportunity too good to miss. We liberated two large paper bags, gratefully guzzling the pork pies they contained, and set about filling them with the rich fruit. Perhaps it was the altitude and the fresh breeze, but these berries were untouched by birds and soon both bags were full to burst.

A glorious sunset over a hillside with two treesAside from the obvious boon of being free and plentiful, elderberries are incredibly good for you. As well as containing Vitamins A, B and C, they are pumped full of the antioxidant anthocyanin, said to cleanse the blood of toxins and free radicals, improve circulation, reduce swelling, alleviate cold and flu symptoms and boost memory.

Also found in red, blue and black fruit, like blackberries, grapes and red cabbage, anthocyanin is a darling of the nutrition world at the moment. Although bland when picked straight from a tree, the berries can easily be made into a healthy cordial that, when mixed with a little water, can be enjoyed hot or cold with a slice of lemon.

We returned to the car via Scar House reservoir watching breathtaking sunsets frame lone trees on the horizon. Night had fallen as we shed boots and wound drove down the valley avoiding the suicidal pheasants. Sat by the warmth of the log burner we used a fork to remove the berries and put them on to boil with enough water to cover them completely. After thirty minutes simmering and stirring occasionally, we poured, squashed and sieved the elderberry broth into a bowl, creating a reservoir of black liquid reminiscent of Scar House reservoir’s dark waters.

A bottle and bowl of elderberriesA pan of elderberries on a gas hob


To create the famous ‘Cowen & Critchley’s Elder Tonic Cordial’ it was a simple matter of adding 400 grams of granulated sugar, the juice of half a lemon, seven cloves and a thick slice of ginger for every pint of elderberry juice and putting it all back to simmer for an hour. When bottled in glass that has been boiled thoroughly in clean water, cordial prepared like this will last all year round.

Toasting the successful stroll, we drank in the rich aromas of the hot cordial letting Nidderdale’s elderberries nourish our bodies as effectively as its views had our minds.

Build a shelter

There was a lush green glow in the glade; the smell of fern and mulchy ground. A chiffchaff and a robin sang over each other unperturbed by our crashing through the leaf litter hunting for logs. We were on raised ground in the woodland and a small river gurgled down a bank to our south as, beyond our patch, which was darkened by the canopy, thick sun settled on the greenery like honey. A perfect place to build a shelter…or, as us slightly less survivalist like to call it, a den.

Just being in any wood is a treat and building a simple ‘A-frame’ den is the perfect way to get more closely acquainted. It is a magical place to secret yourself away, to watch the wood come alive and a cheap, warm way to camp the night.

Unless very dry, old clothes or a jacket are a good idea as the majority of the work is moving fallen leaves. Then it is just a case of finding two dead logs with ‘Y’-shaped ends and interlocking them with a long ‘spine’ to form an elongated, tapering tripod. Lay sticks along each side like ribs, before covering the whole thing in dried leaf litter until it is deep enough for you to plunge your arm up to your elbow into it. The whole thing should take less than two hours.

Kids love to build dens but it is a joy that shouldn’t be left in childhood. On our knees, working with the sticks and leaves, we draw close to the wood in a far greater way than when merely passing through on a dog walk. Build an A-frame den right and it will keep you insulated, soundproofed and dry. With the addition of a small fire and a sleeping bag, it provides the perfect overnight shelter to watch wildlife or just retreat to when you need an escape from the urban world for 24 hours.

Drawing of a primrose and hoverfly