Cocks, Bulls and Hedgerow Pesto

Perhaps the greatest thing about being asked to give talks and workshops is we get to see the practical application of Skimming Stones; we have the pleasure of spending time among people who may be like-minded but perhaps haven’t fully embraced the idea of getting out there and trying the activities in our book. Yesterday, at Cock and Bull Festival was one such experience.

After a long drive from Yorkshire to the countryside around Bath, I followed signs to the farm that played host to this lovely festival. For anyone that doesn’t know it. Cock and Bull is put on to raise money for charity ’Jamie’s Farm‘, which takes kids from the inner city  and gives them a taste of rural life on a farm for a few weeks. it is worthy and profoundly affecting for all involved, as this video shows.

Travelling through the demarked windy lanes (stenciled bulls and cockerels tacked to boards among banks of meadowsweet) I eventually arrived during the Graveyard Shift of any self-respecting festival: Sunday late morning. Bleary-eyed revellers staggered from tents and trance still boomed from barns for those refusing to give up their Saturday evening. A bearded man in a dress, an obligatory sight at many festivals, still clung to his vast jar of cider like it was a baby.

Mercifully, after most people started to shake away sleep with strong coffees, the talk commenced in the cool shade of a stone barn. The bales of hay/seats soon filled with people until it was standing room only. The talk seemed to go down very well with plenty of crowd participation and half an hour of questions and answers before a book signing. Then it was time to put my money where my mouth had been rabbiting for the last hour.

I was volunteered to lead a forage around the farms hedgerows with anyone that might be interested. Twenty five or so people were. A multi-cultural lot, I counted Bulgarians, Italians and even Scots among our numbers. Thankfully, our summer hedgerows rarely disappoint for wild food and I was soon pointing out and chomping on some old favourites (nettles, burdock, meadowsweet, dandelions) as well as some lesser known greens (chickweed, vetch, cow parsley). In a field off the track, chamomile grew in waves, interspersed by pineapple weed, dock and rat’s tail plantain. In the boundary hedges, sloes had formed early, as well as hawthorn and green blackberries. Finally we came upon some Jack-by-the-hedge – currently enjoying its second wind of the year and a subtle, garlic flavoured leaf and member of the mustard family.

The group followed with cameras, notepads and cries of ‘that’s REALLY bitter’ (dandelion – it needs storing in water for a few days or forcing by covering when young) and ‘absolutely lovely’ (Jack-by-the-hedge, vetch and chickweed). All said they couldn’t believe the variety and range of youtube 2 mp3 online converter things to eat or brew up only a few metres from the gate. As we write in the book, foraging focuses us; it stops us from just pacing over a field or past a hedge and gives us a new way of looking and interacting with the landscape.

After a good walk in the sunshine, I wanted to offer refreshments and had fortunately made a jar of Cowen’s Famous Hedgerow Pesto the previous night for the drive down. I had eaten the bagels I was going to dip into it before even leaving Yorkshire, leaving a jar of cracking stuff for my new students.

Cowen’s Famous Hedgerow Pesto recipe

This recipe is so easy and provides a delicious, citrusy, garlicky alternative to the Italian stuff. Gather two good handfuls of Jack-by-the-hedge leaves, a bunch of sorrel (wood or field), some nettle leaves and blend with toasted walnuts or hazel cobs. Add olive oil or Yorkshire rapeseed and salt and pepper to get that pesto consistency and you are done. You can add parmesan too (or Wensleydale if you are in Yorkshire) and then blend again. Serve over fresh pasta with vetch flowers on top, as a dip for bread, or as a side for roast chicken.

To feed the hungry foragers, I opened the jar and sliced a lovely white bloomer donated by the friendly bakers at the festival.  Before I could even get my camera out, the jar and the plate had been wolfed down. Still, it was great that everyone enjoyed it so much!

Forage for wild food: The Movie!

When Leo and I travelled about the great outdoors trying out the activities in our book Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild, we filmed some ‘scrapbook’ videos of our exploits, like this little Oscar surety. Here we find what wild food grows on the average British beach (in Kent) and try the best ways to tuck into it.

Certain things really lend themselves to photographic record and wild food is definitely one of them – both recording your own and checking you are picking the right stuff. In an age when we can carry information in our pockets to rival any tribal elder, there is no reason to fear finding your own supper. iPhones, smartphones, access to the internet, etc. all help in the identifying and answering any questions you may have about your finds.

The sea kale in this video is a great example; every book told us the leaves are green and yet we knew what we’d discovered met every other criteria – save for the fact it was bright purple. We reasoned that many plants start with purple/reddish leaves as a form of light protection and some shore-time spent searching Google proved we were right.

Hope you enjoy the film and remember – always pick sensibly and considerately. Never destroy the whole plant or colony and always leave enough to regenerate for tomorrow or someone else to enjoy. Come and see us talking about wild food at Cock and Bull Festival, Salon London and Chateau Marmot restaurants.

FORAGE FOR FOOD from robcowen on Vimeo.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Over the top display at Larmer Tree Festival. Also: peacocks.

A peacock fanning its tail

This dashing fellow had nothing on Rob and I as we delivered an eye-catching and vibrant display to festival-goers at Larmer a week-and-a-bit ago.

Perhaps not.

Hopefully we were ear-catching at least, though not for the same reasons as a peacock, drawing an engaged crowd for our discussion of Skimming Stones and why we should all be reconnecting with nature.

There were some good questions from the audience afterwards, and in particular one gentleman made the point that being aware of our surroundings and environment doesn’t just yield benefits in the outdoors. Really taking the time to look, hear and feel is related to the concept of ‘mindfulness’; used in cognitive behaviour therapy but originating in Eastern philosophy, mindfulness is a state of observation without judgement. Letting the world come to you, without distracting yourself with thoughts of conversations yesterday, deadlines tomorrow, or what’s for dinner, is a much more relaxing way to experience reality than constant analysis. This is a beneficial way to operate at any time, and while a natural setting offers a setting much more conducive to this, it’s something you can apply in your day-to-day life.

More to follow igt slots online on our festival tour when Rob visits the Cock and Bull Festival next weekend…

Leo smiling, standing in quite a lot of mud.

The previous day’s bad weather had not put a dampener on proceedings.

- Leo -

Win tickets to Wilderness Festival!!

We have two FREE tickets (worth £260) to giveaway to the whole of Wilderness Festival, the UK’s greatest ‘outdoors’ festival located at the beautiful Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire between 10th and 12th August. As a setting for celebration it remains peerless, combing the pastoral grandeur of huge rolling lawns with wide lakes, deep woods and winding rivers.

With music from the likes of Wilco, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Crystal Castles, Spiritualized, Stornoway mingling with food tents featuring the world’s greatest chefs and restaurants (Yotam Ottolenghi, Moro, Fergus Henderson & St. John, Valentine Warner), all senses are sure to be sated.

But the real stars here are the arts and nature experiences intertwined within this unique landscape. The range of things happening is unbelievable: banquets under canopies, wild swims, tented talks, wild food forages, campfires, lectures from ‘School of Life’, midnight masked balls, barefoot dancing, pop-up cinemas, parkland processions and ritualistic revelry. Oh and probably the greatest thing – ‘Skimming Stones’ a talk delivered by your very own Rob and Leo!

Yes, we will be there with bells on, both speaking and doing some workshops in the woods. If there are enough skimmers, we may even hold a stone skimming competition. Wilderness will always be defined by its passions: award-winning curators, pioneering arts and breathtaking landscapes. For three days and three nights come and find yourself in the Wilderness.

The lovely people at Wilderness have given us two tickets to give away so you can be there too. The tickets are for two people from Friday 10th (access from 9:00am) until Sunday 12th and include camping. Campsites have stewarded fire pits, hot showers, loos and lots of space.

TO WIN THE TICKETS: All you need to do is ‘Like’ Rob and Leo’s Facebook page AND write ‘I love wilderness’ on our wall to enter a prize draw. You must do both however in order to be in with a chance of winning. One name will be picked from a hat at random at 1800hrs, Friday 13th July and will win the tickets. Good luck and see you there!

Latest reviews of Skimming Stones

Of course you have. I mean, who hasn’t bought Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild? Precisely. It’s as vital as five fruit and vegetables a day. But, should you need any further encouragement or reason to prompt your friends and family to get on Amazon, here are the latest reviews. We’re pretty happy with them!

‘Essential reading’ - The Express
‘A brilliant book’ - Huffington Post
‘Two of the UK’s most exciting nature writers…a thoughtful adventure in learning simple skills that help connect people to nature.’ – The Guardian
‘Deeply engaging…appealing and original framed by personal experiences that offers a fresh perspective to nature writing.’ – The Good Book Guide
‘I was simply carried along by the authors’ sense of awe, and their quiet belief that our lives can be enriched through a deeper connection with nature.’ (Four stars) – BBC Wildlife
‘A great book…it somehow manages to say something about nature that the rest of us can’t.’ – Country Walking Magazine
‘Permeated with all the infectiousness of two boys going outdoors for the day on an adventure.’ – Countryfile Magazine
‘Indispensable. You’ll never want to go back indoors.’ – Welsh Coast Magazine

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Festival frenzy and new friends

So with the obligatory interchanging warm/wet weather, the festival season enters full swing. Leo and I are never ones to miss a good party (or a wine-fuelled discussion around a campfire for that matter) and with Skimming Stones providing much food for thought among its growing readership, we have been asked to appear at various festivals over the coming months. This has even necessitated a new tab on our right hand menu to keep people up to date. Yes, we’re techno wizards. Anyway, please check out our forthcoming dates!

Rob and Helen Lederer decompress after speaking at Hay

The first festival has actually passed already; it was at the wonderful if very wet Hay-On-Wye in June. Those Hay aficionados among you will be familiar with the fact that the festival site is a fair schlep from the nearest station. I wouldn’t have made it there at all if the brilliant Helen Lederer, comedienne and BBC Radio 4 mainstay, hadn’t instructed me forcibly to join her in a taxi. The next forty minutes was spent editing and drafting her speech and trading chat with the driver, who was both deaf and chatty – a winning combination. Thankfully Helen made me laugh to the point of injury, which had the bonus of completely dissolving my nerves.

I joined a panel discussion at what has to be the coolest philosophy and arts fringe event in the world ‘How The Light Gets In’. The topic was literary ecologies and it featured some great speakers that I nervously joined on a three-piece suite on the stage – Joanna Kavenna, who wrote the brilliant The Ice Museum, novelist and poet Lavinia Greenlaw and the renowned Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate. The discussion ebbed and flowed between the histories of nature writing and the current new wave of environmental literature, revealing lots of interesting insights, ideas and opinions. The festival website will be uploading a video of the full talk to their website in due course, but I hope being able to bring something of the practical application of much of what we were discussing was useful. It certainly provoked great interest from the audience afterwards and a people asking me to sign the book over beers in the bar. Most also asked for a couple of tips on how to build a waterproof den and light the perfect fire first time. It must have been the weather.

Meeting other authors and sharing debate over lots of wine invariably raises the question about what your book is about. It was lovely to have prestigious writers ear wigging for the techniques to the simple skills. Nostalgia and grand plans for nature breaks abounded. Writing can be a sedentary and interior-focused existence and a gentle reminder about the importance of standing in the midst of sheer life, of slowing down and drawing closer to the otherworldliness of nature certainly stimulated imaginations.

We will deliver reports as to our festival antics as they happen. Next up Larmer Tree near Salisbury on the 13th July. Come and see us if you are about.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Leo’s feature in Western Mail

Leo wrote a lovely feature recently for Wales’ fantastic Western Mail all about fishing on the Teifi using homemade rods that we fashioned from hazel saplings. (Chapter 10 in the book as you ask…). If you didn’t get a chance to read it, check it out and let your mind relax with the drifting, delightful prose.

Unlike the violent attention-grabbing of traffic lights and car horns, the varied attractions of the riverside float up gently for our inspection. It is a feast for the senses. At times, only the sound of the river seems present, at others only the warmth of the sun and the chill of the water around your ankles, or the endlessly recreated sparkling eddies.

Watching a river can become a kind of meditation on the passage of time and thought. Nothing is ever exactly the same from moment to moment, but still the same patterns recur endlessly.

Fishing had given us a reason to get to know a stretch of river, and heightened our experience of it. Catching a fish was icing on the cake.

Read the full feature here.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

How The Light Gets In

I have been asked to appear at Hay-on-Wye’s fringe festival ‘How The Light Gets In 2012′ on June 7th to talk nature and how we define it and, in turn, it defines us. Appearing at the event ‘Red in Tooth and Claw‘, in reference to Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, I will join a prestigious panel of leading writers and lecturers to discuss literary ecologies, including Jonathan Bate, Joanna Kavenna and Lavinia Greenlaw.

It would be great to see you down there, but don’t worry if you’re not around; Leo and I are now being booked for lots of festivals over the summer and we will probably be coming to a town near you soon! Watch out for our dates as we add them over the next few weeks.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Win a Great British Day Out worth £2K

We love to reward our lovely, loyal readers sometimes and the opportunity to help one of you access £2,000-worth of fun courtesy of the National Trust seemed an opportunity too good to miss! All you need to do is ask yourself what your dream day out would be if the trust opened up its vast array of venues for your enjoyment? Perhaps it might be sipping elderflower wine in the soft glow of a woodland glade, a great dinner with friends around the table of one of the trust’s sprawling stately homes or a warming seafood stew on the beach after a day of wild swimming with your mates.

Whatever it may be, now’s your chance to bring it to life. All you need to do is head over to the National Trust’s Facebook page, click ‘Like’ and enter your great idea for a great day out. There are nine types of venue to choose, from lighthouses to Beatles’ childhood homes, and then you can really let your imagination go to town on the shape your ideal day would take. Finally, you just need to get your Facebook friends to vote for your idea.

To provide some inspiration, here are the venue types to choose from: castle, abbey, gardens & parks, historic house, pub, woodland, Beatles’ home, beach, lighthouse.

You’ve got until 31st May to enter so get your skates on. Maybe take me and Leo along too if you win!

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Natural harmony? Listen to your elders

Our latest column in the Independent went in on Saturday. It is all about making elder whistles. To some this may seem an unusual way to spend a day – especially when you can buy a whistle fairly cheaply in a shop – but, as with all the activities in Skimming Stones, the secret is what this simple restorative ritual engenders. It is striking the right note to start a relationship.

Elder is only tree for the job because of the soft pith that runs through the core of its branches, which can be hollowed out very easily to leave a wooden tube that may be used for anything from pipes to primitive paintball guns. Identifying it requires us to look more closely at our surroundings; we have to differentiate between that tree and all the others. Immediately we are drawing closer to the land and to the wood.

Just as we learn to recognise one tree, to handle it and work with it, so too can we begin to familiarise ourselves with others. Soon the whole forest becomes transformed from an amorphous green mass on the edge of our vision to something far more interesting and rewarding. It is somewhere to walk through, to dwell in.

Revisiting at different times of the year we see the different tree types in metamorphosis. Not only do we learn to pick out species, we pick out individual trees. Woods become places to see old friends and watch as they transform through the seasons.

Read our column Natural harmony? Listen to your elders in the Independent here and start your journey back to the woods. 

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin