Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Hunter

I drive into the pot-holed car park and get out of the car. On the other side of the road, on the edge of the huge grass swathe, a tatty ice-cream van sits with it's engine racing, keeping the goods even chillier than the frosty outside world, as a handful of people form an orderly queue at it's window, pointing at photographs of rocket-shaped lollies which have been bleached red by the light of 20 summers. Dogs of all different shapes and sizes race up and down the grass in pursuit of bits of aero-dynamic plastic, chucked by their owners.

I make my way toward the huge, three-cornered tower, built to commemorate a local victory against the Danes by King Alfred. The top of it is blurred by a thin veil of freezing mist, but a patch of pale stonework about three-quarters of the way up, also commemorates an even foggier day when it was struck by a low-flying, light aircraft in search of a landing place.

Into the fringe of the wood and onto a muddy path, I side-step water-filled gullies and exchange shy 'hello's' with families of chestnut gatherers. More dogs. To a T-junction and onto a wider path which is fringed with still green bracken, and the soil becomes acid, with white sand showing through the scars made by mountain bikes. The trees thin out, but about 300 yards ahead, there is a deep-cut, narrow path which leads downwards toward a dense, formally planted wood of pine and larch. I stumble down it, catching my clothes on spurs of bramble, and the sounds of children squealing and dogs barking becomes feinter with each faltering step.

The path becomes wider, and the high banks either side of it are coated with bright green moss and pine needles. It is still steep, and the floor is peppered with angular stones strewn over a dirty yellow, sandy soil. I am in my stride now, as I approach the forest where the ravens roost, and I can hear their soft voices calling to each other in the canopy above. Occasionally one briefly appears against the sky, it's fingers bending with each languid wing-beat. The sounds of people and dogs have completely gone now.

I stride briskly and purposefully, as I know I have a lot of ground to cover before twighlight, and my body has reached a constant operative temperature - just on the bearable side of hot, like a well-behaved car on a long journey.

As I walk, I scan the banks and clearings both sides of the path and note - as I have done for the last five or six seasons - that my eyesight has progressively lost it's sharpness in the gloom of the wood. It is still good enough to do the job without spectacles though, and here and there, the white ghost of a rotten bay-boletus shines out from the shadows, telling me that I'm on the right track. I am now in the 'zone'.

The 'zone' is - in this case - a sort of trance-like state which some people get from sitting absolutely still, thinking nothing and doing nothing except breathing. When I used to play wood-wind instruments, I reached this state after about half an hour of practice, and once you have got there, your energy levels seem to be inexhaustible - just so long as you are economic with their expenditure.

The path levels out and the woodland becomes a promising mix of pine and deciduous. I come across a recently cleared opening, and stop to look at a great pile of American Redwood logs of about four feet in diameter and twenty-five feet long, which must have been felled a month or so earlier. One log lies abandoned with a chain-saw cut stopping about half way through it. Looking closer, I see why they left it half cut. The woodsman had started slicing into it about six inches away from a massive wasps-nest in a natural hole of the bark, and the ground all around is scarred by the huge wheels of the machinery that they beat a hasty retreat in.

I am at the lowest part of the forest now, and the ground undulates with mossy banks which may have been made hundreds of years earlier by 18th century foresters. This is where I will pause for the longest time, pushing back fronds of fern and straining my eyes to distinguish between the carpet of brown leaves, and the polished, conker-like cap of a Boletus Edulis. A Sainsbury's plastic carrier-bag lies discarded in the undergrowth, and it's bright orange colour looks grotesquely out of place amongst the autumn flora. No wonder that medieval, illuminated manuscripts had such an impact on ordinary people, before Day-Glo colours permeated every aspect of their existence, as they do now.

Then - quite unexpectedly (unless you believe that this event is the sole purpose of the expedition) - there it is. A homely, comely, round cap of a Cep looking for all the world like the Victorian Penny Bun it is named after, poking up at my feet with it's pure white, fat stalk just visible against the background of damp leaves. It's five inch cap resembles the surface of an extremely expensive and well-polished, hand-made shoe. I take out my knife and cut through the stalk, just below ground level, then begin my journey back through the woods, weighing my fat prize furtively as I walk.

I take the direct route back - a straight line rising up a vertiginous slope through the trees, which I know leads to a clearing close to the green, where someone has rigged up a thirty foot long length of blue rope from a high tree, and I am guided by the sound of children swinging from it over an abyss which would certainly break their bones if they let go of the knot tied in the end.

Breathing heavily, red and sweating, I walk over the green, past the still humming ice-cream van and back to the car.

About five hours after I set off, I am sitting in the kitchen at home, slicing the mushroom with a sharp, little knife. I put it into a small pan with some butter, salt and pepper, then fry it until it is golden brown.

We both agree that this is the best mushroom we have ever eaten in all our lives.


  1. I know the place Tom, and nearby, probably a field or two away, is the famed 'Magic Valley', where as a teenager, myself and friends used to roam this place in search of mushrooms of another type....yours sounds unquestionably more wholesome and a much wiser cultivation, the ones we sought were dried and swallowed whole or steeped in water, and often resulted in disastrous situations! I didn't like them, once was enough, I would prefer to stomp through these woods and seek the heartier, more friendly type of fungi, butter and garlic, crusty bread, mmmm. By the way, did you stumble across the remote tiny little woodcutters cottage, hansel and gretel style, buried amid the trees?

  2. Are you trying to make a grown man cry? Not only were we cepe-less this year, but the long awaited Hedgehog Mushrooms also failed to appear.

  3. Actually, that is the only place where I have found Hedgehogs, Cro - right next to the grass, children and dogs. I didn't go there this year, so I don't know what the crop was like - poor I expect. The Ceps I found a few weeks ago were on the other side of the Longleat Estate, about 6 miles away, and they were few and far between. There have been no wild, French mushrooms for sale at Waitrose this year (there is usually a lot of Hedgehogs at about £5 for about 6), so I feel for you!

    I used to down a few of those Magic ones every year, Laura. Eventually, I decided that they were probably not very good for you (not that that has stopped me from doing all sorts of other things). I found that as long as two weeks after they had been eaten, it would all come rushing back if you bent over to do up a shoe-lace, or something. They stay in your system for quite a while. I tried Fly Agaric once, in my youth. They really are poisonous, but you seem to have this unbelievable energy and invincible power. Walking is like your feet are about 3 inches off the ground. There's a hell of a price to pay, though - including stomach upsets or (if you really overdo it) coma.

    I think I know the cottage you are talking about, and I have stumbled across it once. Like you say, it is incredibly 'Hansel and Gretel', rustic and remote. I thought it was in a different wood near Salisbury - it has to be the same one. Maybe it shifts and reappears at different places and times?

  4. Robert Graves (in his 'The Greek Myths') equates Amanita Muscaria with 'Ambrosia', and the prefered 'drug' of Dionysus, rather than Wine and Ivy ale, being these mushrooms eaten raw. Graves also suggests that they induced hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength.

    I wonder if that's what you experienced?

  5. Everything except the erotic energy - I was too busy trying not to shit myself whilst rioting, prophesying and performing feats of remarkable strength.

  6. Latest update. We have hedgehog mushrooms! I've just got back from the woods with a bag full. There is a God after all. Mrs Magnon very happy!

  7. Great news, Cro. Didn't I tell you it would be bloody late this year?

  8. Another oddity has come to mind. I seem to remember reading somewhere that certain early people would feed Fly Agaric to goats, preserve their piss, then filter it through moss before drinking. Rather them than me. What says you, Tom?

  9. I think you're confusing goats with reindeer, Cro. I believe that's what the Laplanders traditionally do. The moss thing comes into it because that is the staple diet of reindeer. It's the reindeer's kidneys that filter the more harmful toxins out of the mushroom, allowing the Laplanders to riot, prophesy and shag with impunity - as I understand it.