Do you know the best place to go foraging in Suffolk?
Tom Peer and Ashley West-Evans of Forage and Folklore are also teaching people about mythology, history and nature on their walking tours.
Suffolk is possibly one of the best places in the world to be during the autumn season. Beautiful sunsets, miles of stunning coastline, awe-inspiring forestry and acres upon acres of vast, rolling fields.
But did you also know this county is filled with an abundance of tasty wonders that are ripe for the picking?
Meet Tom Peer and Ashley West-Evans – a pair of local nature lovers who are here to show people that Suffolk has a number of plants and herbs that can be harvested right here in the local countryside.
Tom, who is originally from Canada, and Ashley, who hails from South Africa, both met three years ago while eco volunteering with a wildlife research company in Greater Kruger National Park.
After working extensively with the local wildlife and picking up a number of skills including tour guiding, the two moved to Mendlesham – and quickly realised how diverse the region’s ecosystem truly is.
“When we came to Suffolk, it was the first time either of us had moved to the countryside, and we soon began to notice all of the plants around us,” explained Ashley. “I started researching them and I soon realised how many medicinal qualities they have and the history behind them. We’ve really gotten into it over the past few years.”
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“England has such a rich history and connection with nature, ancestrally, so we thought it would be great to combine plants and wildlife with history and folklore,” said Tom. “Whenever you go on a safari in Africa, they talk about the animals and ecology, but they also talk about what the bushmen use things for.”
With a strong desire to share their newfound expertise, the two created Forage and Folklore. Established earlier this year, its aim is to provide people with an informative and interactive guided nature walking tour that is equal parts immersive, educational and fascinating. “We just want to raise an awareness on why our green spaces are so special, even if they may not seem it,” said Ashley.
But why Suffolk – what is it that makes this county in particular such a natural wonder, filled with rich history and bountiful swathes of land?
“Suffolk just has so much to offer - we’re lucky to have coasts, lots of nice forested areas and plenty of agriculture,” said Tom. “When we take people out, because we go through the forest and then we walk through some farm fields, it’s interesting to see how humans and nature merge, and work in modern day. We can bring that back to how our ancestors might have used the land as well, as there’s such a deep heritage here in the area.
When you book onto one of Tom and Ashley’s guided walking tours, you’ll be asked to arrive at the couple’s 16th century thatched cottage in Mendlesham before heading off on an authentic foraging experience.
Starting off in the garden, Tom and Ashley will quickly run through some health and safety advice and foraging principles before you venture off on a three-mile ramble. “We head out through the meadow, into the woods and we loop around a couple of the farm fields and through some bridle paths before we come down one of the old country lanes and back to the cottage,” explained Tom.
Roughly three to four hours in length, the couple - who take out no more than four people per group due to current social distancing restrictions - are happy to answer any questions participants may have about the area’s local flora and fauna. “It’s a very slow pace, as we stop and talk a lot, and if there happens to be a circumstance where we need to cut the walk short, there’s plenty of opportunity to loop back around. We also always ensure we stick to public footpaths and don’t stray from them.”
As soon as you set off on your foraging journey, you’re instantly met with an abundance of pickable berries, herbs and plants - with Ashley keen to show the people of East Anglia what lies out there.
“Due to Suffolk having such a wide variety of green spaces, farmland borders and hedgerows are where you’ll find some of the best wild foods,” she said. “We wanted to create this experience for people who may be interested in finding out more.”
Some of the couple’s favourite finds include field mushrooms, jelly ears, blackberries, burdock, wild mint, rosehips, bullace and greengage plums, and sloe berries.
“On the actual tour, we really like to focus on collecting wild nettles, cleavers and some chamomile to make a tea blend from and serve to our guests. It’s just nice to share and talk about how great it is that you don’t have to go to a supermarket to get your tea - it’s right here,” said Tom. “There’s plenty of things people might know about but not know what it looks like out in the wild, or that it’s edible. The one comment we get all the time is people saying ‘We weren’t expecting so much to be out here’.”
To accompany that freshly-brewed tea, Tom and Ashley ensure they bring a selection of foods to enjoy during a quick picnic pitstop about halfway through – all locally-sourced, of course. Some of the grub on offer includes freshly-baked bagels from Mendlesham’s Bagel or Beigel, and cheese from Fen Farm. “For any meat eaters amongst us, I make sure I bring some cured dried meats sourced from local game. The whole idea is to show people what comes from the land, and bring them back to how cool Suffolk really is,” Tom added.
Anyone who loves history will know it comes as no surprise that foraging and folklore are a match made in heaven. Ashley explains Suffolk’s deep-rooted history of witchcraft and natural resources – and how the two intertwine so seamlessly.
“There’s a lot of folk traditions that are specific to East Anglia and can’t be found anywhere else. When we go out on walks, what we’ll do is stop when we find a plant, go over some of the ecology of it and how to identify it before we move onto the medicinal properties and folklore that surrounds it. It’s incredible how many plants have interesting stories and mythologies behind them. For example, I recently found out that Pagans used to make what was called a spirit flail out of bramble, where they’d tie the stems together and use that to cleanse away any negative spirits.”
Alongside plants, no walk through the Suffolk countryside is complete without a glimpse of some local wildlife, and as you spend your day foraging, you are guaranteed to catch sight of a variety of birds including blackbirds, blue tits, green woodpeckers, buzzards and kestrels. “As we end our walk at sunset, we’ll sometimes see barn owls and tawnies if we get lucky,” Tom added. “But deers and hares the big ones that everyone enjoys. I’d say on about 90% of our walks, we get a good deer sighting.”
With foraging season now in full swing, the couple have big plans for the future, and hope to create an eco-tourism experience right here in Suffolk with the help local businesses.
“We want to encourage people to come out to East Anglia and see the countryside, and why it’s so special,” said Ashley. “Our remaining spaces should be protected, and what we’re seeing is a lot of developments creeping in, so you could say this is our way of showing people the value of green spaces, and that you don’t need houses on them for them to be special.”
Tom added: “We’re working out a partnership with The Four Horseshoes, which is a local historical pub. We just need to work out some logistics, but what we’d like to do is have people come on foraging tours with us, then they would go for dinner or even stay at The Four Horseshoes and have a whole Suffolk experience. We also have a friend who has his own business, Spirit of Suffolk, running fox and badger spotting tours across Ipswich and the surrounding areas, so we’re seeing how we could include that for a total eco-tourism experience.”
In addition, the two are planning to run activities all year-round, with a number of bigger events in mind once social distancing restrictions can be lifted. “We’d like to do seasonal events when it’s safe, where we’d bring bigger groups out to do some traditional folk crafting,” said Ashley.
“I’m also hoping that in February, we can do astro photography at night, where we go on a short walk and then those with cameras stay so we can capture some starlight,” said Tom. “It’s all about getting that great outdoors experience.”
To find out more about Tom and Ashley’s guided nature tours, visit www.forageandfolklore.com
Tom and Ashley’s rules for safe and responsible foraging
- You should always go with a friend, so you’re both sure you can identify the plant. Use your senses – so sight, touch, smell, and taste if it’s safe.
- Bring one or two books to cross reference. There can be some conflicting information out there, and you really want to be sure what you’ve picked is what you think it is.
- You shouldn’t forage on any roadsides that are commonly used, or any dog walking paths - you want to make sure the plants and berries you’re getting are clean.
- Foraging sustainably is really important – don’t collect anything that isn’t in abundance in that area, and make sure you aren’t taking too much.
- Unless you are harvesting the root of something, don’t pull from the root as you want to make sure the plant can regrow.
- Finally, always make sure you leave enough for the local wildlife.