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Conkers, brambles and kids not at play

Friday 10 September 2010

Whilst his wife’s apple and blackberry pie conveyor belt goes into full production, our countryside commentator John Sheard laments the lack of children playing out in the countryside and taking advantage of its free food

My wife stopped to chat with a neighbour’s young son one day this week as he popped into his mouth a plump, glistening blackberry. “That’s a beauty,” she said. “Where did you get it?” He replied with the obligatory purple tongue and lips: “Morrison’s.”

Such a minor incident but one that caused my wife considerable sadness.. Here was a bright, nice young lad but his family buy their blackberries from the supermarket when, just 300 yards away, there is a hedgerow full of them.

On the supermarket shelf?

We are approaching the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in the immortal words of the poet John Keats and my wife’s apple and blackberry pie factory is in full production.

Twice this week, she has come home with an overflowing container of wild blackberries and, in the cellar, my workbench is covered with windfall Bramley apples given to us by a friend lucky enough to have an old but productive orchard.

This has been a bad week for wrinklies like me, for whom the approach of autumn once presented with a virtual cornucopia of free goodies. As well as the ever present blackberries, there were damsons, sloes (which the grown-ups turned into livid purple gin for Christmas), bilberries, mushrooms and other fungi (to be picked with great care), chestnuts, hazel nuts and cobnuts.

With the free food taken care of, there was then the free entertainment stretching back to the Middle Ages: it is, or should be, conker time, and there should be millions of kids out in the fields hurling sticks up into majestic horse chestnuts in the annual hunt for the biggest, shiniest, most iridescent examples to string up and prepare for battle.

Except there aren’t. We are facing a conker shortage, thanks to one of the wettest Augusts in living memory, says the adorably named Campaign for Real Conkers, one of those anarchic organisations which prove that English eccentricity lives on in these sombre times.

When the weather is wet in high summer, the campaign’s Keith Flett explained on Tuesday, the conkers fall prematurely which means there are few examples about worthy of a good bashing. But my worry is this: even if there were a record harvest this year, would there be any young boys out there hunting them?

For the week produced another disheartening survey, commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which said that fewer and fewer of us have childhood memories of being out and about in the countryside, of such activities as climbing trees or making daisy chains.

the only things really worth saving are good memories...

Three quarters of us oldies have fond memories of collecting and competing with conkers. Only two thirds of 15 to 34 year-olds have such memories. And – the really worrying bit – today’s children spend so much time indoors that they are suffering from “nature deficit disorder.”

My family have long had a saying, much used in hard times, that the only things really worth saving are good memories: the memory bank is in the long run much more important than that formidable building on the High Street, however well stuffed it is. That, I suppose, is just another way of using the adage “Money can’t buy you happiness.”

My generation, born during and just after the war, have a whole treasury of such memories to keep us company, of damming streams, lighting fires, stuffing ourselves with scrumped apples and pears at a time when food was strictly rationed. I was luckier than most because I had country childhood, with thousands of acres to roam, but even town kids spent many of the long summer hours in their local parks.

This was not only free but it was healthy: I admit there was little chance of obesity brought on by over-eating but there was less chance of any fat developing because we ran it off, jumped it off, climbed it off. You could see the ribs of all my friends, I remember, but that was not malnutrition but glowing health.

Today’s children spend their time huddled over the TV, video or computer games, as often as not stuffing themselves with crisps, pizzas or other junk foods. This is bad for their bodies, of course, but what about their minds? What memories are they storing away for their old age when their parents buy them their blackberries from a supermarket?

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