Ray Thorne

Articles on foraging and local history from a Berry boy.


Looking through some old family photos recently, I came across this one of my grandmother and two of her sisters and thought you might be interested in their stories.

This photograph was taken just before the outbreak of the First World War and shows the three eldest daughters of William and Ellen Draper of Berrynarbor.

Standing at the rear and just twenty-one, is my Great Aunt

Florence May. I understand she'd been in service to the Bassett family at Watermouth and Barnstaple. but a few weeks after this photo was taken she married her cousin Frederick John Draper of Combe Martin, aka Uncle Jack Draper, later of Berrynarbor.

In September 1914, at the time of her marriage, she was a live-in house servant at Beech Leigh, Berrynarbor.

A month later, Uncle Jack enlisted in G Company of the 6th Devonshire Regiment, mainly made up with men from North Devon. In early 1915, Jack was on a troopship heading for Karachi, India, then north by train to Lahore and Amritsar, and finally stationed at Dalhousie near the Kashmir border. But in less than six months, and amalgamated into the Anglo-India regiments now collectively known as the Poona Division, he was heading to Mesopotamia. There they engaged the Ottoman armies at the battle of Es-sinn; apparently the battle lasted only a few days but with many casualties, mainly in the Ottoman armies. One of Uncle Jack's comrades, Pte. Jimmy Easterbrook from Ashford near Barnstaple, was shot through the neck and survived after being carried to a field hospital by Pte. Fred Shaddick of Barnstaple. Both later returned home safely.

Uncle Jack and his regiment went back to India in January 1916, remaining there for the rest of the war years. He was de-mobbed in the summer of 1919 from the Garrison Battalion, Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, returning to North Devon to set up home with Florence in Combe Martin, later moving into Ferndale Cottage in Berrynarbor Village, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Florence lived into her sixties and Uncle Jack to the grand old age of ninety-eight.

My Great Aunt Hilda, sat on the right side of the photo, was a little different from her two sisters. She was far less adventurous and more likely to be found in a kitchen scullery or small farmhouse dairy than a grand country house or estate.

The 1911 Census shows, at the age of fifteen Hilda was a live-in house servant at Widemouth Farm, for farmer William and Lucy Ley. In 1915 she did go away to work near London but didn't stay there very long apparently, as it was too busy and rather strict! The next ten years are a bit of a blank but by 1927 she was living and working as housekeeper for an elderly gentleman at Corfe Green near Knowle, which was part of the Buckland Farm Estate, Braunton. She worked there until 1932 when the old gentleman died. She then moved into Knowle village and became housekeeper to a widower, Mr. Lisbon Cordley, who worked at the coal yard at Knowle railway station. In 1933 they married but unfortunately the marriage didn't last very long and within a couple of years Hilda had returned to one of her father's cottages in Berrynarbor, now known as Olives, eventually to live with her younger sister. Hilda's husband, Lisbon, went back to Lincolnshire and his home town of Louth.

My Grandmother, Rosina, sat with the book on her lap, was born in January 1898 in Berrynarbor village like her older sisters. She once told me that she was born at their neighbours, in the blacksmith's shop, which was at the top end of Lower Town, sometimes referred to as Silver Street! June Greenaway mentions Silver Street in her Memoriam to her late mother, Vera Greenaway, in the August 2016 Newsletter. If June's great grandparents, Harry and Mary Camp, did live there in 1898, I can only guess that Mrs. Camp was in attendance at my grandmother's birth and there would be a close bond between the families.

Over the next few years Rosina learnt the skills of a dressmaker and seamstress, which stood her in good stead later in life. In 1915, at the age of seventeen, she and her older sister Hilda went to work at Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire. Luton Hoo was a grand country house and estate at that time, having 228 rooms and with large parks and gardens designed by Capability Brown. At the time it was owned by Sir Julius Wernher, who had diamond mines in South Africa and close connections with Edwardian royalty.

Rosina was in service there as a seamstress/domestic servant. Hilda was a domestic servant but returned home after a few months. My grandmother continued working there for five years. There, in 1919, she met her husband to be, Francis William Brookman, who had recently been de-mobbed from the Army Equine Veterinary Corps which he had joined at the start of the War near his home in Bristol. He had trained at Porlock before going to North West France. They married in October 1920 and returned to his home village of Burton, North Wiltshire, quite close to Great Badminton, the Duke of Beaufort's residence. She occasionally worked as a seamstress at Great Badminton and I remember her often saying that the jumble sales there were wonderful!

In 1925 they came back to live in Berrynarbor, by now having two little boys, Raymond and Frank. Raymond's name is on the War Memorial in the churchyard in Berrynarbor.
My Grandfather found work at Sandy Cove as caretaker come groundsman for the Singer family who apparently had large department stores in the Midlands. About 1928 the house was sold and bought by Mr. and Mrs. Rapkin who were from the Bournemouth area. They turned it into a hotel. He was joined by my grandmother who also worked in the hotel during the summer months. In the winter, while Mr. and

Mrs. Rapkin were away on their cruises, my grandparents would live in at the hotel keeping on their home in the village.

This I can remember well! My first Christmas in 1947 was spent at Sandy Cove! Over the following few years, many wonderful weekends and winter holidays were spent there. I can remember lots of funny tales and stories of happenings there. Maybe they could make a page or two in a future newsletter!

My Grandfather stayed working there until he retired in 1958, sadly passing away soon afterwards.

My Grandmother continued to live at Croft Lee until the early '70's when she moved back down to the village and into Jacob's Well, the centre cottage of the three that her father William Draper had purchased from the sales of Watermouth Castle in the 1920's for his daughters.

Ray Thorne



In the previous foraging article I mentioned wild foods from fields, woods and hedgerows. This time I'd like to cover Lee stream, as I shall refer to it, down to Watermouth Harbour and the seashore beyond. As there are very few edible plants that grow in, or by, our stream, this one will cover flora and fauna. We have several different springs that feed the main stream before it gets to South Lee.

The furthest from the sea starts just before the road at Lynton Cross and the next at Bodstone Gullies, near Berrydown Cross along with Rectory Stream heading almost down from Rockville, now known as Buddicombe and not forgetting the Cockhill and Lower Rows springs.

As a boy, I explored almost every yard of these waterways and I do remember the odd watercress bed, but if you wish to pick watercress, it must come from a clean running water source free from all livestock.

This so called modern superfood, which is very high in vitamin C, has been used for hundreds of years to pepper up pottage and stews. Today we tend to use it as a salad garnish, or make it into a wonderful soup.It's at its best during the spring and summer months.

Another very underrated plant that grows alongside a river or in damp places in the spring is ramsons or wild garlic.The young stems and leaves can be finely chopped and used sparingly to flavour food. I have seen recently on television even the starry white flowers and the little green seed heads used for flavour and decoration.

 This might sound like a nature walk, but back to the river!To my knowledge there are three main species of fish in the stream. The first being the freshwater bullhead or miller's thumb. These are non-edible but a favourite of the heron and kingfisher. The second is the freshwater eel. Now Gary mentions his and Mickey Mitcham's tussle with this creature of the deep, in A Potted History of Berrynarbor, but prepared and cooked properly they are good eating and quite a valuable fish.

The third is the brown trout, though why it's called the brown trout, I will never know because it's probably one of our most colourful fish. I first learned to fish for these at the age of nine after watching a Combe Martin lad fishing just below Mill Pond using a method called trotting or free lining, using a small worm and without any weights. Generally, our trout weigh about five ounces, but there are larger fish.

We have also migratory fish entering the stream. Elvers, which I remember congregating under the small harbour bridge in the boatyard at high tides in spring and autumn, later maturing into large freshwater eels. Brook lamprey, a small brown eel like fish the size of a pencil would spawn in groups just below the bridge into Big Meadow, now Watermouth Valley Camping Park. These fish are not for eating.

In the 1960's, just below the entrance bridge to Watermoth Cove, I caught a silver sea trout which was over a foot in length, with beautiful pink flesh, referred to as harvest peal by the fishermen of the Taw and Torridge. I'm sure they could venture further up the stream to spawn, but only as far as Mill Pond weir waterfall and they would also require sunlit gravel beds.

In the summer, at the low water mark on the left hand side of the harbour, is a large sandbar where it was a good place to catch brown sand shrimp wading up past your knees and using a traditional wooden shrimp net. These cooked, peeled and made into buttered potted shrimp are delicious on toast.

On the rocks close by, winkles can be gathered. Although not popular today because they are a bit fiddly, these were collected in large numbers in years gone by. Like all seafood, they contain lots of vitamins and minerals and winkles in particular, iodine, which helped to combat the effects of goitres caused by poor quality well water.

I have eaten most types of shell fish and molluscs, which I enjoy, but limpets I've only tried once! They are like eating an old school rubber! Best to leave them on the rocks!

Large brown edible crab, prawns and the occasional lobster can be found in the gullies and deeper crevices and larger rock pools at very low water tides using a four foot crabbing iron crook and prawn net.The best place for this is Broadsands to Golden Cove but be careful, don't get cut off by the tide!

On most of our steep cliff headlands grows rock samphire which needs simmering for half an hour with a small splash of vinegar before eating. But a caution on gathering this from Shakespeare's King Lear, "It's a dreadful trade". For me marsh samphire is a better plant to pick and eat! You can find this at Crow Point near Braunton, or at Bossington Decoy, West Porlock. Snip the top three inches off the top with scissors, wash with fresh water, steam or boil for only a few minutes and while still hot add butter and pepper. No added salt is needed. Best picking time is June to September.

Finally, I must mention seaweeds. They are such a useful group of plants and can be used in many ways. From fertiliser to beer and glass making, plus culinary use. Once again this 'super food' is being used by celebrity chefs to create something special and charge accordingly!

The four that can be found on our shores are sugar kelp, locally known as 'ore tags'. When cutting these at low water, make sure you pick the small younger fronds. Finely chopped, fresh kelp can be added to salads, fish dishes and omelettes. It can also be added to savoury pies, tarts and even biscuits, as recently seen in a National Trust shop in South Wales!

Carragheen seaweed, is generally found in the deeper rock pools and contains natural vegetable gelatines, used, in its natural state, to thicken soups, stews, jellies and blancmange.

Sea lettuce is a delicate green seaweed, almost cellophane like. Although not plentiful, it can be found at Broadsands and at Lee Bay. It likes sheltered coves. I have never collected or eaten sea lettuce but I

understand it can be deep fried, fresh, in a light tempura batter. Sounds good! I might try that!

Finally, we come to laver. It can be quite plentiful around our coast and best picked off rocks or boulders between low and half tide marks. Love it or loathe it, it's probably the most eaten seaweed in the world. It's picked and eaten from Spain to Shetland, along the west coast, and many other countries in the world too. In Japan and North America, it is called Nori and if you've ever eaten sushi, the dark outer coating of this rice and fish dish is one hundred per cent laver, dried and pressed into paper form. Japan actually imports some laver products from Gower, South Wales. In South Wales it's known and pronounced as Lava Bread. I find their way of cooking it very strong and salty. Once cooked, if you wish it can have some oatmeal added and shaped into flattened cakes, traditionally fried with fresh cockles, bacon and eggs for breakfast, whereas we in North Devon prepare it a little differently.

Our own family way is to wash it thoroughly in fresh water, squeeze almost dry, put it into a very large saucepan. Add a third of a pint of malt vinegar, half a teaspoon of ground white pepper and a knob of butter. Put as much laver in the pan as you can, it will quickly reduce by two thirds, so add some more laver. Cook on a very low simmer, stir regularly. Make sure it doesn't stick to the pan, add a little water if needs be. Cook for an hour and a quarter. When cooked and cold it can be frozen but two heaped dessertspoons served hot with a farmhouse hogs pudding, eggs and bacon on fried bread is as good as it gets! A real North Devon breakfast or 'Food of the Gods'. 

Enjoy your foraging!

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

 Ray Thorne



Like many, I've had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people in my life, with great stories to tell. One such person is Andrew Ailes. We first met at the Old Twelfth Night celebrations at Lee in 1994. I had that night been crowned 'Lord of Misrule', a role which I rose to with great gusto! Keys to the pub until midnight, crazy party games, music and dance and plates of food, all washed down with gallons of cider punch for all.

Later Andrew and I started to talk about apples and orchards. When I mentioned I was planting an orchard of special varieties his comment was, "Then I've got an apple for you!" And he told me this story.

Andrew worked for Reuters World Press Agency as an organiser and reporter. He had lived in many countries around the world. In 1988 he was living in Russia and was invited by the Russian government as a distinguished guest, to a Soyuz space launch in Kazakhstan and to become the first westerner to rent a transponder on a Soviet satellite.

While there he was asked to help with a TV documentary on the shepherds who live high in the mountains at their summer pastures. On one location, at lunch, a shepherd offered him some apples from a tree on the sheltered side of his stone hut. Apparently, they were large, sweet and delicious. His interpreter told him the shepherd had said, "They're just wild apples and trees like that grow wild in this part of Kazakhstan."

Andrew was so impressed that a few weeks later two apple cores in an empty cigarette packet arrived back in North Devon. His old gardener muttered, "You can't grow good apples from pips." And he was right, it is almost impossible to grow modern apples from pips because they have too many ancestors and pollinators; where a natural crab and true wild apple will far more likely throw a clone of its parent tree.

The pips were planted and over the next few years two trees grew and survived, one being much more vigorous started to fruit in 1996. According to Andrew the apples were the same as the ones he had seen and tasted in Kazakhstan. He contacted DEFRA, but it was expensive to register an apple unless it was for commercial use. They suggested some help could be found at the RHS National Fruit Centre in Kent. This is where I got involved and on their advice we sent some apples, leaves and a small twiggy bough for examination, which was undertaken by

Dr Alison Lean and Dr Joan Morgan, author of The Book Of Apples.

Dr Lean said the apples were much sweeter than most domestic apples and came from the original wild apple Malus Sieversii a rarity found in countries east of the Caspian Sea.

In October 2009 and as a member of Devon Orchards Live, I took some apples to RHS Rosemoor on Apple Day. They certainly caused a stir! Experts seemed to come from every corner of the marquee, all tasting the sliced-up apples, making comments, searching through the reference books, but nothing could be found on this rare seedling apple. I was then approached by Kevin Croucher of Thornhayes Nurseries in Cullompton, probably one of the top nurserymen and authorities on fruit trees here in the West Country. who was very interested in the apple and offered to add it to his catalogue of fruit trees.

A quick flurry of e-mails followed as Andrew was working in Canada and was then off to India for a few weeks, before returning home in the spring.

Early in February 2010 I offered to deliver the first bundle of Grandpa Ailes or Kazakh Beauty scions (graft cuttings) to Thornehays Nurseries for grafting on to root stocks in April. From 2011 the apple trees were on sale from Thornehays and RHS Rosemoor and still are to the best of my knowledge.

My own tree which I grafted onto a Bramley pip seedling in 2009, is now almost fifteen feet high and expected to reach twenty feet in the coming years. It is now bearing good crops of this sweet, large, semi red conical wild apple.

Ray Thorne



Recently I was reading a smallholding magazine and this article regarding profit from hedgerows, caught my eye. It suggested planting a few damsons instead of blackthorn and Kentish cobnuts or filberts instead of the common hazel as both of these would be beneficial to wildlife, and could be a small cash crop at any farmers' market, without using any paddock space or pasture.

This made me remember our Sunday family walks in the '50's around the lanes, fields and woods of Berrynarbor. Someone would always carry a bowl or bag to bring home our foraged gatherings. On one occasion we picked a whole pudding basin full of wild strawberries on the road to Berrydown, not far from where we lived. On arriving home these were soon "polished off" with the cream from the top of scolded milk from Barton Farm and, of course, a sprinkle of sugar! I am sure this is when my love of foraging began!

My grandmother was a very resourceful woman, she could still put some form of greens on a dinner plate even after all the winter cabbage and collards had finished. Collards being spring green type growths that come from the cross split stumps left in the ground. but before the summer cabbage was ready.

She would, on rare occasions, armed only with an old motorbike gauntlet, pick young nettle tops down the lane! These are similar to spinach, but stronger and darker. These were quickly boiled and strained, salt and pepper added, finished off with a knob of butter and gran's favourite spice, a hint of nutmeg, which she could produce from her pinny pocket quicker than Roy Rogers could draw his six shooter!

Gran also introduced us to small young dandelion leaves. I personally thought they were a little bitter, but in a salad sandwich with salad cream etc. they were quite good!

On visiting Normandy a few years ago. there, in a supermarket, were pale forced dandelion leaves 2.80 euros a bunch!

Blackberries [Bramble]

Almost everyone has picked and eaten these berries. The small red and part ripe ones can be made into good wine, while the plump, larger berries can be used in many ways. Try blackberry liquor using a similar recipe for sloe gin, but with a little less sugar. Freeze the required amount of berries before adding to gin or vodka in a Kilner jar, gently agitate weekly for the first month, then forget them for the next three or more, then carefully strain and decant.

Folklore tells us that after Michaelmas Day the Devil has spoiled the berries and his little helpers have put maggots in them just for fun!


Hazel and sweet chestnuts thrive in Berrynarbor. We kids used to play and collect hazelnuts from a wooded goyle known as Sherry-Brockholes, not far from Ruggaton Farm. Sweet chestnuts seemed to favour Sterridge Valley from Woolscott Cleave right down to the Old Rectory.

Collect both nuts when they are brown and ready to come free from their husks. Chestnuts are best rolled under foot to remove them from their spiny husks. Store them both in old onion sacks, hung from a beam in a cool and airy place.

In medieval times, before the potato had arrived, chestnuts were used very much in the staple diet, even ground and added to bread flour.

Mushrooms and Fungi

The golden rule with these is, if you cannot identify them, do not pick or eat them, therefore the three I have chosen to mention can be found in supermarkets when in season. The field mushroom is the same species that you see in the supermarket, but has much more flavour. They prefer a sloping field that faces south, near the top or ridge, especially if stock has been present in the last few years. Cropping season is August to October.

Oyster mushroom clumps can be found on dying deciduous tree trunks in woodland. The top cap can be a little darker than the supermarket variety. It is generally safe to say that any fungi growing from a tree trunk above chest high are safe to eat, although some can be tough and unpalatable.

The chantarelle or girolles are a wonderful, medium sized funnel shaped mushroom, completely egg yolk yellow and a joy to find and eat! They can be found growing through the moss at the base of beech hedges and trees in dappled light. Cropping season is May to November.

They need to be gently fried in garlic butter with salt and pepper then add some milk and simmer until it reduces.

It is said that even the grumpiest French chef will smile when he sees chantarelles!


Ray Thorne


Illustrated by: Paul Swailes