Vaccinium mrytillus, in Scotland they call it a blaeberry, in Wales it is known as a whimberry, in Devon they talk of whortleberry on Dartmoor ‘tiz a ‘hurt‘. Call it what you want it tastes delicious and it is a chore to pick, you seem to spend hours plucking, squashing and eating them just to end up with a paltry amount. You probably will have scrabbled amongst granite boulders and have grazed half the skin off your hands but to compensate this you will have a treat in store.
For centuries moorfolk would have ‘gwain to moor, pickin’ urts’. This would have been treated as a sort of holiday and during the picking season between July and early September small parties would be seen all over the moor. The women and children would set off early in the morning carrying baskets of all sizes and make to their favourite spots. Hook Lake, Stony Bottom, Omen Beam, Doe Tor Brook, Fox Holes and Hare Tor were all popular places where the whortleberry thrived. In some cases the trips were about six miles and then the men would guide the parties out. Years ago it was noted that up to 500 ‘pickers’ could be seen at Omen Beam. It was also interesting to see that there were different ways a gathering the ‘hurts’. On southern Dartmoor it was the tradition to take a small quart can and a large basket. The berries would be picked and put in the can, when this was full it would be tipped into the basket. This was the pickers could work out how much they had picked and so how much they had earnt. On the northern side of the moor the pickers simply took a large basket and filled that, when they got home they would then weigh out the baskets contents. Most of the berries would have been sold at local markets, especially Tavistock and in 1903 William Crossing notes that they fetched between 6d and 7d a quart. There was even a little saying that the pickers would use before starting to ensure a good crop and that was:
The first I pick, I eat;
The second I pick, I toss away;
The third I pick, goes in my can.
In his book, The Forest of Dartmoor, King notes the following regarding whortleberries (1856, pp. 53 -54):
“most wholesome to the stomake, but of a very astringent nature; so plentiful in this shire, that it is a kind of harvest to poor people whose children, nigh Axminster, will earne eight pence a day for a moneth together in gathering them. First they are green, then red, and at last a dark blew… Nothing more have I to observe of these berries, save that the ancient and martiall family of the Baskervilles, in Herefordshire, give a Chevron between three Hurts proper, for their arms”.
King’s final remark does make one wonder if it is purely coincidence or did Conan Doyle mean any connection with Dartmoor and the whortleberry in his famous book – Hound of the Baskerville’s which is set on Dartmoor and supposedly not far from Omen Beam?
FROM LEAF TO BERRY
|PHOTOS BY COURTESY
OF P. MASON
During the First World War the whortleberries were picked and their juices used as a dye for army uniforms. The pre-war price of whortleberries averaged about 4d a pound but by 1919 a pound of hurts was fetching over 2 shillings. There was a report that some children were earning £5 a week picking the berries for dye making. In 1928 a local newspaper reported how children from Acton school went onto Haytor picking hurts and in a fortnight made £5 of which £3 was spent on the war effort.
A newspaper article from 1928 sheds some light on the lengths the hurt pickers would go to in order to obtain the juicy berries:
“In old days at Okehampton, and probably still, one of the difficulties of those responsible for the artillery practice was the clearing of the ranges, not only of ponies but also of tourists and other human wanderers. I remember well one day descrying moving figures among the dummies just as a battery was about to open fire on them. As I turned to order the raising of the danger screen, the old shepherd who was responsible for the clearing of the range shouted excitedly: “Shoot sir, shoot – they be only whortleberry pickers.“
Today the ‘hurts’ aren’t picked commercially but there are still the ‘patient’ people who gather them for their own use. Although you can’t beat the taste of a freshly ‘hurt’ picked and eaten in-situ there are some traditional ways of cooking them. In living memory there was a tradition in Newton Abbot that when a visiting rugby team from New Zealand sat down for their after match dinner they were served whortleberry pie for dessert.
4 ozs flour
2 ozs margarine
4 tbs water
1 lb whortleberries
4 ozs sugar
1 pinch of cinnamon
Take off any stalks left on the whortleberries and put in an 8″ pie dish. Sprinkle with the sugar to taste and add a small amount of apple juice and the pinch of cinnamon.
Sift the flower into a bowl, cube the margarine and rub together until of a ‘breadcrumb’ texture. Add the water and make into a smooth ball. Place in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Take out, roll out pastry on a floured surface to a size just a bit larger than the pie dish. Place the lid over the dish, trim to size. Make a small hole in the centre of the crust. Brush with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 35 m- 40 minutes at 425ºF/220C. When cooked serve with some proper Devonshire cream.