Disclaimer - from Mushrooms that kill Humans – Only gather mushrooms that you can positively identify; if you have even the slightest uncertainty about the identity of a mushroom, don't pick it. Even with this precaution, you should always have an expert verify the safety of the mushrooms you collect.
Mushrooms are magic. They appear out of nowhere, in a variety of strange shapes and earthy colours, then vanish as mysteriously as they came. There is an atavistic pleasure in looking for them, particularly when you find a prize specimen under the trees. We are reconnecting with our inner hunter gatherers.
So, the first weekend in October, we set out to look for mushrooms in Ashdown Forest. The Forest is not ancient woodland. It was established in the Middle Ages for hunting and forms an interwoven fabric of stretches of heath and forest. We are high on the sandstone ridge, and look out over a valley full of milky cloud. It has rained the previous day and everything is wet. Every grass blade is covered with droplets, while the gorse bushes are hung with silver-studded cobwebs.
We plunge into the nearest copse of silver birch and oak. There is a musky scent in the air, suggesting the presence of fungi. Straight away we see the first fly agaric (amanita muscaria), with caps as big as side plates, flamboyant in scarlet with white spots. They may be beautiful but we don't touch them, as they are poisonous.
Our mushroom of preference is the cep (boletus edulis). The old name of penny bun is descriptive, because the thick white stalk and floury brown cap resemble an old-fashioned cottage loaf. They are hard to spot, as the cap disappears into fallen leaves drifting under the trees. We check them carefully, rejecting those that are wormy or so soft that we can sink your fingers into them. These days, ceps are collected for the restaurant trade, so we sometimes find cut stalks dropped by the path.
As we walk, the sunlight struggles through the cloud and sparks gold hints among the drab green leaves. The bracken, so vigorous and green during the summer, is turning bronze and collapsing. Most birds have long since given up singing, but I can hear a robin warbling in the bushes. Mushrooms flourish in the autumn, as they are nature's recyclers, growing on dead and decaying matter. Most will vanish with the first hard frost, so the mushroom season is short.
Our path leads down a muddy slope and across a wooden bridge over a stream, which splashes over rocks. Although most of the forest is deciduous, in places we walk through plantations of pines and firs. Elsewhere, we pass beneath magnificent beech trees, their trunks as graceful and dignified as cathedral columns. On a bank, we find hedgehog fungi (hydnum repandum) which have a creamy coloured cap, with a spiky underside.
By the end of the morning, we have gathered a bag full of assorted mushrooms. I have wondered about the ethics of mushroom picking. The part that you pick is the fruiting body, so it may seem no different from picking blackberries. However, over-exploitation for commercial purposes may endanger the long-term survival of some species. It would be a pity to lose the opportunity to go mushroom picking, but it is important that mushrooms are conserved. They are part of the life cycle of the forest.