The Field Studies Council (FSC) is a British not-for-profit organization that has as its slogan: “Environmental understanding for all!”
Oh, you are no doubt thinking: How earnest. How . . . worthy. And yet, how dull. Turn the page. Has Mark Brazil been attacked by another hedgehog?
Pray, gentle reader, a minute more of your time! I must admit to similar reactions when the FSC brochure first arrived.
It had been a long hard day and a cursory glance at some of the courses the FSC was offering didn’t precisely fire me. Allen Pentecost (who’s he?) was offering “A Weekend on Freshwater Algae,” Martha Newton’s invitation to study “Mosses and Liverworts” was one I felt I could safely decline. And as for spending two days “Looking at Ladybirds” with Mike Majerus? Well, really! Britain may be the last refuge of the genuine eccentric but all this seemed to be taking the thing a bit far.
But then other courses began to jump out at me. “The Lake District for the Less Athletic!” Now, that didn’t sound so bad. “Great Houses and Famous Gardens of Surrey and Sussex” was rather tempting. “Rural Devon Rambles: Green Lanes to Village Inns” showed distinct promise.
Then I noticed the FSC’s accommodations. There are 12 Field Centers in all (10 residential). A glance at the map confirmed that not only were they located in some of the prettiest parts of England and Wales but that architecturally they bordered on the downright elegant. There was a restored Victorian fort on the wild Pembrokeshire coast. A large Georgian Country house at Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales. Flatford Mill in the heart of the Dedham Vale features prominently in John Constable’s immortal portrait of rural utopia, “The Haywain.”
The cheap prices were the final push — you would have to scour the land with a very fine-tooth comb to find another Victorian Tuberculosis Sanatorium perched halfway up a Lake District mountain offering a week’s full board, accommodation at the height of the “high season” for under 300 pounds. All sorts of activities included.
And that is how we came to be inadvertently accompanying a group of mycologists along the shores of Ullswater in England’s exquisite Lake District.
I say inadvertently because the FSC course we actually signed up for was “Hedgerow Cookery.” But in the excitement of morning departure we got in the wrong van. So instead of spending the day foraging for berries, nuts, herbs and so on with John Crouch, radio chef for BBC Radio Cumbria, we found ourselves studying mushrooms and fungi with John Sears.
Sears, like all FSC course leaders, is an expert in his field. When not leading mushroom hunts he distills herbal shampoos in his garage and teaches “survival courses” to Britain’s elite Special Air Services (SAS) regiment (presumably, which fungi to subsist on and which to stuff down an enemy guard’s throat).
At first I was rather daunted. My fellow mycologists all knew a good deal more about mushrooms than I did. Some had come all the way from Germany and the United States (where FSC courses apparently enjoy a formidable reputation). Many had brought magnifying glasses and peculiar flat wicker baskets to carry samples. They talked familiarly about “seps,” “fruiting bodies” and other such technical terms.
This expertise actually proved invaluable. Our expedition target was an oak wood on the shores of Ullswater. Oak woods are particularly rich in fungi. No sooner had we started walking through a sheep-filled field, though, than our companions began spotting things. The more I looked at what they were spotting, the more bewildering — and obvious — the array seemed.
It has been estimated that William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet, walked some 322,000 km in the Lake District. I can’t claim to have covered a fraction of that but I’ve worn my way through a few pairs of boots on the fells (as these lovely hills are locally known). Prior to this mycologist excursion I don’t remember ever having seen any fungi.
We uncovered, effortlessly, some 30 species before lunch, and we barely covered 3 km. Hallucinogenic fly agaric, rather gruesome dead man’s fingers, eminently edible horse mushrooms, aromatic stinkhorns.
When we finally made it back to Blencathra Field Center, I had made a great step forward in my environmental understanding. I had become “mushroom conscious.” I knew the world would never look the same.
John Crouch and the Hedgerow Cookery lot were looking equally inspired. It had been a Lake District day of the first order: blue skies, green fields, the red glow of bracken, the purple smudge of heather on the fells, picture postcard villages. Everyone had had a heck of a good time.
After we explained our abrupt disappearance the hedgerow cooks showed us the fruits of their day’s labor. They had assembled masses of elderberries, wild sorrel, blackberries, black currants, odd roots. The only let-down were the hazelnuts: three or so. A less than auspicious beginning to one of the recipes Crouch proposed teaching us, “Pasta with Hazelnuts and Sorrel.”
We spent the rest of that weekend flitting furtively between the mycologists (who, when not collecting fungi, were beer-swilling hell-raisers) and the hedgerow cookers (by and large, a more studious bunch). We had some splendid times with the mycologists and I felt heartily ashamed of my earlier mockery of “specialist” courses.
Some visitors to Britain complain that it is difficult to break through the British “reserve” and actually make contact with the natives. Join an FSC course — join the Brits when they’re off duty and enjoying their hobby and there is no reserve whatsoever.
To date we’ve tried three FSC courses. The above mycology/hedgerow cookery hybrid, nature painting at Flatford Mill (very good: You go in there incapable of wielding a brush and a week later leave planning your first exhibition) and Beatrix Potter’s Lake District, a course that has, unfortunately, been discontinued.
Our future plans include “Rocky Shores and Oil Spills,” , “Fly Fishing in the Yorkshire Dales” and, I’m sure it will be revealing, “Lichens near London.”
The FSC only covers England and Wales. But a very similar, albeit smaller, organization called the Kindrogan Field Center covers Scotland. The Kindrogan brochure offers walking weekends, gardens, wildlife photography, bird watching, geology, ecology and also a few unexpected ones. Chainsaw wood sculpture no less!