Caught by the River

Wandering the River Taff: Hedgerow Memories

Helia Phoenix | 13th September 2017

Helia Phoenix on foraging, hedge-jumping, and the importance of not taking photos

Image by _jenniferism_

I’ve taken myself for a short bike ride up the Taff Trail into Bute Park, the green jewel set in the heart of Cardiff. The park is vast, over 56 hectares that flank the River Taff from the castle to the northern reaches of the city’s centre.

Bute Park – image by shuyan25

There’s a stretch along the river where the hedgerows grow particularly wild. There are plenty of bits like this – the park is a wonderful juxtaposition of highly organised horticulture and wilder woodland. Bute Park is best known for its trees, having over three thousand different species planted throughout it, with more examples of champion tree than any other park in the UK (a champion tree being the tallest or broadest examples of a tree species).

The trees are impressive. My particular favourites are the eastern red cedars near Pettigrew Tea Rooms. But I’m not here to talk about trees. My focus is firmly on this space, this particularly chaotic and overgrown space, near the Blackweir. It’s an unkempt percussion of hawthorn and blackthorn, elder, dog rose, and young holly. There’s lavender, and honeysuckle, and brambles.

Blackberries come and gone – image by smudgem0

Early September is a time of hedgerow memories for me. They flutter to the ground as I brush past; crisp brown leaves that pick at the paths beneath my balding bicycle wheels. I pull out my phone and take pictures to capture the feeling of being here. I am disappointed with the results, which are flat, and misrepresent everything. I delete them all and turn my phone off.

There’s a manicured privet hedge here, a couple of feet high. It’s been clipped precisely, and shaped into a wall, tracing the ghosted edge of a house. I run my fingers over the top of it, remembering when my friend Fen and I spent an evening practising our privet jumping techniques. It was at the end of a long night of drinking, in our third year of university, when beery wisdom told us to leap into the itchy, green embrace of every hedge we saw on the way home from the bar. And leap we did.

Fen, who has always possessed a sharper mind than I, took no photographs at all during university. She preferred her own memories to pictures, which she felt would overpower her own recollections – reducing the memory just to the visual image, destroying the rest of what she held in her mind from the event.

Image by jeff.barry607

And while I always knew what she meant, I’ve never had a great memory. I’m always living and moving and thinking far too fast to absorb things in the way I really want to, which is probably why I’ve always been so obsessed with writing: journalling, blogging, documentalising – anything to try and keep hold of all this life that zips past so quickly. I think of file naming conventions for my memories, geotagging them, adding in metadata about the ambient temperature, the weather, how was I feeling at the time. But descriptive information about a memory is still just a poor approximation of that moment in time, as the photograph often is.

Past the privet hedge, I see me, six years old, as my mother leads me along, holding my hand. She picks the highest blackberries – never pick the low ones, in case dogs have peed on them – and lets me taste them – still tart, not quite ready. She caresses sprigs of lavender until the needles come loose into her hand, then slips them into my pocket. To make it smell nice. She plucks honeysuckle flowers and nips the ends off, showing me how to squeeze a tiny drop of nectar onto my tongue, as delicious as any two-penny sweet from the corner shop. She even shows me how to peel open blades of grass to reveal the young, tender centres – a salady taste, and pleasing, rubbery texture between the teeth.

I love this time of year. It’s back to school! New beginnings! However poorly you feel you did last year, there’s the possibility for change. Renewal. A fresh notebook! And who doesn’t love the feeling of a brand new notebook. New pens. Maybe a new backpack if you really push the boat out. Plus, it’s my birthday. And I love birthdays! It’s also a good time for foraging. As I’ve got older, I’ve started hunting for new things.

The foliage mutates as I walk further along. It’s antagonistic now, thick with stalks and spikes. Behind me is a boisterous ginger retriever – my dog, Nousha – who revels in mayhem and water-based activities.

She always accompanies me on my foraging trips, and while I’m aiming for gaps in the barbed blackthorn bushes, reaching for those purple berries, Nousha careers around on the bank, barking at dogs on the other side of the river, chasing cyclists, and whining for me to throw her ball back in the water so she can swim out and fetch it. It’s always a chaotic adventure with that dog in tow, and even though I wear gardening gloves and double sleeves, I always end up scratched and scraped to buggery.

The sun dips earlier. Seven pm and it’s starting to get darker. But my bag is full of sloes that will flavour the gin we’ll drink at Christmas.

I still nibble on the ends of honeysuckle flowers when I find them. And I still pick sloes, although my expeditions are less fun without my doggy companion. The one thing I haven’t done again is leap into any more shrubs since my one night of experimentation with Fen. The long, bloody arm scratches added to my hangover put me off that for life.

All these things happened. They just didn’t happen like this, all in this place. Some happened on the banks of the Taff. Some were on the walk down to the local train station when we lived near Exeter. Some were in woodlands in Southampton, others in the flower gardens in Roath, a suburb a few miles east from where I stand right now. The hedge jumping is the only one I can definitely place: in Berkeley, California, where Fen and I met at university.

But every time I pass a space like this one, with the smell of early September in the air, this happens. I remember. All these layers of time and space come back to me, in an abundant tangle of hedgerow memories that explode from the shrubbery into one happy hybrid reflection; reminding me to always pick the blackberries from the top, keep lavender in my pockets at all times, and keep my phone off, for as long as possible, when wandering through the woods.

Image by joscountrylife

This column is dedicated to the memory of my beautiful crazy ginger dog Nousha. RIP, and I hope you’re chasing all the squirrels in doggy heaven.


Helia Phoenix has written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Kruger Magazine, and now runs the We Are Cardiff project. The previous instalments of her column can be found here. You could also take a peek at her website or follow her on Twitter, if you felt like it.