Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending Sunday at magical Assington Mill, deep in the Suffolk countryside. My husband had booked me onto their Autumn Wild Medicine course as part of last year’s Christmas present. It was a long wait, but one that was definitely worth.
After a four year search for a suitable watermill in Essex or Suffolk, the owners, Bob Cowlin and Anne Holden, purchased Assington Mill back in 2003. Their original aim was the restore a mill to working order, however, Assington Mill had none of it’s original machinery remaining and was nothing more than a small derelict farm. Since then they have worked tirelessly to restore both the farm and mill building, which is now the setting for their rural skills and crafts courses which run through out the year. Whilst Anne focuses on running a vast array of courses, Bob is a welcoming host who works tirelessly to provide the most heavenly lunches which are talked about just as much as the wonderful courses on offer! With everything from pig husbandry to bee keeping, clay oven building through to upholstery and plenty more besides, there really is a course for everyone.
Our day of Wild Medicine started at 10 am and having parked up in a neighbouring field where I was greeted by Bob, I took leisurely stroll past the mill wheel and pond, quite literally in awe of the all consuming peace and tranquility of this beautiful piece of the Suffolk countryside. We were probably only 10 minutes from the market town of Sudbury, yet it literally felt like we had been transported into the middle of nowhere, to a place where time stood still.
Anne and Bob are very focused on creating an eco-friendly environment, with compost bins that I now aspire to and a vegetable garden which operates on a landshare scheme which they share with four families in the village. You get the impression that whilst they are tucked away down a long lane, the mill is a home-from-home to many with everyone welcome.
The Wild Medicine course was hosted by Vanessa Neville, a qualified Herbalist, who enthusiastically teaches you how to forage for medicinal plants and berries in our autumnal fields and hedgerows. After a cuppa and some introductions, Vanessa fired up one of the stoves in our classroom and set about her first creation of the day; hawthorn and elderberry leathers. These are the strange things that kids seem to enjoy having in their lunch boxes, but obviously Vanessa’s version is natural and borne from the hedgerow rather than mass produced in an obscure factory somewhere. Hawthorn berries, blackberries or elderberries, or a blend of all three, are warmed over a low heat before being strained through a sieve and mixed with honey. The resulting fruit syrup is then spread wafer thin across a baking tray before being placed in an over at 50 degrees for 6-10 hours.
Of course we weren’t going to sit there watching the over for 6 hours so we donned our wellies, grabbed a wicker basket each and headed out to the meadow where we took our first tentative nibble of plantain. Many of us would refer to this as a weed, but it is actually a wild herb known to alleviate chest complaints, hay fever and sinusitis. We also sampled some common mallow, which offers cooling, anti-inflammatory properties for irritated tissues, the root of which can also be used as thickener in soups.
After trying a few of Vanessa’s tinctures that she’d brought along for the ride (elderberry was our favourite), we headed on to dig up some horseradish. What amazed me most about this plant was that the leaf tastes exactly as the root does, albeit a little more subtle. When combined with vinegar, which acts as a stabiliser, horseradish is great for treating the sinuses, phlegm and congestion.
By now it was time for Bob’s infamous lunch, so we all headed to the main house to see what delicious creations awaited us. We weren’t disappointed. To start with we were rewarded with a much needed steaming bowl of apple and ginger soup. I was fortunate enough to have Bob sitting beside me so within 24 hours I had already recreated this heavenly dish back at home and will be sharing the recipe with you all soon. Our main course consisted of Waldorf salad, bean and lentil salad, cherry tomatoes in balsamic dressing, new potatoes, hard boiled eggs, courtesy of their hens, and local boiled ham for the meat eaters amongst us. This was all washed down with elderflower cordial. Everything is sourced locally and organic where possible. It all tasted just as wonderful as my husband had promised; he has been on another of their courses, Chainsaws for Amateurs.
Before we knew it lunch was over and we were back in the classroom to prepare for the afternoon’s adventures. This consisted of collecting hawthorn berries and rosehips which would in turn be transformed into a tincture and syrup.
The hawthorn berry tincture was surprisingly easy to make; the berries are brought to the boil (1 cup of berries to 1 cup of water) and allowed to simmer for 10 minutes before blending with alcohol and transferring to a sterilised jar. After 3-4 weeks the tincture can be used to boost the immune system or improve cardiovascular output in conditions such as atherosclerosis and lowering high blood pressure.
For the rosehip syrup we had to painstakingly top and tail each hip before removing the seeds and ‘hairs’ within. I’m not sure this is a process I would ever want to repeat and would opt to strain through a muslin next time; the hairs irritated my hands and I was left feeling like I’d been attacked with itching powder! After repeating the same boil/simmer process as the hawthorn berries with a ratio of 50g of hips to 150ml of water along with a teaspoon of ginger, we added 150ml of honey and transferred the mixture to sterilised jars.
After another tea break (did I tell you how delicious Anne’s gluten free cakes are?!) the day was drawing to a close. We took one last look at Vanessa’s hawthorn and elderberry leathers which were drying in the oven before collecting our jars of tincture and syrup booty, bidding our goodbyes and heading past the mill pond back to our cars. It was one of those very special Autumn evenings where the setting sun dresses everything with a warm glow. These are evenings to be treasured, knowing there will only be a few more to come before winter sets in. And that is exactly how I feel about my day at Assington Mill; if every day was that special and illuminating we would just take it for granted. It is an experience I will treasure and look forward to repeating at some time in the future, just like those Autumnal sunsets.
For more information on the full range of rural and craft courses available at Assington Mill, visit their website www.assingtonmill.com