Way way back, longer ago than I care to remember, I was a fairly frequent visitor to Swardeston Common. This was particularly the case in the autumn. We would park the car near the school and walk the dog down towards what I suppose must have been the Vicarage; anyway, it was the house where Edith Cavell was born, and she was the daughter of Swardeston’s vicar. The reason for our being there in the autumn however had nothing to do with Edith Cavell. It was the existence of large thickets of sloes.
Sloes, I must add, are rather unpleasant fruits. Although they have a juicy appearance and deep rich purple colour, they are impossibly sharp to one’s taste buds. They also have savage thorns – all told a bush to avoid. But they have one redeeming feature – with the addition of gin and copious quantities of sugar they produce a delicious drink; sloe gin.
The first indication of the crop to come is in the spring when it is called blackthorn rather than sloe. Then the thickets are a mass of white blossom which is a beautiful sight in itself. The sloes should be left until the first hard frost of the winter has split the skins. When my sister Margaret was living on Guernsey where the sea air and southerly climate make frosts quite rare, she would laboriously prick every sloe with a darning needle. Frost or darning needle, the reason for puncturing the skins was of course to release the sloe juices into the liqueur. As the mixture develops the colourless gin takes on a deep red hue.
The quantities are not critical; a larger proportion of sugar will produce a sweeter beverage. More gin would produce a more alcoholic one and more sloes a more fruity one. It was merely necessary then to leave the concoction to mature for a few months and strain off the spent fruit and stones. Then lo and behold! your gin had been transformed from a plain spirit to a tasty tipple. The only problem was, from the home wine maker’s point of view, that it required the purchase on a bottle or two of gin; the undertaking was not an inexpensive one. Blackberry wine or marrow rum was on the other hand cheap, although the results could vary between undrinkable and “interesting”. At least sloe gin was reliably potable.
Other things were taking place in Swardeston. Across on the other side of the common the Cricket Club were doing great things with bat and ball, while in some farm buildings Hilton Blake had an abattoir for bullocks to supplement his pig slaughter house at Costessey. Cricket is OK I suppose although you can’t drink it, but abattoirs and what goes on in them is distasteful. No, principally what I remember Swardeston for is SLOE GIN.