“I’m walking around a supermarket with no walls,” says Steve England, bounding excitedly through the woodland at Stoke Park.
To see the countryside through his eyes is a pretty magical experience – a meadow of grassland proves rich with edible leaves, rotting branches hide a feast of vibrant mushrooms, birdsong helps identify the changing seasons, a majestic tree provides a source of refreshing sap.
An experienced horticulturalist, conservationist, historian and more, Bristol’s answer to Bear Grylls has spent his life on and around the historic estate and his passion for nature is the key to his success in inspiring audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
“Everyone’s so reliant on technology these days,” he says.
“There is nothing like having the knowledge to live off the land. It’s so life-changing to learn about the natural environment.”
It is a Tuesday morning in early spring and I am meeting Steve in his beloved Stoke Park for breakfast.
In his world, a meal is so much more than a convenient re-fuelling, becoming an adventurous exploration that tests the senses and culminates in a feast that’s fresh and diverse.
But first, the food must be found.
“I get very excited when I bring people foraging,” says Steve, setting off across the park with a small rucksack on his bag and basket in hand.
“When identifying foods, you have to use multiple senses – texture and smell and look. Not taste – that comes last.
“Especially in the spring and summer, I can make a meal that would rival any restaurant.”
He reveals that one of his earliest memories is sitting on his dad’s shoulders in Stoke Park with the sun on his back.
“As kids, we used to come and stack the hay bales and, as a reward, the farmer would give us a ride on his tractor,” says Steve.
Stooping to look through what looks like a patch of grass, the conservationist plucks out a leaf. “Common Sorrel,” he says, holding it up to the light to be sure he has identified it correctly and offering a bite.
Deeper into the woods, there is a feast of mushrooms to be found – from the Jelly Ear Fungus to the bright Scarlet Elf Cups – as well as wild garlic and a tall birch tree that Steve has tapped for sap.
Sustainability is important to his work as he lectures to only ever take what you need.
Steve trained with the Royal Horticultural Society at Bristol Zoo to an advanced level and has gone on to win a number of awards for his work, including a plaque on the zoo’s Bristol Walk of Fame and Avon and Somerset Police’s Be Proud award for his work in reducing antisocial behaviour.
Chilled out, cheerful and in his element outdoors, this is a man who is happy with life, but if one thing riles him, it’s any abuse of the parkland.
“See that’s not nice having that belting through the park when you’ve got children there,” he says, referring to the loud drone of motorcycle engines being raced around the area.
“It frustrates me because I used to be the ranger here and I got antisocial behaviour down to almost zero – that’s because I worked with people that were causing the trouble.
“It’s about giving them a sense of ownership over the green space and it does work.”
Setting up a portable table on a decking area he has made overlooking the river, Steve rummages through a bag to find some basics he has brought to prepare the foraged breakfast.
He expertly whips up a wild mushroom and herb omelette, with the addition of some generous chunks of fried haloumi (shop-bought) and a wild leaf salad, all washed down with birch sap.
Mid-meal, he spots a friend walking her dog and bounds over, plate in hand, to offer a taste of the delicious breakfast.
Steve has a busy spring with a number of foraging, wildlife and fossil tours and talks coming up, as well as work with UWE Bristol and other community groups.
Packing up after breakfast, Steve announces that he could do it all again. With a beaming smile and a hug, he says goodbye and collects his things together ready to do just that.
Visit www.steveengland.co.uk for information about upcoming events.
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