I was lucky enough to attend one of Professor Gordon Hillman’s foraging courses before he became too ill from Parkinson’s to teach. My favourite part was griddling hawthorn berry and nut cakes over the fire!
Prof Hillman was a world-renowned archeobotanist, working at the London Institiute of Archaeology. He became famous in ‘normal people circles’ after his collaboration with Ray Mears in 2007. Many of us will remember their BBC programme and book entitled ‘Wild Foods’.
Prof Hillman was a quiet and modest man. When I met him, he had an interpreter as his disease made it hard for him to talk.
Gordon started his career working at the Natural History Museum. He then got a degree in Agricultural Botany from Reading University.
He travelled to Turkey, Syria and Wales to study patterns of agricultural and village life. His work in the Nile Valley showed that 17,000 years ago, Palaeolithic peoples made use of starchy tubers there such as Nut Grass and Club Rush.
Much of his work involved studying burnt ancient grains found in archaeological dig sites. From this he worked out that ancient peoples had much more sophisticated farming techniques than was originally thought.
He worked with David Harris on the book “Foraging & Farming”. He also collaborated with Maria Hoff, a pioneer of ethnobotany. (Plus my mycologist colleague Phil who lives on the boat near me!)
By 1997 Gordon was too ill to keep working at the Institute of Archaeology. He retired in 1997. But he didn’t sit idle! He returned to Britain and began extensive research on the wild food plants of the UK. This got the attention of one Ray Mears, and the rest is history!
Gordon and Ray experimented first-hand with many British wild foods, working out the best way to prepare them. Gordon was so adventurous, he did manage to make himself sick on occasion!
In 2007 their BBC programme and book ‘Wild Foods’ came out to massive popular acclaim, bringing foraging to a wider audience. Gordon was much loved by the native peoples of Australia and other cultures when he and Ray stayed with them to learn about wild food.
For many years Gordon worked at Woodlore as one of Ray Mears’s team of expert tutors.
“I could listen to him all day.” said one course participant!
He had to retire from teaching due to his health, but kept researching British wild edible plants right up until his death in 2018.
His unfinished work is published on a database for all to use. Check it out here at Wild Food Plants Of Britain at Blogger.com.