Fruit has just started falling in the damson orchard. We can’t help squashing those that lie on the narrow paths to the rusting shepherd’s hut that’s home for a few days. There’s no phone signal, no wifi, and we’ve eschewed the camp stove in favour of the outdoor fireplace. Smoke coiling into the evening air wards off the gnats and midges while the potatoes nestle in the embers.
I’ve just started boiling the eggs when my son returns from the woodpile with an expression of blended revulsion and puzzlement, and holds out a log on which are arrayed what look at first glance like a row of large turds, though on closer inspection they are more like carbonised doughballs. They’re brittle and almost weightless and, cracked open, they reveal growth rings – matryoshka layers of charcoal and silver, ball within ball within ball. A copious dusting of spores escapes to coat fingers, clothes and the logs we’re perched on.
They are King Alfred’s cake fungi, Daldinia concentrica. Inedible, but we could have used them as slow-burning firelighters had we discovered them sooner.
A campfire yarn unfurls. A story about a great man, king of England – or was it just Wessex? I’m out of my depth without the internet to supply the dates, the affiliations. All I have is this charred-looking fungus and a mental image I’m pretty sure I’m remembering from a Ladybird book. So the colour-saturated story that emerges is, like the blue woodsmoke drifting into the green and gold evening, a fickle live thing: still growing, still changing, and lacking in anything solid. But it’s when I get to the part everyone knows – the king nodding off after promising to watch the buns baking and the incinerated results – that my son becomes sceptical. He all but accuses me of peddling ninth-century fake news.
I wonder how Alfred himself would view the damage 1,100 years of telling, retelling and half-telling have done to his legacy. Perhaps he’d take some small satisfaction that, in my mangling of the truth, I’ve boiled our eggs to rubber and burned the spuds.