Renewable energy from a Devon river – the new Totnes Weir Hydro

About a mile upstream of the south Devon town of Totnes, the tree-lined tranquillity of the river Dart is interrupted by a weir. Water cascades over this concrete barrier and after heavy rain there is a spectacular display of power with swirling whirlpools and foamy white water. Slate-grey herons and sparkling white egrets stand sentinel by the weir and the occasional grey seal lurks below, waiting to feast on fish that linger too long. There has been a weir at this bend in the Dart since the 16th century, built originally to harness the power of the river; the present rather bland construction dates largely from the 20th century.

Totnes weir
The Totnes Weir viewed from the upstream pool. The picture shows the concrete weir after the installation of the new Hydro (off the picture to the right) and after a period of low rainfall so that water flow across the weir is quite low. The gulls are enjoying the calm conditions.

 

The weir is a downwards-sloping concrete barrier that interrupts the flow of the river so that a large pool of water accumulates upstream, isolated from the tidal downstream water about three metres below. This pool of water is a store of potential energy that was used in the past to drive several water mills in the town a mile away. A channel, the leat, ran from the pool all the way in to Totnes and providing the leat stayed above the level of the river it contained the energy to drive a water wheel. Only one mill building now survives: the Town Mill dating from the 17th century but with 19th century additions. This was used as a water mill until 1945 and currently houses the Tourist Information Centre. The leat is still intact and can be viewed along much of its path, through an industrial estate, under the main railway line and passing near the front of Morrisons superstore. The leat is celebrated in the name of the town’s large medical centre, the Leatside Surgery.

Water Mill
A water mill at Dartington in Devon showing the principle of the leat. The leat takes water from the stream and providing the leat stays above the stream it can drive the mill wheel.

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Turbine Building exterior
The turbine building of the Totnes Weir Hydro. The Archimedes Screws can be seen on the right.

 

Hydro and weir
The two Archimedes Screws alongside the weir

 

Over the past year, a neat, stone-clad, turf-roofed building has materialised by the side of the weir. This is the turbine house of the new Totnes Hydro which once again harnesses the power of the Dart. On the downstream side of the building are two tube-like structures roughly aligned with the descending surface of the weir, each tube containing an Archimedes Screw. Water from the pool behind the weir passes under the turbine building to enter the tubes, pressing on the blades of each Archimedes Screw causing them to turn and driving the turbines. The Archimedes Screws can be viewed from the downstream side and I find them mesmerising – turning steadily, water splashing, feeling almost alive – as they transform the potential energy of the water in to kinetic energy and subsequently electrical energy.

turbine in action
Renewable energy in action: a close up of water emerging from one Archimedes Screw.

 

When there is a good head of water, the turbines generate about 250 kW of power.  Output will depend on flow in the river (higher power after heavy rain) and the head across the weir (typically about 3m but reduced by spring tides).   Generation may cease altogether for about two weeks in a dry summer when water flow in the Dart is low.   Currently, the electricity generated is powering the local comprehensive school and an aluminium foundry on the nearby industrial estate and any surplus enters the grid.  To put this in to perspective the overall energy produced is enough to power the equivalent of about 300 homes. In time, the hydro will also provide electricity for the new ATMOS project.  This is a community-led development of homes and businesses on the former Dairy Crest site in Totnes.

The river Dart is an important route for migrating fish and the weir already contained a fish pass to help sea trout and salmon overcome the barrier. The pass was, however, in poor condition so that fish were having difficulty moving up the weir leading to losses to hungry herons and seals. The new Hydro project includes renovating the existing fish pass and building an additional modern fish pass alongside the turbine building. These should help migrating fish so that, in time, the piscine population on the Dart increases; new fish counters have also been installed to help monitor traffic.

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So far so good, but if equipment is installed to capture the energy of the river it is bound to alter the flow over and around the weir.   You can see this clearly on the upstream side of the turbine house where water in the pool flows towards the new building to enter the Archimedes Screws, eventually discharging in to the river below.   Although water flow through the turbines is carefully regulated by sluices to make sure that the weir does not dry out, less water now flows across the weir than before.  This redistribution of water has remodelled islands in the river downstream and night fishermen have had to relearn safety on the river.    We should not forget, however, that when the weir was first built and water was directed down the leat to power the Totnes mills some 500 years ago, water flow in the river must have been changed to a much greater extent.    There is also the question of noise.  The new Archimedes Screw turbines do emit noise as they turn and there is some splashing of water.  The turbine building is insulated and the current level of noise from the new installation is no more than I can remember coming from the weir on a full flood.

Water enters hydro
The pool of water behind the weir showing water preferentially entering the turbine building.

 

The Weir Hydro project was developed by the owners of the weir, Dart Renewables, working closely with the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC). TRESOC was set up by local residents to enable the community to develop renewable energy and to retain control of the resources. On a practical level TRESOC aims to supply local homes and businesses with “local” energy. If everything works to plan, the Totnes Weir Hydro should generate 1.35 GWh of electricity each year, saving 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The majority of this electricity will be used to power local enterprises.

Disclaimer: I am a member of TRESOC and have invested in some of their projects.

Bees on a spring day

Finally it felt like spring! Two warmer, sunny days in a row and we had to be out on the coast so, on Thursday, we visited Roundham Head Gardens overlooking the sea in Paignton; as we strolled along the cliff paths,  heat radiated back from the south-facing slopes lending a continental feel.  The abundant yellow scorpion vetch gave off a smell rather like gorse and I saw a bumble bee feeding from the buttery flowers.  The sun had brought out many other bees and this is a short post showing some pictures of the species I encountered on a fairly quick walk through the gardens.

Many other flowers were in bloom, but the large banks of rosemary and their disorderly mauve flowers were the most popular haunt of the bees.

honeybee
honeybee

 

B terrestris
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) queen

 

 

B terrestris faded
This one puzzled me, especially with the pollen on her forehead, but Matt Smith helped me to see that she was a faded buff-tailed bumblebee.

 

 

red-tailed bb
A red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

 

 

Andrena sp
This solitary bee is an Andrena but from this photo it is difficult to determine the species.

 

A flavipes
A female Andrena flavipes (The yellow-legged mining bee)

 

Nomada sp (succincta)
This nomada bee parasitises nests of Andrena. I am not sure about the species but one possibility is N. goodeniana.

 

A plumipes
One of my favourite bees! This is the Male Hairy-Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes). There were several pale brown males and black females working this newly flowered bank of three-cornered leek in the sunshine. They are rarely still so photography is difficult and this is the best I could do.

 

 

Melecta 1
Melecta albifrons. These large bees parasitise nests of Hairy-Footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes). There are many A. plumipes about currently so there should be plenty of targets for the Melecta.

 

For some fascinating pictures of sleeping Melecta from Stephen Boulton follow this link.

Also, follow this link for an excellent description of Nomada detective work by Megan Shersby.

The oil well and the beach – a clash of the human and the natural at Kimmeridge Bay

The Isle of Purbeck in south east Dorset is an area of outstanding natural beauty but it is also Dorset’s oil country. I wanted to see how the demands of the oil industry could be reconciled with the demands of nature, so a few weeks ago I drove through the Purbeck Hills to Kimmeridge Bay.

Kimmeridge 10
The view from the limestone ridge down to Kimmeridge Bay

 

The final stage of my journey took me over the coastal limestone ridge into open countryside where the views became wider, the colours and contrasts more intense. The wide sweep of Kimmeridge Bay lay below me in the sunshine: greens and blues, shadow and light, like an image from a travel magazine. From here the road descended, tentatively, through several broad arcs to reach the thatched, stone-cottaged village and the narrow beach access road. I left the car at the cliff-top car park and got out to look. The wide semi-circular bay, backed by moderate cliffs, spread either side of me and narrow, dark-stone ledges extended from the beach like giant fingers. A few white wavelets interrupted the surface of a deep blue sea and across the water, the vast mass of Portland loomed out of the mist.

Kimmeridge 1
Kimmeridge Bay with the limestone ridges. The WW2 pill box shows prominently and its distance from the cliffs gives a rough indication of erosion.

 

I walked away from the cliffs and followed the access road westward around the row of 19th century, grey-stone cottages. The landward side of the road was lined by sodden arable fields enlivened only by a group of pied wagtails, jittering, fluttering. Soon I reached a large wire-mesh enclosure set back from the cliff edge. Inside the enclosure were pipe work, storage tanks and a “nodding donkey” oil pump, its huge black beam moving ponderously up and down as it sucked crude oil out of the reserves buried deep below the cliff.

Oil pump
The oil well and pump

 

The pump has been working here since 1961 and is the oldest continuously working oil pump on the UK mainland. The oil-bearing rocks are located about 350 metres below the cliff, yielding 65 barrels of oil a day together with some natural gas. This is a modest deposit but it led to the discovery of the much larger Wytch Farm oilfield located ten or so miles away, stretching long distances under Poole Bay.

The oil pump itself is virtually noise-free as it is powered by electricity and, when I visited, there was nobody working nearby. The enclosure is some distance away from the centre of the Bay and partially screened by bushes so it is invisible to many visitors. Nevertheless, I find it incongruous to come across an oil well in this isolated, somewhat desolate and very natural place. To give myself some perspective I went to see more of the bay.

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Kimmeridge 6
One of the limestone ledges at low tide. Hen Cliff is prominent with the former fishermen’s huts below and the Clavell Tower above.

 

The beach is accessible down a precarious wooden stairway through a break in the cliffs, the Gaulter Gap, a narrow valley containing a fast-flowing stream. It’s a stony beach with pebbles, rocks and sand of many shades of grey, giving way to the dark stone ledges. These are visible at low tide reaching outwards into the sea and tilting slightly upwards to the west. The ledges provide great opportunities for rock-pooling and Ralph Wightman also speaks of a game of pebble bowls played along them.

Kimmeridge 4
The World War 2 military pillbox

 

Near the Gaulter Gap the natural feel of the beach is rudely interrupted by a white cylindrical WW2 military pillbox standing on the beach looking as though someone planned to take it away but forgot. It used to sit on the cliff and its current position gives us an idea of how much erosion has occurred in the passing of 70 years.

Kimmeridge 5
The rock layering in the cliffs

 

The beach is backed by grass-topped cliffs about 10 metres high containing distinct layers of rocks of different colours and textures. Bands of pale reddish brown and grey rock appear repeatedly in a semi-rhythmic pattern; differences in the hardness of the rocks and their resistance to erosion give the cliffs texture and a fascinating mosaic of colours. The rock layering in the cliffs make this both a geologist’s paradise and a geological time machine as each of the layers represents a discrete event in the Jurassic period, 200-150 million years ago.

Within the grey layers of rock is an oil shale for which Kimmeridge has been justifiably famous in the past. The richest deposits of oil shale, the “Blackstone”, are found in cliffs east of the bay. The Blackstone contains flammable hydrocarbons and used to be called “Kimmeridge Coal”. For many years it was used as a fuel, initially for cooking and heating and later for various industrial enterprises despite its high sulphur content and foul smell when burnt. In the 19th century it was mined here on an industrial scale and processed to make a range of petroleum products in Wareham and Weymouth in a series of short-lived enterprises.

The oil shale contains flammable hydrocarbons but it does not contain crude oil. Crude oil forms when the remnants of microscopic animals and plants accumulate at the bottom of the sea and are subjected to conditions of high temperature and pressure. Organic molecules are gradually converted to crude oil and this is what happened, many millions of years ago, in the rocks deep below the oil pump. The oil shale deposits exposed in the cliffs began in the same way but were never subjected to high enough temperatures or pressures to produce mature crude oil.
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Kimmeridge 8
The Clavell Tower

 

It’s a pleasant walk along the beach and out along the ledges towards the eastern end of the bay with its slipway, its jumble of boats and the cluster of black-painted, former fishermen’s huts. Behind the huts and partially hidden in the bushes is a scrub-lined, stone stairway heading steeply upwards to the top of Hen Cliff, standing 100m over the bay. This is a hard climb but worth it for the coastal views and for getting close to the Clavell Tower, a 19th century folly and observatory. This three story tower with its Tuscan colonnade stands on Hen Cliff with long views over the bay and the coast. Decked out in pink render and pale stone, it certainly looks very smart. But so it should, as starting in 2006 it was taken apart piece by piece and reassembled 25 metres away from the original site to prevent it falling in to the sea as the cliff eroded. It opened again in 2008 as an upmarket holiday rental. The Tower is now an integral part of Kimmeridge Bay but, in the past, reactions were divided. Frederick Treves, for example, referred to a “ridiculous tower” but to the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, in his poem “The Leady’s Tower”, it was “stately”.

Kimmeridge 9
The view across Kimmeridge Bay from the cliffs near the Clavell Tower. If you click on the picture and enlarge it you will be able to see (from right to left) the tops of the former fishermen’s huts, the cliff top car park, the stone cottages and the oil well.

 

As I stood on the high cliff by the Clavell Tower, the full sweep of Kimmeridge Bay and its various landmarks were spread out below me. I had expected to be offended by the oil pump, fearing it might intrude on the natural world. But I was wrong: the oil pump is just one of several traces left by human hand at Kimmeridge Bay; it has little or no direct impact on the bay or its natural setting and is now part of the scenery. If you are looking to be offended by intrusions of the human on the natural, you could focus on the slew of wind-blown litter along the sides of the Gaulter Gap valley or the derelict, red fire engine gradually decaying behind the stone cottages.

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A more fundamental question does, however, arise about whether we should continue to extract this oil. Towards the end of last year the Paris Agreement recognised the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels to 2 degrees or less. Although the Agreement can be criticised for its lack of enforceability, it clearly defines the climate change problem as one of greenhouse gas emissions. A major contributor to these emissions is the burning of fossil fuels such as the oil extracted underneath Kimmeridge Bay.

Early in the 20th century, the novelist EM Forster stood a few miles north east of Kimmeridge and wrote in Howards End: “If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit….”. From this vantage point, Forster saw the rivers and landscapes of Dorset and neighbouring counties as a microcosm of all that existed in England. It wasn’t all beauty as he also saw creeping suburbia and its ill effects. Today we might relocate Forster’s vantage point and stand him by the Clavell Tower to look down on an eroding coastline under attack from increased storm activity and rising sea levels. He would also look down on the oil pump working away to extract more fossil fuels. Perhaps this alternative Purbeck view would illustrate some of the tensions inherent in contemporary England.

Kimmeridge 11
Kimmeridge Bay from the stairway up Hen Cliff. Click and enlarge the picture to see the Kimmeridge landmarks. The WW2 military pillbox can be seen standing on the beach below the stone cottages

 

The photographs were taken on February 24th 2016

A snowdrop celebration in west Dorset

The snowdrop is one of the earliest flowers to appear, even in a hard winter. The pure white blooms anticipate the eventual arrival of spring and attract affectionate common names such as February Fair Maids, Dingle-dangle, Candlemas Bells, Mary’s Taper, Snow Piercers and Flowers of Hope. Compton Valence in West Dorset is known for its fine snowdrops so, a few weeks ago, I went to have a look.

Compton Valence
The village of Compton Valence viewed across the valley. The church is on the far left with the village hall next to it.

 

The Roman road following the ridge westwards from Dorchester towards Eggardon is comfortingly straight but I had to leave the old road behind; I was looking for the hidden, wooded valley containing the village of Compton Valence. I headed downhill through trees along a steep track lined with creeping ivy and lush ferns and eventually emerged from the tunnel of trees near the village hall and church. A banner hung outside the hall depicting the star of the show and all around me was the real thing: snowdrops growing on grassy roadside banks, by the busy stream, in the churchyard and in cottage gardens, their pure white flowers gleaming in the low winter sunshine of a February morning. Many grew in defined clumps, some merging in to snowy drifts cascading down grassy banks like drippy, white icing on a cake.

Snowdrops MV 1
“drippy, white icing on a cake”

Snowdrops MV 3

At this time of year, the bluish-green leaves are inconspicuous and it is the bell-shaped, pure white flowers that grab our attention. They hang from the stem on a slender green thread or pedicel so that a cool breeze cutting across the valley causes the flowers to shake and dance like revellers at a rave. Most of the blooms in Compton Valence that morning were open, displaying the satisfying geometry of their construction. Three white outer segments, convex and long enough to enfold the flower when closed, grow symmetrically about the centre of the flower. When they open, they splay outwards revealing three shorter inner segments also growing symmetrically but offset so that each inner segment appears between a pair of outers. The inner segments bear distinct external markings, bright green, that might resemble a handlebar moustache or, more prosaically, a small bridge. Internally they are decorated with parallel green stripes, like signposts for any pollinators about at this time of year.

Snowdrops MV 5
“no snowdrops were harmed in taking this picture”

 

The Compton Valence snowdrops are celebrated each year in February when, for two weeks, the village welcomes visitors by offering teas, coffees and lunches in the village hall. I spoke to Tessa Russell who was in charge that day and she told me that her great uncle Will (William Chick) had encouraged the snowdrops by dividing clumps in nearby woods and planting them along the village street. She and her sisters, Pippa and Sarah have continued dividing and planting so that the flowers we see today are all descendents of the original woodland variety, most likely Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop. The Compton Valence snowdrop celebrations have been running for more than ten years, organised by the three sisters but with invaluable contributions from everyone in the village.

snowdrop banner
The snowdrop banner outside the village hall

 

The snowdrop is often considered to be a wild flower in the UK, but there is now general agreement that it was introduced, perhaps by the Normans and that “wild” snowdrops are actually garden escapees. Galanthus (the name coming from the Greek for milk-flower) are native to Europe and the Middle East and are found from Spain in the West to Iran in the East with many species originating in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus. There are 20 distinct species of Galanthus and many different cultivars with recognised characteristics. Snowdrops became fashionable in the UK in the 19th century and it is thought that survivors of the Crimean War brought bulbs back with them. Snowdrop collecting also occurs nowadays and some “Galanthophiles” pay hundreds of pounds for a single rare bulb.

snowdrops by the stream

One of the common names for the flowers, Candlemas Bells, hints at their association with the ancient festival of Candlemas (February 2). This was the pre-Christian festival of light celebrating the mid-point of winter, half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and in the early church it came to be the day when candles were blessed. Candlemas also celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the temple. The pure white snowdrop seems an ideal flower for these rituals and was cultivated by religious foundations for decoration at Candlemas; it is no accident that many impressive displays of the flower nowadays are near former monasteries, abbeys and churches.

gravestone with snowdrops

Western European folk medicine makes little mention of the snowdrop and we need to look to Eastern Europe, where the plant is indigenous, for the recognition of its useful properties. Anecdotal reports suggested that peasant women living at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains in the 1950s used preparations of snowdrop as a successful treatment for polio in their children. These and other observations stimulated work on the plant and, in time, an active chemical, galantamine, was isolated by scientists working in Russia. Galantamine was shown to enhance the effects of a natural brain chemical, acetylcholine, and was used in Eastern Europe to treat a variety of neurological and neuromuscular conditions. Further research in the west led to the development of galantamine to treat symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease and it is now a recognised therapy for the disorder.

So, there are many reasons to love snowdrops but I suspect their emergence in the middle of winter, at a time when few other flowers are showing, gives us hope; the seasons are moving onwards, spring will come, the sun will shine …

This article appeared in the March 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Compton Valence is a few miles west of Dorchester in the county of Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I visited Compton Valence on February 3rd 2016.

A sunshine walk, with bees and seals

Start Point is a narrow, rocky peninsula intruding nearly a mile in to the Channel from the South Devon coast. In the past, ships frequently foundered on the rocks and since 1836 a lighthouse has protected the spot. The sinister reputation of the Start Point peninsula is enhanced by its resemblance to the scaly back of a crocodile or sea monster; perhaps in recognition of this it was long ago christened Start after the Anglo-Saxon for tail.

lighthouse at Start Point
The view along the Start Point peninsula towards the lighthouse, looking back from the coast path.

 

Earlier this week, we walked a circular route beginning from the Start Point car park and this post describes some of the highlights. It was the first sunny day for some time and the calm sea across Start Bay was a deep sky blue on a largely wind-free day. What a great pleasure it was to walk in the sunshine, by the sea and in good company!

Our first surprise came as we walked down the road towards the lighthouse. A large bumblebee appeared, as if from nowhere, and after circling a few times to inspect us, landed on Hazel’s hair, buzzing loudly. Hazel kept her cool but, before I could get to the camera, this fine red-tailed queen had flown off. We encountered another red-tailed and several buff-tailed bumblebee queens as we walked and I suppose the warm weather had tempted them out.

The coast path soon deserts the lighthouse road, heading westwards over the spine of the peninsula before dropping down to follow the meandering coastline. There are fine views of the lighthouse and the rocky promontory.

After about half a mile we came to Frenchman’s Rock and its cluster of off-shore rocks; this is one of the places where South Devon’s grey seals congregate. The tide was falling and two impressively large seals alternately hauled out on the rocks and swam about vigorously.

Seal at Peartree Point
One of the seals hauled out on the rocks

 

Between Great Mattiscombe Sands and Lannacombe there is a mile of easy walking along the cliff top. Stonechats skittered about and patches of lesser celandine glowed in the sunshine. I spotted my first solitary bee of the year enjoying the nectar from one of these starry yellow flowers; based on its black and white striped abdomen and hairy back legs this bee was Andrena flavipes, the yellow-legged mining bee.

poss Andrena flavipes
Andrena flavipes on a celandine flower

 

We stopped to eat our sandwiches at Lannacombe where there was a very full stream cascading across the rocks and beach. As it hurried towards the sea, the water created mobile patterns on the sand reflecting the low February sunshine.

Water at Lannacombe
The water at Lannacombe

 

After Lannacombe, the path turns away from the sea up a densely-wooded, steep sided valley where we discovered what might be supporting the bumblebees. Among the bare-latticed trees there were large stands of pussy willow (Salix caprea) covered in oval yellow flowers; from a distance I could see at least one bumblebee enjoying this food source. As I concentrated on the willow trees, the call of a male tawny owl echoed across the valley.

Our route continued up and down on minor roads eventually returning to the coast at Hallsands, a village largely destroyed by storms in 1917 and damaged again earlier this year. There is a prominent block of newly converted apartments; these are mostly second homes and were deserted although I noticed two buff-tailed bumblebee queens inspecting them. Back on the coast path, a mile of gently ascending but very muddy walking returned us to the car park, rewarding us again with ever-changing views across Start Bay towards Slapton and Dartmouth.

lighthouse at Start Point 2
The view from the coast path towards the lighthouse on the return journey

That should have been the end of the excitement but, as we drove away from the car park, we encountered a large number of small black and white birds on the road and nearby fences. This was a flock of thirty or more pied wagtails, flittering about and, of course, wagging.

The featured image is of Start Bay, viewed from the car park, looking towards Slapton and Dartmouth. We walked on February 23rd.

This is walk 18 in “South Devon and Dartmoor Walks” published by Jarrold.

From bitter bark to wonder drug – the story of aspirin

This article appeared in the January 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Willow trees are a familiar sight along river banks in this country, especially the weeping willow with its graceful, pendulous branches reaching down to the water below. As well as enhancing our countryside, the willow has been generous in providing us with useful materials, including wood for making cricket bats and double basses, and rods for basket making. But did you know that the willow also gave us aspirin, one of the world’s most popular drugs?

The bitter taste of willow bark

One day in the summer of 1758, the Rev. Edward Stone, an Oxfordshire clergyman, took a piece of bark from a willow tree growing by a small stream in Chipping Norton and chewed it. We shall never know why he did this but after chewing the bark, he remarked on its “extraordinary bitterness”. The taste reminded him of the similarly bitter bark of the South American cinchona tree, imported and used to treat the ague, most likely a form of malaria and endemic to the UK at the time. The taste similarity made Stone wonder whether willow bark might also combat the ague so he gathered some willow twigs, dried them and ground them to a powder. His hunch was right because when he administered the powder to ague sufferers it alleviated their symptoms (fever, temperature, aching limbs, and headache). His observations were published by the Royal Society in 1763 and so began the modern age of the medicinal use of willow bark.

In fact, extracts of willow had been used for thousands of years for pain relief with some of the first written references found as early as 3000BC in Sumerian and ancient Egyptian cultures. Use continued at least until the first few centuries AD in Greek and Roman civilisations. After that records are less clear although the use of willow bark lived on in folk medicine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Willows trailing in the swollen River Asker near Bridport in Dorset

 

The rise of science in the 19th century

The 19th century was a time of huge political, intellectual and industrial ferment and with this came an increased emphasis on science. Huge strides were made in isolating the active principles from plant-derived remedies such as opium and eventually the focus moved to willow bark, although progress was very slow. Initially, a partially purified extract of willow bark (salicin) was obtained but by 1838 an acid was isolated and christened salicylic acid. These salicylates, as they are called, were named after the Latin for willow, Salix. At about the same time, scientists in Berlin purified a substance from the plant meadowsweet, known for its beneficial effects on toothache and rheumatism. This also turned out to be salicylic acid and the isolation of the same substance from unrelated plant sources underlined its potential importance. Further progress remained slow but by the end of the 19th century several controlled trials had shown that salicylates were effective treatments for rheumatism reducing symptoms of fever, inflammation and pain.

The birth of aspirin

There was a major problem with the salicylates, especially salicylic acid, when used for pain relief; they caused a gastric irritation and this hindered their widespread acceptance in medicine. Several attempts were made to modify the chemical structure in the hope that this might reduce these side effects. This was achieved most efficiently by the Bayer Company in Germany and the product, acetyl salicylic acid, was found to be an excellent pain reliever, free of gastric side effects in most patients. Bayer named their new drug aspirin after the old botanical name of meadowsweet, Spiraea. Aspirin was launched in 1899 and gradually gained in popularity with doctors and with patients.

As more and more people used aspirin, however, it emerged that the drug was not entirely free of side effects. For a small proportion of patients it led to severe gastric irritation and bleeding caused by small insoluble fragments of the drug lodging in the stomach wall. A new soluble formulation of aspirin overcame this problem and by the 1950s, aspirin was the undisputed leader in the over- the-counter pain relief market.

New pain killers and new uses for aspirin

In the 1950s and 1960s two new analgesic drugs, paracetamol and ibuprofen, entered the market and began to challenge aspirin’s supremacy. There was little to choose between aspirin and the new drugs in terms of pain relief and sales of aspirin dipped substantially. Indeed aspirin might have disappeared altogether had not new information emerged about its therapeutic effects.

In the 1970s, controlled trials showed that regular consumption of aspirin reduced the incidence of heart attack and stroke by preventing formation of blood clots. Based on this work, it is now recommended that patients who are at risk for heart disease (typically if they have already had one heart attack or certain kinds of stroke) should take a daily low dose of aspirin. This should, however, be undertaken only after advice from a doctor; there are significant risks to taking aspirin on a daily basis and lifestyle changes may also be very important. More recently, regular aspirin has been found to reduce substantially the occurrence of cancers of the bowel and oesophagus. Amazingly, aspirin is now known to attack two of the world’s major diseases, heart disease and cancer.

With these new and unexpected therapeutic effects, sales of aspirin have picked up again and it is now one of the most widely used drugs in the world. 35,000 metric tonnes are produced annually, equivalent to 100 billion standard tablets.

Little did the Rev. Stone know when he sank his teeth in to a rough piece of willow bark in 1758 that the “extraordinary bitterness” he experienced would lead 250 years later to one of the most popular and useful drugs in the world – a true wonder drug.

The featured image shows a willow tree by the River Asker in Bridport.

Kings, Queens, apple trees and shotguns – a Wassail Tale

scan0002 short

Last weekend, to the accompaniment of the setting sun, we made the short journey along narrow Devon lanes to the village of Stoke Gabriel. It was the evening of their annual Apple Wassail, a traditional ceremony to encourage the apple trees to produce a bumper crop of fruit later in the year. The custom was revived 24 years ago in Stoke Gabriel and judging from the hundreds of people who turned up this year, it is set to continue well in to the future.

apple tree, lantern and moon
One apple tree with a lantern and the moon

 

The Wassail ceremony began with a lantern procession to the community orchard. This started in a fairly orderly manner as we gathered in a nearby lane but once the procession entered the orchard any semblance of order evaporated. People moved about freely among the trees, the strains of “Here we come a-wassailing” drifted through the night and the orchard took on an air of mystery. Although I knew there many people around me, it was mostly too dark to see them. Occasionally one of the lanterns would pick out an eerie face and I imagined Shakespeare’s midsummer fairies making a special visit to help bless the trees. My reverie ended suddenly when, ahead of me across the orchard, I heard loud singing and shouting followed by a sharp burst of gunfire (from real shotguns!); the first apple tree had been wassailed.

Wassail MC
Adam Lay, the Wassail Master of Ceremonies

 

The Wassail Master of Ceremonies then moved to another old apple tree near where I was standing. Adam Lay looked suitably gothic, dressed in black tail coat with silvery epaulettes, yellow muffler and black top hat with a white scarf tied around it. With him were the Wassail King and Queen, a young boy and girl chosen from the local community to perform the evening’s rituals. This year’s King was Barnaby Hargreaves and with his flat cap liberally decorated with leaves, he was more Puck than Oberon. Amy Rance was the Queen, a convincing Titania with her floaty clothing and her hair decorated with ribbons and flowers.

Wassail King
Barnaby Hargreaves, the Wassail King.

 

King and Queen climbing
The Wassail King and Queen scramble in to the tree

 

King and Queen
Safely installed

 

The duties of the Wassail King and Queen are not particularly onerous. They began by pouring cider over the roots of the tree after which they scrambled precariously up a ladder in to the branches. Once safely installed in their airy kingdom the Wassail Royals decorated the branches with pieces of cider-soaked toast supposedly to feed the robins, the good spirits of the trees. In the meantime the Wassail Singers had materialised beneath the tree and when the MC gave them the nod they sang the Wassail Song.

Old apple tree we wassail thee
Here’s hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
When comes another year;
For to bloom well and to bear well,
So happy let us be;
Let every man take off his cap
And shout out to the old apple tree

The MC then led the Wassail Shout urging everyone else to join in and generally make as much noise as possible.

Old apple tree, we wassail thee
Here’s hoping thou wilt bear
Hats full,
Caps full,
Three-bushel bags full,
And little heaps under the stair!
Hip-hip-hooray
Hip-hip-hooray
Hip-hip-hooray

Loud gunfire followed the cheers, the King and Queen descended and the MC moved the crowd to the third and final tree where the ceremony was repeated.

Wassail singers beneath the tree
The Wassail shout

 

The earliest reference to the Wassail ceremony dates from the 16th century in Kent and there are later reports from Sussex, where it is commonly referred to as Apple Howling, and across the West Country. The aim of the Apple Wassail is to encourage a good crop of apples in the year’s harvest and it is usually accompanied by noisy shouting and gunfire to frighten off evil spirits that might lurk among the trees and to wake the trees from their winter slumber.

Morris Dancers
Newton Bushel Morris Dancers perfoming a hankie dance

 

You might think all this messing about in the orchard was enough for one evening but earlier we had been treated to some warm up acts to get us in the mood. First on were the Newton Bushel Morris Dancers who entertained the assembled masses with their lively Cotswold dances. I have a lot of time for Morris Dancers, I enjoy the music and the tradition and they were a perfect introduction to the joy and the eccentricity of the Wassail ceremony. Talking of joy and eccentricity, there was a wonderful moment when one of the older dancers wearing a long white smock addressed the crowd about the link between Morris Dancing and fertility.

Wassail singers
The Wassail Singers with their conductor

 

The Wassail Singers were on next and gave a very spirited performance of several Wassail Songs. They were urged on by their conductor and when she sensed a loss of spirit she did a little dance while continuing to conduct. And if you weren’t in the mood by now, there were also stalls selling local cider, beer, burgers and hot mulled apple juice.

Stalls
The food and drink stalls

This was a lovely traditional evening and many people (and dogs!) of all ages from the village turned out to take part as well quite a few incomers like ourselves. In this cynical, scientific age we don’t really believe in apple spirits but we do still value community spirit and that is perhaps the strength of events like this. Many people work together to make the event go well and the profits of the evening go back in to the community.

Moon lantern and church
The church with a lantern and the moon, taken from the orchard
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