The signs have been there for a while. Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume. Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers. A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches. If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.
So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place. It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather. Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.
I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing. On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose. Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went. This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.
Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice. The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies. The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.
When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust. The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care. Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens. If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.
Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.
Runny nose, sore throat, hacking cough? Do you run to the pharmacy for a cough medicine that may or may not help? Until 2006, in the market town of Bridport in the south west of the UK, the locals had the luxury of a cough medicine that really seemed to work. The medicine was Fudge’s Mentholated Honey Syrup, or as the locals christened it, Fudge’s Firewater. Here is the story of this potent potion, how it came about and why it is no longer available.
The story begins in the 1950s when Ken Fudge moved from London to Bridport to open his pharmacy in West Allington, next door to Balsons, Britain’s oldest family butchers (est. 1515). For Mr Fudge, trained in London but born in Blandford, this was something of a return to his roots. At that time, many pharmacists devised their own remedies, often to secret recipes, and Mr Fudge was no exception. He made several nostrums, as these remedies produced and sold in a single pharmacy are called, but the most popular and enduring was his Mentholated Honey Syrup (known locally as Fudge’s Firewater). When Mr Fudge retired in 1973, the recipe transferred to the East Street Pharmacy where it was sold until 2006, for much of that time under the supervision of Mr Kevin Morrish. Even now, the mere mention of the Fudge’s name evokes a warm wave of nostalgia and longing in many Bridport people.
Fudge’s Firewater was an old-style cough medicine recommended for common winter ailments: coughs, colds, influenza, loss of voice, hoarseness, sore throat and catarrh. The dose was one teaspoon every four hours and the label warned ominously that each spoonful should be “taken very slowly”. It was sold “over the counter” without prescription but strictly under the control of the pharmacist. Fudge’s Firewater was immensely popular and many people have told me how much they trusted it to help their symptoms: “Brilliant cough mixture, couldn’t beat it”, “Amazing medicine for coughs and sore throats”, “Never bought anything else”, “Please, if there is a god, bring back Fudge’s Firewater”. People travelled long distances to purchase the medicine, holiday makers often went home with supplies and, during some winters, as many as 250 bottles of Firewater were sold each week at the East Street Pharmacy.
The medicine also had a formidable reputation: “It nearly blew your head off but by golly it did the trick”, “Tasted like red diesel mixed with the finest brandy, lovely”, “The menthol really took your breath away” “It was a trial to take but you knew it would make you better” and several people spoke of “the Fudge’s shudder”.
As Mr Fudge himself said: “Some do swear by it, some do swear at it”.
Unconventional uses of Fudge’s Firewater
The medicine was also a voice-saver for some professional singers and I heard about one well-known entertainer who would regularly send a friend to buy Firewater from Mr Morrish to help lubricate her vocal cords. Similarly, Marco Rossi told me that, in the 1990s, when he was part of local band, Stocky Lamaar, performing in smoke-filled pubs around Dorset, he and Al, the other vocalist, each had a bottle of the potion by them on stage. With the occasional swig of Firewater, they could sing all evening without sounding like “Madge from Neighbours at a Bonnie Tyler tribute karaoke night”.
What was Fudge’s Firewater and how did it work?
Mr Fudge’s medicine was a dark brown syrupy liquid made by mixing menthol crystals and a little fudgy flavouring into Gee’s Linctus, itself an old-fashioned cough remedy dating from the Victorian era. Gee’s linctus, or to give it its proper name, squill linctus opiate, contains several potentially active ingredients.
First, there is tincture of opium, an alcoholic extract of opium (the resin derived from the seed capsules of opium poppies). The main active ingredient in opium is morphine, a substance with an established effect on cough, but also a well-known drug of abuse, and the linctus contains morphine at low levels. Squill, a plant extract, is another potentially active component in the linctus that, paradoxically, encourages coughing and mucus removal. The medicine also contains alcohol at similar levels to a fortified wine and this may have contributed to the Firewater experience. Mr Fudge’s masterstroke was to boost the effects of the Gee’s linctus by adding menthol, a remedy used for many years to help with symptoms of coughs and colds; menthol may also act as an oral anaesthetic helping with sore throats and may relieve nasal congestion.
Although cough medicines cannot alter the course of viral infections, they may help you feel better and Mr Fudge’s medicine attacked symptoms in several ways which is perhaps why it was so popular and so successful. It was the menthol, however, that made the potion so memorable, justifying the Firewater nickname and establishing a shared experience among those who used it, believed in it and benefitted from it.
Abuse of Fudge’s Firewater
Non-prescription medicines such as Gee’s linctus, and Fudge’s Firewater, have been abused by people trying to access even the small amounts of morphine they contain. Gee’s linctus is, for example, reported to induce a “lovely euphoria and dreaminess”, but only if you are prepared to drink 50ml or more of the medicine! Local pharmacists were aware of the problem and tried to control it: Mr Morrish monitored all sales personally and Mr Conroy (manager in the early 21st century) restricted sales to one bottle per person, with a signature.
The end of Fudge’s Firewater
Gee’s linctus gradually fell out of favour as a cough medicine because of the problem of abuse. Finding commercial sources of the linctus became more difficult and temporary interruptions to the availability of Fudge’s Firewater occurred early in the 21st century. Then, in January 2006, a notice appeared on the window of Bridport’s East Street Pharmacy (then owned by Moss/Alliance) announcing that the medicine would be discontinued owing to “problems with the supply of ingredients”. That was the official line but I suspect this was not the full story. Around this time there had also been a change in the pharmacy regulations. Nostrums containing even small amounts of morphine, like Fudge’s Firewater, now required a prescription and this change must have contributed to Moss’s decision.
That wasn’t quite the end, though, because a modified Firewater was available for a few years from the St John’s Pharmacy in Weymouth, about 20 miles south east of Bridport. A Weymouth pharmacist, Mr Dipan Shah, produced and sold a version of the potion but because of the change in pharmacy regulations, people needed to persuade their doctor to issue a private prescription if they wanted the medicine. The need for a prescription severely affected sales and by 2009 production finally ceased. The change in regulations also means that Fudge’s Firewater is very unlikely ever to reappear.
Fudge’s Firewater served Bridport well for 50 years. The medicine is now just a memory but one that should be preserved as an important part of Bridport’s history.
I should like to thank Angela Alexander, Stuart Anderson, Richard Balson, David Conroy, Richard Cooper, Margery Hookings, Diana Leake, Kevin Morrish, Caroline Morrish-Banham, Dipan Shah, Elizabeth Williamson, Joy Wingfield, The Bridport Museum and the many commenters on social media who generously helped me in preparing this article.
The picture at the top of this post shows Mr David Conroy, manager of the East Street Pharmacy in Bridport in the early 21st century (from the Bridport News).
For a matter of record, I have set down the timeline of Mr Fudge’s Medicine below
The Fudge’s Firewater Timeline
1950s Mr Ken Fudge opens his pharmacy at 7 West Allington, Bridport and begins production of Mentholated Honey Syrup (Fudge’s Firewater) 1973 Mr Fudge retires and the recipe for Firewater transfers to Mr Joe Sparrow at his 24 East Street Pharmacy 1975 Mr Kevin Morrish takes over the East Street Pharmacy, together with Fudge’s Firewater 1998 Mr Morrish retires and the business is acquired by Lifestyle 2001 Moss acquires the East Street Pharmacy, Mr David Conroy is the manager until 2005 2006 Moss ceases production of Fudge’s Firewater 2006-2009 Firewater available in Weymouth (Mr Dipan Shah, St John’s Pharmacy) but only with private prescription.
We’d been walking for twenty minutes or so with plenty to see: a wooded garden with a drift of early snowdrops scattered across the grass like confetti, the winter sunshine percolating through the trees creating mosaics of light and shade, running water a constant companion. Then suddenly, something new captured my attention but I couldn’t immediately identify what it was. You know how it is when you hear a fragment of a well-known piece of music but can’t place it; only this wasn’t music. Gradually, though, I became conscious of a low-level odour permeating the air by the path. I am sure there had been other smells as we walked, such as rotting leaves and wet mud, but this was entirely unexpected: a sweet, fragrant odour that stopped me in my tracks.
It was the day after Christmas and we decided to walk the riverside path linking the village of Uplyme in the far east of Devon to the seaside town of Lyme Regis just across the border in Dorset. This was the most rural section of the walk. One side of the path was bordered by skeletal trees and a damp, woodland bank. Hart’s tongue ferns grew prolifically, their leaves spilling out across the soil, octopus-like. On the other side of the path, the ground fell away steeply to the river Lym.
But the ferns did not have it all their own way and a small section of the bank was occupied instead by heart-shaped, bright green, fleshy leaves. Floating above the leaves, on thick stems, were the flowers, daisy-like brushes of pale petals gathered together and swept upwards. Each slightly hairy stem carried several of these chunky flower heads. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans).
I bent down to smell the flowers and was greeted by a sweet, cloying fragrance that spoke to me of almonds and resurrected distant memories of amaretto liqueur; this was the source of my arresting sensory experience. Although I smelt almonds, it turns out that there is some disagreement about the exact odour of winter heliotrope. Perhaps it is the complexity of the smell; there was indeed an additional hard edge to the `fragrance that I couldn’t place, and some say the flowers smell of almonds, others vanilla, some even licorice and I began to doubt my response.
Back home, I looked for another patch of the plant to test my nose. Finding the plant wasn’t a problem; there is a lot of winter heliotrope about at present in south Devon. Much of it, however, grows by busy roads and it took me a while to find some that I could smell safely. I finally struck lucky by the coast path above the beach at South Milton Sands. Here I found drifts of winter heliotrope, some in shade and some in sunshine on the cliff top. The flower heads trembled in the breeze and the late afternoon sun highlighted the delicate colours of the flowers, some pale lilac, others tinged dark pink. Sometimes, the sea breeze carried traces of that low level woodland odour.
But what was the smell of the flowers in this seaside location? I took first sniff and smelt almonds again so my earlier response had been correct. Next Hazel tried without knowing my experience and she said lilac. It would be interesting to know what others sense when they smell winter heliotrope.
Many people, however, have an entirely different reaction to winter heliotrope, they hate it! They regard the plant as an introduced, invasive thug, taking over landscapes and eliminating native plants like a triffid destroying everything in its path. I share these concerns, but I have to admit to having a soft spot for winter heliotrope. It brightens up the sparse winter landscape and provides welcome forage for early insects. South Devon, with its mild climate, supports colonies of winter bumblebees and they need forage throughout the season. Winter heliotrope provides some of that food and this morning I watched winter bumblebees foraging on the flowers above the sea in Torquay.
If you want to find a traditional baker, then the county of Dorset in the south west of the UK is a good place to start. They make all kinds of artisan breads and cakes but one of their most popular offerings is the Dorset Apple Cake, a local speciality that also graces tearoom menus throughout the county, often accompanied by a hefty dollop of clotted cream. In 2006, the cake was voted the food most associated with Dorset and, earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper carried a feature on “How to cook the perfect Dorset Apple Cake”.
So what’s all the fuss about and what exactly is a Dorset Apple Cake? And can I make a Dorset Apple Cake worthy of the professionals?
I began my Dorset Apple Cake quest by looking at recipes, hoping I might find the definitive version of this local delicacy. I had no trouble finding recipes, indeed every celebrity chef or home baker seems to have one. The problem is that each recipe is unique, calling for different quantities of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and baking powder, and of course apple; some also add sultanas and lemon, and many include cinnamon. So, there is no definitive recipe and all we can say is that the Dorset Apple Cake is a rich cake containing apple.
I also found two older recipes, one from 1925 (Miss Hetty King) and another from 1932 (Miss Annette Vipan, North Chideock). These are simpler than many modern versions but include plenty of apple, probably reflecting local ingredients. There is also a reference to apple cake in a poem, Father Come Home (1834), by the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, and I suspect that apple cakes have been made in Dorset for a very long time.
Most apple growing counties in the UK make some kind of apple cake and I came across recipes from Somerset, Devon and Kent as well as further afield. There is some variation, for example cider is often included in the Somerset cake, but for the most part, these cakes resemble the Dorset version. So why has Dorset Apple Cake come to dominate, capturing the imagination of celebrity chefs and home bakers and featuring in the Guardian newspaper? I asked local bakers whether they knew what set the Dorset version apart but they just shrugged their shoulders. I came to the conclusion that Dorset Apple Cake has been made in the county for many years by local people but has recently acquired a certain mystique, partly through the appropriation of the cake as the county food and partly with the enhanced foodie profile of Dorset.
I visit the experts
My next stop was Leakers, a well-known, traditional bakery in the west Dorset town of Bridport. As well as making its own version of Dorset Apple Cake, Leakers has sponsored the Best Dorset Apple Cake competition at the local Melplash Show so they should know a thing or two about the county’s signature food. Although the business is now owned by Caroline Parkins, the apple cake is made by Jo Leaker, grand-daughter of George Leaker who moved from Devon in 1914 to take over the Bridport bakery. Jo has been making the cake at Leakers on a part time basis for ten years using a recipe dating from 1914 “handed down and tweaked”. I met Jo in the bakery at the end of a baking day and found her standing proudly by six large trays of apple cake, each a mosaic of rich chestnut brown cake and pale green apple chunks. She was very welcoming and keen to share her knowledge, providing this didn’t extend to the recipe! “Many people have tried to get hold of it!” she told me.
Jo described her cake as “rough and rustic with lots of apple”. She uses eaters or cookers, whatever is available, peeled and roughly chopped within the cake while the surface is decorated with chunks so the apple taste comes through; cinnamon is included but no sultanas or lemon. Her cake is very popular, it’s now a Leakers speciality, and in the peak season she makes twenty trays a week.
The Great Dorset Apple Cake Bake Off
Inspired by my visit to Leakers, I decided to try my hand at making apple cake. I made two versions: one according to the Guardian’s “perfect” recipe which, aside from the usual ingredients, used wholemeal flour and Cox’s apples; my second cake had less sugar and butter and was based on a recipe from Amanda Persey’s book of “Favourite Dorset Recipes”. I used cooking apples, added cinnamon and decorated the top with apple chunks. Details of these recipes are given below.
While the cakes were baking, I couldn’t help pondering the seemingly magical transformation taking place in the oven. What chemical changes were occurring as the cake baked and how does each ingredient contribute to the structure, lightness and flavour of the final product?
Every baker wants their cake to be light and airy but it needs some structure as well and here the flour is a major contributor. Proteins in the flour come together to make gluten when they meet moisture; the gluten forms a protein scaffold, a flexible web that helps trap carbon dioxide and water vapour as the cake expands. The lightness comes from the raising agent, baking powder; during the early phase of baking it releases carbon dioxide gas which becomes trapped within the matrix of egg, butter, sugar and flour causing the mixture to expand and giving the cake a light, porous texture. Butter brings flavour and richness as well as restraining gluten formation helping to keep the texture light. The eggs provide moisture and the egg proteins solidify during baking, sealing off the bubbles of carbon dioxide; the structure of the cake is completed by the coagulation of the flour proteins.
The winning apple cake
Armed with two of my own cakes and a chunk of the Leakers version, I asked my home tasting panel which they liked best. The Guardian “perfect” cake looked good and had a light open texture, but everyone in my household found it too sweet, so much so that it overpowered the taste of the apples. It might work better with a tart cooking apple but it definitely was not to our taste. My second cake also looked good and the apple chunks gave it an appropriately rustic feel. We liked this cake with its dense but crumbly texture; it was not too sweet, allowing the apple taste to come through strongly. Jo Leaker’s apple cake was, however, the winner and it was especially good when warmed. We liked its very moist but dense texture and its strong apple taste, combined with a not-too-sweet crumb and an interesting buttery surface. I should have realised that the professionals know best!
Now it’s your turn to get baking and discover the mysteries and the pleasures of Dorset Apple Cake.
Rapadura sugar (175g) (Felicity Cloake calls for light muscovado which may work better)
Butter, melted (150g)
2 large eggs, beaten
4 medium Cox apples, cored but not peeled, then diced (The apple flavour may come through better with a tart cooking apple, but I followed Felicity’s suggestion of Cox’s)
Demerara sugar to top
Flaked almonds (2 tbsp) for top
Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, spice, and sugar in a bowl.
Stir in the butter and eggs and beat together for a minute or so until combined well.
Stir in the apples until well distributed, then spoon the mixture in to the tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner).
Smooth the top and sprinkle with the Demerara sugar.
Bake for an hour at 160 oC,
Add the almonds and bake for a further 15-25 mins until coming away from the tin. (my cake needed more time overall so you may need to test with a skewer until it comes away clean)
My Second Cake
Modified from Amanda Persey “Favourite Dorset Recipes”
Plain flour (115g)
Spelt flour (wholemeal) (115g)
Baking powder 2tsp
Rapadura sugar (115g)
One egg, beaten
Natural yoghurt (1 tbsp) (this was an addition suggested by Hazel to make the cake more moist, it could have taken more)
Cooking apples, peeled and cored (225g roughly chopped (in the cake), 90g chunks (each chunk about one eighth of one apple) for the top))
Melted butter for brushing the top
Mix the flours and baking powder and rub in the butter by hand until is resembles bread crumbs.
Mix in the sugar and cinnamon.
Add 225g of roughly chopped apple
Mix in the beaten egg and the natural yoghurt and stir well until mixed evenly
Put the mixture in a cake tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner) and smooth the surface
Press apple chunks (90 g in total) in to the surface
Brush surface with melted butter
Bake at 170 degrees for 30-40 min until surface is firm to touch or a skewer inserted in the cake comes away clean. The recipe calls for 30-40 min but I had to cook for longer, it will depend on your oven.
Here is an account of a visit I made to Paignton about eight weeks ago, seaching for ivy bees.
Ice cream and chips, not together of course, but that’s what people are eating. The sun is shining, the sea an intense blue, the air gently warm and sun loungers have been dragged unexpectedly out of pastel-coloured beach huts. Couples stroll along the promenade arm in arm and one or two children shriek with delight as they run in and out of the waves washing over the long sandy beach. This is Goodrington Sands near Paignton in south Devon and it’s the end of September.
At one end of the beach, the ground rises steeply to Roundham Head, a cliff-lined, grass-topped promontory that interrupts the otherwise smooth sweep of Torbay. The south-facing side of the headland is home to the Cliff Gardens with its terraced flower beds, zigzag paths and mild microclimate supporting many tender sub-tropical plants. A colony of winter bumblebees also flourishes here, nurtured by the almost year round supply of pollen and nectar.
The flat, grassy surface of the promontory eventually gives way to residential streets but before suburbia takes over completely, there is a transitional region, a mosaic of green rectangular spaces and tall, red-brick walls. Nowadays, the area is popular with dog walkers but, in one wall, there is an intriguing, curved-top gateway, hinting at older usages. These walls, now mostly covered with ivy, are the remnants of the kitchen gardens of a nearby Victorian villa.
About a year ago, I discovered these old walls covered in full-flowering ivy with many ivy bees taking advantage of their preferred food. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) is the last solitary bee to emerge each year and is very distinctive with its yellow and black-striped abdomen and chestnut-haired thorax. I looked for the nest area but, although I found a few small nest aggregations, I was unable to find anywhere large enough to support the number of bees I had seen.
Today, I park in a street bordering the old kitchen garden. Ivy cascades over the wall by the car, its many pale green flower heads scenting the air with their sickly-sweet smell. Insects move about the ivy constantly, flying to and fro, ignoring me to the extent that we sometimes collide. I see hoverflies, wasps, one or two bumblebees and honey bees, and hundreds of ivy bees. The male ivy bees fly about edgily, sometimes stopping to feed, sometimes pausing on a leaf to preen and rest. The females, noticeably larger than the males, carry chunks of chrome yellow pollen on their back legs and abdominal hairs but continue feeding. Sometimes a hopeful male disturbs them, attempting to mate, but they show no interest in their new suitors. Movement is constant, there is an insistent low buzz and this liquid energy steps up in the sunshine. The same liquid energy abounds wherever the ivy is in flower on these old walls. There is a lot of ivy here and that means many ivy bees.
But where are the nests? Last year I found one small nest area in some exposed red soil along the cliff-side path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington so that’s where I begin today. Sure enough there are still holes in the cliff face together with crumbly soil suggesting active nests. Around these holes there are hundreds of ivy bee males performing what my friend Susan Taylor has christened the “sun dance”. They fly about incessantly, swinging from side to side, occasionally stopping to look into one of the holes but emerging unsuccessfully. It’s an impressive sight along a two metre stretch but what is lacking are any females and anyway it doesn’t feel like a big enough area to account for all the bees on the ivy so I decide to walk down to Goodrington to look at the sea.
As I stand by the beach, I see someone walking down another steep path from Roundham Head. I hadn’t noticed this paved path before: it runs parallel to the cliff-side path but about three metres inland and is partly hidden behind a low hedge. I decide to take a look. The path is bordered on one side by a low bank covered in short, rough grass and hundreds of ivy bee males fly about, skimming the surface, “sun dancing”. When I get closer, I see that the red soil in the bank is peppered with many holes and crumbly soil is spilling out showing that the bank contains active nests.
The males here seem particularly edgy, they constantly investigate the burrows, presumably looking for females and sometimes they even try to mate with one another, not a clever move. On several occasions I notice the males suddenly congregating to form a rough ball. Other males soon join the melee rather like rugby players in a ruck. Somewhere in the middle there must be a female who has just emerged from one of the burrows. The males are trying frantically to mate with her but only one will be successful and I see one copulating couple fly off together, still attached.
There is also a slow but steady stream of females returning to the nest area loaded with yellow pollen. They have come to deposit food in their burrow for their larvae, but finding their nest looks a bit hit and miss. Some approach the area and fly around for a short time before landing and making their way on foot. Others seem to crash land and then pull themselves together after a short rest. The males show no interest in these already-mated females.
The aggregation covers an area about ten metres by half a metre and there must be hundreds of nests. This is a large, very active, nest site and looks big enough to support a huge number of ivy bees. I can’t say whether there are other nest aggregations in the area but this one goes some way to explaining the large number of ivy bees seen at Roundham Head.
I am completely absorbed watching these creatures go about their lives; it’s like being allowed through a door into another world. But then I look up and see, no more than 20 metres below me, an ice cream kiosk with people enjoying their Devon Farmhouse ice cream. Dogs dash along the hard sand splashing in the water. A steam train struggles up the bank hauling vintage chocolate and cream coaches towards Kingswear.
Ottery St Mary is a small town in East Devon in the south west of the UK. The town has several claims to fame: not only is it the birthplace of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge but Harry Potter fans will know it as the inspiration for Ottery St Catchpole, home of the Weasleys. Then there is St Mary’s Church, a magnficent building, a mini-cathedral. There is much to see within the church but one of its more unusual features is the ancient astronomical clock. As well as telling the time, it also shows the age and phase of the moon, and it has done so for more than five centuries. This beautiful clock is a rare example of medieval craftsmanship and gives us a unique insight into life many centuries ago.
Perhaps there is a chiming clock in the town where you live that insists on telling you the hour. You probably also wear a wristwatch and, failing that, your computer or phone provides minute by minute updates of the time. But it hasn’t always been like this, so how were clocks developed and how did time come to rule us?
The earliest clocks
In Western Europe, the first rudimentary clocks began to appear only during the medieval era. They were the preserve of monasteries and their purpose was to provide a signal to the sacristan who then rang the cloister bell, calling the monks to prayer at regular intervals. These simple timepieces were probably water clocks, where time was measured via the flow of water in to or out of a vessel. Although they were not very accurate, they were a great improvement on sundials in a cloud-prone country.
Then, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a major breakthrough in clock development occurred. Reports of new mechanical clocks began to appear from various places in Europe including Exeter (1284) and Salisbury (1306) and, most likely, this coincided with the invention of the escapement. These new clocks would probably have been driven by a weight attached to a rope wound round a drive shaft. The escapement was a device that enabled the weight to descend in a stepwise manner, each step representing the passing of time which could be displayed on the clock face. The familiar “tick, tock” of these clocks is the sound of the escapement. So began a new era of mechanical clocks composed solely of metal wheels and gears. These clocks were enthusiastically installed in church towers and other public buildings allowing a bell to be rung at intervals throughout the day, broadcasting time to the inhabitants of the town and, for example, signalling the opening of trading at the market.
As these mechanical clocks became more sophisticated they were elaborated to show not only time but also the age and phase of the moon. The south west of England has four well preserved examples of these ancient astronomical clocks that have survived for at least five centuries, perhaps because of their novelty or their beauty. They are to be found in Exeter Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Wimborne Minster and in Ottery St Mary Church.
The Astronomical Clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary
The clock hangs high above the south transept and below the bell tower. Its bright blue face, about a metre and a half square, is liberally decorated with gold and red and topped with a gold angel blowing a trumpet. Unashamedly beautiful and garish at the same time, it dominates the scene.
The clock has two circular dials. The outer dial shows the hour with two sets of twelve Roman numerals. A golden sphere, representing the sun, moves to show the time. The inner dial contains thirty Arabic numerals with a gold star moving between them to show the age of the moon. Within the inner dial is a sphere painted half white, half black which rotates on its axis once every 29.5 days depicting the moon and its phases; the moon sphere also moves around the dial once every 24 hours. A black sphere at the centre of the clock shows the earth as the centre of the universe. The clock mechanism is visible behind the face.
The exact age of the clock is not known but we may get a hint from the strong similarity between the Ottery St Mary clock and the astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral, which dates from the 15th century. Also, both timepieces depict a medieval view of the structure of the universe where the sun rotates about the earth. This model was only superseded in 1543 when Copernicus proposed that the earth actually rotates about the sun, so we can be fairly sure that both are older than this date.
Why astronomical clocks?
It is easy to understand the purpose of a clock that broadcasts the time of day to a busy town but why would the medieval clockmaker go to the trouble to include information about the age and phase of the moon and the apparent movement of the sun about the earth? One possibility may have been a desire of the contemporary Church to create a model of God’s celestial universe but perhaps there were secular reasons as well. For example, knowledge of the phases of the moon would have been useful in planning a long journey at night or a meeting in winter. Also, because of the influence of the moon on tides, knowledge of the state of the moon would have been useful for seafarers.
When they first appeared, these clocks must have seemed miraculous: man had constructed a machine that would predict the motion of the sun and moon and show the hours of the day. Possession of such a clock would have been a source of civic and ecclesiastical pride and conferred distinction on a town. For Ottery St Mary, perhaps it was considered fitting to install such a clock in its “mini-cathedral” of St Mary’s church.
The 21st century observer, surrounded by technology and gadgets, might, however, simply view the Ottery St Mary clock as an ancient curiosity. This would be a mistake: the clock is a rare example of advanced medieval craftsmanship as well as offering considerable insight into how life was lived so many years ago. It is a true medieval marvel.
Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street. At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary. A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers. Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing. The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective. Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.
The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative. Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand. The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand. Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.
Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road. Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted. On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth. This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings. It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.
The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass. One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner. Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae. A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow. She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.
The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth. The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below. In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon. We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels. A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.
The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops. There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards. We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals. Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.
The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine. I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea. A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself. Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.
Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops. Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head. The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate. Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink. A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century. Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time. The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.
The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy. Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell. Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes. Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion. Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe. The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed. Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males. The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.
We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side. This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks. When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty. Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes. The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees. The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!
For a map and further information on this walk click here.