Stepping back in time for Christmas – Burning the Ashen Faggot

Midwinter fire ceremonies were once very popular in the UK, especially in rural communities.  People gathered around the hearth in a noisy, joyous celebration, with the fire bringing light into the darkness of winter.  These ceremonies probably have a pagan origin and one which used to be widespread in the UK was Burning the Yule Log.  Less well known but quite common in Devon and neighbouring parts of Dorset and Somerset in the west of the UK was Burning the Ashen Faggot.   Although it has now largely disappeared as a household custom, it is still celebrated in a handful of local pubs to the accompaniment of hearty singing and copious drinking.

photo courtesy of Nigel Daniel

The ashen faggot was a large bundle of ash sticks or an ash log surrounded by smaller sticks, all bound together by thin bands of willow or hazel (withies).  The ashen faggot was cut and constructed on Christmas Eve and placed on a fire kindled with remnants of last year’s faggot.  Ash burns well, even when green and as the fire caught and each of the withies broke, tradition demanded that a new jug of cider be brought out to quench the thirst of the assembled company.

The scene around the hearth as the Faggot burned is vividly brought to life in this extract from Festivities and Superstitions of Devonshire in Bentley’s Miscellany 1847:

“On Christmas Eve it is the custom in all the farm houses of this neighbourhood to “burn the ashen faggot”. All the labourers and servants are invited, and a huge fire is heaped up on the wide hearth.  We all sat round the hearth in a circle; the firelight deepening the shadows on the hard-featured mahogany countenances around, and setting off the peculiarities of each form. The ashen faggot which lay on the hearth consists of a long immense log of ash, surrounded with smaller branches bound to it with many withies, forming one large bundle; it filled the whole hearth and as it burned the roaring in the large chimney was tremendous.  As the fire slowly catches and consumes the withies, the sticks fly off and kindle into a sudden blaze and as each one after the other gives way, all present stand up and shout with might and main; the “loving cup” of cider is handed round and each drinks his fill.  They then resume their seats, sing songs, crack jokes until the bursting of another band and the kindling of a fresh blaze demands renewed shouts and another pull at the cider flagon. The merriment is allowed to go on till nearly midnight, before which hour the worthy giver of the feast likes to have her house clear, that the “Holy Day” may begin in peace.  This custom is kept up religiously in all the farmhouses around, and is one of the principal festivals of the year.”

Burning the Ashen Faggot was a very popular west country custom and Amery, writing in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association (1879), reported that in the Ashburton postal district alone 32 farms and cottages burnt the Ashen Faggot on Christmas Eve 1878.  There were various superstitions and beliefs associated with the event and an old man present at one of the 1878 ceremonies told how the custom “commemorated the first dressing of our Saviour in swaddling clothes, because Joseph cut a faggot of ash, which is well known to burn green and lighted a fire by which the child was first dressed”.  The custom was also widespread in 19th and early 20th century Somerset where it was often combined with apple tree wassailing and held on old Christmas Eve (January 5th ).  There is one 19th century record of burning the Ashen Faggot in East Devon for Christmas Eve 1839 at Bindon Farm about 4 miles from the Devon/Dorset Border.

In the 19th century, the Ashen Faggot was a household custom bringing working people together at Christmas. Servants and farm labourers and their families were all invited to the farmhouse with its huge hearth and the celebration was provided by the farmer and his wife in thanks for the year’s work. For one evening at least, people put aside divisions and squabbles.  The custom began to die out as work patterns changed, as the railways enabled people to move about and as artificial light banished winter darkness.

Building the Ashen Faggot in Axmouth, December 24th 2018, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

It seems likely that the custom would have disappeared altogether had it not been taken on by local pubs where it still survives despite recent closures and more stringent insurance requirements.   One pub where it flourishes is the 800-year-old Harbour Inn at Axmouth in East Devon and I spoke to one of the villagers, Nigel Daniel, who helps organise the annual ceremony.    He told me that on Christmas Eve morning a group of villagers cut the ash and make the faggot which measures about six feet in length and five feet in circumference, filling the expanse of the old inglenook fireplace.  Seven bindings each made from hazel are used to secure the faggot which is traditionally taken to the Harbour Inn at lunchtime where a few early Christmas drinks are enjoyed.

Beginning the reading at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, photo courtesy of Kristy

The ceremony itself starts late Christmas Eve with the reading of the following lines taken from Christmas by RJ Thorn 1795:

Thy welcome eve, loved Christmas now arrived,

The parish bells, their tuneful peals resound,

And mirth and gladness every breast pervade,

The ponderous Ashen Faggot, from the yard,

The jolly farmer to his crowded hall conveys with speed;

 where, on the rising flames, it blazes soon.

Seven bandages it bears,

and as they each disjoin, a mighty jug of sparkling cider’s brought

with brandy mixed to elevate the guests!

The Ashen Faggot is placed upon the open hearth where it soon lights with its distinctive orange and purple flames.  As each binding “disjoins” revellers are urged to recharge their glasses accompanied with seasonal toasts.  Local singers Ian Hunt and Phil Gamble perform three Seasonal songs:  The King, Christmas Song (from the Copper family) and Stormy Winds.  Communal carol singing follows continuing well into the night.

Communal carol singing at the Harbour Inn Axmouth as the Faggot burns upon the hearth, photo courtesy of Kristy.

The ceremony at the Harbour Inn was revived more than 70 years ago by the landlord Ludovic Grant who used to present a roasted boar’s head as part of the celebrations.  The BBC showed interest in the ceremony in the 1950s, broadcasting it on radio and television, but when Ludovic Grant retired in the late 1950s it sadly lapsed.   Fortunately, Axmouth thatcher, David Trezise and local gardener, Ned Spiller got together in the early 1970s to restart the ceremony and, led for many years by David Trezise, and with the enthusiastic support of subsequent landlords the event has flourished at the Harbour Inn offering a truly traditional start to a modern Christmas.

The ceremony will be held again this Christmas Eve at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, but you can also step back in time and participate in this ancient west country custom at the Luttrell Arms in Dunster on December 24th and at the Squirrel Inn at Laymore near Chard and the Digby Tap in Sherborne on January 6th, but please check the timing.

I should like to thank Nigel Daniel for generous help in preparing this article and for providing  photographs, also Kristy of the Harbour Inn and Tiffany Hyde for generously providing photos.

The Ashen Faggot at the Harbour Inn in 1950 showing Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Pridham, Fred Larcombe and Albert Soper (kindly supplied by Nigel Daniel)

 

Building the Ashen Faggot, Axmouth, December 24th 2017, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

 

This article appeared in the December 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this post shows the Ashen Faggot burning on the hearth at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth on Christmas Eve while carols are sung, courtesy of Kristy of the Harbour Inn.

Clay pots, flowery gravestones and iron age hill forts – ivy bee stories 2019

A large stand of flowering ivy in the early autumn sunshine is an impressive sight.  The many pale green globe flower heads give off their distinctive sickly-sweet smell and insects throng to the flowers to take advantage of the sudden abundance of pollen and nectar.  Movement is constant and the entire bush buzzes audibly.  Among the insects gorging themselves, there may be red admiral butterflies, plump stripy bumblebees, also good numbers of honeybees and wasps.  Sometimes, especially near the sea in the south of the UK, these are outnumbered by beautiful honeybee-sized insects with a distinctive yellow and black banded abdomen and russet coloured thorax.  These are ivy bees, the last of our solitary bees to emerge and it’s a delight to watch them each year in September and October.

Ivy bees are relative newcomers to the UK having arrived from mainland Europe eighteen years ago.  Since then, they have prospered, spreading across the entire southern half of England and northwards as far as Cumbria    As their name suggests, the species prefers pollen and nectar collected from flowering ivy and part of their success must reflect the large amounts of this climber that grow around the UK.

Each year I look out for the ivy bees; for me they signify the changing season, the movement of the year.  September 2019 began very mild and dry where I live but, by the fourth week, temperatures dipped and intermittent wet and sometimes very wet weather set in and stayed with us during October and into November.  In spite of the weather, I saw ivy bees in several places and here are some highlights of my 2019 observations:

A grassy bank in Sussex

In late September we spent a few days holiday in Sussex, a county in the south east of the UK.  We had delivered our daughter to the University of Sussex to begin her degree and were keen to do some country walking.  The weather was less than cooperative but on the 25th, our last day, we decided to walk up to the massive iron age hill fort at Cissbury Ring, high on the South Downs. We parked in the village of Findon not far from the 15th century pub, the Gun Inn, and as we passed the traditional butcher’s shop the butcher himself was standing outside wearing his blue and white striped apron.

We left the car and walked up through the village past some private houses where my attention was taken by movement in a grassy bank alongside one of the driveways. I was delighted to realise that this was a large colony of ivy bees.  I hope the owner of the house is equally delighted, and I hope they know these are not wasps.  Many male ivy bees were dancing about just above the surface of the grassy bank waiting for females to emerge.  They occasionally coalesced into a mating cluster when a newly emerged female appeared and after a short time the cluster dissolved and the female and her chosen suitor were left alone.  The incessant movement of the colony even on a dull day was very impressive.  Here are two short videos which capture this movement.

 

Ivy bee mating pair
mating pair of ivy bees on grassy bank

We left the ivy bees and continued uphill to reach Cissbury Ring.  Today this was an elemental place:  clouds scudded about driven by the strong blustery wind that was now also peppering us with raindrops and, when the clouds parted, the sun broke through leaving transient pools of light on the surrounding countryside.  We kept to the eastern rampart to afford protection from the wind and from the highest point we saw the sea to the south and a second hill fort, Chanctonbury Ring to the north across rolling tea-coloured fields.  A few hardy bees were braving the conditions to take advantage of the scattering of wild flowers across the chalk hillside.

 

P1270266
view northwards from Cissbury Ring with the group of trees at Chanctonbury Ring on the horizon

 

P1270259trimmed
Bee resting in this small dandelion-type flower – the BWARS experts tell me that this is a furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.)

 

On our way back down the hill we passed banks of ivy in flower where, despite the intermittent drizzle, ivy bees were collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their nests.

Heath potter wasps, no – ivy bees, yes

Bovey Heathfield is a nature reserve, about half an hour’s drive from where I live with several claims to fame.  It is a surviving scrap of lowland heath, a fragment of the large area of heathland that once covered this part of Devon. Even though it is small, the heath provides a unique environment with unique wildlife and in August and September it bursts into life as the heather blooms covering the land with a pinkish purple sheen.  It’s also the site of one of the more important battles of the English Civil War, The Battle of Bovey Heath 1646 and on the reserve, there are memorials to the conflict.

I went to Bovey Heathfield on a windy Saturday afternoon (September 28th) under partly cloudy skies to meet John Walters, a local naturalist and wildlife expert.  John knows more than anyone else about a species of solitary wasp that frequents sandy heaths.  This is the heath potter wasp and the plan was for John to show me these insects.  Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny enough to tempt the wasps out but he did show me one of the pots constructed from muddy clay by mated females that give them their name.  They attach these pots to stalks of heather and gorse and then lay their eggs in the pot, equipping it with caterpillars as food before sealing.  These are mini-marvels of engineering and John has some wonderful video showing the wasps constructing clay pots (see here).

Heath potter wasp pot
a double pot constructed by a heath potter wasp

 

 

In the absence of these insects, John showed me the large colony of ivy bees that has built nests in the south facing sandy paths on the heath.  The ivy bees were not deterred by the cool conditions; the males were very active and a number of newly emerged females were mobbed by them.  I saw one mating cluster develop around a female resting on a heather stalk and wondered how they all clung on.

Ivy bee mating cluster
mating cluster of ivy bees attached to a heather stalk

 

 

Ivy bees in a local cemetery

Ivy bee male
male ivy bee

The river Dart drives a picturesque, watery wedge through the town of Totnes dividing it into two unequal parts.  The eastern part, across the river, goes by the name of Bridgetown, a mixture of old and mostly new houses.  Buried in the old part, behind the early nineteenth century St John’s Church is the cemetery.  I rather like the cemetery, it is slightly unkempt with rough grass, trees, flowers and several large clumps of ivy.  Most of the graves date from the 19th and 20th centuries and the place has a peaceful calm atmosphere.  Last year I found ivy bees here for the first time, it was also the first time I had seen the species in Totnes.  This year the ivy in the cemetery was late in flowering but finally on the last day of September some ivy bees appeared on a few of the open flowers. I saw males and pollen-carrying females, but not many of either gender. I wondered if they might be nesting in the cemetery but was unable to find any evidence.  Somewhere nearby there must a nest aggregation.

Ivy bee female with pollen
female ivy bee

 

As I was poking about looking for ivy bee nests, one grave stone, for Edwin Jordain, caught my attention.  It was late Victorian, dating from 1893 and had fine carvings of flowers along the top edge unlike most of the other graves.  I wondered whether the flowers were symbolic or just decorative and did a little research.

Gravestone in Bridgetown Cemetery
Gravestone in Bridgetown Cemetery with flower decoration. One of the stands of ivy can be seen at the rear on the left.

 

The flowers on the left side are most likely blue passion flowers.  I learnt that these were very popular adornments to Victorian graves, representing the suffering of Christ.  I feel less comfortable about my identification of the flowers on the right but I think they are lilies, linked with purity and innocence by the Victorians, especially after death.   Many of the flowers depicted are open, apparently symbolising the prime of life; Mr Jordain was only 36 when he died.  His epitaph perhaps sums this up: “Brief life is here our portion”.

The picture at the head of the article shows a female ivy bee I saw at Paignton on October 8th.  Here is a link to an article I wrote about the ivy bees at Paignton in south Devon that has recently been published on The Clearing:  https://www.littletoller.co.uk/the-clearing/ivy-bees-by-philip-strange/

 

 

 

 

An oasis of calm, a mosaic of environments

Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK.  With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.

sea holly growing on the sandy ridge

A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front.  Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning.  The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese.  The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road.  This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.

A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other.  Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built.  Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised.   This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge.  Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint.  Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.

Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar.  These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees.  Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her.  She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae.  These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.

Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour.  This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils.  A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea.  They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants.    Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.

The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain.  Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear.  One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand.  Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.

Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands.  They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant.  These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators.  It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds.   Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths.  The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves.  The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again.   The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.

Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions.  Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes.  At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers.  Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves.  Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants.  One plant even had bright yellow flowers.  This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.

There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about.  But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.

This article appeared in the October edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this article shows the sandy ridge just above the seafront in Exmouth and the clump of broad-leaved everlasting pea.

 

beewolf on sea holly
male beewolf on sea holly

 

Female beewolf on thistle
female beewolf on thistle

 

Broad-leaved everlasting pea with leafcutter bee
leafcutter bee on broad-leaved everlasting pea

 

cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort
cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort

 

common mallow
common mallow

 

Sand Lucerne
sand lucerne

 

The plastic biobeads that litter our beaches

Earlier this year, I wrote here about the plastic pellets that were appearing in large numbers on Charmouth and other nearby beaches in West Dorset in the south west of the UK.   A group of us investigated the problem and discovered that many of the plastic pellets were biobeads, used by local water companies in sewage purification before the treated and purified effluent is discharged into the sea.  We showed that, most likely, the biobeads were escaping, along with treated effluent, from the sewage works at Uplyme run by South West Water to pollute the very beaches they were intended to protect.  The post created considerable interest at the time especially on Facebook. Then, a few weeks ago. the story was picked up by the local daily paper, the Western Morning News.  Here is the article:

Should you wish to read the text of the article, I have enlarged it and cut it into two parts below.

As you can see, a local photographer, Richard Austin recently visited Charmouth Beach with his granddaughter and was shocked to find these plastic pellets littering the beach.  The well-respected local journalist, Martin Hesp, then took up the story and the feature article was the result.  In my opinion, he gives an excellent account of the problem stressing, in particular, the health implications for both children and marine life.

The Western Morning News asked South West Water (SWW) for a response and their Director of Wastewater, Andrew Roantree responded in the article.  I was not asked to respond so I want to take up a few of the points he makes.

  1. He says “From the photographs these (the pellets we found on the beaches) look as though they could be biobeads”. I’ll take that as a begrudging yes.  Besides, we found the same pellets at the Uplyme sewage works and one of SWW’s employees confirmed that they are used there so we know they are biobeads.

 

  1. He goes on to say that “…………….we are confident that there has been no loss of biobeads from the (Uplyme) site………. Any escape of biobeads is unacceptable……………….In 2017, we reviewed and updated the technical standard covering their use at our treatment works. This included requirements for storage of used and new biobeads.  We also conduct regular site inspections………………….Uplyme Sewage Treatment Works has secondary and tertiary containment measures installed to prevent any biobeads escaping from the process units.”

 

When we visited the sewage works in February 2019, we found biobeads scattered around the site, so until quite recently biobead husbandry at Uplyme was not as rigorous as he implies.

We know that SWW uses biobeads at Uplyme and we know the identity of the two types of biobead used (knobbly black and ridged bright blue).  These same biobeads appear on the beach at Charmouth so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that these two observations are linked.

When we visited in February 2019, the SWW representatives told us that the new containment measures at Uplyme were incomplete so escape of biobeads was still possible until a few months ago.  Anyway, why did SWW go to the expense of installing extra containment measures if there were no containment issues in the first place?

The good news, if we are to believe Mr Roantree, is that containment of the biobeads at sewage works run by SWW is now much improved so there should be a gradual reduction in the numbers appearing on our beaches.

 

There is also a misunderstanding in the article.  Biobeads are not “designed to catch nasty bits in the water”.  They are designed to act as a solid support for bacteria to grow on and digest the sewage.  Their ridged or knobbly nature provides a larger surface area to accommodate more bacteria to hasten sewage digestion.  As they are made of plastic, they do absorb organic chemicals like PCBs from the sea but then so do nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.

It should also be acknowledged that the installation of the additional pellet containment measures by SWW results from the extensive activities of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition who first highlighted the biobead pollution problem on beaches in Cornwall (see report).

The picture at  the head of this post shows Charmouth Beach with Golden Cap in the background.

Goat Island and the Great Chasm – the day the earth moved

Nearly 180 years ago, about three miles west of Lyme Regis (in the south west of the UK), a huge chunk of the East Devon coast split off to form a plateau separated from the mainland by a deep, dry ravine.  This was the largest movement of land ever experienced in this part of the country; it remodelled the coast and created a unique new environment.  The plateau, now called Goat Island, and the ravine are still unique and when I walked there in late June, pink and purple orchids flowered across the grassy surface of the plateau whereas the ravine was populated by a tangled jungle of trees and other vegetation. 

Goat Island
The grassy surface of Goat Island with the sea in the background

 

In the early 19th century, the land behind the cliffs in this part of East Devon was dominated by farming.  Between the cliffs and the sea there was an area of land, the undercliff, formed by subsidence that supported fertile market gardens and orchards with some pasture for animals.   Cottages had also been built here for farm labourers who walked up and down the steep cliff path to the farmhouse a short distance inland.  The latter part of 1839 had seen unprecedented rain and as Christmas approached, there had been ominous signs of instability in the cliffs with deep fissures opening on the cliff tops and settlement cracks appearing in cottages built on the undercliff.

One of the farm labourers who lived in the cottages with his family was William Critchard.   At about 1am on Christmas Day 1839, Critchard and his wife returned to their cottage having been generously entertained along with other labourers’ families by their master at his farmhouse.  Their Christmas Eve gathering had included the West Country custom of burning the ashen faggot (a large ash log) accompanied by the drinking of copious amounts of cider.  On their way back to the cottage, the couple noticed that part of the cliff path had dropped about a foot since the morning and new cracks had appeared in the cottage walls.  Still merry after their evening’s entertainment they retired to bed unconcerned.  At 4 am, however, they were awoken by a “wonderful crack” and by 5am they rose to find deep fissures appearing in the garden.  They realised that something major was happening and set off up the cliff path, now almost impassable owing to subsidence, to spread the alarm.

Movement in the cliffs continued over the next 24 hours and as the day dawned on December 26th it revealed a landscape changed almost beyond recognition.  Contemporary drawings show that a massive section of cliffs, about three quarters of a mile long and estimated as 8 million tons of rock, had moved seawards by several hundred feet creating a dry ravine, the Great Chasm, in its wake. The plateau of land that had moved was bounded by cliffs 150 feet high and came to be called Goat Island. The ravine held a gothic landscape of lumps and bumps, peaks and troughs, vividly expressing the power of the convulsion that had occurred. (See here for some contemporary illustrations of the landslip)

The cliffs in this part of Dorset and Devon are notoriously mobile, but the events of Christmas 1839 represented the greatest ever movement of land in the area.  At the time there was much speculation as to the cause of the landslip: might it have been the result of an earthquake or a volcano, was it the work of rabbits, or could it have been a punishment from God? By chance, two of the most eminent geologists of the time, William Buckland and William Conybeare, were staying nearby and could interpret the events; Buckland’s wife Mary made invaluable drawings of the changed landscape.  Buckland and Conybeare concluded that the excessive rain had saturated the permeable layers of chalk and greensand that constituted the upper part of the cliffs.  Beneath these layers was an impermeable layer of clay and the chalk/greensand, saturated and very heavy, moved forward on the impermeable clay leading to the landslip.

The new landscape became a tourist attraction.  Queen Victoria arrived on the Royal Yacht to view the scene and others took to paddle steamers to gaze in wonder while specially composed music, the Landslip Quadrille, was played.   Bizarrely, fields of corn and turnips growing on cliff top land had moved intact with Goat Island and were ceremonially harvested the following August by local village maidens dressed as attendants of Ceres, the Roman Goddess of the Harvest.

But what of Goat Island nowadays?  It’s only accessible on foot but the walk along the coast path is worth the effort.  I set off from Axmouth on a misty but mild morning in late June to make the steep climb across the golf course and on to the cliff top.  I followed narrow lanes with high banks and skirted cornfield edges to reach the coast path.  Cliff edge scrub obscured the sea most of the time but occasional breaks revealed Beer Head lurking mysteriously in the mist.

About two miles into the walk, with my attention captured by the many flowers lining the path, I was jolted from my reverie as the path twisted and dropped down steeply into dense vegetation.  It continued to descend with the occasional squirm to the right or left before bottoming out.  About me now was a disorienting, tangled jungle of trees, shrubs and ferns with brambles and creepers dangling downwards to catch the unwary.  Dampness hung in the air and only brief vestiges of light filtered through the canopy.  This is the undercliff near the edge of the Great Chasm, no longer an open ravine but taken over by nature in the intervening 180 years.

Quite soon the track reared upwards again climbing steeply towards the light past a cushiony chalk hillside with a scattering of wild flowers.  In time, the path levelled out to a long, lush grassy meadow sloping gently towards sheer cliffs above the undercliff and the sea; this is Goat Island.  Woven within the grass were the frilly flowers of eyebright, many yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear, patches of yellow rattle and wild thyme and two blue spikes of viper’s bugloss. It was, however, the orchids that surprised me with their number and variety: pyramidal orchids with their intensely pink, three-lobed petals overlapping like ornate roof tiles and common spotted orchids with their cylinders of lilac pink flowers carrying magenta hieroglyphics.  I searched for bee orchids and found only two spikes, each bearing several flowers.  With their mauve propeller-like sepals and their large central petal complete with furry edges and yellow horseshoe patterns on a maroon background, these flowers are one of nature’s marvellous mimics said to resemble bumblebees.  Butterflies, especially marbled whites completed the scene.  Goat Island nowadays is a beautiful, unusual place, an oasis of calm where noise means bird song.  It is also a managed landscape, a cooperation between nature and humans, as every year the grass is mown to encourage flowers and to prevent scrub taking back the land.

Goat Island is also a place of history and I stood there for some time, trying to imagine the scene 180 years ago when the land beneath my feet moved and the lives of the people living there were changed forever.

The picture at the head of this post shows common spotted orchids and catsear on Goat Island.

This article appeared in the August 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Down into the undercliff near the ravine

 

Bee orchid and pyramidal orchid on Goat Island
bee orchid and pyramidal orchid

 

pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Vipers bugloss on Goat Island
Vipers bugloss

 

wild thyme with bumblebee
bumblebee on wild thyme on Goat Island

 

Marbled white butterfly
marbled white butterfly

 

Meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram
meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram

 

A mid-June visit to Dawlish Warren – with bee orchids and bees

I wasn’t sure what to expect.  May had been a dry month and the first two weeks of June very wet, with temperatures lower than normal for the time of year.  How might the changeable weather have affected wildlife?  As I waited at the station for my train, the staccato spits of rain made me wonder if it was even worth making this trip.  But perhaps I was being too negative.  The journey along the river estuary and by the sea was as glorious as ever and, when I stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, there was bright sunshine and a palpable warmth.

I left the station, headed past the funfair, past the shops selling garish beach clothing, past the pub and cafes and on to the nature reserve.  Evening primrose with their papery lemon-yellow flowers grew on the dry, sandy soil either side of the descending path and when the track levelled out, small areas of standing water were an unwelcome reminder of our recent weather.

A short walk eastwards took me on to a long green meadow.  This part of the reserve is known as Greenland Lake because in the 19th century it was a watery inlet where fishing vessels sheltered over winter before heading back to Greenland.  The area was reclaimed in the mid-20th century but is still damp so that lush grasses flourish alongside a range of plants that relish the humid conditions.  Today, flowers of yellow rattle and yellow bartsia formed a colourful sheen across the meadow, interspersed with many spikes of southern marsh orchids; some were a pale lilac and others a deep reddish purple, like colourful flames flaring from the meadow floor.  Towards the edge of Greenland Lake, the ground rises, becoming drier and sandier, populated by more evening primrose, their tall stems trembling in the keen west wind that blew across the reserve keeping the temperature down.

I thought I remembered where the bee orchids grew but memory is a tricky thing and the look of the reserve changes each year.  Eventually I found them, surrounded by enclosures to protect against trampling; there were several spikes in each enclosure, each spike with three or more of the complex flowers, each enclosure neatly labelled.   Calling the flowers complex, however, doesn’t really do them justice.  Three pinkish-lilac sepals form a propeller-like backdrop; each sepal is semi-transparent with narrow green veins.   The main part of the flower contains three petals including one that forms the dominant, downward-projecting labellum, a very unusual affair, engorged and bulbous with impressively furry edges and a central maroon area with yellow horseshoe patterns.  This is the part of the flower in which early botanists imagined a bee and gave the flower its name.

bee orchid
Bee orchid

 

With their vivid colours and pristine petals, the flowers looked as though they had emerged very recently and some features such as the horns and the arching yellow pollinia had not yet developed.  I gazed at all of this, marvelling at the complexity of nature but pondering whether the flowers really were beautiful or were they just plain weird.  I couldn’t decide but I doubt if it matters, they are what they are.

It’s reassuring to find that others feel ambivalent about the flowers and here are a few lines taken from “Bee orchid at Hodbarrrow” by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson where he hints at their contradictions:

See the bee orchid –
Neither plant nor animal,
A metaphysical
Conceit of a flower

I left the bee orchids and wandered about the dry sandy paths bordered by flowering brambles and rough, greenish-brown marram grass.   The wardens try hard to maintain the reserve and that includes controlling scrub, especially brambles, which would otherwise take over.  Sometimes they treat the scrub with herbicides and cordon off the treated area. It makes me uneasy to see this happen but it’s probably the only way to preserve the present rich populations of flowers and insects.  I was, therefore, surprised to see three men festooned with cameras some with phallic lenses entering one of the treated areas and walking about noisily.  It seemed as though they were looking for something but they ignored me and eventually moved on.

Then I came across the bees.  They were moving about just above the dry surface of a rising sandy path, darting back and forth in straight lines but often pausing on the sand to preen and perhaps take in the warmth.  Sometimes when stationary they moved their abdomen up and down repetitively, a manoeuvre that encourages gas exchange after a period of activity, not unlike human panting.

To begin with, only a few of these insects were in evidence but when the sun came out more seemed to appear and everything got busier.  They were slightly smaller than a honeybee and to the naked eye they appeared golden.  Photographs showed bands of golden hair around the abdomen and thorax, a pale moustache and strikingly beautiful green eyes.  These are male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella) and must have emerged very recently to retain the golden look which quite soon fades to a silver, hence the name.

These males were all rather excited, bombing one another and even trying to mate and frequently looking into holes in the sand that I hadn’t seen.  Then I noticed a more protracted coupling between two of the bees which confused me for a while as I hadn’t knowingly seen any females.  Again, photographs came to the rescue showing me that a female was involved. The diagnostic feature is a symmetrical pair of small white hair patches on the terminal segment on her abdomen.  Mated females will go on to construct nests in the vegetated sand using leaf segments they cut to line the cavity but that didn’t seem to have got going yet.

There was so much sexual tension among the male bees as they waited for females to emerge that feeding seemed to be taking a low priority.  It was only later when I walked back towards the railway station taking a detour via a dry meadow at the back of the reserve that I found some bees feeding.  The meadow was covered in lush grass and flowers including diffuse globes of white clover and the slipper-like yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil.  Silvery leafcutter males were feeding here pushing the two parts of the yellow flower apart to access the nectar.

While I was watching this, the three men with cameras reappeared.  Seeing me they came across:

“We’re looking for butterflies, have you seen any?”

“Yes, I have, I can show you some pictures if you like?”

I showed them the picture I took earlier of a female common blue butterfly and they agreed sulkily with my identification, adding: “Well, we haven’t seen many, there don’t seem to be many about”

I tried to engage them in conversation about bees but they weren’t interested.

 

yellow bartsia
Yellow bartsia

 

 

southern marsh orchids
Southern Marsh Orchids

 

male silvery leafcutter
male silvery leafcutter bee

 

mating pair
mating pair

 

female silvery leafcutter
Female silvery leafcutter bee, note the paired white patches of hair on the terminal abdominal segment

 

male feeding
Male silvery leafcutter bee feeding on bird’s foot trefoil

 

female common blue butterfly
Female common blue butterfly. Defintion is poor because of zoom and the age of the specimen.

 

A chance encounter with monkshood, our most poisonous plant

It had been a good week but very intense.  Our exhibition, entitled Observation, had come to an end and the combination of Hazel’s paintings and my photographs brought many interested people into the gallery leading to good conversations. When the exhibition finished, just over a week ago, we were both tired and needed to recharge.  So, on the Sunday after, with the weather looking good, we set out on a walk in the countryside.  Part of our route took in a quiet riverside path with meadows along one side spreading up the gentle slope away from the river.  Buttercups and catsear lent the meadow a midsummer look and beneath the nodding yellow flowers were lush grasses, globes of white clover, a few pink orchids and some good stands of yellow rattle with its hooded lemony flowers and black beaks.  It was a fine meadow with plenty of insect life and we watched the many bumblebees feeding,  clover being their favourite.  We saw several cuckoo bumblebees which, as their name suggests, don’t make their own nests but parasitise those bumblebees that do make nests.

the riverside meadow

On the other side of the path, there was a band of trees, scrub and other vegetation bordering the river and among the shady greenery we noticed a tall plant with a skein of dark purplish-blue flowers (see picture at the top of this post) that reminded me of Dutch clogs.  Neither of us had seen this plant before and, with its showy blue flowers, we speculated that it might have been a garden escapee.  More of the unusual flowers appeared further along, in the same sort of environment, under shade and close to the river.

More monkshood growing by a path under the riverside trees (photo by Hazel Strange)

Back home I wanted to find out what this plant was and eventually I discovered that it was Aconitum napellus or monkshood.  In the south west of the UK, where I live, some rare examples of monkshood may be native but most are introduced and naturalised.  The unusual architectural look of the flowers has made it a popular garden plant and the name, monkshood, derives from the resemblance of the flowers to the hoods or cowls worn by monks in the past.

What surprised me most was the warning in my flower book that monkshood is the most poisonous plant found in the UK.  All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, containing the substance aconitine, an alkaloid that causes death by disrupting the ionic balance across cell membranes leading to respiratory and heart failure.  The dangers of monkshood have been known and exploited since ancient times resulting in the name “Queen of poisons”.  Extracts of the plant were applied to spears and arrows to increase their killing ability and the poison was used in ancient Rome for executions.  The plant is sometimes called wolfsbane owing to its use for killing wolves and its reputed ability to repel werewolves, but the name is more usually applied to the related, yellow-flowered, Aconitum lycoctonum.

Preparations of aconitine have also been used, mostly in the past, for their medicinal properties in treating pain and fever when taken orally or as a liniment for treating rheumatism, neuralgia and sciatica.  Tinctures of aconitine were freely available in 19th century pharmacies in Europe and the US but although the drug is no longer used in conventional medicine in the west, it continues to be used in India and China in traditional herbal preparations. The problem with using the drug is balancing the apparent therapeutic effects against the lethal effects and cases of accidental aconitine poisoning are not unknown in China.

Cerberus with Hercules (Detail from a Caeretan black-figure clay vase from Cervetri (Caere), about 530 BC. Paris, Musée du Louvre E701. © Photo: Max Hirmer Licence Plate 11 UK 1007 127)

The plant is said to have arisen, according to Greek mythology, when Hercules, performing his 12th labour, dragged the three-headed dog Cerberus from the Gates of Hell.  Here is Ovid’s description in his Metamorphoses:

“The dog struggled, twisting its head away from the daylight and the shining sun. Mad with rage, it filled the air with its triple barking, and sprinkled the green fields with flecks of white foam. These flecks are thought to have taken root and, finding nourishment in the rich and fertile soil, acquired harmful properties. Since they flourish on hard rock, the country folk call them aconites, rock-flowers.”

It seems entirely appropriate that such a lethally poisonous plant should be associated with the Gates of Hell. Indeed, it might be expected that a plant with such a reputation would have been used to commit murder but there are very few contemporary examples of this, perhaps because aconitine also has a very bitter taste and is difficult to disguise.  This hasn’t stopped fiction writers from using the poison in their stories and here are a couple of examples: Agatha Christie, in her novel, 4.50 from Paddington, employs aconitine as a murder weapon, pills containing aconitine are substituted for the victim’s sleeping tablets;   in one episode (Garden of Death, 2000) of the popular TV series, Midsomer Murders, aconitine is mixed with fettucine al pesto to dispose of the unfortunate victim.  In 2010, however, a real murder was committed using the poison when Lakhvir Kaur Singh, nicknamed the “curry killer”, poisoned her former lover by mixing extracts of the related plant Aconitum ferox into his leftover curry.

There has been some speculation recently that simply brushing against the plant might be dangerous but this idea has been discredited.  Nevertheless, should the sap of the plant come into contact with skin the poison may be transferred especially through cuts.  Caution should, therefore, be exercised if the plant is encountered in the garden or in the wild as the following anecdote, taken from Richard Mabey’s book Flora Britannica suggests:

In 1993, there was an epidemic of poisoning at a florist’s in Wiltshire.  “A flower seller was treated for heart palpitations in intensive care after handling bunches of a poisonous flower ……… staff at a flower shop in Salisbury suffered shooting pains after poison from a monkshood entered their bloodstreams.  The shop’s owner bought 150 bunches from a wholesaler who has now withdrawn them.  ” I wondered what was wrong – all of a sudden everyone was lethargic and getting pains.” ”

 

the exhibition poster

 

A view of part of the exhibition

 

Hazel’s diptych painting of the Erme estuary

 

My photo of a bloody nosed beetle

 

yellow rattle and catsear in the riverside meadow

 

Two bumblebees feeding from white clover. The one in the foreground is a vestal cuckoo-bee (B.vestalis) based on the thin lemon yellow stripe towards the end of its abdomen
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