Category Archives: applications of science

A cough medicine that really worked, and it contained opium – the story of Fudge’s Firewater

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.

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Mr Fudge’s Pharmacy in the late 1950s when the road was flooded. Mr Fudge is seen standing in the shop doorway with Donald Balson from the next door butchers shop in front. Photo kindly supplied by Richard Balson.

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.

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One of Mr Fudge’s bottles (probably about 50 years old). Photo kindly supplied by Jamie Dibdin

The medicine
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”.

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A bottle of Fudge’s Mentholated Honey Syrup (Fudge’s Firewater). Photo kindly supplied Emily Hicks, Bridport Museum

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.

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The opium poppy

(from Wikipedia, for details see Link)

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.

This article appeared in a slightly modified form in the March edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

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).

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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.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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The two Archimedes Screws alongside the weir

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

From bitter bark to wonder drug – the story of aspirin

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

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

The bitter taste of willow bark

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

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

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Willows trailing in the swollen River Asker near Bridport in Dorset

 

The rise of science in the 19th century

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

The birth of aspirin

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

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

New pain killers and new uses for aspirin

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

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

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

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

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

How would you cope after an Apocalypse? Lewis Dartnell is here to help.

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Dr Lewis Dartnell

 

I recently spoke to astrobiologist, science writer and broadcaster, Dr Lewis Dartnell who talked about his best-selling book, The Knowledge (how to rebuild our world after an apocalypse) at the recent Bridport Literary Festival. Here is the article I wrote for the Marshwood Vale Magazine about his book and our conversation.

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The world as we know it has ended!

Perhaps a huge asteroid struck the planet, fatally changing the climate, killing millions, or………

A thermonuclear war left a few survivors struggling to cope with a nuclear winter, or………

A deadly virus spread rapidly across the planet, killing most of the population……..

It doesn’t really matter what happened. What matters is that you and a small proportion of the world’s population survived. What would you do? How would you live? How much of our current technologically advanced civilisation would you try to re-establish? How much could you re-establish?

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For most people this is the stuff of science fiction novels or disaster movies and we carry on our lives oblivious to how much we depend on science and technology. Worse still, we have become disconnected from the basic processes that underpin our lives and would be helpless faced with having to produce our own food, clothing or even medicines. The apocalypse would expose a terrifying skills gap.

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The book

 

This is where Lewis Dartnell’s recent best-selling book, The Knowledge (how to rebuild our world after an apocalypse) steps in. Dartnell imagines a post-apocalyptic world and the challenges facing survivors. He then provides enough practical knowledge of science and technology to help survivors re-establish a simple life style, and describes enough basic science to allow them to move on and relearn for themselves. For example, we read about how to grow food, generate power, prepare medicines, make basic chemicals and how to get metals out of rocks. It’s a post-apocalyptic self-help guide but also an impressively wide ranging celebration of modern science and technology and how it underpins our lives. Dartnell writes engagingly and lucidly although with such broad coverage some may feel their favourite topic has been underplayed.

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The Knowledge was a Sunday Times and New York Times best-seller and Sunday Times “New Thinking” book of the year in 2014. I began by asking Lewis Dartnell why he thought it had been so popular. “One reason, I believe, is that it covers a very nice self-contained topic that people had been thinking about – how would you start again from scratch if the world ended? What do you need to know to progress again? Taking one fundamental example, how do you grow food, store seed and even make a simple plough? “

Writing a book is a major undertaking so I asked him why he had chosen this particular subject. He told me that he had been driven “as a scientist, by curiosity, plain and simple”. He had wanted to find a way of describing the most important scientific discoveries through which civilisation had progressed to its current technologically advanced state. Surprisingly, he had based the book around the apocalypse only to provide a useful framework upon which to hang these ideas.

One of the impressive aspects of the book is its breadth and I wondered how he had arrived at such a broad understanding of science and technology? “Hard work”, he told me, “I read a lot; if you look in the bibliography there are 400 references. I checked facts with experts. I also wanted to try out some of the basic technology myself so I had a go at making glass from scratch and I spent a day with a blacksmith working with metals.”

Survivors of the apocalypse would find themselves in a very inhospitable environment but I wondered if it offered humans the chance for a fresh start, perhaps to set up a better life? “There is this allure of the post-apocalyptic society where we might learn from our past mistakes, but”, as he explained, “we should be very wary; there is no guarantee that society will remake itself after an apocalypse. History teaches us that many advanced civilisations have prospered, only to stall and disappear altogether. We are not invulnerable; we face many challenges (climate change and soil erosion to name but two) and could lose all we have achieved.”

Part of this inhospitable post-apocalyptic environment will be a breakdown of law and order; would society be able to move forward under such adverse conditions? “Some people will inevitably take advantage of the absence of control, the collapse of policing and it will become a bit wild.” But he went on to say that he had faith in the human spirit; humans would eventually work to help one another.

So, with all this negative talk, did the threat of the apocalypse keep him awake at night? “No, there is no reason to expect an apocalypse any time soon but there are plenty of other issues to be concerned about. Climate change is one,” he explained, “but we know how to solve the problem, it’s just the political will that is lacking.”

A particularly novel aspect of the book is its linked web site (the-knowledge.org) and I wondered how successful this had been? “I see the book as just the start of a discussion,” he explained, “the web site has been very successful in getting that discussion going, allowing people to express their own ideas, and of course I have learnt so much from it”. The web site also provides lots of additional material and background information about The Knowledge.

As well as writing best-selling books, Lewis Dartnell works at the University of Leicester Space Research Centre where he is an astrobiologist. I asked him to explain what that means: “I am trying to find evidence for life on other planets. My research focus is looking for bacteria on Mars and I am searching for traces in meteorites derived from the Red Planet. Why is this important? If I can find evidence for bacteria, this would show that we are not alone, the Earth is not the only place where life has evolved and that would be very exciting.”

The featured image is the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vasetsnov

A loo with a view

[This article appeared in the June edition of the Dorset-based  Marshwood Vale Magazine]

 

The hamlet of Monkton Wyld lies in a deep wooded valley in the far west of Dorset a few miles inland from Lyme Regis. The hamlet is dominated by the Victorian church and neo-gothic rectory, Monkton Wyld Court. For many years, the rectory was home to an alternative school and is now an education centre for sustainable living. It has also acquired a reputation for its award-winning compost toilets. In 2011, its compost loos made Permaculture Magazine’s top five and in 2013, Monkton Wyld Court’s sustainable privy was rated world number one in a competition organised by Transition Town Totnes.

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I wanted to find out what was so special about these compost toilets so, on an overcast but mild April day, I drove down the narrow road to Monkton Wyld. The setting is idyllic and the high verges were heavy with spring flowers: bluebells, wood anemones, stitchwort, primrose, red campion and wild garlic. At the old rectory, I was welcomed by Lynden Miles, who designed and built the compost loos. Lynden works and lives at the Court with his family and he took me to see the
conveniences.

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Monkton Wyld Court

Monkton Wyld Court does have conventional flushing toilets but there are also two compost loos, both situated in the grounds a short walk from the house and shielded by trees. Each toilet consists of an attractive wooden building, constructed from locally sourced larch, on a raised platform. Within each building is a toilet with a decorative wooden seat and a hand-washing sink which uses harvested and filtered rain water. There is also a supply of sawdust for visitors to add after they have used the toilet. Lighting is solar-powered and the windows afford lovely leafy views. Using the toilet is a pleasant experience and there was no smell that I could detect.

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One of the compost toilets
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The rather beautiful toilet
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A loo with a view

There is, however, the question of the waste. We are so used to “flush and forget” systems that we don’t normally give this a thought. In the award-winning compost toilet, waste accumulates in a chamber below, where it gradually decomposes under the influence of bacteria. The process is termed “aerobic” because the bacteria depend on oxygen so it is essential to maintain good ventilation. The sawdust is also an important part of the process: it keeps the moisture content of the decomposing waste low and provides carbon as a fuel for the bacteria to do their work. The bacteria also consume any pathogens in the human waste. Eventually the chamber will be “full” and at that point Lynden will move the toilet above a second chamber. He expects this will be in about two years. The waste in the first chamber will then be left for a further two years before it can be recycled as fertiliser for fruit trees; it will never be used directly on edible crops.

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Lynden Miles

I asked Lynden why he had developed these novel toilets. He told me that he had experienced awful compost toilets elsewhere and thought he could do better. Compost toilets also fit well with the ethos of sustainable living at Monkton Wyld Court. Conventional “flush and forget” toilets consume vast amounts of water which disappear in to the sewers along with the human waste. This water has been carefully purified to drinking standard only to be flushed away using up to a third of our domestic water supply. The human waste is only partly recycled and important nutrients are lost. By comparison, Lynden’s compost toilets consume a little rainwater and potentially recycle all the human waste.

Although Lynden’s compost toilets may seem very innovative, the idea is by no means a new one and a different kind of compost toilet was invented a century and a half ago, also in Dorset, by the Rev Henry Moule, vicar of Fordington near Dorchester. At that time, sewage disposal was very primitive and Moule became convinced that poor disposal was a source of much disease. He experimented by mixing his own excreta with dry earth and was surprised that within 3-4 weeks the mixture was odourless having fully broken down. With the help of a local farmer, he showed that earth reused five times in this way was an excellent fertiliser for crops. Moule designed and patented his “earth closet” in 1860. This had a handle that, when turned, delivered a measured amount of earth on to the human excrement. For a time the earth closet was very popular and competed with the water closet as a sanitary device. Indeed, Queen Victoria had an earth closet installed at Windsor Castle. Earth closets were adopted in some schools in the UK and in gaols, government buildings and mental hospitals in Australia and India.

As we know, “earth closets” did not persist in the UK and this may have had something to do with the difficulty of ensuring that the waste was properly disposed of by individual users. Because it is so important to deal effectively with the waste problem, especially in big towns, the “flush and forget” system linked to sewerage works has been adopted. This may also have had something to do with our attitude to human excrement.

Although the earth closet now appears a historical curiosity, with increased awareness of the need to conserve water there has been an upsurge of interest in compost toilets. They are particularly useful where mains sewerage is not available, for example at allotments and at music festivals. They are popular at roadside locations in rural Scandinavia and in national parks in the US. These modern designs, including of course Lynden’s world number one, are not exactly the same as Moule’s but they are certainly in the same spirit.

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A Monkton Wyld bee pollinating a fruit tree

Brussels sprouts are for life, not just for Christmas!

Brussels sprout closeup

Here is an article I wrote for the December edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Rather like dodgy politicians, you either love or you hate Brussels sprouts and everyone has their opinion. So, I was amused to see that Riverford, the Devon-based supplier of organic vegetables has produced an ironic Advent Calendar featuring pictures of Brussels sprouts. Don’t despair though, behind the pictures of these controversial vegetables there are little doors which open to yield a mouth watering chunk of chocolate.

What is it about Brussels sprouts that so divides opinion? For some, the experience of overcooked, boiled sprouts, sulphurous, bitter, sludgy and barely green is irreversibly damaging. For others the unfortunate windy side effects of the miniature cabbages mean they are to be avoided at all costs. A growing army of sprout-evangelists, however, recognise the health giving properties of the vegetable especially when cooked properly.

Brussels sprouts are members of the brassica family along with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Sprouts are descendents of wild cabbage and although it is not known how they originated, by the 16th century they were popular in Belgium and their popularity spread to other temperate parts of Europe. Despite our love-hate relationship with sprouts, 40,000 tons of the vegetable are sold each year in the UK, a quarter of those sales occurring in December. That’s a lot of sprouts so where do the problems arise? In my experience, it’s how they are cooked that matters. Your Granny may have told you to trim them, cut a cross in the bottom and boil in water containing a little baking soda to maintain the green colour but I subscribe to Nigel Slater’s view that “The trick is to keep them well away from boiling water”. I suggest choosing small, fresh sprouts; clean, trim and shred them before stir frying in olive oil with garlic and chilli and a dash of soy sauce. But of course it’s all personal preference.

Let’s now take a closer look at the good and the bad sides of Brussels sprouts. Leafy green vegetables such as brassicas are good for us because they contain plenty of vitamins and fibre and sprouts are particularly good sources of vitamin C and vitamin K. We are all urged to eat fruit for its vitamin C content, the vitamin being a well known essential nutrient. Did you know, however, that weight for weight Brussels sprouts contain more than twice as much vitamin C as oranges?

Vitamin K has an essential role in blood clotting, facilitating wound healing; it may also help build strong bones. For most people, the high vitamin K content of sprouts is a healthy bonus but it can cause problems if you are taking anticoagulant drugs. An extreme example of this effect occurred to an Ayrshire man with a mechanical heart who was taking anticoagulants to prevent blood clots. In December 2011, he was rushed to hospital because his anticoagulants had stopped working. Apparently he had eaten a large plate of Brussels sprouts and the pro-coagulant vitamin K had counteracted the effects of his drugs.

That’s the healthy side of sprouts; now let’s look at their darker side. Part of this is the “windiness” that some people experience after eating Brussels sprouts. You probably didn’t want to know this but Sainsbury’s has compiled a “Top of the Pops” of windy vegetables: sprouts made third place beaten only by Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips. The “windiness” of sprouts arises because our stomach and small intestine lack the molecular machinery to digest them fully so they arrive in the colon only partially digested. Bacteria in the colon do contain the correct chemical scissors so they set to work on the sprout remains and produce gas. To add to the problem, sprouts contain sulphurous compounds and when these are broken down they lend the gas an unpleasant odour. I leave the rest to your imagination or experience.

As if that weren’t enough, sprouts are also renowned for their bitter taste. Brassicas and particularly Brussels sprouts contain bitter tasting compounds called glucosinolates. These sulphurous compounds are thought to act as natural pesticides protecting the plant from insects. Humans find the glucosinolates bitter and this contributes to the bad reputation of sprouts. Worse still, when sprouts are boiled, glucosinolates are released in to the cooking water where some break down to smelly sulphurous compounds and that’s the odour we all remember.

I need to add in their defence that not everyone finds sprouts bitter and this seems to be, at least in part, down to genetics. As long ago as 1930, it was realised that the ability of humans to taste bitter substances had a heritable component. People who could detect bitter substances were very likely to have other family members with the same ability. The family link was so strong that it was used as a paternity test before DNA testing was available. Now we know that detection of bitter taste depends on the number of taste buds on our tongues and the presence of receptors on the taste buds that detect the bitter substances. As a result some people taste the bitterness of Brussels sprouts more than others, accounting in part for the differences in opinion about the vegetable. Children also seem to have a greater ability to detect bitter taste compared to adults so perhaps they are not so fussy after all. The bitterness of sprouts may, however, be a thing of the past as the agrochemical companies have been working hard to breed new sweeter varieties.

Lastly, as you tuck in to your Christmas Brussels sprouts, spare a thought for Linus Urbanec of Sweden who holds the current Guinness World Record for eating the vegetable. To win the record, he ate 31 sprouts in one minute!

Those poor beleaguered bees! Now they’re being confused by diesel fumes. Or are they?

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Bees are having a hard time. Pathogens, insecticides and loss of habitat are all thought to be contributing to a decline in their numbers. Now a potential new threat has been added to the “perfect storm” threatening these insects. A group at Southampton University recently reported that diesel exhaust could be affecting the ability of honeybees to detect oilseed rape. The work was widely reported in the press with headlines such as “Bees losing sense of smell because of traffic fumes”, “Diesel fumes confuse honeybees when foraging” and “Bees cant sniff out flowers because of CARS: diesel fumes change the odour of blooms and could cause a global food crisis”

These are potentially important findings so I have tried to explain the significance of the work in a piece I wrote on another blogging site.