Category Archives: applications of science

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

The sweet retired bay at Charmouth – now polluted by black and blue plastic pellets

This is a long post describing how a group of concerned people, including myself, noticed some unusual plastic pellets appearing on several beaches in the vicinity of Charmouth in west Dorset in the south west of the UK.  After a tortuous investigation, we identified the source of the plastic pellet pollution as a local water company carelessly and unnecessarily discharging the pellets into the sea. 

The story started on a sultry day in late July 2017.  I was driving back from the Wareham area where I had been walking across one of the remaining fragments of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the fictional landscape that plays so important a part in his novel The Return of the Native.  I found myself approaching Charmouth, a small village in west Dorset and decided I needed a cup of tea.  Charmouth village lies a short distance inland from the sea and Charmouth beach is popular with families in the summer, the cliffs are famous for their fossils and in her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen refers to “its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs”.

I was the only customer in the Bank House Café that afternoon and as I waited for my tea, I noticed some copies of the village magazine, Shoreline.  I picked one up and started to leaf through.  It’s an interesting read but my attention was taken by an article about “nurdles” written by Eden Thomson, a volunteer at the local Heritage Centre that organises marine and fossil events.  I quickly learnt that nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets used as easily transportable raw materials in the plastics industry where they are used to make many of the plastic goods we have become accustomed to.  There is considerable loss of these pellets during transport and during use.   Some of these lost pellets end up in the sea and Eden reported finding large numbers of turquoise pellets on the beach at Charmouth with light grey and dark grey also being common.  I didn’t have time to go to the beach to look that day but my curiosity was piqued.

Looking for pellets

Now, when we walked on beaches, both Hazel and I looked to see if we could find any plastic pellets.  It took me a while to get my eye in, Hazel saw them more quickly, but gradually I noticed a few pellets on most beaches.  My first big find was at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone in south Devon after some hefty storms in mid October 2017 where hundreds were sprinkled along the strandlines.  These were all 5mm or less across, some were lentil shaped and translucent, many were cylindrical and grey and a few were irregular grey and black with clear ridges.  By reference to the Great Nurdle Hunt web site I reckoned most were nurdles but a few might be biobeads (see below).

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 2
Plastic pellets found on Leas Foot Sands among natural debris (October 2017)

 

Then in late October 2017 I had a chance to return to Charmouth and look at the beach.  Not only was there a lot of general plastic pollution among reedy/woody debris either side of the river Char where it approaches the beach, but among this debris were many plastic pellets.  There were a few of the translucent or yellow or green lentil shaped pellets, also some grey or black cylindrical pellets.  Most of these were nurdles.  Also, as Eden Thomson had described, there were many bright blue cylindrical pellets.   When I examined these, I felt they were quite different from other pellets I had seen; in particular they had many fine ridges and I thought they might be biobeads (see below).   We returned to Charmouth in January 2018 and again found many of the bright blue ridged pellets littered around the two sides of the river and on the car park edges. We also made a brief visit to West Bay, about 7 miles to the east of Charmouth and found many bright blue ridged pellets there as well.

Debris along the east side of the river Char (October 2017)

 

Close-up view of debris showing blue ridged biobeads, some black biobeads are visible if you look about

 

A sample of pellets collected at Charmouth in October 2017 showing the preponderance of blue ridged biobeads. Some yellow and some translucent lentil-shaped nurdles and some grey cylindrical nurdles are also present

Dawlish Warren is another beach where we find plastic debris especially after storms and we had a look for pellets in March 2018.  We found them distributed along both inner and outer beaches, they were mostly cylindrical, pale blue, grey and green but there were a few knobbly dark grey pellets, some also having ridges.  We also found a few of the bright blue ridged pellets seen at Charmouth.

Trying to understand

In trying to understand these observations, I was greatly helped by the influential report from the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) lead by Claire Wallerstein.   The CPPC had found huge numbers of black plastic pellets further west along beaches in Cornwall and, following extensive investigation, showed that these were biobeads, plastic pellets used in some sewage plants to promote sewage digestion and water purification.   Biobeads are usually ridged or knobbly to provide a greater surface area for bacteria to grow and help digest the sewage.  The CPPC showed that most likely the biobeads they found on beaches were escaping from biobead-dependent sewage plants run by South West Water, the local water purification and sewage company.

Based on their findings, I worked out that I was collecting both nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets) and biobeads.   For the most part when I collected pellets from beaches in Devon, I found mixtures of nurdles of different shapes and colours together with a few black knobbly biobeads.  At Charmouth and West Bay in Dorset, however, the predominant pellet was bright blue, cylindrical with fine ridges, typical of a biobead.  There were definitely also some black knobbly biobeads on the beach at Charmouth.  The four pictures below showing samples of pellets collected from two regions of Dawlish Warren beach in Devon and two sides of Charmouth Beach illustrate these differences quite well.

Pellets collected at Dawlish Warren (November 2018) between groynes 2-3.  Note many translucent and yellow nurdles together with some black knobbly biobeads and a few blue ridged biobeads

 

Pellets collected at Dawlish Warren (November 2018) between groynes 9-10

 

Pellets collected at Charmouth (January 2019) from the beach on the east side of river Char. Note the preponderance of blue ridged biobeads, also some black knobbly biobeads and a few translucent and yellow nurdles.

 

Pellets collected at Charmouth (January 2019) from the beach on the west side of the river Char.

 

So, did South West Water (SWW) have a role in the biobead pollution appearing on Charmouth beach?  The company runs a sewage works in nearby Lyme Regis based on biobead digestion.  The actual works is located in Sleech Wood above the town but the purified sewage effluent is discharged into the sea some distance off the town of Lyme Regis below the Cardinal Buoy.  I began to develop a working hypothesis whereby SWW uses these blue biobeads and probably also the black knobbly equivalent in their Sleech Wood works but containment of biobeads is incomplete and some are discharged into the sea and are washed back on to Charmouth and West Bay beaches. Another possibility was that pellets were being lost into the river Lim, which passes near the sewage works, to enter the sea with the river water.

A Nurdle Hunt

In the meantime, I took part in a nurdle hunt on Charmouth Beach organised by Sophie Thomas from the Charmouth Heritage Centre one Saturday in February 2018.  There were 30 nurdle hunters on a bright sunny morning including Eden Thomson who wrote the article in Shoreline Magazine and it was good to meet her.  It was also good to meet blogging friend Sarah West from Transition Town Bridport and her husband John.  Altogether we collected 6650 pellets many of which were bright blue biobeads although a few black knobbly biobeads were mixed in with the blues.  It is my impression that the black type may often be ignored in favour of the much more visible bright blue pellet.

One hunter's haul
One nurdle hunter’s haul

 

I wrote an article for the local Marshwood Vale Magazine describing the nurdle hunt and its background.  This was published in May 2018 and soon after, I was contacted by Joe Hackett of Transition Town Bridport who had organised a beach clean at West Bay (seven miles east of Charmouth) and found many bright blue pellets there.  He had noted the similarity between the pellets found at West Bay and Charmouth and wondered if we could discuss the situation.  We spoke by phone and have been in contact since then.

Frustration

In March and April 2018, I became very frustrated at my inability to tie down the nature and the origin of these blue and black biobeads.  I had contacted various academic experts, pressure groups and one local plastics company to ask if they could help me understand the nature of the pellets and the background to what was going on.  I was very surprised to find that none of these people was prepared to get involved.  Of all the people I contacted, only one replied and she was “too busy to help”.

I did investigate one possible hypothesis, namely that the biobeads were being lost from the Lyme Regis sewage works into the river Lim.  I walked along the river Lim in Lyme Regis to see if any pellets were visible at the river’s edge but found none suggesting that this route was unlikely.  When I talked to Joe Hackett, it turned out he had done the same accompanied by local environmentalist, Horatio Morpurgo.  They also found nothing suggesting that pellets were not being lost in to the river Lim.  This meant that most likely the biobeads were being discharged into the sea along with the treated sewage.

Claire Wallerstein from the CPPC offered to ask SWW what biobeads they used at their Lyme Regis sewage works and was told, “we don’t know and it would cost too much to use a crane to lift the lid to check”.

 

I enter the South West Water labyrinth

In desperation, I contacted the South West Water (SWW) Press Office in May 2018 and my enquiry was forwarded to Paul McNie, Environmental Manager of Waste Water Customer Service & Networks.  I received a reply from Gavin Lincoln, Wastewater Treatment Process Consultant, asking what I wanted to know.  I sent him a list of questions about biobead-dependent sewage treatment including asking what type of biobead was used at Lyme Regis but heard nothing.  After discussions with Joe Hackett and Horatio Morpurgo, I wrote a paper letter to McNie in July 2018 asking about the nature of the biobeads used at the Lyme Regis Sewage Works.  This occasioned a reply from Sue Richards, Customer Manager for SWW towards the end of July introducing herself as my dedicated case manager (it felt as though my enquiry ranked at about the same level as a leaking water pipe).  I received a second letter in early August from Katie Hudson, also a Customer Services manager telling me that Paul McNie would be in touch about my queries.  He never did get back to me and the rest of my interactions with SWW were through Sue Richards who, although courteous and helpful, appeared to be poorly briefed as she made some obvious errors of fact in her letters to me.  The saga continued in this vein but she did reveal that the biobeads used at Lyme Regis were “black with a hint of blue” and after I asked what this meant she sent me a low-resolution photo printed on letter paper showing the biobeads used there.  They all appeared to be black and strongly resembled one class of biobead found at Charmouth as well as the majority of those found by CPPC in Cornwall.   I spoke to Sue Richards by phone several times and raised the issue of the blue biobeads only to have the conversation closed down quickly.

To summarise, SWW told us three contradictory stories:

  1. They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
  2. The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
  3. The biobeads used are black and knobbly

This was all very confusing and I was left not knowing what to believe.

 

Living the high life – visits to the sewage works

In the meantime, Joe Hackett had been busy organising visits to Exmouth and Lyme Regis sewage works as it was felt that this was our last chance to understand what was going on.  The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition had visited the Plympton sewage works early in 2017 and found biobeads littered about the site.  This was a key piece of information linking poor biobead housekeeping by SWW at the Plympton sewage works to the extensive biobead pollution on Cornish beaches.

The Exmouth visit took place in November 2018 but I was unable to be there.  Those that visited had an interesting time and learnt about the basics of the biobead sewage treatment.  They did not find any biobeads loose on the site but noticed a huge pile of used/depleted biobeads, the size of two buses, covered with sheeting.  The SWW representative expressed his frustration over the problems the company faced with biobeads in the following admission “If we’d had a crystal ball back in the 1990s and could have seen how controversial plastics would have become, we might not have gone down this road”.  I believe this was a reference to the pressure put on the company by Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC over losses of biobeads from the Plympton sewage works.

The Lyme Regis visit took place in February 2019 and a large group of us representing Transition Town Bridport, Charmouth Heritage Centre, Litter Free Coast and Sea Dorset, together with individuals each with their own interest gathered at the site in Sleech Wood.   We were welcomed by two representatives of SWW, Rhidian Howells and Stephanie Jones who were both courteous and helpful.  Rhidian Howells explained how the automated process removed large items from the crude sewage and then passed the remains through the biobead reactor where bacteria digested it.  Ultraviolet irradiation completed the treatment and the effluent was then discharged to the sea.  He went to some trouble to explain how SWW was installing new filters on all their biobead plants to make sure that biobead loss was minimised.  The installation of these extra filters is a direct result of the work of Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC identifying the source of biobeads on Cornish beaches as South West Water.

Two blue biobeads found on the ground at Lyme Regis sewage works

 

Black biobeads found on the ground at Lyme Regis sewage works

While we were looking about the biobead reactor area, one of our party found a few of the bright blue ridged biobeads on the ground.  A little later, someone found a clutch of black knobbly biobeads on the ground near the parking area.  This immediately answered the question about the source of the biobeads on Charmouth beach: despite what SWW had told us we now knew both black and blue biobeads were used at the Lyme Regis sewage works (Howells confirmed this) and were most likely escaping from the reactors to end up in the sea.  I became very angry with Howells at this point; as I explained to him, we had spent so much time and energy trying to identify the source of the biobead pollution at Charmouth.   South West Water had fed us contradictory stories, when all along they knew the source of the pollution which was their own sewage works.

Chemical analysis of pellets

The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition biobead story featured on a special edition of Inside Out South West on BBC TV in October 2018.  The programme included visiting Dr Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth where he had been analysing pellets for Claire Wallerstein for potentially toxic elements.  I wondered if similar analysis might help understand the Charmouth blue pellets so I contacted Dr Turner.  I was most grateful when he replied quickly and in the affirmative.  I made two special collections, one at Dawlish Warren and another at Charmouth and I also sent him some of the black biobeads picked up at the Lyme Regis sewage works.

While this was in progress, Dr Turner along with Claire Wallerstein and Rob Arnold published a paper detailing X-ray fluorescence analyses of nurdles and black biobeads collected at a variety of locations in the south west (including Plympton sewage works and several Cornish beaches) and elsewhere along the English Channel.  The technique identifies potentially toxic elements in the pellets and, whereas nurdles were usually devoid of these contaminants, the black biobeads contained varying quantities of lead, bromine, cadmium and antimony, a chemical signature characteristic of recycled electrical equipment containing flame retardants. Sometimes the levels exceeded permitted levels rendering the pellets toxic and potentially hazardous to life.

Black biobeads collected at Dawlish Warren, Charmouth and at Lyme Regis sewage works had the same chemical signature (bromine and antimony and sometimes lead and cadmium) as the black biobeads collected at Plympton sewage works and along Cornish beaches.  This shows that the same black biobead is used by SWW at different sewage works and is escaping to end up on local beaches in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.   Nurdles found at Dawlish Warren and Charmouth (lentil shaped and smooth, cylindrical) did not hold any toxic element contamination whereas the blue biobeads found at Charmouth contained copper probably part of the blue pigment used to give the distinctive colour.

I am most grateful to Andrew Turner for supporting us by analysing these pellets.

 

 

Conclusions

  1. The source of the black and blue biobeads polluting Charmouth and West Bay beaches is the Lyme Regis sewage works run by South West Water where these pellets are escaping with treated sewage effluent to be discharged into the sea.
  2. The black biobead is the same pellet found along beaches in Devon and Dorset and in huge numbers on Cornish beaches, it is made from recycled electrical equipment and may contain toxic levels of trace elements. South West Water is responsible for this extensive pollution.
  3. Subsequent investigation found that the blue ridged biobead is also found at Burton Freshwater beach (a mile east of West Bay, found by Joe Hackett) and on the main sandy beach in Lyme Regis (about 2 miles west of Charmouth, found by Harry Dennis of Surfers Against Sewage). The pellets found on these beaches almost certainly come from the Lyme Regis sewage works
  4. One sample of pellets that I collected from Westcombe beach near Kingston in south Devon showed surprisingly large numbers of the blue ridged biobeads. Perhaps this can be explained by proximity to SWW’s biobead-dependent sewage works at Modbury.

 

  1. At Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis, these biobeads are found in parts of the beach where children play in the summer. They are also found at Charmouth by the river where both gulls and ducks feed so it seems very likely that these birds will be accidentally ingesting pellets.

South West Water are installing extra filters at their biobead-dependent plants to minimise pellet loss as a result of the efforts of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. Providing that programme is completed and is successful, the number of biobeads on local beaches should diminish.  This of course does not deal with the reservoir of biobeads now in the sea and also buried in sand.  It is very difficult for me to see how these pellets can be cleaned up without damaging the fabric of the very beaches we wish to protect.

  1. Greater legal protection for the marine environment should be introduced so that companies like SWW who release biobeads, also plastics companies that release nurdles could be prosecuted for polluting seas and beaches.

 

I should like to express my thanks to everyone who helped bring this tortuous story to a conclusion.

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.

Fudge 806
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.

Fudge bottle
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”.

P1000282
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.

Illustration Papaver somniferum0.jpg
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).

………………………………………………………………………………………………

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.

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

 

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

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

………………………………………

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

 

Hydro and weir
The two Archimedes Screws alongside the weir

 

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

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

 

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

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

……………………………………..

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

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

 

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

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

From bitter bark to wonder drug – the story of aspirin

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

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

The bitter taste of willow bark

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

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

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

 

The rise of science in the 19th century

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

The birth of aspirin

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

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

New pain killers and new uses for aspirin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis_Dartnell-Clissold-Catherine_Frawley-lowres-272x300
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.

……………….

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?

…………………..

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.

The-Knowledge-UK-paperback
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.

………………………..

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.

MW 3

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.

MW 9
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.

MW6
One of the compost toilets
MW5
The rather beautiful toilet
MW 2
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.

MW4
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.

MW 1
A Monkton Wyld bee pollinating a fruit tree