Last week, on a very windy day well before storm Ophelia arrived, we visited Leas Foot Sands, one of the small coves clustered around Thurlestone Bay in South Devon. Thurlestone Rock, a stone arch or “thirled stone” is a prominent local landmark located in the Bay. As well as being a popular attraction for canoeists and wild swimmers, the Rock gives the village of Thurlestone its name.
When we reached Leas Foot Sands, we stood and gazed across the water at the elemental scene. A gusty, gale force wind blew from the sea, a powerful natural force affecting everything in its path. It had been hard enough to walk there, buffeted as we were from side to side and, now, above the beach and just about able to stand, we felt specks of sand flick across our faces. The sea was a uniform grey under the overcast sky, but the wind created many white horses offshore and a sense of agitated movement. Chunky waves continually attacked the curving apron of yellowish-brown sand, each one finishing in a foaming mass of white water that mingled with the wind giving the air a moist, salty essence.
At the southern side of the beach, the sand and rocks were coated with a slightly unsavoury looking, brownish foam. I remember being alarmed, some years ago, when I first saw this spume on a beach in Cornwall and feared effects of detergents. I now know that it is a mostly natural phenomenon, caused by a high wind interacting with organic matter from marine phytoplankton.
A few hardy plants grew at the back of the beach beyond the strandline, bringing welcome colour on this mostly monochrome day. Brash yellow and white daisy-like flowers of sea mayweed bobbed in the wind and pale lilac blooms of sea rocket kept safely close to the sand along with their fleshy green leaves. A few pink lollipop flowers of thrift struggled on exposed cliff edges.
Further down the beach, bands of dark seaweed stretched in broad arcs parallel to the shore. The thickest band of seaweed was the result of the morning’s high tide; here the seaweed sparkled, seawater dripping off dark fronds as the tide receded. Mixed with the seaweed were various colourful examples of plastic waste, mostly bits and pieces of fishing tackle or rope, but I also saw an old plastic yoghurt container, a bright green plastic straw and several smaller shards of plastic. A bright pink balloon-like object clung to a flat stone nestling among the damp seaweed. I wondered if this was some kind of joke as it vaguely resembled an inflated condom but I abandoned that idea when, further along, I came across several similar objects. Hazel put me right, telling me that these were Portuguese Men O’War, very colourful but dangerously stinging organisms that float on the sea surface trailing long tentacles, until driven in by high winds. There have been reports of swarms of these colourful creatures on several beaches along the south coast and warnings that the number will increase with storm Ophelia.
Behind the wet strandline was a sparser band of dry, black seaweed, presumably resulting from sporadic higher tides. I started looking around this sector digging up the sand with a garden trowel to see what I could find. This was too much for a woman who had recently arrived on the beach with her child and friend.
“What are you looking for?” she asked me.
“I’m trying to find plastic nurdles, have you heard of them? “ I replied
“Do you mean those small bits of industrial plastic?”
“That’s right, but I can’t find any here” I continued.
“I suppose that’s good” she suggested.
I carried on looking but was unsuccessful. Hazel, however, found six of the lentil-sized plastic pellets, a mixture of grey and blue, on the other side of the beach. Earlier in the year, someone had reported collecting hundreds of plastic nurdles from this beach; perhaps we were unlucky or perhaps conditions had changed.
Marine plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time and something I want to return to in future posts.
It’s been a good summer. We’ve had some fine weather and I’ve been able to spend time on a beautiful part of the south Devon coast looking for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis). It’s one of my favourite insects and one of our rarest bees and there is a strong colony on the coast between Prawle Point and Start Point where low, soft-rock cliffs meander around headlands, in and out of rocky coves and along seaweed-covered beaches. I visited this area several times between May and July but my most interesting day was on June 23rd, just after the summer solstice.
It was breezy and warm but partly cloudy when I arrived at the coast. The sea was a uniform grey-blue although now and then the sun broke through the cloud, creating shimmering areas of white water. I started by following the coast path eastwards along the cliff top from Prawle Point. The sea-side of the path was fringed with scrub and rough grass along the cliff edge whereas the landward side was fenced and mostly used for arable farming. Many kinds of wild flower grew along both sides of the path including a few generous clumps of purple tufted vetch scrambling through the scrub. After about a mile of easy walking, the enclosed path reached a gate giving on to a broad, open area, not farmed for some years, as far as I know.
I was completely unprepared for the view that greeted me after I closed the gate. Here was a meadow where thousands of the small, dandelion-like flowers of cat’s ear moved with the breezes to create a mobile yellow canopy above the grass. Lower down were many tiny yellow globes of hop trefoil and bright pink semi-circles of common vetch. This is a paradise for insects and I saw many red-tailed bumblebee workers moving purposefully about the chrome-yellow flower heads.
But that wasn’t all: the area along the cliff edge was a kaleidoscope of purples, yellows and pinks, mostly flowering legumes such as bush, kidney and tufted vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and meadow vetchling, restharrow and narrow-leaved everlasting pea. The number and variety of flowers was greater than I can remember from previous years, perhaps the warm spring had suited the legumes.
The range of flowers, especially the legumes is ideal for the long-horned bee. I had seen one or two males back along the enclosed path and now I saw several more, also nectaring on the curving, purple, tubular florets of tufted vetch. There is something other-worldly, almost primeval about these insects with their yellow mask-like face, orange-chestnut hair (in fresh insects) and their impressively long antennae, resembling stiff black bootlaces and about the same length as rest of their bodies. They are particularly striking in flight, antennae held so that the bee can negotiate whatever obstacle it meets; controlling those antennae must involve some impressive micro-engineering. There were also females about feeding on lemon yellow pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Chunkier than the males, they have shorter antennae and, on their back legs, generous pollen brushes resembling golden harem pants.
I scrambled down a rough track to the main Eucera nest area, a section of reddish, soft-rock cliff, pock-marked with hundreds of pencil-sized holes. Behind me the sea soughed rhythmically on nearby rocks and an oystercatcher sang its plangent song. Female Eucera arrived at the nest site bringing pollen and nectar to provision their nests but they were not alone and I saw several other bee species that seemed to be using the nest area.
One species I had hoped to see was the very rare Nomada, and I had nearly given up hope when the bee suddenly appeared; I was so surprised, I nearly fell backwards off the rocks. Like others of its kind, it is wasp-like, with a yellow and black-banded abdomen and orange legs and antennae. It was the pattern of the bands, six yellow bands on a black body that told me that this was Nomada sexfasciata, the six-banded nomad bee, one of Britain’s rarest bees. This site on the south Devon coast is the only place where it is found in the UK; it is nationally endangered so it was very exciting to see it.
It moved about the nest area furtively as if trying not to be noticed and after looking in to a few of the holes it moved on. Later that day I had more sightings of the Nomada; whether it was the same bee or several I cannot say. As a nomad, the bee has no nest of its own but lays its eggs in the nest of another bee, in this case the long-horned bee. The Nomada eggs develop into larvae and take over the nest, killing the host larvae and eating their pollen store. It depends for its survival on a strong Eucera colony and this one in south Devon is one of the largest in the UK.
Long-horned bees and their Nomada used to be found widely across the southern part of Britain in the early 20th century. They favour a range of habitats such as coastal soft rock cliffs, hay meadows and woodland rides for nest sites and require unimproved flowery grassland for feeding, being especially dependent on flowering legumes for their pollen sources. With agricultural intensification leading to a loss of habitat, especially flowers, these bees have been squeezed out and are now confined to a very few sites.
It’s not difficult to see how they could be supported. At the south Devon site, all that is required is to ensure a consistent source of flowering legumes along the coast, the soft rock cliffs already provide the nest sites. I recently met Catherine Mitson who is working with Buglife on a project to support the south Devon colony of Eucera longicornis and Nomada sexfasciata by increasing the number of flowers. Catherine is very enthusiastic and I have great hopes now for the survival of both the long-horned bee and its nomad.
The featured image at the top of this post is a male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil (May 23rd 2017)
For hundreds of years, colourful, flower-rich hay meadows were a defining feature of the British countryside and its way of life. The 20th century saw a tidal wave of agricultural intensification sweep through the countryside accompanied by increased use of herbicides and pesticides. The flower-rich hay meadows were a major casualty of this change and 97% of those present in the 1930s disappeared. Dorset still has some traditionally managed meadows and, at the beginning of May, I went to Westhay Farm below Stonebarrow Hill on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset where the National Trust maintains this age-old agricultural system.
I followed the narrow lane as it rose steeply between houses and through woodland along the course of the old ridgeway road towards Stonebarrow Hill. Red campion, cow parsley, stitchwort and bluebells grew thickly along the grassy verges and bright sunlight filtered through the trees giving an unexpected transparency to overhanging leaves. Emerging from the tree cover, the lane levelled out and, to the right, the land fell away steeply in a patchwork of fields, hedges and trees towards a calm sea with just a light surface stippling.
Hidden away in this landscape is Westhay Farm, with its long, mellow-stone farmhouse set in a lush garden and surrounded by hay meadows. At this time of year, the meadows are richly carpeted with knee-high, yellow buttercups and tall, rough grass with prominent flaky seed heads. When breezes meander across the valley towards the meadows, the grasses and flowers respond, moving together in waves, like the swell on the sea below.
Partly concealed within the rough grass were tight clusters of lemon yellow flowers above thick reddish green stems. This is yellow rattle, a traditional meadowland plant, with its tubular flowers open at one end where the upper petal widens to a smooth, cowl-like structure above protruding purple stamens. A black and yellow-striped bumblebee systematically visited each flower pushing the two petals apart so that its long tongue could reach the nectar at the base. When it left with its sugary reward it also took away a dusting of pollen from the overhanging stamens to pass on to the next flower.
Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite; although it can use sunlight energy itself by the process of photosynthesis, it does better when it also establishes physical connections to the roots of other plants in the meadow such as grasses. The yellow rattle siphons off nutrients from the grasses, suppressing their vigour and creating space for other plants to thrive. This is very important for establishing a meadow with a wide range of species.
Some of the meadows contained drifts of the glittering, brightly coloured flowers of green-winged orchids, standing defiantly in the grass on thick green stems. Many of the orchids were purple, some were magenta, some violet and a few were white or pink, lending a mosaic of contrasting colour to the meadow. Each flower was composed of several florets arranged around the stem like jewels on a bracelet. The most visible and exquisite part of each orchid floret was the broad, apron-like, lower petal with its central white stripe contained within a coloured halo. This white region was decorated with a pattern of eight or more irregular darker spots, the pattern unique to each floret and perhaps decoded by visiting pollinators. Green-winged orchids are a speciality of these meadows and their name refers to the green-veined sepals that protect each developing floret, now thrown back like wings.
The Westhay meadows were a fine sight in early May with their colourful flowers and seemingly unfettered growth. As the seasons progress, the meadows will mature, the yellow rattle and orchids will disappear, their place taken by other flowers. By July the grasses will be dry and cheerful newcomers such as purple knapweed and buttery-yellow bird’s foot trefoil will bring their colours to the mosaic. In late July, the hay will be cut, this joyous, abundant growth converted into winter animal feed.
Flower-rich hay meadows such as these were a feature of the British countryside in the spring and summer for centuries. Cultivation followed the rhythm of the seasons. Grasses and flowers grew in the warmth and wet of spring and early summer and a unique species-rich environment developed. Hay was cut in late summer and removed for winter animal feed, after the flowers had set seed. Animals grazed the fields in autumn taking advantage of the late-summer grass growth, the aftermath. No chemicals were used and the only fertiliser came from the autumn-grazing animals. The following spring, plants grew, seeds germinated and the cycle began again. This was a carefully managed land cultivation system, in tune with the seasons and their weather.
Haymaking was an important part of the rural calendar, a natural part of each year’s cycle, celebrated in literature and art. Here is part of William Barnes’ poem Haymeaken depicting a 19th century rural Dorset scene:
‘Tis merry ov a zummer’s day,
Where vo’k be out a-meaken hay ;
Where men an’ women, in a string,
Do ted or turn the grass, an’ zing,
Wi’ cheemen vaices, merry zongs,
A-tossen o’ their sheenen prongs
Wi’ earms a-zwangen left an’ right,
In colour’d gowns an’ shirtsleeves white
All this was set to change in the 20th century. Fears for food security during the two world wars led to agricultural intensification and an increased dependence on artificial fertilisers. Flower-rich hay meadows all but disappeared, a way of life evaporated and the look of the countryside changed.
It wasn’t just the look that changed. Adoption of new methods coupled with increased use of herbicides and pesticides significantly affected wildlife in the countryside. Loss of farmland birds and pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, flies and beetles has been severe.
This article appeared in the July 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?” I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.
Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts. It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends. But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter. Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.
Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed. Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed. The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy. On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.
Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows. Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation. Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could. A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism. Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.
The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud. The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook. The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass. They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.
From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar. Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids. This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road. It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away. Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.
As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers. Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery. A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park. I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid. This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!
There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals. The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns. Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface. Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate. Above this pale green structure are two horns.
As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers. They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals). To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal. I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.
The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate. As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time. In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid. But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees. To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.
Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature. I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters. I love the orchids. I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry. This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife. Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do? Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?
As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”
I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017
We try to make our garden welcoming for bees by growing flowers that provide pollen and nectar throughout the season. We also have some unkempt areas they might want to nest in and we don’t use any pesticides. I enjoy watching the bees foraging on the flowers as they come in to bloom and currently a large cotoneaster bush is full of small bumblebees buzzing loudly as they feed in the sunshine. It’s been very exciting this year to see bumblebees and solitary bees nesting in the dry-stone walls around the garden.
When we need new plants or compost, there is one local garden centre we use. It has a good range of healthy-looking plants and a very nice tearoom! In early spring, it’s also an excellent place to watch one of my favourite bees, the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), whizzing about in the greenhouses full of flowers. Earlier this year, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late March, I noticed that these Anthophora had set up nests in the old brick wall of one of the garden centre’s buildings.
I wanted to find out more so I got in touch with our favourite garden centre and asked whether they were using neonicotinoid insecticides on their plants. They reassured me that they were not. So far so good. I then asked if their suppliers used neonicotinoids in the compost on the plants they sold. The reply came back “I’m afraid I can’t answer that question without phoning every supplier. Also a few companies we deal with import some of their stock from other European countries. I’m happy to ask my local nurseries when I’m speaking to them.” That’s the last I heard.
Dave Goulson got his money and went ahead with the analyses. The results of his tests have just been published and they don’t make happy reading; here is a link to his blog on the topic. He and his colleagues bought 29 pots of flowering plants from well-known garden centres around Brighton (Wyevale, Aldi, B & Q, Homebase). Many were labelled “bee-friendly” and some had the Royal Horticultural Society endorsement “Perfect for Pollinators”.
They analysed a range of pesticides in leaves and pollen from the plants and found that most of the plants contained a cocktail of insecticides and fungicides. In the leaf analysis, only 2 of the 29 plants contained no pesticides. 76% contained one or more insecticide and 38 % contained two or more. 70% of the leaf samples analysed positive for neonicotinoid insecticides, well known for their toxic effects on bees. In the pollen analysis, neonicotinoids were found at levels known to cause harm to bees. So much for “Perfect for Pollinators”.
As a result of his work, B & Q announced that from February 2018 their plants would be neonicotinoid-free. Aldi revealed that they had stopped using neonicotinoids in October 2016, a few months after Goulson’s analyses took place. Neither B & Q nor Aldi addressed the other chemicals found in the Sussex analysis.
The Horticultural Trades Association issued a statement that I believe is both silly and cynical, basically rubbishing Goulson’s analysis. You can read Dave Goulson’s rebuttal here.
So, it really is true that when we buy plants to help bees in our gardens from garden centres, we may be unwittingly exposing the bees to harmful chemicals, despite the “bee-friendly” labels. Also, any insect that nips into a garden centre for a feed, especially early in the season when garden centres have an abundance of flowers, may be getting a hit of insecticide at the same time.
So, what do we do if we want to have a bee-friendly garden?
Dave Goulson recommends the following course of action: if you must buy plants, buy from an organic garden centre or, failing that, go to B & Q or Aldi. Better still, grow from seed or swap plants with friends and neighbours.
One point that has not been discussed so far concerns potential effects on humans of these pesticides found in garden centre plants. Earlier this year, I bought some fruit bushes from the garden centre and these now have a nice crop of plump berries. If these plants have been treated with pesticides, and of course I don’t know if they have, then the fruit will presumably also contain these pesticides. This possibility makes me very angry. I grow fruit in our garden so that we can eat chemical free, fresh, good quality produce. I don’t want to ingest insecticides and fungicides with poorly defined toxic effects on humans.
The featured image shows a hairy-footed fower bee feeding from plants in a lane adjacent to the garden centre
Runny nose, sore throat, hacking cough? Do you run to the pharmacy for a cough medicine that may or may not help? Until 2006, in the market town of Bridport in the south west of the UK, the locals had the luxury of a cough medicine that really seemed to work. The medicine was Fudge’s Mentholated Honey Syrup, or as the locals christened it, Fudge’s Firewater. Here is the story of this potent potion, how it came about and why it is no longer available.
The story begins in the 1950s when Ken Fudge moved from London to Bridport to open his pharmacy in West Allington, next door to Balsons, Britain’s oldest family butchers (est. 1515). For Mr Fudge, trained in London but born in Blandford, this was something of a return to his roots. At that time, many pharmacists devised their own remedies, often to secret recipes, and Mr Fudge was no exception. He made several nostrums, as these remedies produced and sold in a single pharmacy are called, but the most popular and enduring was his Mentholated Honey Syrup (known locally as Fudge’s Firewater). When Mr Fudge retired in 1973, the recipe transferred to the East Street Pharmacy where it was sold until 2006, for much of that time under the supervision of Mr Kevin Morrish. Even now, the mere mention of the Fudge’s name evokes a warm wave of nostalgia and longing in many Bridport people.
Fudge’s Firewater was an old-style cough medicine recommended for common winter ailments: coughs, colds, influenza, loss of voice, hoarseness, sore throat and catarrh. The dose was one teaspoon every four hours and the label warned ominously that each spoonful should be “taken very slowly”. It was sold “over the counter” without prescription but strictly under the control of the pharmacist. Fudge’s Firewater was immensely popular and many people have told me how much they trusted it to help their symptoms: “Brilliant cough mixture, couldn’t beat it”, “Amazing medicine for coughs and sore throats”, “Never bought anything else”, “Please, if there is a god, bring back Fudge’s Firewater”. People travelled long distances to purchase the medicine, holiday makers often went home with supplies and, during some winters, as many as 250 bottles of Firewater were sold each week at the East Street Pharmacy.
The medicine also had a formidable reputation: “It nearly blew your head off but by golly it did the trick”, “Tasted like red diesel mixed with the finest brandy, lovely”, “The menthol really took your breath away” “It was a trial to take but you knew it would make you better” and several people spoke of “the Fudge’s shudder”.
As Mr Fudge himself said: “Some do swear by it, some do swear at it”.
Unconventional uses of Fudge’s Firewater
The medicine was also a voice-saver for some professional singers and I heard about one well-known entertainer who would regularly send a friend to buy Firewater from Mr Morrish to help lubricate her vocal cords. Similarly, Marco Rossi told me that, in the 1990s, when he was part of local band, Stocky Lamaar, performing in smoke-filled pubs around Dorset, he and Al, the other vocalist, each had a bottle of the potion by them on stage. With the occasional swig of Firewater, they could sing all evening without sounding like “Madge from Neighbours at a Bonnie Tyler tribute karaoke night”.
What was Fudge’s Firewater and how did it work?
Mr Fudge’s medicine was a dark brown syrupy liquid made by mixing menthol crystals and a little fudgy flavouring into Gee’s Linctus, itself an old-fashioned cough remedy dating from the Victorian era. Gee’s linctus, or to give it its proper name, squill linctus opiate, contains several potentially active ingredients.
First, there is tincture of opium, an alcoholic extract of opium (the resin derived from the seed capsules of opium poppies). The main active ingredient in opium is morphine, a substance with an established effect on cough, but also a well-known drug of abuse, and the linctus contains morphine at low levels. Squill, a plant extract, is another potentially active component in the linctus that, paradoxically, encourages coughing and mucus removal. The medicine also contains alcohol at similar levels to a fortified wine and this may have contributed to the Firewater experience. Mr Fudge’s masterstroke was to boost the effects of the Gee’s linctus by adding menthol, a remedy used for many years to help with symptoms of coughs and colds; menthol may also act as an oral anaesthetic helping with sore throats and may relieve nasal congestion.
Although cough medicines cannot alter the course of viral infections, they may help you feel better and Mr Fudge’s medicine attacked symptoms in several ways which is perhaps why it was so popular and so successful. It was the menthol, however, that made the potion so memorable, justifying the Firewater nickname and establishing a shared experience among those who used it, believed in it and benefitted from it.
Abuse of Fudge’s Firewater
Non-prescription medicines such as Gee’s linctus, and Fudge’s Firewater, have been abused by people trying to access even the small amounts of morphine they contain. Gee’s linctus is, for example, reported to induce a “lovely euphoria and dreaminess”, but only if you are prepared to drink 50ml or more of the medicine! Local pharmacists were aware of the problem and tried to control it: Mr Morrish monitored all sales personally and Mr Conroy (manager in the early 21st century) restricted sales to one bottle per person, with a signature.
The end of Fudge’s Firewater
Gee’s linctus gradually fell out of favour as a cough medicine because of the problem of abuse. Finding commercial sources of the linctus became more difficult and temporary interruptions to the availability of Fudge’s Firewater occurred early in the 21st century. Then, in January 2006, a notice appeared on the window of Bridport’s East Street Pharmacy (then owned by Moss/Alliance) announcing that the medicine would be discontinued owing to “problems with the supply of ingredients”. That was the official line but I suspect this was not the full story. Around this time there had also been a change in the pharmacy regulations. Nostrums containing even small amounts of morphine, like Fudge’s Firewater, now required a prescription and this change must have contributed to Moss’s decision.
That wasn’t quite the end, though, because a modified Firewater was available for a few years from the St John’s Pharmacy in Weymouth, about 20 miles south east of Bridport. A Weymouth pharmacist, Mr Dipan Shah, produced and sold a version of the potion but because of the change in pharmacy regulations, people needed to persuade their doctor to issue a private prescription if they wanted the medicine. The need for a prescription severely affected sales and by 2009 production finally ceased. The change in regulations also means that Fudge’s Firewater is very unlikely ever to reappear.
Fudge’s Firewater served Bridport well for 50 years. The medicine is now just a memory but one that should be preserved as an important part of Bridport’s history.
I should like to thank Angela Alexander, Stuart Anderson, Richard Balson, David Conroy, Richard Cooper, Margery Hookings, Diana Leake, Kevin Morrish, Caroline Morrish-Banham, Dipan Shah, Elizabeth Williamson, Joy Wingfield, The Bridport Museum and the many commenters on social media who generously helped me in preparing this article.
The picture at the top of this post shows Mr David Conroy, manager of the East Street Pharmacy in Bridport in the early 21st century (from the Bridport News).
For a matter of record, I have set down the timeline of Mr Fudge’s Medicine below
The Fudge’s Firewater Timeline
1950s Mr Ken Fudge opens his pharmacy at 7 West Allington, Bridport and begins production of Mentholated Honey Syrup (Fudge’s Firewater) 1973 Mr Fudge retires and the recipe for Firewater transfers to Mr Joe Sparrow at his 24 East Street Pharmacy 1975 Mr Kevin Morrish takes over the East Street Pharmacy, together with Fudge’s Firewater 1998 Mr Morrish retires and the business is acquired by Lifestyle 2001 Moss acquires the East Street Pharmacy, Mr David Conroy is the manager until 2005 2006 Moss ceases production of Fudge’s Firewater 2006-2009 Firewater available in Weymouth (Mr Dipan Shah, St John’s Pharmacy) but only with private prescription.
If you want to find a traditional baker, then the county of Dorset in the south west of the UK is a good place to start. They make all kinds of artisan breads and cakes but one of their most popular offerings is the Dorset Apple Cake, a local speciality that also graces tearoom menus throughout the county, often accompanied by a hefty dollop of clotted cream. In 2006, the cake was voted the food most associated with Dorset and, earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper carried a feature on “How to cook the perfect Dorset Apple Cake”.
So what’s all the fuss about and what exactly is a Dorset Apple Cake? And can I make a Dorset Apple Cake worthy of the professionals?
I began my Dorset Apple Cake quest by looking at recipes, hoping I might find the definitive version of this local delicacy. I had no trouble finding recipes, indeed every celebrity chef or home baker seems to have one. The problem is that each recipe is unique, calling for different quantities of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and baking powder, and of course apple; some also add sultanas and lemon, and many include cinnamon. So, there is no definitive recipe and all we can say is that the Dorset Apple Cake is a rich cake containing apple.
I also found two older recipes, one from 1925 (Miss Hetty King) and another from 1932 (Miss Annette Vipan, North Chideock). These are simpler than many modern versions but include plenty of apple, probably reflecting local ingredients. There is also a reference to apple cake in a poem, Father Come Home (1834), by the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, and I suspect that apple cakes have been made in Dorset for a very long time.
Most apple growing counties in the UK make some kind of apple cake and I came across recipes from Somerset, Devon and Kent as well as further afield. There is some variation, for example cider is often included in the Somerset cake, but for the most part, these cakes resemble the Dorset version. So why has Dorset Apple Cake come to dominate, capturing the imagination of celebrity chefs and home bakers and featuring in the Guardian newspaper? I asked local bakers whether they knew what set the Dorset version apart but they just shrugged their shoulders. I came to the conclusion that Dorset Apple Cake has been made in the county for many years by local people but has recently acquired a certain mystique, partly through the appropriation of the cake as the county food and partly with the enhanced foodie profile of Dorset.
I visit the experts
My next stop was Leakers, a well-known, traditional bakery in the west Dorset town of Bridport. As well as making its own version of Dorset Apple Cake, Leakers has sponsored the Best Dorset Apple Cake competition at the local Melplash Show so they should know a thing or two about the county’s signature food. Although the business is now owned by Caroline Parkins, the apple cake is made by Jo Leaker, grand-daughter of George Leaker who moved from Devon in 1914 to take over the Bridport bakery. Jo has been making the cake at Leakers on a part time basis for ten years using a recipe dating from 1914 “handed down and tweaked”. I met Jo in the bakery at the end of a baking day and found her standing proudly by six large trays of apple cake, each a mosaic of rich chestnut brown cake and pale green apple chunks. She was very welcoming and keen to share her knowledge, providing this didn’t extend to the recipe! “Many people have tried to get hold of it!” she told me.
Jo described her cake as “rough and rustic with lots of apple”. She uses eaters or cookers, whatever is available, peeled and roughly chopped within the cake while the surface is decorated with chunks so the apple taste comes through; cinnamon is included but no sultanas or lemon. Her cake is very popular, it’s now a Leakers speciality, and in the peak season she makes twenty trays a week.
The Great Dorset Apple Cake Bake Off
Inspired by my visit to Leakers, I decided to try my hand at making apple cake. I made two versions: one according to the Guardian’s “perfect” recipe which, aside from the usual ingredients, used wholemeal flour and Cox’s apples; my second cake had less sugar and butter and was based on a recipe from Amanda Persey’s book of “Favourite Dorset Recipes”. I used cooking apples, added cinnamon and decorated the top with apple chunks. Details of these recipes are given below.
While the cakes were baking, I couldn’t help pondering the seemingly magical transformation taking place in the oven. What chemical changes were occurring as the cake baked and how does each ingredient contribute to the structure, lightness and flavour of the final product?
Every baker wants their cake to be light and airy but it needs some structure as well and here the flour is a major contributor. Proteins in the flour come together to make gluten when they meet moisture; the gluten forms a protein scaffold, a flexible web that helps trap carbon dioxide and water vapour as the cake expands. The lightness comes from the raising agent, baking powder; during the early phase of baking it releases carbon dioxide gas which becomes trapped within the matrix of egg, butter, sugar and flour causing the mixture to expand and giving the cake a light, porous texture. Butter brings flavour and richness as well as restraining gluten formation helping to keep the texture light. The eggs provide moisture and the egg proteins solidify during baking, sealing off the bubbles of carbon dioxide; the structure of the cake is completed by the coagulation of the flour proteins.
The winning apple cake
Armed with two of my own cakes and a chunk of the Leakers version, I asked my home tasting panel which they liked best. The Guardian “perfect” cake looked good and had a light open texture, but everyone in my household found it too sweet, so much so that it overpowered the taste of the apples. It might work better with a tart cooking apple but it definitely was not to our taste. My second cake also looked good and the apple chunks gave it an appropriately rustic feel. We liked this cake with its dense but crumbly texture; it was not too sweet, allowing the apple taste to come through strongly. Jo Leaker’s apple cake was, however, the winner and it was especially good when warmed. We liked its very moist but dense texture and its strong apple taste, combined with a not-too-sweet crumb and an interesting buttery surface. I should have realised that the professionals know best!
Now it’s your turn to get baking and discover the mysteries and the pleasures of Dorset Apple Cake.
Rapadura sugar (175g) (Felicity Cloake calls for light muscovado which may work better)
Butter, melted (150g)
2 large eggs, beaten
4 medium Cox apples, cored but not peeled, then diced (The apple flavour may come through better with a tart cooking apple, but I followed Felicity’s suggestion of Cox’s)
Demerara sugar to top
Flaked almonds (2 tbsp) for top
Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, spice, and sugar in a bowl.
Stir in the butter and eggs and beat together for a minute or so until combined well.
Stir in the apples until well distributed, then spoon the mixture in to the tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner).
Smooth the top and sprinkle with the Demerara sugar.
Bake for an hour at 160 oC,
Add the almonds and bake for a further 15-25 mins until coming away from the tin. (my cake needed more time overall so you may need to test with a skewer until it comes away clean)
My Second Cake
Modified from Amanda Persey “Favourite Dorset Recipes”
Plain flour (115g)
Spelt flour (wholemeal) (115g)
Baking powder 2tsp
Rapadura sugar (115g)
One egg, beaten
Natural yoghurt (1 tbsp) (this was an addition suggested by Hazel to make the cake more moist, it could have taken more)
Cooking apples, peeled and cored (225g roughly chopped (in the cake), 90g chunks (each chunk about one eighth of one apple) for the top))
Melted butter for brushing the top
Mix the flours and baking powder and rub in the butter by hand until is resembles bread crumbs.
Mix in the sugar and cinnamon.
Add 225g of roughly chopped apple
Mix in the beaten egg and the natural yoghurt and stir well until mixed evenly
Put the mixture in a cake tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner) and smooth the surface
Press apple chunks (90 g in total) in to the surface
Brush surface with melted butter
Bake at 170 degrees for 30-40 min until surface is firm to touch or a skewer inserted in the cake comes away clean. The recipe calls for 30-40 min but I had to cook for longer, it will depend on your oven.