Tag Archives: blackmore vale

The opium fields of England

A surprising picture appeared in the Guardian newspaper towards the end of June. It showed fields, near Blandford, Dorset in South West England, painted lilac with the flowers of the opium poppy. This controversial crop, associated in many people’s minds with war-torn countries like Afghanistan, is now being grown commercially in England to produce the medically-important pain killer morphine. But just how did opium poppies come to be grown across swathes of rural England?

Opium and the opium poppy

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Papaver somniferum as described in a 19th century German book (from Wikipedia, click on the picture for more details)

 

The opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum as it is more correctly called, is an imposing plant with fleshy grey-green leaves, showy pastel coloured flowers and impressive pepper pot seed heads. Standing up to a metre tall, the opium poppy brings architectural interest to the garden but it has a darker side. Within the seed head is a milky liquid containing a mixture of narcotic chemicals including morphine and codeine. If the unripe seed head is pierced, this latex seeps out and, left to dry, this is opium, prized for its extraordinary psychoactive powers.

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The unripe seed capsule of an opium poppy pierced to release the opium (from Wikipedia)

 

Humans have used opium for many thousands of years and the earliest written reference to the drug comes from the Middle East around 4000BC. The ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations were also well acquainted with the properties of the drug using it enthusiastically. Although growth of Papaver somniferum is typically associated with warmer climates, the opium poppy has a history of cultivation in the UK. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many houses in the East Anglian Fens grew a stand of white opium poppies so that the dried seed capsules could be used to brew a tea containing small amounts of morphine. This infusion helped counter the aches and pains suffered by people living harsh lives in what was then, a remote, unhealthy part of the country. Use was not confined to the Fens as  the Dorset-writerThomas Hardy, in The Trumpet Major, refers to poppy heads and pain relief.

By the 19th century, imported opium was freely available in the UK and was used extensively at all levels of society. Opium was supplied in many forms including laudanum, a tincture of opium in wine, popularised by the Dorset-born physician Thomas Sydenham. The drug was taken to relieve pain, to induce sleep and to treat cough and diarrhoea. Its euphoriant properties were also prized and recreational use occurred with some problems of dependence. Encouraged by the drug’s popularity, attempts were made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to grow opium poppies commercially in the UK but these were abandoned in favour of imported Turkish opium.

From opium to morphine

Morphine was isolated from opium in the 19th century and the powerful pain killing and euphoriant properties of the pure drug were quickly recognised. These come at a price as, compared to opium, morphine has potentially dangerous side effects and is highly addictive. By the 20th century, all non-medical use was banned but, to the present day, morphine is widely prescribed to relieve moderate and severe pain especially after major surgery. Diamorphine (heroin) is also used for pain relief in the UK but we hear more about its illicit use, the problems of addiction and the associated criminal activity. All morphine used clinically is still obtained from the opium poppy, extracted either from crude opium or from the dried seed heads.

The 21st century opium fields of England

Poppy heads by Jane V Adams
Opium poppies growing near Bere Regis in Dorset, UK showing the seed heads (by Jane V Adams)

 

By the end of the 20th century, the morphine used for medical purposes in the UK was extracted from opium poppies grown in Tasmania and Spain. It was tacitly assumed that the climate in the UK was unsuitable for their commercial cultivation. In 1999, however, John Manners, a seed merchant from Oxfordshire questioned this doctrine. He had seen striking pictures of purple opium poppies growing commercially in Poland, and decided to have a go at growing the plants in the UK. He set up some small trial plots and grew the poppies successfully in the southern part of the country. But did they produce morphine when grown in the UK? With the help of the Scottish pharmaceutical company, Macfarlan Smith (now a division of Johnson-Matthey), he showed that indeed they did. A full field trial the following year in Oxfordshire was also a success and, by 2002, 100 hectares of opium poppies were being grown commercially in the UK, each hectare yielding about 15 kg of morphine. More farmers were persuaded to grow the crop and nowadays, early summer sees about 2500 hectares of farmland blooming with the unselfconscious lilac flowers, mostly in the counties of Dorset, Hampshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire.

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Opium poppies growing in Lincolnshire, UK (from Wikipedia)

 

Although they were initially uneasy about growing opium poppies, farmers now find it to be a lucrative break crop to prepare the land for growing cereals or oil seed rape the following season. Farmers contracted to Macfarlan Smith must prepare the seed bed and sow poppy seed supplied by the company which also advises on agronomy and pest control while the opium poppies are growing. The UK climate seems to suit the poppies well and after flowering they are left to dry before the seed capsule and about 5 cm of stem are harvested. The harvest is taken to a central processing facility where the poppy seeds in the capsule are separated leaving “poppy straw”. Poppy seeds contain little or no morphine and are sold for various culinary uses such as bread making. Poppy straw is processed in Macfarlan Smith’s Edinburgh factory where the morphine is isolated by solvent extraction and purification. About half of the UK requirement of medical morphine (~60 tons/year) is now made from poppies grown in the UK, including those grown in Dorset. So when you come across these beautiful lilac-painted fields next summer, think morphine, think pain relief, and think poppy extracts ending up in medicine cabinets in hospitals and pharmacies.

I should like to thank Marilyn Peddle (www.marilynjanephotography.co.uk) for generously providing the featured image which is of opium poppies growing in North Dorset
and Jane Adams (https://urbanextension.wordpress.com/) for generously providing the photograph of opium poppies growing near Dorchester.

This is a slightly  modified version of an article that appeared in the September edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The Dorsetshire Gap – a special place

A medieval crossroads, a motorway junction from a former time, a secret spot, a time/space vortex, a geological oddity. These are some of the descriptions of the Dorsetshire Gap, a curious conjunction of ancient trackways and chalk landscape deep in rural Dorset.

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The ridgeway track approaching the Dorsetshire Gap

The Dorsetshire Gap is a special and unusual place. Buried in mid-Dorset countryside between Ansty and Folly, it is at least a mile from even minor roads and accessible only on foot. I first came here more than twenty years ago and since then I have been unable to resist the periodic lure of this spot. Earlier this year, under a cloudless, sapphire-blue sky, we approached from the East along a chalk ridge clothed in rough grass and purple punctuations of knapweed and thistles. Encouraged by the midsummer heat, butterflies and bees flitted purposefully between wild flowers and we admired the long, green view northwards over the Blackmore Vale.

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The view from the chalk ridge looking towards the Blackmore Vale

 

Eventually, the path dipped down between trees and through a gate to reveal a flattened clearing, seemingly enclosed by rough woodland and high chalk banks. Looking about, you notice other tracks converging on the same spot from different angles and elevations. One track, from the south, climbs through a clear gap between chalk banks. A prominent four-way signpost gives directions. The Dorsetshire Gap is a complex motorway junction but dating from another age.

[This link gives a map and this link gives the Grid Reference and other location details]

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The approach from the East. “The path dipped down between trees and through a gate”

 

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Approaching the Gap from the East in spring. The four-way sign, the box containing the visitor’s book and the chalk banks are visible

 

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The four-way sign and the southern track illustrating the break in the chalk ridge

 

Geologically speaking, this remote part of Dorset lies at the northern edge of a broad band of chalk that runs south west across the county from the Wiltshire border. Where the chalk ends, it tilts upwards to form a steep escarpment facing the northern clay. This chalk escarpment provides a natural barrier to north/south passage and the Dorsetshire Gap is a break in this ridge allowing access of tracks from the chalky south to the wet claylands of the Blackmore Vale. Other routes, including ancient Ridgeway tracks from Wiltshire and Devon, converge here so that the Dorsetshire Gap is a crossroads, recognised for centuries, where people and animals moving east/west on the Ridgeway were able to access north/south tracks.

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The southern track in summer. Note the sunken lane.

 

How does a place like this arise? No one really knows; how much is natural and how much is man-made is also in dispute. There are numerous earthworks in the vicinity and the remains of a medieval village in the valley below so human influence seems likely. We do know that the Dorsetshire Gap was an important road crossing from the Middle Ages until the 19th century and the paths coming together here are ancient trackways. Some of these trackways may have been used for the movement of goods by packhorse trains, or for the movement of animals by drovers; these practices stopped only with the advent of the railways. If you follow paths westwards from the Gap towards Folly, you eventually reach the road and an isolated house that was formerly an Inn. According to Ralph Wightman this used to be called the Fox Inn and closed only in the mid 20th century. In the past, this may have been a refuge for travellers on the Ridgeway, including drovers and their animals, providing a safe haven for the night.

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The westward track rising towards Folly

 

Several of the trackways are also sunken lanes where tramping feet, heavy hoofs, scraping wheels and foul weather have, over centuries, worn the soft rock away so that the path now lies below the level of the surrounding countryside. Some call these sunken lanes Holloways and further to the west in Dorset there are some striking examples of very deep Holloways. There is a mystique attached to these sunken paths: they are visible remnants of a wilder time, they provide tangible evidence of long forgotten lives and of older ways of travel. Perhaps because of this mystique, Geoffrey Household, in his 1939 novel “Rogue Male”, has his fugitive hero hide in a deep Holloway in west Dorset. Robert McFarlane has written lyrically about these sunken paths and his unsuccessful quest to find Household’s holloway-hideaway north of Chideock.

So what makes the Dorsetshire Gap a special place, one that people write about, one that people actively seek out, one whose name is even inscribed on Ordnance Survey maps?

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The four-way sign and the box containing the visitor’s book, in summer

 

I believe this relates to history and to the power of the imagination. The Dorsetshire Gap has been an important crossroads for hundreds of years. It is an important relic of times past and, as we stand here, we can imagine the sights and sounds of past lives: fragments of conversation from chance meetings, clinking harness as animals are driven through, cries for help as people are robbed, people heading quickly for the ancient drovers’ refuge at Folly. The Gap probably hasn’t changed much over the years so when we visit, we can “slip back out of this modern world” (using the words of W.H. Hudson). Perhaps this is why the Gap has its own visitor’s book. According to Priscilla Houston, the book was first put there in 1972 by a writer known as “Valesman” in the hope that this might help preserve the Gap. For many years it was kept in an old biscuit tin, replaced nowadays by a more secure plastic box. The book allows visitors to record their reflections on visiting this very old, very “Dorset” and very special place.

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The visitor’s book

 

This article appeared in the December edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine. The photographs were taken by Hazel Strange in Spring 2007 and Summer 2014.