Tag Archives: bridport

West Dorset surprises

The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35.  Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west.  Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air.  To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image.  [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.

Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area.  Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland.  Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.

We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve.  The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle.  In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub.  This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.

The old railway cutting

This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line.   The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads.   People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway.  I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars.  The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport.  As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975.  Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track.   The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood.  This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.

On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage.  The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas.  We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass.  Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours.  Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder.  This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production.  We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.

The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings.   Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air.  I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path. 

Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz.  There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight.   It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens.  Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).

The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate.  Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster.  Others tried to join in, some left the melee.  This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber.  Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful.  Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees. 

The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males.  Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas.  As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast.  The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day. 

Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit.  Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history. 

At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

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”.

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.

Golden Cap – a special place in west Dorset

Golden Cap 5
The west Dorset coast with Charmouth to the left. Golden Cap stands out just right of centre.


The west Dorset coast contains many wonders but one stands out above all others.  This is Golden Cap, the distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped hill with its golden edge and cliffs falling precipitously to the sea.  Visible for miles around and rising above all its neighbours, it stands 191 metres above sea level and is the highest point on the south coast of England.  It is a local landmark, a place of legend, and an inspiration to writers and artists. 

Golden Cap path
The path from Stonebarrrow leading eventually to Golden Cap. Portland can be seen in the distance.


I first climbed Golden Cap nearly thirty years ago.  It was a mild, early spring weekend and I was entranced by the experience.  It’s now one of those places I like to visit periodically so, on a warm mid-July day earlier this year, I set out from the Stonebarrow Hill car park above Charmouth.   The grassy track descended steeply between brambles and bracken towards Westhay Farm with its mellow stone buildings decorated with roses, honeysuckle and solar panels.  I paused in a gateway near the farmhouse to look at one of the hay meadows.  Bees and butterflies enjoyed the thick covering of grasses and colourful flowers while the sun gradually won its battle with the clouds.   Flower-rich hay meadows were once an important feature of the countryside but they have mostly been lost since 1930 as a result of agricultural intensification.  Managed in the traditional way with a late July cut for hay, they support a rich community of invertebrates, birds and flowers. The meadows at Westhay Farm are no exception and rare plants such as the green-winged orchid thrive here.   My gateway reverie was interrupted when a fox suddenly appeared in one of the breaks in the meadow.  We stood looking at one another, a moment out of time, before the fox lolloped off through the long vegetation.

Westhay Farm Golden Cap Estate
Westhay Farm


Hay meadow Golden Cap
A flower-rich hay meadow.


Beyond the farmhouse, the path descended across open grassland dotted with sunny stands of ragwort and tall, purple thistles populated with bumblebees.  The sea, a pale steely blue, was now ahead of me, dominating the view.  Today it was calm but the slight swell was a warning of its power.  Golden Cap loomed to the east like a steep pleat in the coastline and, when the sun shone, the cliff face revealed some of its geological secrets.  About half way up, a large area of rough grey rock was visible. This was laid down some 200 million years ago and is mainly unstable grey clays of the Middle and Lower Lias prone to rock falls and mud slides.  Towards the summit, tracts of distinctive “golden” rock glowed in the sunshine.  The rock here is Upper Greensand, sandstone laid down about 100 million years ago, forming the “cap”.

Golden Cap 2
Looking towards Golden Cap; the golden sandstone cap and the grey rock below can be seen despite the vegetation.


Golden Cap from the east
Golden Cap viewed from the east at Seatown on another day. The golden sandstone cap and the grey rocks beneath can be seen very clearly from this aspect.


A helpful fingerpost


solitary bee
A solitary bee on ragwort, possibly Andrena flavipes.


Common red soldier beetles, qualifying for their popular name of “hogweed bonking beetles”.


The coast path continued eastwards in a roller coaster fashion.  Prominent fingerposts pointed the way and I passed vast inaccessible coastal landslips and descended into deep valleys with rapidly flowing water, only to climb again on the other side.  In meadows alongside the path, bees, moths, beetles and butterflies flitted among the many flowers including purple selfheal and knapweed, yellow catsear and meadow vetchling.    The final push towards the summit of Golden Cap began very steeply across open grassland before entering a stepped, zigzag track which was easier to negotiate.  As the path rose there was a change in the landscape.  Bright purple bell heather began to show and bracken surrounded the stepped path; a kestrel hovered briefly above.

antrim stone
The Antrim stone


Suddenly the path levelled out; I had reached the summit and here were the familiar landmarks:  a low stone marker informing me how far I had walked and the larger stone memorial to the Earl of Antrim.  The dedication told me that the Earl was the Chairman of the National Trust between 1966 and 1977. What it didn’t tell me was that he recognised the importance of preserving our coastline from encroaching development and spearheaded the Enterprise Neptune appeal which led to the purchase of 574 miles of coast saving it for future generations.  Golden Cap was one of two coastal sites purchased in his memory after he died.

Golden Cap view east
The view to the east over Thorncombe Beacon with Portland in the distance.


Golden Cap view west
The view to the west towards Lyme Regis and the Devon coastline.


I reminded myself of the long views from this high, flat-topped hill:  to the east across Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon, West Bay and Portland, to the west over Lyme Regis and the wide sweep of Devon coastline, to the north across the Marshwood Vale.   Looking down, I saw water skiers carving patterns in the sea surface far below.  The sea now seemed so far away that I felt momentarily separated from the rest of the world.

On my return journey, I headed down and slightly inland to the remains of the 13th century chapel at Stanton St. Gabriel.  Set in meadowland beneath the western slope of Golden Cap, the derelict, grey stone walls and the porch of the old chapel are all that remain.   There is also a cottage nearby and a large building, originally an 18th century manor house, now restored by the National Trust as four holiday apartments.   But why was a chapel built in this isolated spot and why is it now derelict?  A settlement existed here for many hundreds of years and Stanton St. Gabriel was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086).  There was a farming community of about 20 families in the vicinity until the 18th century and this was their chapel but the settlement was abandoned when some people were lured to Bridport to work in the flax and hemp industry.  Others may have moved to Morcombelake when the coach road from Charmouth to Bridport along the flank of Stonebarrow Hill was moved away from the settlement to its present route.

stanton st gabriel
The derelict chapel at Stanton St Gabriel.


The derelict chapel provides a potent reminder of the community that once lived in this isolated but beautiful spot beneath one of west Dorset’s most striking landmarks, Golden Cap.

This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The Mediterranean Diet – good for your health or just bad for your wallet?

Classic Greek salad

We often hear about the virtues of a Mediterranean Diet and a recent study provides the first clear evidence that the diet may really be good for health.  Here is what I wrote about this new work in the April edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine:

There’s something very seductive about the idea of a “Mediterranean Diet”. It’s not just the food; it’s a life lived in the sunshine, near the sea, with family and friends, laughter, relaxed …… It’s not so far away now if you live in Dorset: there are olive stalls on Bridport and Wimborne markets, olive oil is readily available and there’s no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables; not sure about the weather though. But is the idea of the “Mediterranean Diet” simply a marketing ploy or does it have some foundation in reality?

Beruz Abazi selling Greek Olives on Bridport Market

Let’s start by going back to the 1940s when the American scientist, Ancel Keys, heard about the apparent epidemic of heart disease among US business executives. This was a very well fed group of men and Keys wondered if, paradoxically, their “good” diet might be the source of their illness. He decided to investigate the influence of diet on health by looking at the incidence of heart disease (stroke and heart attack) in men from different countries and found a striking pattern: men in Southern Europe (especially Crete) were at much lower risk of heart disease compared to men from the US and Northern Europe. The idea that lifestyle and diet influenced the risk for heart disease arose from this study and by analysing blood samples from participants it was found that the level of cholesterol was an important risk factor.
The idea of a “Mediterranean Diet” developed from this work and reflected food typically consumed in the early 1960’s in the low risk countries such as Crete together with much of the rest of Greece and Southern Italy. As well as regular physical activity, the diet emphasises plant-derived foods (vegetables and legumes), fresh fruit, olive oil as the main fat source, dairy produce (cheese and yoghurt) in moderation, fish and poultry in low to moderate amounts and a few eggs. The diet has little red meat but wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts.
These kinds of study, where the influence of diet on disease is examined in different populations are called observational studies. They are very valuable in spotting trends but they cannot rule out other influences. To focus on the effect of diet, a more rigorous study design called a clinical trial is required and the results of the first full clinical trial of the effect of a “Mediterranean Diet” on health have just been released.
About 7500 men and women were recruited to the trial by doctors in Spain. Aged between 55 and 80, they did not have heart disease at the outset of the trial but they were all at risk for the disorder, either because of type 2 diabetes or other risk factors. They were assigned randomly to three dietary groups: “Mediterranean Diet” including 60 ml of olive oil a day, “Mediterranean Diet” including 30 g of mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts) a day, “low fat” diet (starchy foods, fruit and vegetables, lean fish but avoiding vegetable oil, nuts and red meat). All participants were given regular advice on diet and their urine was analysed to check that they were following the diets. The two “Mediterranean Diet” groups found it easy and pleasant to stick to the prescribed eating pattern. This was not the case for the “low fat” group and their diet gradually changed in to one resembling a typical Western Diet.
The study was terminated early, after nearly five years, because the results were so clear cut and it would have been unethical to continue. It was found that the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke was 30% lower in the two groups following the “Mediterranean Diet” compared to those on the typical western diet.
This is a striking result for several reasons. It had long been suspected that a “Mediterranean Diet” conferred health benefits but this is the first confirmation using a rigorous format where participants are randomly assigned to different diets and carefully monitored. The trial also uses real-world outcomes such as heart attack and stroke. Many studies have used so-called “surrogate indicators” such as levels of cholesterol; these are useful but do not tell you about the real-world effects of the diet. The effects of the diet are also comparable to those of the cholesterol-reducing drugs called statins but without the side effects. Moreover, the participants actively enjoyed the diet. For all these reasons there is great excitement about these new findings.
Of course there are still questions to be answered. The group of people studied were all at risk for heart disease and although we might suspect that the “Mediterranean Diet” would also protect low risk groups, we don’t yet have clear evidence. It would also be useful to know whether any specific factors in the diet had greater effects. There has been some speculation that it is the nuts and olive oil but this remains to be verified.
How should we respond to the results of the trial? The message is clear: following a “Mediterranean Diet” can improve cardiovascular health and we might all want to reflect on this in choosing what we eat. Many of the participants in the trial were already taking cholesterol-lowering statins and despite this the diet had a clear effect. So, if you are already taking statins, changes in diet may still help. It’s important to remember that the original “Mediterranean Diet” was part of a lifestyle which included regular exercise and where food was eaten for pleasure, not convenience, with family and friends often being involved. Perhaps underlining this idea, in 2010, UNESCO recognised the “Mediterranean Diet” as a style of eating embedded in the culture, tradition and way of life in these parts of Europe. So, some changes to diet may help but make sure you take exercise and make sure you enjoy your food!

Bloody British weather or a wake-up call?

Here is an article I wrote for the December edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine considering whether the recent awful summer weather could be a reflection of climate change.

Summer this year was the wettest for a century and Dorset experienced some particularly heavy downpours early in the season.  Rainfall at Portland and at Hurn in the first ten days of July was nearly three times the normal monthly average.   Several rivers burst their banks and towns were flooded including Bridport and Burton Bradstock.  Devon was also badly affected and Modbury, Ottery St Mary and Yealmpton were inundated.  The torrential rain in Dorset caused a landslip at the Beaminster Tunnel where two people died.  The rain also undermined the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast leading to a 400 ton rock fall that killed one person near Hive Beach.

Flooding in Burton Bradstock, West Dorset, July 2012

Our notoriously changeable weather depends on many factors but this summer it has been dominated by the Jet Stream.   This is a band of fast moving winds running eastwards across the Atlantic high up in the atmosphere separating cooler northerly air and warmer southerly air.  The Jet Stream is important for our climate as it guides Atlantic weather systems bringing rain and unsettled conditions.  In a typical summer the Jet Stream lies to the north of the UK shielding us from these weather systems and bringing milder, settled conditions.   This summer, the Jet Stream lay below the UK so the weather was cooler and wetter and because it did not move, this pattern persisted for several months.

The position of the Jet Stream could simply be a result of natural variation and most of us will shrug our shoulders and blame the awful summer of 2012 on “bloody British weather”.  We do, however, live in a world where changes in conditions in one part of the globe may affect the weather in another part.  Some climate scientists are beginning to wonder if the weather in Europe is being influenced by changes in sea ice many miles away in the Arctic.

At the North Pole there is a large mass of pack ice formed from sea water in this very cold part of the world; this is the Arctic sea ice.   The size of this ice pack varies by season, partly melting in the warmer months and then refreezing as the cold returns.  There has been a long term trend towards less ice in the warmer months and this reached a record low in September 2007.  Slightly more summer ice was seen in subsequent years but in 2012 the record was broken again; the level of Arctic summer ice was the lowest since records began.  This had not been expected and scientists were surprised and shocked by the extent and speed of Arctic sea ice loss.  If, as seems likely, the loss continues, summer sea ice will disappear altogether from the Arctic some time this century.  This represents a major change to the planet that should concern us all.

One of the principal drivers of this major change in the North Polar ice cap seems to be global warming; as the sea temperature increases so the ice melts more.  Much of this effect on the polar ice can be attributed to human activity; burning of fossil fuels (e.g. coal, gas, petroleum) raises levels of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, causing warming.  Loss of such a large amount of sea ice has major effects on the planet.  Most importantly, loss of the ice accelerates warming of the sea; the sun’s rays are no longer reflected away by the ice and the heat is absorbed by the sea.  This is very serious for the stability of the climate.

There is also an indication that loss of the sea ice affects the position of the Jet Stream and makes it stay in one place longer.    In consequence, weather patterns are maintained for longer; periods of wet weather may lead to floods and periods of dry weather may generate drought.  These changes are compounded in that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture leading to heavier rain.  The loss of Arctic sea ice may, therefore, have contributed to our poor summer and we may now be experiencing the effects of climate change in the UK.

The unexpectedly large and continuing loss of the polar ice cap should be a major wake-up call to governments that the planet is changing.  We are all beginning to feel the effects.     The solution is clear, we must reduce use of fossil fuels; this will not reverse the changes but may slow them down. Unfortunately, governments still look on with disbelief and do nothing.   It is a disgrace that climate change did not feature at all in the recent US presidential debates, especially when the US is one of the major users of fossil fuels.  Perhaps the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy will make the US think again about extreme weather events.

But it gets worse.  The response of industry to the melting of the Arctic ice has been to see opportunities for trade.  Oil, gas, mining and shipping companies are rushing to expand operations in the Arctic as the ice recedes and new sea routes open up.   This has the potential for environmental catastrophe as well as leading to greater emission of carbon dioxide and acceleration of climate change.

Let’s finish by quoting Bill McKibben, the environmental campaigner, on the loss of Arctic sea ice:  “Our response (so far) has not been alarm, panic or a sense of emergency.  It has been “Let’s go up there and drill for oil”.  There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we’ve ever faced”.

Coffee culture

the piece below appeared in the June 2010 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

“Ah!  How sweet coffee tastes!  Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine!”  JS Bach

When I visit towns like Bridport and Dorchester I am struck by the coffee culture.  There are many cafés, some with tables spilling out on to the pavement.  Drinking coffee has become an enormously popular social activity and over the recent years the quality of coffee available has changed.    Good espresso is now as easy to get in Dorset as in Milan and “milky coffee” is no longer a drink you like but daren’t admit; call it Café Latte and it’s almost fashionable.  We owe a lot to Niles and Frasier at the Café Nervosa.

But coffee isn’t just for socialising; another reason for the early morning popularity of coffee is its energising effect.  Legend has it that an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi discovered this energising effect.  He noticed his goats becoming frisky when they ate fruit from the coffee plant.  He tried some himself, did a little dance, and the story of coffee had begun.  Coffee drinking became very popular in the Muslim world and from the 16th century many coffee houses were set up in cities such as Damascus and Istanbul.  Eventually the practice spread to other countries with the first coffee houses opening in the UK in Oxford in 1650 and London in 1652.  In the 18th century, the coffee houses were known as “penny universities”.  For a penny you could enter the coffee house and gain access not only to coffee but also to the company of others with discussion, gossip, news, newspapers, pamphlets etc.  The coffee houses became social and business centres and for example Lloyds of London started as Edward Lloyd’s coffee house.  Coffee drinking is now hugely popular throughout the world.  In this country, the past 20 years has seen an explosion in the number of coffee shops, the number of coffees drunk and the quality of the coffee available.

Coffee comes from the seeds (beans) of the coffee plant, native to Ethiopia although it is now grown in many countries.  The plant has sweetly smelling flowers and after these have died, red or purple fruit known as cherries appear; these cherries contain the beans.  Once harvested the beans are roasted at temperatures of 200oC or more.  During the roasting the green beans acquire their rich brown colour and chemical reactions occur in the beans augmenting the flavour, acidity, aftertaste and body of the coffee.  The time and temperature for roasting have to be carefully regulated and will be a major factor in the flavour of the coffee produced.  A light roast will allow the intrinsic flavour of the bean to come through whereas a dark roast will be dominated by stronger flavours produced at the higher temperature.  The knowledge and skill of the coffee roaster will be very important at this stage.   The coffee is then ground and prepared; the method of preparation (filter, cafetiere, espresso etc) will also determine the final nature of the drink.

Let’s now return to the energising effect of coffee, what is happening here?  Coffee has been shown to reduce fatigue and restore mental alertness.  This suggests the presence of a stimulant chemical in coffee and analysis of coffee beans has pinpointed the chemical caffeine.  Caffeine is also found at significant levels in tea and in some soft drinks such as colas and energy drinks, contributing to the “refreshing” effects of these beverages. 

When you take a caffeinated drink, the caffeine present is absorbed quite quickly and the stimulant effect results from inhibition of the actions of a chemical called adenosine in the brain.  Adenosine normally calms the activity of the brain and caffeine prevents adenosine from binding to its target sites so leading to a stimulant effect.  Caffeine, therefore, alters brain activity.  It is very widely used; about 90% of Americans consume caffeine each day and caffeine has been described as the most widely used psychoactive drug.  Regular coffee drinkers develop some tolerance to the effects of the caffeine and if they abstain they may experience headaches, fatigue and drowsiness.  These effects can be counteracted by drinking more coffee.   Although caffeine is a drug, regular moderate coffee consumption does not seem to do any harm, indeed claims have been made about the health benefits of coffee.  Limits have been proposed on caffeine consumption during pregnancy (http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/limit-caffeine-during-pregnancy.aspx).

Coffee is extremely popular and most of us are happy to pay a few pounds for our favourite espresso, mocha or latte but how much would you be prepared to pay for a very special coffee?  This April, during Coffee Week, a coffee shop in Birmingham was offering an Indonesian coffee, Kopi Luwak, with one cup setting you back £8.95.   Kopi Luwak is the most expensive and exclusive coffee in the world and is produced with the help of civet cats.  The helpful civet cats eat coffee cherries and the beans pass in to their digestive tracts.  The beans emerge unscathed in the dung and after a good wash and a light roasting, a unique coffee is produced lacking the bitterness of ordinary coffee and with a unique soft flavour.  It seems that the enzymes in the digestive juices of the animals penetrate the beans and change their chemical composition.   I think I’ll stick to my usual latte!

The ticking time bomb of obesity

This is the text of an article that appeared in the February 2011 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.


I couldn’t help noticing the long queues in the Bridport food shops just before Christmas and they seemed symbolic of the overindulgence we are expected to practise over the holiday period.  I also read in the Bournemouth Echo around the same time that about 25% of adults (over 16s) in Poole and Bournemouth are obese.  In West Dorset, the situation is slightly better but still about 20% of adults are obese.  How should we react to these seemingly paradoxical observations?

What is obesity?

Obesity is a clinical term referring to being seriously overweight.  Obesity is characterised by the laying down of excessive amounts of fat as adipose tissue in the abdomen.  An obese person will often have a waistline that is larger than expected for their height; they will be “apple shaped” rather than “pear shaped”.  We can assign a number to this change in shape by calculating the Body Mass Index or BMI (see below).  A BMI over 30 is defined as obese.

In Poole and Bournemouth, therefore, about a quarter of adults are obese with a BMI of 30 or greater.  They are not alone as figures for many other parts of the country are similar or worse with a handful of towns in the UK having nearly one in three obese adults.  Obesity is also a problem in children with about one in six of 2-15 year olds being obese.  If we look around the world at the incidence of obesity, the US leads the field with nearly one in three of all adults being obese whereas countries such as France and Italy have much lower rates.  Obesity rates in most countries have increased steadily over the past 30 years; for example, in 1978 only one in twenty adults in the UK was obese compared with one in four now.    

What causes obesity?

Obesity is the result of taking in more calories in your diet than you are burning through physical activity.  Some of these excess calories are converted to fat leading to the increase in waistline. 

But why has obesity increased so much?    In the past 30 years there has been some increase in how much food people eat in the UK although this is not easy to document.  There have also been changes in lifestyle (increased use of motorised transport, a more sedentary lifestyle) leading to less physical activity.  These changes mean that we consume more calories than we need for the physical activity we do and the result is the increase in obesity.

We also know that inherited factors are important as obesity tends to run in families and it has been shown that this is due to inherited genes.   Genes alone do not cause obesity but they influence whether it occurs when food is plentiful.    

Why is obesity an important issue?

Obesity has very serious effects on human health.  Being obese increases the risk of suffering from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.   Obesity decreases the quality of life for individuals, it increases health care costs and it has been shown that being obese decreases life expectancy.  Moderate obesity decreases life expectancy by about 3 years but being seriously obese decreases life expectancy by 10 years.  The continuing increase in obesity, with its insidious effects on human health, has been described as a “ticking time bomb”. 

What can be done?

There is no escaping the conclusion that obesity is the result of eating more food than we need for the physical activity we do.  Reducing obesity should then be simple – eat less, exercise more.  But it can’t be that easy or the problem would have been solved by now.

A government report in 2007 concluded that we now live in an “obesogenic” environment.  We are confronted with an abundance of cheap, energy rich food and coupled with extensive use of motorised transport and a sedentary lifestyle this leads to obesity.  The report proposed that the problem should be tackled by population level interventions which should include promoting healthy eating, physical activity, changing the way towns operate to increase walking etc. 

This has lead to the “Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives” programme aimed at promoting these goals.    After two years of the programme, obesity rates in children are beginning to level off but continuing to rise in other groups. This is a long term programme so we should not expect quick results but I am surprised that there is so little evidence of the programme in daily life, promoting good eating habits and promoting exercise.  Food labelling is one way of making people aware of what they are eating but even here there is a lack of uniformity.  Some major food retailers have adopted the traffic light system which provides a quick, clear indicator of levels of fat, sugar and salt in food.  Other major food retailers have chosen instead to adopt the Guideline Daily Amount system which in my view is more complex and provides less clarity.

Locally, in Poole and Bournemouth, there is an Obesity Strategy and Action Plan which includes banning fast food outlets within a mile of schools.   This is a good start but we need to see a much more aggressive promotion of healthy eating and healthy lifestyle in the UK coupled with a uniform system of food labelling.  If we choose not to do this, obesity and its associated negative effects on health will become the norm.

How to calculate your BMI

Measure your weight in kilograms (w)

Measure your height in metres (h)

Your BMI is then given by the following equation:

BMI = w/h2

You can also determine this online using the BMI healthy weight calculator on the NHS Choices web site (http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/Healthyweightcalculator.aspx).

A BMI of 25-30 is overweight

A BMI of 30-40 is obese

A BMI above 40 is very obese