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Beavers live here! Rewilding on the River Otter in East Devon

Four years ago, a family of wild beavers were spotted on the river Otter in East Devon.  This was the first report of the animal breeding successfully in the wild in England since the species had been hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago.  No one knows how the animals came to be on the river but their prospering population is now the subject of a scientific trial providing a unique opportunity to monitor the re-introduction of a native species, or “rewilding” as it is sometimes called. 

Otterton Bridge with Himalyan Balsam
The old stone bridge over the River Otter at Otterton, with Himalyan Balsam

 

I wanted to find out more, so one evening in mid-September, I met Kate Ponting, Countryside Learning Officer for Clinton Devon Estates, at the village green in Otterton.  Kate has been closely involved with the beaver re-introduction trial, taking place as it does on land largely owned by her employer.  We headed to the river, crossed the old stone bridge and walked upstream along the muddy riverside path.  Banks of Himalayan balsam and nettles dominated the river bank while, on the landward side, clover leys spread as far as the low embankment that once carried the railway.  Prominent official signs warned that “Beavers live here” and Kate explained that there had been some local problems with dogs.

The river was full after recent heavy rain but the scene was tranquil in the low evening sunshine.  We paused on the wooden bridge where Kate pointed out one beaver lodge, a semi-organised jumble of mud, sticks and branches protruding nearly a metre from the river bank and covering the entrance to a burrow where the beavers live.   Further up the river we stopped to watch a second lodge on the far bank.  Kate had warned me that the beavers had become less “reliable” as the autumn progressed and, although a wren flittered about the sticks making up the lodge and a grey wagtail passed through, we saw no beavers. Kate did, however, show me some signs of beaver activity including severed branches and one felled tree.

The beaver is Europe’s largest rodent and until the 16th century was found widely on UK rivers.  They are impressively large animals covered in brown fur, measuring up to 100cm (head and body) and with scaly black tails.  Beavers are strict herbivores with strong teeth allowing feeding on many species of river and bank plant as well as woody vegetation from trees.  They are strong swimmers adapted for life underwater, and skilful aquatic engineers able to regulate water levels by building dams.  When they build dams by felling trees they remodel the wetland landscape creating habitat for many other plants and animals and, for this reason, they are referred to as “keystone” species.

In the past, they were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion from their scent gland used for medicinal purposes.  Early in the 21st century, however, free-living populations of beavers were re-established in Scotland and there were anecdotal sightings of wild beavers on the river Otter in East Devon.  These reports were confirmed early in 2014 when two adults and one juvenile beaver (kit) were filmed near Ottery St Mary.  This was the first confirmed report of wild beavers breeding in England for 400 years.

At first, DEFRA were concerned that the animals might harbour disease and wanted to remove them but their plan was opposed by wildlife experts and local people.  So, towards the end of 2014, Devon Wildlife Trust applied to Natural England for a licence allowing the beavers to remain on the river as part of a five-year trial to monitor their effects.  The licence was granted on the condition that the beavers were shown to be the native UK species and disease free and in March 2015, nine beavers living in two family groups were returned to the river Otter.  The licence included a management plan for monitoring the health of the beaver population and its effects on the local landscape and ecology; also for making good any damage.  The River Otter Beaver Trial is led by Devon Wildlife Trust working in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Derek Gow Consultancy and Clinton Devon Estates.

Since the trial began, beavers have been seen along almost the entire length of the river Otter.  Breeding has been successful each year but there were concerns that the population might be becoming inbred so in 2016, two additional beavers, unrelated to the existing animals, were released on to the river. By 2017 the population had grown to more than 20 and watching the adult beavers and their kits on a summer’s evening became a popular pastime attracting many visitors to the area.  So far, the presence of these large aquatic animals has caused few difficulties.  Feeding signs have been detected all along the river in terms of severed shoots and felled trees but this was mainly confined to small diameter willow shoots.  Earlier this year, fields near Otterton were flooded when beavers dammed one of the streams feeding the Otter but mitigation measures were put in place.

Female beaver with kits, on the River Otter. Photo by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust

 

These are, however, early days and, as the number of beavers continues to rise, their presence in this managed East Devon landscape may cause tensions.  There is good evidence from Bavaria, where the animals were re-introduced 50 years ago, that beavers can have a beneficial influence on rivers.   They support wildlife by opening up the landscape, creating coppice and diversifying the wetland habitat.  Their dams regulate river flows and remove sediment and pollutants. Sometimes, however, they can be a nuisance to those who live and work by rivers, causing flooding, blocking ditches, undermining river banks and felling important trees.   There are now as many as 20,000 beavers on Bavaria’s rivers and their beneficial effects are clearly recognised alongside the need to manage the animals when their activity has a negative impact.   Hopefully, a similar resolution can be reached for the East Devon beavers as their population grows.  Whatever the outcome, the River Otter Beaver Trial will be closely watched by those interested in “rewilding” the landscape.

The featured image at the top of this post is of a female beaver on the River Otter, by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust.

I should like to thank Kate Ponting of Clinton Devon Estates for giving up her time to show me the beaver lodges and Steve Hussey and Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust for providing information and photographs.

This article appeared in the November 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Beaver Lodge on river Otter
Beaver lodge on River Otter

 

 

Tree felled by beavers near river Otter
Tree felled by beavers along River Otter

 

Himalayan Balsam by River Otter
Himalayan Balsam by River Otter – the bee was too quick for me and all I photographed was the leg!

 

 

Cormorant on river Otter
Cormorant on River Otter

 

 

river Otter view
A tranquil scene on the River Otter

 

Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath

Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition.  This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels.  Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters.  Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth.  I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.

Winfrith Heath 1
Looking across the heath showing the subtle colour effect of the heather flowers

 

I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees.  As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line.  Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.

Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife.   Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well.   These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers.   Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath.  They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food.  Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.

The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling.  Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water.  The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome.  I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass.  The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems.  Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads.  Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.

Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar.  Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet.   This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth.  Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous.  A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.

These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this.  Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil.  Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today.  This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.

Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences.  Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history.  Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.

But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit?  Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour.   So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place.  One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters.  Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather.  Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it.  Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.

Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance. 

 

Bell heather and ling with gorse on Winfrith Heath
Bell heather, ling and gorse on Winfrith Heath

 

Cross-leaved heath.
Cross-leaved heath

 

 

Emperor dragonfly on Winfrith Heath
A pond on the heath with an emperor dragonfly

 

 

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle

 

Peacock butterfly on Winfrith Heath
Peacock butterfly on marsh thistle with bumblebee

 

Nuclear research centre Winfrith Heath
The former nuclear research facility seen through trees and behind forbidding fences on the other side of Gatemore Road.

 

 

This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Flower-rich hay meadows on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset

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.

Westhay Farm Meadows
Westhay Farm hidden away in the Golden Cap Estate

 

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.

Meadow with orchids 4

Yellow rattle 2
Yellow rattle

 

Gree-winged orchid (magenta)
Green-winged orchid, magenta form, showing pattern of spots on lower petal.

 

Gree-winged orchid (violet)
Green-winged orchid, violet form.

 

Gree-winged orchid (white)
Green-winged orchid, white form, showing green veins

 

Meadow with orchids 7 reduced

The Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis

Mature trees, richly planted borders, gently curving paths, a place to look and a space to think – the Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis provide both an oasis of calm for humans and a safe haven for wildlife.  Not only that, some of the town’s best views may be savoured from this green space.  Looking ahead, the Cobb can be seen stretching its protective, rocky arm around the harbour whereas, across Lyme Bay, the west Dorset coast rises and falls like a gigantic wave sweeping eastwards over Stonebarrow and Golden Cap reaching, on a clear day, that louring sea monster that is the Isle of Portland. 

West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk
West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk; the distinctive shape of Golden Cap is framed by the trees

 

History of the Seafront Gardens

Just over a century ago, the Langmoor Gardens were opened to the public on the slopes above Marine Parade in Lyme Regis.  The land was bought through a bequest to the town from Joseph Moly of Langmoor Manor, Charmouth and the gardens were named in honour of the donation.  The slopes were known to be unstable and concrete buttresses had been built to prevent movement.  Despite this, there were periodic slippages of mud on to Marine Parade and throughout the 20th century the Gardens continued to move causing distortion to paths and eventually rendering the lower part of the gardens unusable.  In 1962, land to the west of these gardens suffered a catastrophic landslip following a misguided attempt at development and several houses were destroyed.  This land was eventually taken over by the town becoming the Lister Gardens, named after Lord Lister of Lyme Regis, pioneer of antiseptic surgery.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens now form one large continuous public space above Marine Parade.

Rebuilding the Seafront Gardens

The Lyme Regis Environmental Improvements carried out early in the 21st century provided an opportunity to deal with the unstable geology of the Gardens.  Between 2005 and 2007, major civil engineering works were carried out to stabilise the Langmoor and Lister Gardens which were completely remodelled.  The new design included many planted areas and grassy spaces, gently curving paths that seem to reflect the convexity of the Cobb, and a woodland boardwalk with outstanding views across the harbour and bay.  Facilities for mini-golf, putting and table tennis were also built.

Supporting wildlife was deemed important so before work started, bat nesting sites were sealed to prevent them returning, 2000 slow-worms were caught and rehoused and a 15cm barrier erected to prevent others entering.  The gardens were replanted with salt tolerant, sub-tropical and rare plants as well as native species, taking account of the needs of bats, birds and insects.  Now, a decade later, the Gardens have a mature look and nesting boxes for birds and bats are flourishing.  Visitors love the open space and the new design was recognised with an important national award.

The Seafront Gardens in winter

Mid-winter is typically a low time when weather is poor, plants are dormant and wildlife scarce but when I visited the Gardens in December and January I found surprising activity.  Flowering cherry trees at the rear of the Gardens were covered in frothy pink flowers and close by, two fragrant shrubs were also showing well: winter honeysuckle with its white trumpet flowers filled with yellow-tipped stamens; sweet box, covered with tiny white starburst flowers, dark green fleshy leaves and shiny black berries.  As I was admiring the flowers, several bumblebees flew past, stopping briefly to feed from the cherry blossom.

On the terraced borders above Marine Parade, extensive banks of rosemary were covered in mauvish-purple flowers.  These were proving very popular with bumblebees and even in mid-winter, I saw queens and workers foraging busily, collecting sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers.  The queens were large and furry with two prominent buff/yellow stripes and a grey or pale brown tail, the workers similar but smaller and more brightly coloured.   These are buff-tailed bumblebees and their relationship with the flowers is far from one-sided.  The flowers consist of two petals enclosing pollen-loaded anthers that beckon seductively at passing insects.  The lower petals contain darker markings highly visible to bees helping to draw them in. Each bee that feeds collects additionally a dusting of pollen from the overhanging anthers which they transfer to the next flower they visit ensuring cross fertilisation.

But shouldn’t bumblebees be hibernating at this time of year?  That’s what all the books say, but the presence of worker bumblebees collecting pollen suggests that somewhere in the Gardens or nearby there are active nests.  Winter active colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees have also been described in South Devon and in Cornwall as well as other locations in the southern half of the UK.  It isn’t clear why this is happening but perhaps these bees are taking advantage of the British penchant for planting winter-flowering plants and shrubs.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens with their huge banks of flowering rosemary provide this winter forage for the west Dorset bumblebees.

Support your local bumblebees and they will support you.

Although buff-tailed bumblebees seem to be doing well in west Dorset, many other species of bumblebee in the UK have declined over the past 50 years.  This is bad news because these insects are important pollinators of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.  The decline is largely a result of the agricultural intensification that has changed the look of our countryside leading to the loss of bee habitat, loss of wild flower forage and the use of pesticides.

We can’t reverse this intensification, but we can all help bumblebees by planting flowers in our gardens and by never using insecticides.  It’s important to choose a range of flowers that provide food for bees throughout the season:  the University of Sussex has a useful guide to bee-friendly flowers.   If we provide flowers, the bumblebees and other kinds of bee will return the compliment, visiting our gardens, pollinating our fruits and vegetables and improving their quantity and quality.

When I returned to the Gardens in early April, I found the rosemary still flowering profusely, showing what an important source of insect food it is.  Other plants were also starting to contribute to the forage, and spring insect species were emerging such as the beautiful early bumblebee and red-tailed bumblebee and the grey-patched mining bee.

Lyme Regis Gardens and west Dorset coastline
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis Gardens
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis ammonite lamppost and seagull
One of the Lyme Regis ammonite lamposts with “friend”

 

Buff-tailed bumblebee on rosemary
Buff-tailed bumblebee worker feeding from rosemary, photographed on December 26th 2016

 

Andrena nitida
Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) photographed on April 2nd 2017 in the seafront gardens.

 

This article appeared in the May 2017 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”.

P1000282
A bottle of Fudge’s Mentholated Honey Syrup (Fudge’s Firewater). Photo kindly supplied Emily Hicks, Bridport Museum

Unconventional uses of Fudge’s Firewater
The medicine was also a voice-saver for some professional singers and I heard about one well-known entertainer who would regularly send a friend to buy Firewater from Mr Morrish to help lubricate her vocal cords. Similarly, Marco Rossi told me that, in the 1990s, when he was part of local band, Stocky Lamaar, performing in smoke-filled pubs around Dorset, he and Al, the other vocalist, each had a bottle of the potion by them on stage. With the occasional swig of Firewater, they could sing all evening without sounding like “Madge from Neighbours at a Bonnie Tyler tribute karaoke night”.

What was Fudge’s Firewater and how did it work?
Mr Fudge’s medicine was a dark brown syrupy liquid made by mixing menthol crystals and a little fudgy flavouring into Gee’s Linctus, itself an old-fashioned cough remedy dating from the Victorian era. Gee’s linctus, or to give it its proper name, squill linctus opiate, contains several potentially active ingredients.

First, there is tincture of opium, an alcoholic extract of opium (the resin derived from the seed capsules of opium poppies). The main active ingredient in opium is morphine, a substance with an established effect on cough, but also a well-known drug of abuse, and the linctus contains morphine at low levels. Squill, a plant extract, is another potentially active component in the linctus that, paradoxically, encourages coughing and mucus removal. The medicine also contains alcohol at similar levels to a fortified wine and this may have contributed to the Firewater experience. Mr Fudge’s masterstroke was to boost the effects of the Gee’s linctus by adding menthol, a remedy used for many years to help with symptoms of coughs and colds; menthol may also act as an oral anaesthetic helping with sore throats and may relieve nasal congestion.

Illustration Papaver somniferum0.jpg
The opium poppy

(from Wikipedia, for details see Link)

Although cough medicines cannot alter the course of viral infections, they may help you feel better and Mr Fudge’s medicine attacked symptoms in several ways which is perhaps why it was so popular and so successful. It was the menthol, however, that made the potion so memorable, justifying the Firewater nickname and establishing a shared experience among those who used it, believed in it and benefitted from it.

Abuse of Fudge’s Firewater
Non-prescription medicines such as Gee’s linctus, and Fudge’s Firewater, have been abused by people trying to access even the small amounts of morphine they contain. Gee’s linctus is, for example, reported to induce a “lovely euphoria and dreaminess”, but only if you are prepared to drink 50ml or more of the medicine! Local pharmacists were aware of the problem and tried to control it: Mr Morrish monitored all sales personally and Mr Conroy (manager in the early 21st century) restricted sales to one bottle per person, with a signature.

The end of Fudge’s Firewater
Gee’s linctus gradually fell out of favour as a cough medicine because of the problem of abuse. Finding commercial sources of the linctus became more difficult and temporary interruptions to the availability of Fudge’s Firewater occurred early in the 21st century. Then, in January 2006, a notice appeared on the window of Bridport’s East Street Pharmacy (then owned by Moss/Alliance) announcing that the medicine would be discontinued owing to “problems with the supply of ingredients”. That was the official line but I suspect this was not the full story. Around this time there had also been a change in the pharmacy regulations. Nostrums containing even small amounts of morphine, like Fudge’s Firewater, now required a prescription and this change must have contributed to Moss’s decision.

That wasn’t quite the end, though, because a modified Firewater was available for a few years from the St John’s Pharmacy in Weymouth, about 20 miles south east of Bridport. A Weymouth pharmacist, Mr Dipan Shah, produced and sold a version of the potion but because of the change in pharmacy regulations, people needed to persuade their doctor to issue a private prescription if they wanted the medicine. The need for a prescription severely affected sales and by 2009 production finally ceased. The change in regulations also means that Fudge’s Firewater is very unlikely ever to reappear.

Fudge’s Firewater served Bridport well for 50 years. The medicine is now just a memory but one that should be preserved as an important part of Bridport’s history.

I should like to thank Angela Alexander, Stuart Anderson, Richard Balson, David Conroy, Richard Cooper, Margery Hookings, Diana Leake, Kevin Morrish, Caroline Morrish-Banham, Dipan Shah, Elizabeth Williamson, Joy Wingfield, The Bridport Museum and the many commenters on social media who generously helped me in preparing this article.

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

The picture at the top of this post shows Mr David Conroy, manager of the East Street Pharmacy in Bridport in the early 21st century (from the Bridport News).

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For a matter of record, I have set down the timeline of Mr Fudge’s Medicine below

The Fudge’s Firewater Timeline

1950s Mr Ken Fudge opens his pharmacy at 7 West Allington, Bridport and begins production of Mentholated Honey Syrup (Fudge’s Firewater)
1973 Mr Fudge retires and the recipe for Firewater transfers to Mr Joe Sparrow at his 24 East Street Pharmacy
1975 Mr Kevin Morrish takes over the East Street Pharmacy, together with Fudge’s Firewater
1998 Mr Morrish retires and the business is acquired by Lifestyle
2001 Moss acquires the East Street Pharmacy, Mr David Conroy is the manager until 2005
2006 Moss ceases production of Fudge’s Firewater
2006-2009 Firewater available in Weymouth (Mr Dipan Shah, St John’s Pharmacy) but only with private prescription.

The Great Dorset Apple Cake Bake Off

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?

Second cake

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.

Why Dorset?

Apples

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

Leakers 2

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 Leaker 1
Jo Leaker with her very popular Dorset Apple Cake

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.

Cake Science

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.

Second cake
My second apple cake

 

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.

cake
Jo Leaker’s Dorset Apple Cake

 

 

Recipes for Dorset Apple Cake

My first cake

slightly modified from Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Dorset Apple Cake Recipe

Ingredients:

Wholemeal flour (225g) (I used spelt flour)

Baking powder (2 tsp)

Pinch of salt

Mixed spice (1tsp)

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

 

  1. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, spice, and sugar in a bowl.
  2. Stir in the butter and eggs and beat together for a minute or so until combined well.
  3. Stir in the apples until well distributed, then spoon the mixture in to the tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner).
  4. Smooth the top and sprinkle with the Demerara sugar.
  5. Bake for an hour at 160 oC,
  6. 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”

 

Ingredients:

Plain flour (115g)

Spelt flour (wholemeal) (115g)

Baking powder 2tsp

Butter (115g)

Rapadura sugar (115g)

Cinnamon (1tsp)

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

 

  1. Mix the flours and baking powder and rub in the butter by hand until is resembles bread crumbs.
  2. Mix in the sugar and cinnamon.
  3. Add 225g of roughly chopped apple
  4. Mix in the beaten egg and the natural yoghurt and stir well until mixed evenly
  5. Put the mixture in a cake tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner) and smooth the surface
  6. Press apple chunks (90 g in total) in to the surface
  7. Brush surface with melted butter
  8. 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.

Still ticking after all these years – the Ottery St Mary Astronomical Clock

Ottery St Mary is a small town in East Devon in the south west of the UK. The town has several claims to fame: not only is it the birthplace of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge but Harry Potter fans will know it as the inspiration for Ottery St Catchpole, home of the Weasleys. Then there is St Mary’s Church, a magnficent building, a mini-cathedral. There is much to see within the church but one of its more unusual features is the ancient astronomical clock. As well as telling the time, it also shows the age and phase of the moon, and it has done so for more than five centuries. This beautiful clock is a rare example of medieval craftsmanship and gives us a unique insight into life many centuries ago.

St Mary's Church Ottery St Mary 3
St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

Perhaps there is a chiming clock in the town where you live that insists on telling you the hour. You probably also wear a wristwatch and, failing that, your computer or phone provides minute by minute updates of the time. But it hasn’t always been like this, so how were clocks developed and how did time come to rule us?

The earliest clocks

In Western Europe, the first rudimentary clocks began to appear only during the medieval era. They were the preserve of monasteries and their purpose was to provide a signal to the sacristan who then rang the cloister bell, calling the monks to prayer at regular intervals. These simple timepieces were probably water clocks, where time was measured via the flow of water in to or out of a vessel. Although they were not very accurate, they were a great improvement on sundials in a cloud-prone country.

Then, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a major breakthrough in clock development occurred. Reports of new mechanical clocks began to appear from various places in Europe including Exeter (1284) and Salisbury (1306) and, most likely, this coincided with the invention of the escapement. These new clocks would probably have been driven by a weight attached to a rope wound round a drive shaft. The escapement was a device that enabled the weight to descend in a stepwise manner, each step representing the passing of time which could be displayed on the clock face. The familiar “tick, tock” of these clocks is the sound of the escapement. So began a new era of mechanical clocks composed solely of metal wheels and gears. These clocks were enthusiastically installed in church towers and other public buildings allowing a bell to be rung at intervals throughout the day, broadcasting time to the inhabitants of the town and, for example, signalling the opening of trading at the market.

As these mechanical clocks became more sophisticated they were elaborated to show not only time but also the age and phase of the moon. The south west of England has four well preserved examples of these ancient astronomical clocks that have survived for at least five centuries, perhaps because of their novelty or their beauty. They are to be found in Exeter Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Wimborne Minster and in Ottery St Mary Church.

The Astronomical Clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

The clock hangs high above the south transept and below the bell tower. Its bright blue face, about a metre and a half square, is liberally decorated with gold and red and topped with a gold angel blowing a trumpet. Unashamedly beautiful and garish at the same time, it dominates the scene.

Astronomical Clock in Ottery St Mary Church
The astronomical clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

The clock has two circular dials. The outer dial shows the hour with two sets of twelve Roman numerals. A golden sphere, representing the sun, moves to show the time. The inner dial contains thirty Arabic numerals with a gold star moving between them to show the age of the moon. Within the inner dial is a sphere painted half white, half black which rotates on its axis once every 29.5 days depicting the moon and its phases; the moon sphere also moves around the dial once every 24 hours. A black sphere at the centre of the clock shows the earth as the centre of the universe. The clock mechanism is visible behind the face.

Clock Mechanism Ottery St Mary
The clock mechanism

 

The exact age of the clock is not known but we may get a hint from the strong similarity between the Ottery St Mary clock and the astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral, which dates from the 15th century. Also, both timepieces depict a medieval view of the structure of the universe where the sun rotates about the earth. This model was only superseded in 1543 when Copernicus proposed that the earth actually rotates about the sun, so we can be fairly sure that both are older than this date.

Astronomical Clock in Exeter Cathedral
The astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral. The Latin inscription translates as “The hours pass and are reckoned to our account”.

 

Why astronomical clocks?

It is easy to understand the purpose of a clock that broadcasts the time of day to a busy town but why would the medieval clockmaker go to the trouble to include information about the age and phase of the moon and the apparent movement of the sun about the earth? One possibility may have been a desire of the contemporary Church to create a model of God’s celestial universe but perhaps there were secular reasons as well. For example, knowledge of the phases of the moon would have been useful in planning a long journey at night or a meeting in winter. Also, because of the influence of the moon on tides, knowledge of the state of the moon would have been useful for seafarers.

When they first appeared, these clocks must have seemed miraculous: man had constructed a machine that would predict the motion of the sun and moon and show the hours of the day. Possession of such a clock would have been a source of civic and ecclesiastical pride and conferred distinction on a town. For Ottery St Mary, perhaps it was considered fitting to install such a clock in its “mini-cathedral” of St Mary’s church.

The 21st century observer, surrounded by technology and gadgets, might, however, simply view the Ottery St Mary clock as an ancient curiosity. This would be a mistake: the clock is a rare example of advanced medieval craftsmanship as well as offering considerable insight into how life was lived so many years ago. It is a true medieval marvel.

 

This article appeared in the November edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.