In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.
I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road. This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height. Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling. Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy. Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.
It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west. As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts. It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).
Eventually, though. the lane levels out. A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance. I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.
In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Broomborough Down. But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles. Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.
I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane. Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm. Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance. Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today. Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.
Here are a few of the insect species I saw:
As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint. This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing. Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn. Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge. In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals. Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.
Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer. The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees. Then I come to the toilet! Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters. This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.
A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view. I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze. For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys. It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.
In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless. Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges. It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves. I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative. Vetches are also showing. Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort. This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.
Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road. The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character. It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.
There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill. This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.
To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here
This year sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth. One of his most famous poems, “Daffodils” was inspired by an extensive drift of the flowers he encountered growing along the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District. Wordsworth’s flowers would have been our native wild daffodil, smaller and less showy than the many brightly coloured, cultivated varieties we are accustomed to seeing in our gardens and parks. Native daffodils used to grow prolifically in the wild in many parts of the UK but woodland clearance and ploughing of meadows reduced their numbers. The west country is still a good place to see the flowers in the wild so I went off to look for them in Devon and Dorset.
I started my quest in our Devon garden where, a few years ago, we planted native daffodil bulbs obtained from a reputable supplier. This year they began to flower in late February revealing blooms of an understated beauty compared to their less subtle cultivated cousins. The trumpet is lemon-yellow and rather narrow with roughly parallel sides and the six petals are the colour of clotted cream, standing perpendicular to the trumpet, like an Elizabethan ruff. The grey green strap-like leaves and flower stem holding its single flower are about 20cm long, quite a bit shorter than many cultivated varieties.
The native daffodil is a member of the narcissus family, a genus often said to be named from the Greek myth whereby the young man, Narcissus, falls in love with his reflection seen in a pool of water. Unable to resist the allure of his own image, in time he realises his love cannot be reciprocated and he wastes away turning into a gold and white flower. Others believe the name comes from the Latin word narce, (numbness, torpor) a reference to the narcotic properties of the plant. Daffodils contain many chemicals, some of which were probably responsible for these narcotic effects, and extracts of daffodil have historically been used in folk medicine. The plant is now considered to be poisonous but one compound, galantamine, is purified from daffodils grown commercially in Wales for use as a therapy in Alzheimer’s disease.
The flowers growing in our garden provided me with a useful image to keep in my mind when I went into the countryside searching for native daffodils. It wasn’t difficult to find flowers along lane-side verges in West Dorset and in Devon that resembled the native daffodil, but how could I be sure? Simon Harrap in his beautifully illustrated book “Wild Flowers” warns against identifying roadside blooms as native because of the practice of garden dumping and of hybridisation with one of the thousands of garden cultivars, some of which have been deliberately planted to brighten up the countryside. He suggests searching in deciduous woodland or old pasture where the flowers may have been long established.
So, where can we go to see our native daffodil growing in the wild? The Lake District has strong populations with Wordsworth’s flowers still gracing the shores of Ullswater in late March and early April. Another fine population can be seen near Farndale in North Yorkshire but it is on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire borders that one of the most impressive displays occurs each spring. The “Golden Triangle”, defined by the villages of Kempley, Oxenhall and Dymock, has for many years attracted large numbers of visitors to see the carpets of wild daffodils in woodlands, orchards and pasture.
A fine display of the wild flowers can, however, be found nearer to home. Just a few miles to the west of Exeter in the Teign Valley in Devon lies Dunsford Nature Reserve and on a beautifully sunny mid-March day, we went to see the Dunsford daffodils. We parked near Steps Bridge where the Teign cascaded noisily over rocks creating showers of white water and sparkling light. The riverside path took us away from the bridge and almost immediately we came across daffodils. They were easy to find: growing under the trees in deciduous woodland, scattered across riverside meadows and flourishing among coppiced hazel stools. They were unmistakeably our native daffodil based on their stature, the shape of the flowers and their lemon and cream colour and, something I hadn’t noticed before, the tendency of individual flowers to be held at a slight angle downwards. For the most part, they do not grow thickly, it’s as though they need their space, and dense drifts of the flowers are rarely seen here. But this is compensated for by the sheer number of flowers so that for a few weeks at this time of year they own the land and it becomes very much daffodil territory. This is one of the strong impressions I shall take away from our visit.
We did find one meadow with denser growth (see picture at the head of this post) where the colours of the flowers tended to merge into a sheen of yellow, shining like the sun and reminding us that spring is on its way. Native daffodils are sometimes also called “Lent lilies” as they were said to bloom and fade between Ash Wednesday and Easter. When we visited Dunsford on March 16th, the flowers were close to their peak but they should still be around for a few more weeks.
But let’s go back to that stormy day in April 1802 when William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy encountered the profusion of daffodils by Ullswater. Dorothy described in her journal for April 15th how the flowers “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake”. William composed his poem two years later, inspired by her journal entry and his tribute to the daffodil has become one of the best-known pieces of verse in the English language.
Here is the last verse where Wordsworth remembers the events:
This article appeared in the April 2020 digital only edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. The fieldwork was completed before the lockdown came into force. Hopefully the article will provide a reminder of the joys of Spring.
Earlier this year, I wrote here about the plastic pellets that were appearing in large numbers on Charmouth and other nearby beaches in West Dorset in the south west of the UK. A group of us investigated the problem and discovered that many of the plastic pellets were biobeads, used by local water companies in sewage purification before the treated and purified effluent is discharged into the sea. We showed that, most likely, the biobeads were escaping, along with treated effluent, from the sewage works at Uplyme run by South West Water to pollute the very beaches they were intended to protect. The post created considerable interest at the time especially on Facebook. Then, a few weeks ago. the story was picked up by the local daily paper, the Western Morning News. Here is the article:
Should you wish to read the text of the article, I have enlarged it and cut it into two parts below.
As you can see, a local photographer, Richard Austin recently visited Charmouth Beach with his granddaughter and was shocked to find these plastic pellets littering the beach. The well-respected local journalist, Martin Hesp, then took up the story and the feature article was the result. In my opinion, he gives an excellent account of the problem stressing, in particular, the health implications for both children and marine life.
The Western Morning News asked South West Water (SWW) for a response and their Director of Wastewater, Andrew Roantree responded in the article. I was not asked to respond so I want to take up a few of the points he makes.
He says “From the photographs these (the pellets we found on the beaches) look as though they could be biobeads”. I’ll take that as a begrudging yes. Besides, we found the same pellets at the Uplyme sewage works and one of SWW’s employees confirmed that they are used there so we know they are biobeads.
He goes on to say that “…………….we are confident that there has been no loss of biobeads from the (Uplyme) site………. Any escape of biobeads is unacceptable……………….In 2017, we reviewed and updated the technical standard covering their use at our treatment works. This included requirements for storage of used and new biobeads. We also conduct regular site inspections………………….Uplyme Sewage Treatment Works has secondary and tertiary containment measures installed to prevent any biobeads escaping from the process units.”
When we visited the sewage works in February 2019, we found biobeads scattered around the site, so until quite recently biobead husbandry at Uplyme was not as rigorous as he implies.
We know that SWW uses biobeads at Uplyme and we know the identity of the two types of biobead used (knobbly black and ridged bright blue). These same biobeads appear on the beach at Charmouth so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that these two observations are linked.
When we visited in February 2019, the SWW representatives told us that the new containment measures at Uplyme were incomplete so escape of biobeads was still possible until a few months ago. Anyway, why did SWW go to the expense of installing extra containment measures if there were no containment issues in the first place?
The good news, if we are to believe Mr Roantree, is that containment of the biobeads at sewage works run by SWW is now much improved so there should be a gradual reduction in the numbers appearing on our beaches.
There is also a misunderstanding in the article. Biobeads are not “designed to catch nasty bits in the water”. They are designed to act as a solid support for bacteria to grow on and digest the sewage. Their ridged or knobbly nature provides a larger surface area to accommodate more bacteria to hasten sewage digestion. As they are made of plastic, they do absorb organic chemicals like PCBs from the sea but then so do nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.
It should also be acknowledged that the installation of the additional pellet containment measures by SWW results from the extensive activities of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition who first highlighted the biobead pollution problem on beaches in Cornwall (see report).
The picture at the head of this post shows Charmouth Beach with Golden Cap in the background.
It had been a good week but very intense. Our exhibition, entitled Observation, had come to an end and the combination of Hazel’s paintings and my photographs brought many interested people into the gallery leading to good conversations. When the exhibition finished, just over a week ago, we were both tired and needed to recharge. So, on the Sunday after, with the weather looking good, we set out on a walk in the countryside. Part of our route took in a quiet riverside path with meadows along one side spreading up the gentle slope away from the river. Buttercups and catsear lent the meadow a midsummer look and beneath the nodding yellow flowers were lush grasses, globes of white clover, a few pink orchids and some good stands of yellow rattle with its hooded lemony flowers and black beaks. It was a fine meadow with plenty of insect life and we watched the many bumblebees feeding, clover being their favourite. We saw several cuckoo bumblebees which, as their name suggests, don’t make their own nests but parasitise those bumblebees that do make nests.
On the other side of the path, there was a band of trees, scrub and other vegetation bordering the river and among the shady greenery we noticed a tall plant with a skein of dark purplish-blue flowers (see picture at the top of this post) that reminded me of Dutch clogs. Neither of us had seen this plant before and, with its showy blue flowers, we speculated that it might have been a garden escapee. More of the unusual flowers appeared further along, in the same sort of environment, under shade and close to the river.
Back home I wanted to find out what this plant was and eventually I discovered that it was Aconitum napellus or monkshood. In the south west of the UK, where I live, some rare examples of monkshood may be native but most are introduced and naturalised. The unusual architectural look of the flowers has made it a popular garden plant and the name, monkshood, derives from the resemblance of the flowers to the hoods or cowls worn by monks in the past.
What surprised me most was the warning in my flower book that monkshood is the most poisonous plant found in the UK. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, containing the substance aconitine, an alkaloid that causes death by disrupting the ionic balance across cell membranes leading to respiratory and heart failure. The dangers of monkshood have been known and exploited since ancient times resulting in the name “Queen of poisons”. Extracts of the plant were applied to spears and arrows to increase their killing ability and the poison was used in ancient Rome for executions. The plant is sometimes called wolfsbane owing to its use for killing wolves and its reputed ability to repel werewolves, but the name is more usually applied to the related, yellow-flowered, Aconitum lycoctonum.
Preparations of aconitine have also been used, mostly in the past, for their medicinal properties in treating pain and fever when taken orally or as a liniment for treating rheumatism, neuralgia and sciatica. Tinctures of aconitine were freely available in 19th century pharmacies in Europe and the US but although the drug is no longer used in conventional medicine in the west, it continues to be used in India and China in traditional herbal preparations. The problem with using the drug is balancing the apparent therapeutic effects against the lethal effects and cases of accidental aconitine poisoning are not unknown in China.
The plant is said to have arisen, according to Greek mythology, when Hercules, performing his 12th labour, dragged the three-headed dog Cerberus from the Gates of Hell. Here is Ovid’s description in his Metamorphoses:
“The dog struggled, twisting its head away from the daylight and the shining sun. Mad with rage, it filled the air with its triple barking, and sprinkled the green fields with flecks of white foam. These flecks are thought to have taken root and, finding nourishment in the rich and fertile soil, acquired harmful properties. Since they flourish on hard rock, the country folk call them aconites, rock-flowers.”
It seems entirely appropriate that such a lethally poisonous plant should be associated with the Gates of Hell. Indeed, it might be expected that a plant with such a reputation would have been used to commit murder but there are very few contemporary examples of this, perhaps because aconitine also has a very bitter taste and is difficult to disguise. This hasn’t stopped fiction writers from using the poison in their stories and here are a couple of examples: Agatha Christie, in her novel, 4.50 from Paddington, employs aconitine as a murder weapon, pills containing aconitine are substituted for the victim’s sleeping tablets; in one episode (Garden of Death, 2000) of the popular TV series, Midsomer Murders, aconitine is mixed with fettucine al pesto to dispose of the unfortunate victim. In 2010, however, a real murder was committed using the poison when Lakhvir Kaur Singh, nicknamed the “curry killer”, poisoned her former lover by mixing extracts of the related plant Aconitum ferox into his leftover curry.
There has been some speculation recently that simply brushing against the plant might be dangerous but this idea has been discredited. Nevertheless, should the sap of the plant come into contact with skin the poison may be transferred especially through cuts. Caution should, therefore, be exercised if the plant is encountered in the garden or in the wild as the following anecdote, taken from Richard Mabey’s book Flora Britannica suggests:
In 1993, there was an epidemic of poisoning at a florist’s in Wiltshire. “A flower seller was treated for heart palpitations in intensive care after handling bunches of a poisonous flower ……… staff at a flower shop in Salisbury suffered shooting pains after poison from a monkshood entered their bloodstreams. The shop’s owner bought 150 bunches from a wholesaler who has now withdrawn them. ” I wondered what was wrong – all of a sudden everyone was lethargic and getting pains.” ”
The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK. Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years. I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.
The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country. It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band. The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century. Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.
With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline. In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields. In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks. With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.
Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes. The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable. This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.
The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range. So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011. Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.
Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership. Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support. This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food. These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon. The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates. Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.
In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed. Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers. About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed. Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.
I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway. I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine. The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead. Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.
I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle. The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers. This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.
My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields. Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top). Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers. I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.
It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths. Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information. An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend. All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming. When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife. I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could. His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.
I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
This is a long post describing how a group of concerned people, including myself, noticed some unusual plastic pellets appearing on several beaches in the vicinity of Charmouth in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. After a tortuous investigation, we identified the source of the plastic pellet pollution as a local water company carelessly and unnecessarily discharging the pellets into the sea.
The story started on a sultry day in late July 2017. I was driving back from the Wareham area where I had been walking across one of the remaining fragments of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the fictional landscape that plays so important a part in his novel The Return of the Native. I found myself approaching Charmouth, a small village in west Dorset and decided I needed a cup of tea. Charmouth village lies a short distance inland from the sea and Charmouth beach is popular with families in the summer, the cliffs are famous for their fossils and in her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen refers to “its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs”.
I was the only customer in the Bank House Café that afternoon and as I waited for my tea, I noticed some copies of the village magazine, Shoreline. I picked one up and started to leaf through. It’s an interesting read but my attention was taken by an article about “nurdles” written by Eden Thomson, a volunteer at the local Heritage Centre that organises marine and fossil events. I quickly learnt that nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets used as easily transportable raw materials in the plastics industry where they are used to make many of the plastic goods we have become accustomed to. There is considerable loss of these pellets during transport and during use. Some of these lost pellets end up in the sea and Eden reported finding large numbers of turquoise pellets on the beach at Charmouth with light grey and dark grey also being common. I didn’t have time to go to the beach to look that day but my curiosity was piqued.
Looking for pellets
Now, when we walked on beaches, both Hazel and I looked to see if we could find any plastic pellets. It took me a while to get my eye in, Hazel saw them more quickly, but gradually I noticed a few pellets on most beaches. My first big find was at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone in south Devon after some hefty storms in mid October 2017 where hundreds were sprinkled along the strandlines. These were all 5mm or less across, some were lentil shaped and translucent, many were cylindrical and grey and a few were irregular grey and black with clear ridges. By reference to the Great Nurdle Hunt web site I reckoned most were nurdles but a few might be biobeads (see below).
Then in late October 2017 I had a chance to return to Charmouth and look at the beach. Not only was there a lot of general plastic pollution among reedy/woody debris either side of the river Char where it approaches the beach, but among this debris were many plastic pellets. There were a few of the translucent or yellow or green lentil shaped pellets, also some grey or black cylindrical pellets. Most of these were nurdles. Also, as Eden Thomson had described, there were many bright blue cylindrical pellets. When I examined these, I felt they were quite different from other pellets I had seen; in particular they had many fine ridges and I thought they might be biobeads (see below). We returned to Charmouth in January 2018 and again found many of the bright blue ridged pellets littered around the two sides of the river and on the car park edges. We also made a brief visit to West Bay, about 7 miles to the east of Charmouth and found many bright blue ridged pellets there as well.
Dawlish Warren is another beach where we find plastic debris especially after storms and we had a look for pellets in March 2018. We found them distributed along both inner and outer beaches, they were mostly cylindrical, pale blue, grey and green but there were a few knobbly dark grey pellets, some also having ridges. We also found a few of the bright blue ridged pellets seen at Charmouth.
Trying to understand
In trying to understand these observations, I was greatly helped by the influential report from the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) lead by Claire Wallerstein. The CPPC had found huge numbers of black plastic pellets further west along beaches in Cornwall and, following extensive investigation, showed that these were biobeads, plastic pellets used in some sewage plants to promote sewage digestion and water purification. Biobeads are usually ridged or knobbly to provide a greater surface area for bacteria to grow and help digest the sewage. The CPPC showed that most likely the biobeads they found on beaches were escaping from biobead-dependent sewage plants run by South West Water, the local water purification and sewage company.
Based on their findings, I worked out that I was collecting both nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets) and biobeads. For the most part when I collected pellets from beaches in Devon, I found mixtures of nurdles of different shapes and colours together with a few black knobbly biobeads. At Charmouth and West Bay in Dorset, however, the predominant pellet was bright blue, cylindrical with fine ridges, typical of a biobead. There were definitely also some black knobbly biobeads on the beach at Charmouth. The four pictures below showing samples of pellets collected from two regions of Dawlish Warren beach in Devon and two sides of Charmouth Beach illustrate these differences quite well.
So, did South West Water (SWW) have a role in the biobead pollution appearing on Charmouth beach? The company runs a sewage works in nearby Lyme Regis based on biobead digestion. The actual works is located in Sleech Wood above the town but the purified sewage effluent is discharged into the sea some distance off the town of Lyme Regis below the Cardinal Buoy. I began to develop a working hypothesis whereby SWW uses these blue biobeads and probably also the black knobbly equivalent in their Sleech Wood works but containment of biobeads is incomplete and some are discharged into the sea and are washed back on to Charmouth and West Bay beaches. Another possibility was that pellets were being lost into the river Lim, which passes near the sewage works, to enter the sea with the river water.
A Nurdle Hunt
In the meantime, I took part in a nurdle hunt on Charmouth Beach organised by Sophie Thomas from the Charmouth Heritage Centre one Saturday in February 2018. There were 30 nurdle hunters on a bright sunny morning including Eden Thomson who wrote the article in Shoreline Magazine and it was good to meet her. It was also good to meet blogging friend Sarah West from Transition Town Bridport and her husband John. Altogether we collected 6650 pellets many of which were bright blue biobeads although a few black knobbly biobeads were mixed in with the blues. It is my impression that the black type may often be ignored in favour of the much more visible bright blue pellet.
I wrote an article for the local Marshwood Vale Magazine describing the nurdle hunt and its background. This was published in May 2018 and soon after, I was contacted by Joe Hackett of Transition Town Bridport who had organised a beach clean at West Bay (seven miles east of Charmouth) and found many bright blue pellets there. He had noted the similarity between the pellets found at West Bay and Charmouth and wondered if we could discuss the situation. We spoke by phone and have been in contact since then.
In March and April 2018, I became very frustrated at my inability to tie down the nature and the origin of these blue and black biobeads. I had contacted various academic experts, pressure groups and one local plastics company to ask if they could help me understand the nature of the pellets and the background to what was going on. I was very surprised to find that none of these people was prepared to get involved. Of all the people I contacted, only one replied and she was “too busy to help”.
I did investigate one possible hypothesis, namely that the biobeads were being lost from the Lyme Regis sewage works into the river Lim. I walked along the river Lim in Lyme Regis to see if any pellets were visible at the river’s edge but found none suggesting that this route was unlikely. When I talked to Joe Hackett, it turned out he had done the same accompanied by local environmentalist, Horatio Morpurgo. They also found nothing suggesting that pellets were not being lost in to the river Lim. This meant that most likely the biobeads were being discharged into the sea along with the treated sewage.
Claire Wallerstein from the CPPC offered to ask SWW what biobeads they used at their Lyme Regis sewage works and was told, “we don’t know and it would cost too much to use a crane to lift the lid to check”.
I enter the South West Water labyrinth
In desperation, I contacted the South West Water (SWW) Press Office in May 2018 and my enquiry was forwarded to Paul McNie, Environmental Manager of Waste Water Customer Service & Networks. I received a reply from Gavin Lincoln, Wastewater Treatment Process Consultant, asking what I wanted to know. I sent him a list of questions about biobead-dependent sewage treatment including asking what type of biobead was used at Lyme Regis but heard nothing. After discussions with Joe Hackett and Horatio Morpurgo, I wrote a paper letter to McNie in July 2018 asking about the nature of the biobeads used at the Lyme Regis Sewage Works. This occasioned a reply from Sue Richards, Customer Manager for SWW towards the end of July introducing herself as my dedicated case manager (it felt as though my enquiry ranked at about the same level as a leaking water pipe). I received a second letter in early August from Katie Hudson, also a Customer Services manager telling me that Paul McNie would be in touch about my queries. He never did get back to me and the rest of my interactions with SWW were through Sue Richards who, although courteous and helpful, appeared to be poorly briefed as she made some obvious errors of fact in her letters to me. The saga continued in this vein but she did reveal that the biobeads used at Lyme Regis were “black with a hint of blue” and after I asked what this meant she sent me a low-resolution photo printed on letter paper showing the biobeads used there. They all appeared to be black and strongly resembled one class of biobead found at Charmouth as well as the majority of those found by CPPC in Cornwall. I spoke to Sue Richards by phone several times and raised the issue of the blue biobeads only to have the conversation closed down quickly.
To summarise, SWW told us three contradictory stories:
They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
The biobeads used are black and knobbly
This was all very confusing and I was left not knowing what to believe.
Living the high life – visits to the sewage works
In the meantime, Joe Hackett had been busy organising visits to Exmouth and Lyme Regis sewage works as it was felt that this was our last chance to understand what was going on. The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition had visited the Plympton sewage works early in 2017 and found biobeads littered about the site. This was a key piece of information linking poor biobead housekeeping by SWW at the Plympton sewage works to the extensive biobead pollution on Cornish beaches.
The Exmouth visit took place in November 2018 but I was unable to be there. Those that visited had an interesting time and learnt about the basics of the biobead sewage treatment. They did not find any biobeads loose on the site but noticed a huge pile of used/depleted biobeads, the size of two buses, covered with sheeting. The SWW representative expressed his frustration over the problems the company faced with biobeads in the following admission “If we’d had a crystal ball back in the 1990s and could have seen how controversial plastics would have become, we might not have gone down this road”. I believe this was a reference to the pressure put on the company by Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC over losses of biobeads from the Plympton sewage works.
The Lyme Regis visit took place in February 2019 and a large group of us representing Transition Town Bridport, Charmouth Heritage Centre, Litter Free Coast and Sea Dorset, together with individuals each with their own interest gathered at the site in Sleech Wood. We were welcomed by two representatives of SWW, Rhidian Howells and Stephanie Jones who were both courteous and helpful. Rhidian Howells explained how the automated process removed large items from the crude sewage and then passed the remains through the biobead reactor where bacteria digested it. Ultraviolet irradiation completed the treatment and the effluent was then discharged to the sea. He went to some trouble to explain how SWW was installing new filters on all their biobead plants to make sure that biobead loss was minimised. The installation of these extra filters is a direct result of the work of Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC identifying the source of biobeads on Cornish beaches as South West Water.
While we were looking about the biobead reactor area, one of our party found a few of the bright blue ridged biobeads on the ground. A little later, someone found a clutch of black knobbly biobeads on the ground near the parking area. This immediately answered the question about the source of the biobeads on Charmouth beach: despite what SWW had told us we now knew both black and blue biobeads were used at the Lyme Regis sewage works (Howells confirmed this) and were most likely escaping from the reactors to end up in the sea. I became very angry with Howells at this point; as I explained to him, we had spent so much time and energy trying to identify the source of the biobead pollution at Charmouth. South West Water had fed us contradictory stories, when all along they knew the source of the pollution which was their own sewage works.
Chemical analysis of pellets
The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition biobead story featured on a special edition of Inside Out South West on BBC TV in October 2018. The programme included visiting Dr Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth where he had been analysing pellets for Claire Wallerstein for potentially toxic elements. I wondered if similar analysis might help understand the Charmouth blue pellets so I contacted Dr Turner. I was most grateful when he replied quickly and in the affirmative. I made two special collections, one at Dawlish Warren and another at Charmouth and I also sent him some of the black biobeads picked up at the Lyme Regis sewage works.
While this was in progress, Dr Turner along with Claire Wallerstein and Rob Arnold published a paper detailing X-ray fluorescence analyses of nurdles and black biobeads collected at a variety of locations in the south west (including Plympton sewage works and several Cornish beaches) and elsewhere along the English Channel. The technique identifies potentially toxic elements in the pellets and, whereas nurdles were usually devoid of these contaminants, the black biobeads contained varying quantities of lead, bromine, cadmium and antimony, a chemical signature characteristic of recycled electrical equipment containing flame retardants. Sometimes the levels exceeded permitted levels rendering the pellets toxic and potentially hazardous to life.
Black biobeads collected at Dawlish Warren, Charmouth and at Lyme Regis sewage works had the same chemical signature (bromine and antimony and sometimes lead and cadmium) as the black biobeads collected at Plympton sewage works and along Cornish beaches. This shows that the same black biobead is used by SWW at different sewage works and is escaping to end up on local beaches in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Nurdles found at Dawlish Warren and Charmouth (lentil shaped and smooth, cylindrical) did not hold any toxic element contamination whereas the blue biobeads found at Charmouth contained copper probably part of the blue pigment used to give the distinctive colour.
I am most grateful to Andrew Turner for supporting us by analysing these pellets.
The source of the black and blue biobeads polluting Charmouth and West Bay beaches is the Lyme Regis sewage works run by South West Water where these pellets are escaping with treated sewage effluent to be discharged into the sea.
The black biobead is the same pellet found along beaches in Devon and Dorset and in huge numbers on Cornish beaches, it is made from recycled electrical equipment and may contain toxic levels of trace elements. South West Water is responsible for this extensive pollution.
Subsequent investigation found that the blue ridged biobead is also found at Burton Freshwater beach (a mile east of West Bay, found by Joe Hackett) and on the main sandy beach in Lyme Regis (about 2 miles west of Charmouth, found by Harry Dennis of Surfers Against Sewage). The pellets found on these beaches almost certainly come from the Lyme Regis sewage works
One sample of pellets that I collected from Westcombe beach near Kingston in south Devon showed surprisingly large numbers of the blue ridged biobeads. Perhaps this can be explained by proximity to SWW’s biobead-dependent sewage works at Modbury.
At Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis, these biobeads are found in parts of the beach where children play in the summer. They are also found at Charmouth by the river where both gulls and ducks feed so it seems very likely that these birds will be accidentally ingesting pellets.
South West Water are installing extra filters at their biobead-dependent plants to minimise pellet loss as a result of the efforts of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. Providing that programme is completed and is successful, the number of biobeads on local beaches should diminish. This of course does not deal with the reservoir of biobeads now in the sea and also buried in sand. It is very difficult for me to see how these pellets can be cleaned up without damaging the fabric of the very beaches we wish to protect.
Greater legal protection for the marine environment should be introduced so that companies like SWW who release biobeads, also plastics companies that release nurdles could be prosecuted for polluting seas and beaches.
I should like to express my thanks to everyone who helped bring this tortuous story to a conclusion.
Blizzards, strong winds, drifting snow, bitter cold – that was the story in early March last year when the “Beast from the East” collided with storm Emma bringing extreme weather and disruption to life across large parts of the UK. Towards the end of June, by contrast, the sun began to shine and daytime temperatures climbed into the thirties and stayed that way across much of the country until August (the picture at the top of this post shows the effect of the long hot summer on the UK countryside). Elsewhere across the globe, reports came in of flooding, wildfires, severe tropical storms and unusually high and low temperatures. Many of these weather extremes can be attributed to climate change and there is considerable concern that the planet is heading for climate catastrophe. David Attenborough expressed this fear at a climate change conference in Poland: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
In the UK, it was the long, hot summer, the joint hottest on record, that made people think most about a changing climate. The weather here is, of course, notoriously fickle and some will remember that in 1976, we experienced a similar long, hot, dry summer, so how can we disentangle normal weather variation from climate change? One way of looking at this was shown by Simon Lee, a PhD student at the University of Reading, who shared graphs on Twitter of the global temperature anomalies in June 1976 and in June 2018 (see pictures below). These show that in 1976 the UK was one of a few unusually hot spots in an otherwise cooler than average world whereas in 2018 much of the world, including the UK, was hotter than the average. The 2018 picture shows climate change in action: the planet is warmer making heatwaves more likely.
Careful measurements of the average surface temperature of the planet show that it is currently about 1oC hotter than in pre-industrial times. This may not seem very much but it is enough to disturb the complex systems that create our weather. As a result, heatwaves may be more frequent in summer and, in winter, polar air may be directed southwards bringing abnormal, freezing temperatures. Also, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so that rain and snow may be more severe. Climate breakdown might be an apt description of these changes.
This global heating is a result of human activity. The emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, oil and petrol, traps heat in the atmosphere so the temperature of the world increases. We have known this for some time and we have also known that the solution is to reduce carbon emissions. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have, however, continued to climb because no government has had the will to introduce the extreme lifestyle changes required to curb emissions. Some governments, including our own, have even encouraged the continuing extraction of fossil fuels.
It is, therefore, significant that in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report containing a dire warning: we must make urgent and unprecedented changes to the way we live if we are to limit heating to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this target, we must reduce net global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050 – fossil fuel use must be drastically reduced by the middle of the 21st century but we must start the reduction now. Should we fail to achieve this 1.5oC target, the risks of drought, flooding, extreme heat, poverty and displacement of people leading to wars will increase significantly. The world will no longer be the place we know and love and parts of it will become uninhabitable for humans and the rest of nature.
How do we achieve this reduction in carbon emissions? Voluntary measures such as suggesting people fly or drive less will not work. The only way this reduction can be achieved is through coordinated government action based on recommendations made in the IPCC report. These include the planting of more forests and the chemical capture of carbon dioxide to reduce atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. There must also be a drastic shift in energy production and in transport away from fossil fuels and this can be driven in part by investment and subsidies directed towards clean technologies. A carbon tax can also help drive this shift but the tax will need to be high enough to force change, for example by taxing energy companies who burn fossil fuels so that they invest in cleaner technologies. In the short term, costs to consumers may rise, so politicians would need to keep the public on side, for example, through tax incentives. If we grasp the opportunity, the scale of change may have the unexpected bonus of allowing us to design more sustainable and equitable societies.
The IPCC report set out very clearly the changes required to avoid damaging global climate change so there was great anticipation when the UN Climate Change Conference convened in Katowice in Poland just before Christmas. Astonishingly, given the gravity of the situation, the 200 countries represented there failed to agree new ambitious targets for greater reductions in carbon emissions. Four countries (USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait) would not even sign a document welcoming the IPCC report; these countries are of course all oil producers.
It was at this conference that David Attenborough issued his warning about the collapse of civilisations but there was another hugely impressive intervention. This came from 15-year old activist Greta Thunberg from Sweden. She had already achieved some notoriety through her weekly climate strikes where she missed one day of school to protest about climate change. Her actions have stimulated many thousands of young people around the world to do likewise. Thunberg also spoke in London at the launch of the new grass-roots movement, Extinction Rebellion, which intends to use peaceful protest to force governments to protect the climate. These new trends offer some hope for the future since it is the young of today that will bear the climate of tomorrow.
Here is part of Greta Thunberg’s speech given at the Katowice conference:
“For 25 years countless people have come to the UN climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So, I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future, I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.”
“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago. We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.”
I am grateful to Simon Lee for generously supplying the temperature anomaly graphs.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold which is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
(from Little Gidding, the last of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets)
We had a lot of grey, wet weather towards the end of last year, and very little sunshine. A few days before Christmas, however, the forecast predicted a bright, dry and relatively mild day, so I took the opportunity to get over to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what flowers and wildlife might be about. It’s a journey of about ten miles and that morning I took the bus, enjoying the long views across the surrounding countryside. Paignton is a seaside holiday resort but it looked distinctly “out of season” when I arrived, despite the sunshine and blue sky. A few people were walking along the promenade; they were well wrapped up even though it wasn’t a cold day. The little harbour was quiet; small boats bobbed on the water protected by the old stone walls and a gang of turnstones skittered like mice at the water’s edge. Molly Malones food shack was closed for the winter and the booths normally touting fishing excursions were empty.
I walked up suburban streets to get on to the northern side of Roundham Head, the flat-topped, cliff-lined, grassy promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. A line of tall pine trees straddles the first part of the headland and the low sun rendered these as silhouettes casting long shadows across the grass. The path around the promontory follows the cliff edge with views to the sea below and a seal teased me by briefly raising its shiny black head above the water. Eventually I came to southern side of the Head and the gardens that were built in the 1930s partly to stabilise the cliffs. Steep zig zag paths track up and down between flower beds planted with exotic species that, between them, provide colour throughout the year. There are benches should you wish to rest or enjoy the views over Torbay and the shelter, the proximity of the sea and the south facing aspect of the gardens generate a mild microclimate.
It was the winter solstice that day, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, the day when darkness begins to give way to light. From the southern edge of Roundham Head, above the gardens, I could see the sun hanging very low in the pale wintery-blue sky casting its light across the beach at Goodrington Sands creating a silvery mirror on the water. Even though this was midwinter, there were plenty of flowers around me in the gardens and the low sunshine created surprising effects. Its intense golden light gave a softness to the air and enhanced flower colours to an almost psychedelic extent. Banks of bergenia acquired a pink brightness worthy of late 1960s San Francisco and the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) that flourishes all over the gardens glowed with a lemon-yellow light.
I paused by a clump of bergenia, enjoying the warmth of this sheltered spot. A small bumblebee, ovoid and furry with black, white and yellow stripes, soon appeared, moving among the bright pink flowers looking for food. Quickly tiring of the bergenia, it flew to one of the white funnel-shaped flowers in a large clump of shrubby bindweed (Convolvulus cneorum), burying its head in the base of the bloom where it stayed, drinking nectar. Based on size and appearance this was probably a buff-tailed bumblebee worker. A drone fly also took advantage of these flowers resting near the mass of golden yellow stamens. Soon after, I got a surprise when a butterfly landed briefly on the bergenia before flying off. It circled for a while before settling on a wall to bask in the sunshine showing me that it was a painted lady, with its characteristic wing coloration of orange/buff, black and white. An insistent buzz announced the arrival of a large bumblebee, black with orange/buff coloured bands. This was a queen buff-tailed bumblebee and she proceeded to feed from the bergenia. I had two more sightings of large furry queens on these pink flowers.
Another plant that flourishes here is rosemary and extensive curtains of the herb cascade from several borders, their slate blue flowers glinting in the sunshine like diamond chips. Rosemary is in flower here for several months across winter providing pollen and nectar for insects and I saw several buff-tailed bumblebee workers moving quickly about the flowers, their pollen baskets well loaded. They were very jumpy and flew off when I got too close. For a short time, they were joined by another queen carrying a small amount of grey pollen, also a basking, but rather worn, red admiral butterfly with its bright red and white patterns on a black background.
By mid-afternoon, cloud began to bubble up to the south, and eventually a slab of grey cloud obscured the sun. The temperature dropped noticeably, the wind got up and the bees went off to shelter, bringing observations to a close. I made my way back to the bus station pondering what I had seen.
It still surprises me to see butterflies in the winter. I have seen them here before in December and January but in my mind these brightly coloured insects signify summer. Although most red admirals are thought to migrate to the UK from North Africa and continental Europe, a few are thought to be resident now that mild winters are becoming more common. These residents can be seen flying and feeding on gentle winter days. The painted lady also migrates into the UK but is thought to be unable to survive our winters, so the one I encountered is unlikely to see our spring.
What about the bees, aren’t they supposed to be in hibernation at this time of year? Well yes, most bees are, but based on my observations of buff-tailed workers collecting pollen in December, there must be winter active colonies at Roundham Head. I first saw worker bumblebees here in January about five years ago and since then I have seen them at a similar time each year, so this is a well-established phenomenon. There are presumably queens in their nests laying eggs supported by these workers. These queens would have been produced in the previous October to mate with males at emergence. Last year I did see male buff-tails here in December so perhaps these were survivors of the late autumn emergence.
There is abundant evidence now from a variety of sources that colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees are active in the winter across the southern part of the UK. Two factors seem to be important: winter weather should not be too harsh and there should be plenty of flowers to support the colonies.
As the First World War staggered towards its bloody conclusion 100 years ago this month leaving 17 million dead, the war-worn world suffered a second catastrophe. A lethal influenza pandemic swept the planet killing at least 50 million people. Most towns in the UK have fitting memorials to the war dead but the many who died from influenza are neither commemorated nor remembered. The Spanish flu, as it came to be called, was the greatest global killer since the Black Death. It is very important that its victims should not be forgotten and lessons learnt for dealing with future pandemics.
By June 1918, the fighting had been raging for nearly four years. Already worn down by the privations of war and the deaths of so many young men, people in the UK began to suffer the symptoms of influenza. Sore throat, headache and fever were typical but, after a few days in bed, people recovered and got on with life as best as they could. The illness had already swept across the US in the spring, reaching the trenches of the Western Front by mid-April leading to a brief lull in the fighting while troops recovered.
By September, however, a second wave of influenza surfaced, now in a deadly new guise. The virus was highly infectious sweeping through populations and quickly reaching most countries around the globe, its lethal progress assisted by the movement of troops to and from war zones. The majority experienced typical flu symptoms, perhaps a little more severe, and recovered quickly but, for about one in twenty of those infected, the effects were much more serious. Pneumonia-like symptoms caused by bacterial infection of the lungs were common leading to breathing problems and copious bloody sputum. Sometimes, the face and hands developed a purple-blue colouration suggesting oxygen starvation. This colour might spread to the rest of the body, occasionally turning black before sufferers died. Post mortem examination revealed lungs that were red, swollen and bloody and covered in watery pink liquid; victims had effectively drowned in their own bodily fluids. There were no effective treatments, antibiotics had not been developed, and the death rate was high. By Christmas the second influenza wave had burnt itself out only for a third wave of intermediate severity to strike in the first few months of 1919. The pandemic came to be called “Spanish flu” because Spain alone, not being part of the war and so not subject to censorship, reported its flu experience freely.
In the UK, the Spanish flu killed 228,000 people in the space of about six months but this was a global pandemic and around the world the mortality was staggering. There were 675,000 deaths in the US and up to 17 million in India; overall the illness killed at least 3% of the entire population of the world. Unlike typical seasonal flu epidemics, deaths from Spanish flu were highest among 20-40-year olds with pregnant women being particularly vulnerable. If World War 1 had consumed the flower of youth, Spanish flu cut down those in their prime.
The sudden, widespread occurrence of a major illness with such high mortality caused huge disruption to daily life in the UK, especially in large towns. Medical services were overwhelmed as many doctors and nurses were on war service, funeral directors were unable to cope and there were reports of bodies piling up in mortuaries. The response of the medical authorities was poor, underplaying the gravity of the situation and providing little guidance; the newspapers, wearied by war news, were reluctant to give this new killer much coverage. Understanding of disease in the general population was rudimentary and a sense of fear and dread prevailed as people witnessed so many apparently random deaths.
In the West Country, the second wave of influenza killed at least 750 people in both Devon and Somerset and about 400 in Dorset but many thousands must have been unwell. Contemporary reports from Medical Officers of Health and local papers give some idea of how life was disrupted:
“In Lyme Regis, schools were closed for a fortnight in October 1918 as a large number of teachers as well as children were stricken down with the malady”
“The epidemic occurred when there was a great shortage of doctors and nurses across Devon and in the autumn of 1918 many cases succumbed before they could be visited; so bad was this in north Devon that, in answer to appeals from Appledore and North Tawton, two members of the School Medical Staff went to the aid of overtaxed doctors”
“Schools in Dartmouth were still closed in November 1918, social functions postponed and a Corporation soup kitchen opened to supply nourishing soup for invalids”
Here are two extracts from letters written to the author Richard Collier by people alive in 1918 describing their experience of the pandemic. These were kindly given to me by Hannah Mawdsley.
“Mrs Frances Smith wrote from Brixham, Devon about her flu memories. She remembered funerals taking place late into the evening by lamplight, as there wasn’t enough time in the day to bury everyone. She caught the flu herself and was convinced that she was going to die. She had a very high fever and her hair fell out as a consequence of the flu, as well as severe aches in her back and legs.”
“Mr Bebbington was at Blandford Camp, Dorset during the pandemic. He remembered the huge numbers of flu victims there, as well as the depression that followed many flu cases, which seemed to result in a significant number of suicides in a nearby wood.”
Given the high mortality and the disruption to normal society I find it surprising that the pandemic was not commemorated and seems to have been forgotten quickly. Perhaps after four long years of carnage abroad and disruption at home, another horror was just too much, and the only way to cope was to forget?
But what was it about the 1918 flu virus that made it so virulent producing symptoms unlike any seen before and killing so many people? We still don’t know but scientists in the US have made some headway by studying the virus extracted from corpses of people who died during the second wave of the infection preserved in Alaskan permafrost. This showed, surprisingly, that the 1918 virus had a structure similar to a bird flu virus. This partly accounts for its virulence: its bird flu-like structure would have been alien to the immune system of people at the time. Because it also had the ability to infect human cells, it was a lethal vector of disease causing, in some patients, severe damage to the lining of the respiratory tract leading to bacterial infection and pneumonia, engorged lung tissue and bloody sputum. A flu virus normally found in wild birds had acquired the ability to infect humans and the pandemic was the result.
Could history repeat itself? Could the world experience another lethal influenza pandemic? There is certainly concern among experts that this could happen and the Government recognises pandemic influenza as “one of the most severe natural challenges likely to affect the UK”. Current concern is focussed on two bird Influenza viruses circulating in the Far East. Since 2003, these have infected more than 2000 people and nearly half have died. Almost all the human infections have come from close contact with poultry or ducks but should one of these viruses change so that person to person transmission becomes possible, then we could be facing another major pandemic. How would we react? Our health care systems, at least in the developed world, are more sophisticated compared to 1918 and surveillance is better so that we should have early warning of the start of a pandemic. The UK Government has an Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy, we have antibiotics and vaccines to combat bacterial pneumonia and some antiviral drugs to reduce flu symptoms. There is still the likelihood that health care systems would be overloaded and perhaps our best long-term hope is the development of a universal flu vaccine to protect against all strains of the virus.
Last week I made the short train journey along the Devon coast to Dawlish Warren hoping to see some of the special late summer flowers that flourish on the nature reserve. Dawlish Warren is also a very popular holiday spot in August and, as I walked from the station, I joined shoals of people making their way to the beach laden with bags and body boards. It was all very good humoured and, as I sat on the promenade drinking my coffee and dodging wasps, children played on the beach below, shrieking as they ran in and out of the water.
[For more information on Dawlish Warren look here]
It was a gentle day with sunshine and cotton wool clouds as I followed the sandy boardwalk away from the promenade across the narrow line of dunes and down to the quiet of the nature reserve. The uneven, wooden walkway meandered across swathes of rough grass where many evening primrose stood on tall reddish-green stems, their papery flowers fluttering in the breeze like clouds of lemon-yellow butterflies.
The central part of the reserve used to be a lake, Greenland Lake, long since drained but never really having lost its watery feel. There were still a few puddles remaining after recent heavy rain and the profuse flora was dominated by damp-loving plants, especially tall, thick rushy grasses. Drifts of purple loosestrife, spiky and colourful, stood above the dark green grassy understory. Fluffy lilac globes of water mint and creamy cushions of meadowsweet also shone, along with large numbers of the yellow daisy-like fleabane. Late season insects enjoyed the many food sources.
Further on, as the ground became a little drier and the grass shorter, I was surprised to see one or two spikes of marsh helleborine. They had been flowering in their hundreds when I visited about six weeks previously but I thought they would have been finished by now. These unusual flowers are members of the orchid family and each pinkish flower stem carries several white flowers with delicate pink veins and a frilly lip, backed by pink sepals. There is something unsettling about marsh helleborine when they appear in large numbers, casting their pale colours across the damp green grassland.
There’s another orchid I have seen growing here in profusion in previous years. It’s the last of the season’s orchids to appear and I had almost given up hope of finding any when, finally, I stumbled across a few. Each vertical spike is very distinctive, a slightly hairy grey-green spiral, looking as though several strands of fine rope had been wound around one other. Perhaps it’s just the name, autumn lady’s tresses, but they also remind me of the plaits the girls wove from their long hair when I was at school. The white tubular flowers emerge from this grey-green spiral to decorate the spike in a helical manner, either clockwise or counter clockwise. Bumblebees pollinate the flowers and apparently, they prefer the counter clockwise arrangement.
My next stop was the inner bay, with its views up the river Exe towards mudflats popular with wading birds. Today the water had retreated, leaving the semi-circular bay a shining sheet of dark mud, revealing many clumps of bright green glasswort (marsh samphire). Groups of glistening, jointed stems pushed up from the mud, their multiple branches resembling miniature versions of the giant cacti often seen in Western Movies. Each stem was also dotted with particles that resembled grains of sand but in fact were tiny yellow flowers.
There was quite a bit of woody, reedy debris on the beach although very little plastic at this time of year. I found a suitable log and sat down to have my sandwiches. Boats puttered across the river between Starcross and Exmouth and a few seabirds moved about the mud. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cloud of small grey birds appeared above the bay. There were perhaps as many as two hundred, moving as a group backwards and forwards above the water but continually changing formation, the outer members of the group visibly accelerating before a turn. It felt like a deliberate performance and, as they banked and changed direction, the sun caught their wings transforming them momentarily into mobile shards of silver. Suddenly it was all over and without warning they landed on the beach to my right, disappearing from view as they merged with the mud. Some passing birders told me they were mostly dunlin with a few sanderling.
After lunch I pressed on past the inner bay to the fist-shaped end of the sand spit, Warren Point, that nearly reaches the east bank of the Exe at Exmouth, but doesn’t quite make it. This part of the peninsula is fringed by sloping sandy beaches and marram grass-coated dunes but the central area is quite different. Here the land is covered with rough grass and vast mats of the tiny succulent, white stonecrop, a mass of white flowers six weeks ago but now just fleshy green growth. The dry sandy ground also supports unruly clumps of brambles and many shafts of evening primrose topped with yellow flowers. Large blue-green dragonflies swooped backwards and forwards in search of prey.
I have to admit that my visit to this part of Warren Point was not entirely unprompted. Before I left, I had read about a very rare flower appearing here and, as I passed the information centre, I asked for guidance as to where they might be found. I followed the directions and on a small rise surrounded by rough brambles I found them, several clumps of brilliant white flowers above thick strap-like leaves. These are sea daffodils, found all around the Mediterranean often on sandy beaches but very rare in this country. There are only three sites where these plants flower in the UK and Dawlish Warren is one.
In groups, the flowers look very spiky and disorganised but closer examination reveals the true beauty of the blooms. Each flower has a very large white corona, trumpet-like with a deeply serrated edge, containing six prominent yellow pollen-loaded stamens around a long white style. Behind the corona are six narrow sepals arranged symmetrically like a white star. As I stood examining the flowers a light breeze wafted their sweet fragrance up to me. I was so entranced that I failed to notice a rabbit hole and nearly fell over; it’s not called Dawlish Warren for nothing.
Sea daffodils clearly do resemble the flowers that are such potent symbols of spring in this country, but it is the late summer flowering of the sea daffodil that is so disconcerting. They are also plants of very hot climates. The Dawlish Warren specimens failed to flower last year and there has been some speculation that with this year’s long, hot, dry summer the plants felt more at home.