Tag Archives: south west

Stepping back in time for Christmas – Burning the Ashen Faggot

Midwinter fire ceremonies were once very popular in the UK, especially in rural communities.  People gathered around the hearth in a noisy, joyous celebration, with the fire bringing light into the darkness of winter.  These ceremonies probably have a pagan origin and one which used to be widespread in the UK was Burning the Yule Log.  Less well known but quite common in Devon and neighbouring parts of Dorset and Somerset in the west of the UK was Burning the Ashen Faggot.   Although it has now largely disappeared as a household custom, it is still celebrated in a handful of local pubs to the accompaniment of hearty singing and copious drinking.

photo courtesy of Nigel Daniel

The ashen faggot was a large bundle of ash sticks or an ash log surrounded by smaller sticks, all bound together by thin bands of willow or hazel (withies).  The ashen faggot was cut and constructed on Christmas Eve and placed on a fire kindled with remnants of last year’s faggot.  Ash burns well, even when green and as the fire caught and each of the withies broke, tradition demanded that a new jug of cider be brought out to quench the thirst of the assembled company.

The scene around the hearth as the Faggot burned is vividly brought to life in this extract from Festivities and Superstitions of Devonshire in Bentley’s Miscellany 1847:

“On Christmas Eve it is the custom in all the farm houses of this neighbourhood to “burn the ashen faggot”. All the labourers and servants are invited, and a huge fire is heaped up on the wide hearth.  We all sat round the hearth in a circle; the firelight deepening the shadows on the hard-featured mahogany countenances around, and setting off the peculiarities of each form. The ashen faggot which lay on the hearth consists of a long immense log of ash, surrounded with smaller branches bound to it with many withies, forming one large bundle; it filled the whole hearth and as it burned the roaring in the large chimney was tremendous.  As the fire slowly catches and consumes the withies, the sticks fly off and kindle into a sudden blaze and as each one after the other gives way, all present stand up and shout with might and main; the “loving cup” of cider is handed round and each drinks his fill.  They then resume their seats, sing songs, crack jokes until the bursting of another band and the kindling of a fresh blaze demands renewed shouts and another pull at the cider flagon. The merriment is allowed to go on till nearly midnight, before which hour the worthy giver of the feast likes to have her house clear, that the “Holy Day” may begin in peace.  This custom is kept up religiously in all the farmhouses around, and is one of the principal festivals of the year.”

Burning the Ashen Faggot was a very popular west country custom and Amery, writing in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association (1879), reported that in the Ashburton postal district alone 32 farms and cottages burnt the Ashen Faggot on Christmas Eve 1878.  There were various superstitions and beliefs associated with the event and an old man present at one of the 1878 ceremonies told how the custom “commemorated the first dressing of our Saviour in swaddling clothes, because Joseph cut a faggot of ash, which is well known to burn green and lighted a fire by which the child was first dressed”.  The custom was also widespread in 19th and early 20th century Somerset where it was often combined with apple tree wassailing and held on old Christmas Eve (January 5th ).  There is one 19th century record of burning the Ashen Faggot in East Devon for Christmas Eve 1839 at Bindon Farm about 4 miles from the Devon/Dorset Border.

In the 19th century, the Ashen Faggot was a household custom bringing working people together at Christmas. Servants and farm labourers and their families were all invited to the farmhouse with its huge hearth and the celebration was provided by the farmer and his wife in thanks for the year’s work. For one evening at least, people put aside divisions and squabbles.  The custom began to die out as work patterns changed, as the railways enabled people to move about and as artificial light banished winter darkness.

Building the Ashen Faggot in Axmouth, December 24th 2018, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

It seems likely that the custom would have disappeared altogether had it not been taken on by local pubs where it still survives despite recent closures and more stringent insurance requirements.   One pub where it flourishes is the 800-year-old Harbour Inn at Axmouth in East Devon and I spoke to one of the villagers, Nigel Daniel, who helps organise the annual ceremony.    He told me that on Christmas Eve morning a group of villagers cut the ash and make the faggot which measures about six feet in length and five feet in circumference, filling the expanse of the old inglenook fireplace.  Seven bindings each made from hazel are used to secure the faggot which is traditionally taken to the Harbour Inn at lunchtime where a few early Christmas drinks are enjoyed.

Beginning the reading at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, photo courtesy of Kristy

The ceremony itself starts late Christmas Eve with the reading of the following lines taken from Christmas by RJ Thorn 1795:

Thy welcome eve, loved Christmas now arrived,

The parish bells, their tuneful peals resound,

And mirth and gladness every breast pervade,

The ponderous Ashen Faggot, from the yard,

The jolly farmer to his crowded hall conveys with speed;

 where, on the rising flames, it blazes soon.

Seven bandages it bears,

and as they each disjoin, a mighty jug of sparkling cider’s brought

with brandy mixed to elevate the guests!

The Ashen Faggot is placed upon the open hearth where it soon lights with its distinctive orange and purple flames.  As each binding “disjoins” revellers are urged to recharge their glasses accompanied with seasonal toasts.  Local singers Ian Hunt and Phil Gamble perform three Seasonal songs:  The King, Christmas Song (from the Copper family) and Stormy Winds.  Communal carol singing follows continuing well into the night.

Communal carol singing at the Harbour Inn Axmouth as the Faggot burns upon the hearth, photo courtesy of Kristy.

The ceremony at the Harbour Inn was revived more than 70 years ago by the landlord Ludovic Grant who used to present a roasted boar’s head as part of the celebrations.  The BBC showed interest in the ceremony in the 1950s, broadcasting it on radio and television, but when Ludovic Grant retired in the late 1950s it sadly lapsed.   Fortunately, Axmouth thatcher, David Trezise and local gardener, Ned Spiller got together in the early 1970s to restart the ceremony and, led for many years by David Trezise, and with the enthusiastic support of subsequent landlords the event has flourished at the Harbour Inn offering a truly traditional start to a modern Christmas.

The ceremony will be held again this Christmas Eve at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, but you can also step back in time and participate in this ancient west country custom at the Luttrell Arms in Dunster on December 24th and at the Squirrel Inn at Laymore near Chard and the Digby Tap in Sherborne on January 6th, but please check the timing.

I should like to thank Nigel Daniel for generous help in preparing this article and for providing  photographs, also Kristy of the Harbour Inn and Tiffany Hyde for generously providing photos.

The Ashen Faggot at the Harbour Inn in 1950 showing Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Pridham, Fred Larcombe and Albert Soper (kindly supplied by Nigel Daniel)

 

Building the Ashen Faggot, Axmouth, December 24th 2017, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

 

This article appeared in the December 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this post shows the Ashen Faggot burning on the hearth at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth on Christmas Eve while carols are sung, courtesy of Kristy of the Harbour Inn.

The plastic biobeads that litter our beaches

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.

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

Plastic waste and Portuguese Men O’War on a Devon beach

Last week, on a very windy day well before storm Ophelia arrived, we visited Leas Foot Sands, one of the small coves clustered around Thurlestone Bay in South Devon.  Thurlestone Rock, a stone arch or “thirled stone” is a prominent local landmark located in the Bay.  As well as being a popular attraction for canoeists and wild swimmers, the Rock gives the village of Thurlestone its name.

Leas Foot Sands
Leas Foot Sands

When we reached Leas Foot Sands, we stood and gazed across the water at the elemental scene.  A gusty, gale force wind blew from the sea, a powerful natural force affecting everything in its path. It had been hard enough to walk there, buffeted as we were from side to side and, now, above the beach and just about able to stand, we felt specks of sand flick across our faces.  The sea was a uniform grey under the overcast sky, but the wind created many white horses offshore and a sense of agitated movement.  Chunky waves continually attacked the curving apron of yellowish-brown sand, each one finishing in a foaming mass of white water that mingled with the wind giving the air a moist, salty essence.

At the southern side of the beach, the sand and rocks were coated with a slightly unsavoury looking, brownish foam.  I remember being alarmed, some years ago, when I first saw this spume on a beach in Cornwall and feared effects of detergents. I now know that it is a mostly natural phenomenon, caused by a high wind interacting with organic matter from marine phytoplankton.

A few hardy plants grew at the back of the beach beyond the strandline, bringing welcome colour on this mostly monochrome day.  Brash yellow and white daisy-like flowers of sea mayweed bobbed in the wind and pale lilac blooms of sea rocket kept safely close to the sand along with their fleshy green leaves.  A few pink lollipop flowers of thrift struggled on exposed cliff edges.

Further down the beach, bands of dark seaweed stretched in broad arcs parallel to the shore.   The thickest band of seaweed was the result of the morning’s high tide; here the seaweed sparkled, seawater dripping off dark fronds as the tide receded.  Mixed with the seaweed were various colourful examples of plastic waste, mostly bits and pieces of fishing tackle or rope, but I also saw an old plastic yoghurt container, a bright green plastic straw and several smaller shards of plastic.  A bright pink balloon-like object clung to a flat stone nestling among the damp seaweed.  I wondered if this was some kind of joke as it vaguely resembled an inflated condom but I abandoned that idea when, further along, I came across several similar objects.  Hazel put me right, telling me that these were Portuguese Men O’War, very colourful but dangerously stinging organisms that float on the sea surface trailing long tentacles, until driven in by high winds.  There have been reports of swarms of these colourful creatures on several beaches along the south coast and warnings that the number will increase with storm Ophelia.

Behind the wet strandline was a sparser band of dry, black seaweed, presumably resulting from sporadic higher tides.  I started looking around this sector digging up the sand with a garden trowel to see what I could find.  This was too much for a woman who had recently arrived on the beach with her child and friend.

“What are you looking for?” she asked me.

“I’m trying to find plastic nurdles, have you heard of them? “ I replied

“Do you mean those small bits of industrial plastic?”

“That’s right, but I can’t find any here” I continued.

“I suppose that’s good” she suggested.

I carried on looking but was unsuccessful.  Hazel, however, found six of the lentil-sized plastic pellets, a mixture of grey and blue, on the other side of the beach.  Earlier in the year, someone had reported collecting hundreds of plastic nurdles from this beach; perhaps we were unlucky or perhaps conditions had changed.

………………………………………….

Marine plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time and something I want to return to in future posts.

……………………………………………….

Sea Mayweed at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Mayweed

 

 

Sea Rocket at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Rocket

 

Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 1
Plastic waste

 

 

Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 2
Plastic fragments

 

 

Portuguese Man O'War on Leas Foot Sands
Portuguese Man O’War with fragments of dark blue tentacles

 

Plastic nurdles collected at Leas Foot Sands 11 10 17
nurdles

 

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.

The opium fields of England

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

Opium and the opium poppy

Illustration Papaver somniferum0.jpg
Papaver somniferum as described in a 19th century German book (from Wikipedia, click on the picture for more details)

 

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

Slaapbol R0017601.JPG
The unripe seed capsule of an opium poppy pierced to release the opium (from Wikipedia)

 

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

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

From opium to morphine

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

The 21st century opium fields of England

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

 

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

Poppy Fields - geograph.org.uk - 1361923.jpg
Opium poppies growing in Lincolnshire, UK (from Wikipedia)

 

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

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

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

The music of place, the place of nature

Great Hall - with tapestries representing the original departments hanging
The Great Hall at Dartington (image from the web site)

The Northumbrian pipes carried the melody at first but gradually this was passed to the other instruments: a harp, a cello, an accordion, creating an unexpected sound-fusion of classical and folk music. As those first few magical notes echoed around the medieval hall, I knew this would be a special evening and we were treated to a mixture of traditional reels and hornpipes, slow airs and original compositions. Each musician made her own important contribution to the overall effect but my attention was captivated by the flame-haired woman standing at the centre of the stage. She moved gracefully and sensually with the music, driving forward with her virtuoso pipe and fiddle playing and occasionally smiling with pleasure at her fellow players. This was Kathryn Tickell with her new band, The Side, and I was in the Great Hall at Dartington recently for this memorable performance.

This video shows Kathryn Tickell and her former band performing a traditional tune.

I was particularly taken by a tune she played on the fiddle, accompanied by the cello, entitled Yeavering. She explained that she had written this tune in response to Yeavering Bell, a distinctive, broad, double-peaked hill in her home county of Northumberland. Yeavering Bell was once an Iron Age hill fort and the tune was intended to convey some of her feelings about the shape of the hill, the views from the summit and the general impression of space. The video below is of a live performance of Yeavering played on two fiddles by Kathryn Tickell and her band.  There is a bit of background noise but if you want a more pristine version click here.

Everyone will have their own personal reaction to this music but as I listened I found my mind wandering to open spaces and moorland. For me the music also speaks of mysticism, of older times and of danger when the clashing chords occur. Whatever your reaction to her tune, writing a piece of music about a place you love is a wonderful way to express your respect for nature.

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Wheat field in Kent (photo by Hazel Strange)

A few days before the concert, we had returned from a week’s holiday in Kent. Coming as we do from damp Devon, the semi-drought in the south east was surprising and the look of the land was more early autumn than high summer. We stayed in a very comfortable converted barn surrounded by gently rolling countryside largely devoted to cereal growth. Fields here are big and hedges sparse and I noticed few flowers.

One of our walks took us across fields from the picture-perfect village of Appledore. Striking out from the village recreation ground we had expected to walk through wheat fields but instead we quickly came to large tracts of vines planted in neat rows and supported by perfectly parallel wire supports. Many of the vines had been planted quite recently and were far from cropping, but later we did see some maturing Chardonnay grapes. These are part of the Gusborne Estate, “England’s most prestigious boutique wine producer”, whatever that means.

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The Gusborne Vineyard (photo by Hazel Strange)

The vines looked very healthy but the whole effect felt sterile and in many parts of the vineyard very little grew between the rows of vines, just a few hardy weeds and the occasional flower, so that we saw few if any insects. At the ends of some of the rows we were surprised to see roses with red or white flowers. Roses are more susceptible to some of the diseases that infect vines and are planted to provide an early warning system for problems in the vineyard.

As I looked along the bleak rows of vines I couldn’t help remembering that a major contributor to the declining bee populations in this country has been the 97%  loss of wild flower meadows since the mid 20th century. Land clothed with a vine monoculture feels like part of this problem.

The vineyard claims, on its web site, to have a “deep respect for nature” and it wouldn’t take much land away from their vines if they planted wild flowers along the field edges. This would massively increase their green credentials, demonstrate respect for nature and it would bring back the bees and other insects. Some of these might be beneficial insects that would suppress vine pests.

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It doesn’t feel like a very good time for nature and the recent decision of the UK government to reintroduce neonicotinoid insecticides, albeit on a small number of farms, has been deeply depressing. This decision was apparently taken against the advice of their scientific advisers and with some secrecy so that the presence of the agrochemical companies at these crucial meetings might be concealed. People confident of their decisions do not take them behind closed doors so this tells us a lot about the present government.

Another decision that takes little account of nature is the recent proposal to “fast-track” planning applications involving fracking when local councils appear to be acting slowly. The energy secretary, Amber Rudd has said she will “deliver shale” and this commitment has potentially profound environmental implications.

So what do we do to increase respect for nature and to give nature its rightful place alongside humans? It’s a difficult question with no easy answers but I can think of two ways forward. First, we must celebrate nature in all its glories by writing, by photographing and by generally spreading the word wherever possible. Second, we must expose and oppose policies of governments and companies that result in a loss of nature in all its different facets: wildlife, countryside, rivers, beaches etc.

An experimental Bee House

Last year, I watched, fascinated, as Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) made nests in tubes in a commercially produced Bug House situated in a local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. This Bug House is meant to be educational and so has been placed in a prominent position. This brings with it the risk that it will be subject to some attrition; indeed the removable tubes were tampered with both last summer and this spring and the Bug House was knocked off the wall twice during the winter.

I wanted to build another Bug House for the Leechwell Garden to be put in a less vulnerable place but it proved impossible to find a suitable position. I went ahead anyway and placed the new Bee House at the bottom of my garden which is about 100 metres from the Leechwell Garden (as the bee flies).

Experimental Bee House beginning of season
The Experimental Bee House at the beginning of the season (March 2015). I hope you can see the two vegetable boxes with the sides of the top one insulated with recycled vinyl floor covering, also the protective roof. Two cassettes with tubes are in place in the insulated top box . The garden still looks dormant although a few daffodils are visible.

 

My aim was that this experimental Bee House should be made from recycled materials so that it could be replicated by others at minimal cost. I looked around for suitable materials and one day as I was passing the Totnes shop of Riverford Organic, our local organic grower, I saw some vegetable boxes in the window. These looked ideal to make the body of the Bee House so I contacted them and they kindly gave me two boxes. The boxes were not fully sealed, needing insulation and rain protection, so I went to CarpetRight in Newton Abbot and they kindly gave me some samples of vinyl floor covering. I used these to insulate the sides of the new Bee House and to give it a roof. I found some logs, stones and bricks to provide ballast and stability as well as providing potential homes for insects. I sited the new Bee House so that it caught the early morning sun.

I wanted to provide tubes for the bees to nest in and had hoped to use inexpensive bamboo canes from the garden shop. Although I was able to cut up the canes, I found they were filled with soft material and unusable. I, therefore, had to buy solitary bee tubes from Wildlife World, my only outlay.

Experimental Bee House Cassette
One of the cassettes holding the bee tubes. The tubes are organised in to an old mineral water bottle and secured with a cable -tie. Four of the tubes contained mason bee nests from last year.

 

The tubes were organised in to cassettes. Each cassette was based on an old mineral water bottle cut down below its spout but long enough to protect the tubes. About 20 tubes were placed in to each cassette and these were secured using a cable-tie. I put out two cassettes in March, each containing four tubes with nests from last spring in order to give the new Bee House a start. A third cassette went out on May 28th when I thought the bees needed extra capacity but only two tubes were filled.

Experimental Bee House end of season
The end of season view. In two cassettes most of the tubes have been filled, in one cassette put out later two tubes were filled. Some tubes where the seal was broken have not been refilled.

After I had made the cassettes I read that plastic is a poor choice because it is not breathable but by that time it was too late to change design. Despite this, the new Bee House seemed to have functioned well and many of the tubes were filled by hard-working female bees during spring 2015. This is described in the previous post.