Monthly Archives: September 2020

Wednesday Weed – Smoke Bush

Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria)

Dear Readers, if ever there was a plant to put one in mind of a Persian cat, this is it. Who could pass by without giving it a little stroke? Those fluffy, cloudy flowerheads are a result of most of the flowers aborting and turning into a mass of wispy plumes. The ones that do survive turn into little green fruits.

Photo One by By Jerzy Opioła (Poland) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Smoke bush fruit (Photo One)

This shrub, in Muswell Hill, is probably the most splendid that I’ve ever seen, so I had to share it with you all.

The smoke bush comes from a great swathe of land, from Southern Europe right the way to Northern China. It’s a member of the Anacardiaceae or cashew family, and the family member that you might be most familiar with is the sumac . There is only one other member of the Cotinus genus, the American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus), which doesn’t have such smokey flowers but has the most extraordinary autumn colours. It is quite a rare tree, found only in a few pockets of forests in the south-eastern USA, and considered to be endangered.

Photo Two by © Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

American smokewood in Kew Gardens (Photo Two)

I’ve also seen smoke bushes with purple foliage, which is all very well but I don’t think the ‘smoke’ contrasts as nicely as it does with the green foliage. What do you think?

Photo Three by By Photo by David J. Stang - source: David Stang. First published at, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Smoke bush ‘Royal Purple’ (Photo Three)

'My' smokebush

‘My’ smoke bush

Smoke bush is rich in tannins, and the bark, wood and leaves have all been used as a tonic, and as a treatment for stomach ulcers, diarrhoea and mouth inflammation.

The plant’s wood also produces a yellow dye which was known as young fustic, and was used in the carpet industry in the Eastern Mediterranean region. There was also a dye known as old fustic, which came from a tree known as Dyer’s Mulberry (Maclura tinctoria), which was used during WWI to dye soldiers’ uniforms. Old fustic was said to produce a longer-lasting colour than young fustic, but alas both of them have now been replaced with artificial dyes. I say ‘alas’, but I imagine the trees are relieved!

Photo Four by

Cloth dyed with young fustic (Photo Four)

The wood is also very attractive – see the sculpture below by wood carver Tom Lowe at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. At the Garden they invite sculptors and wood carvers to work with the results of any pruning or tree surgery work that they need to do, and the results are often very pleasing.

Photo Five from

Carved smokebush wood (Photo Five)

And here, of course, is a poem. I love the last line. I, too, sometimes find, to my surprise, that I’m no longer sad.

Smoke Tree

            Cotinus coggygria

I was hiking half a world from home

when I saw a smoke tree on the trail ahead

smolder into a lather of light, plush

as powder in the heat-choked air—


and clustered along spinules, thin

as capillaries, a tiny arson flared,

then rose into a stratosphere

where the ash of all I was and had


was rushing toward some distant ground

I’d planted once with such as this

in memory of someone dead, and from

that half a world away, a cloud returned


faltering with rain: I was no longer sad.

from The Burning of Troy


Photo Credits

Photo One by By Jerzy Opioła (Poland) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by © Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three by By Photo by David J. Stang – source: David Stang. First published at, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four by

Photo Five from

Thoughts from an Open University Course 2 – The Problem of Islands

Photo One by KenVanVleck / CC BY-SA (

Sunset over Sharks Cove, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii (Photo One)

Dear Readers, the most vulnerable habitats are often those on islands. This is because the flora and fauna there have often evolved in isolation, and so are endemic – they can be found nowhere else. They may be beautifully adapted to their local conditions, and may have lost things that they don’t need – birds may be weak flyers or flightless, for example. Animals may also have lost their wariness and be unafraid of humans. Plus, being on an island tends to limit population size because of food resources or space: there is literally nowhere else for an animal to go. So, many island species were never common, but they survived because there were few predators, or little competition.

An island also doesn’t need to be a literal ‘island’ surrounded by sea – we can think of many isolated valleys and mountain habitats as ‘islands’ too. The places where mountain gorillas live, for example, are virtual ‘islands’ because the animals are isolated in them, with no suitable habitat round about.

Animals and plants that are endemic to islands are often ‘inbred’ by our definition of the term – they have a small population, so have they little choice. But this doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem as you might think: in his book ‘The Song of the Dodo’, David Quammen describes how, over time, any genes that might cause problems have disappeared, because the individuals holding them have either died or been unable to breed. This is very different from the inbreeding that occurs in, for example, some pedigree dog breeds, or when a wild population becomes isolated from other members of its species by roads or other barriers.

In Madagascar, the ringtailed lemurs of the Berenty reserve are now completely cut off from other lemurs by roads and also because there are massive sisal plantations, which they will not cross. Ironically, the sisal is used for, among other things, degradable compost bags for folk in the West to wrap their kitchen waste in. Only time will tell how much of a problem the inbreeding that occurs as a result will be for the lemurs.

Photo Two by David Dennis / CC BY-SA ( lemurs in Berenty, Madagascar (Photo Two)

So, in Hawaii and Galapagos, Madagascar and Mauritius, New Zealand and Australia, there are unique populations of animals who have evolved in isolation and who are superbly adapted to their original environment, but very vulnerable to change.

I guess we can all see where this is going.

My course book concentrates particularly on Hawaii, the most isolated group of islands in the world. Polynesians arrived there about 2000 years ago, and started to change the landscape – they brought up to 30 new crops, including coconuts, bananas and sugar cane, and animals such as pigs, goats and dogs. However, the population was never enormous, and although some land was cleared for agriculture there doesn’t seem to have been a major impact on the ecosystem. This has largely occurred in the past two hundred years, after European colonisers arrived, creating sugar plantations, taking over an entire island for the growth of pineapples, logging the forests for sandalwood and bringing in other new crops such as coffee and macadamia nuts.

The two greatest dangers to island populations are habitat degradation and the introduction of alien species that outcompete the indigenous flora and fauna. Hawaii has had both.

The scientist and author Richard Fortey writes about a walk in the forests of Hawaii in his book ‘The Earth – An Intimate History‘. Here is what he has to say.

Almost none of the plants that climb up the massive trees along the path are a native of O’ahu or the Hawaiian islands. Indeed, neither are the trees themselves. They are interlopers, brought to this remote place by humans. These plants settled in the tropics and thrived, displacing most of the native vegetation. The resemblance of the climbers decking the trees to pot plants is no coincidence: some of them are the same species that can be bought in a  supermarket in Norfolk […} as commonplace in their way as tomato ketchup. Even the sweet-smelling ginger plant that looks so at home by the pathside is an aggressive coloniser. This place is not so much Paradise Lost as Paradise Replaced – a paradise of aliens dressed up to look as if they belong. The massive assurance of the trees is play acting.

Hawaiian Rail, extinct by 1788 (Public Domain)

Hawaii has only one two-thousandth of the area of the United States as a whole, but it accounts for 70% of all recorded extinctions in the US and for 75% of all animals listed as endangered in the USA. 40% of 70 of Hawaii’s endemic bird species are extinct. The Hawaiian Rail (above) was flightless, and was probably exterminated by the black rats which came with the first Polynesian settlers. Other birds were killed when mongooses, brought in to deal with the rats in the sugar plantations, turned out to be ineffective against the rodents because they were diurnal, and the rats only emerged at night. Instead, the hungry mongooses turned to the nestlings and eggs of birds, with the result that only Kauai, which didn’t introduce the mongooses, still has a ground-nesting bird population.

Photo Three by By John Game, CC BY 2.0,

The Kauai Elepaio (Chasiempis sclateri) (Photo Three)

And so habitat destruction and introduced species have played, and continue to play, havoc with island species around the world. Conservation organisations fight an uphill battle with invasive plants, entrenched interests and the need to balance the economic needs of what are often very poor countries with the need to preserve unique ecosystems. Every island group has extraordinary individuals who are working to preserve what’s left of their habitats, and they give me a lot of hope. It does seem sometimes as if the extraordinary short-termism of human beings could cause the end of everything, but I prefer to remember the determination and guts of people that I’ve met who are dedicated to make sure that something survives and thrives. It’s too late for the Hawaiian honeycreepers, but it might not be too late for the Kakapo.

The Kakapo is the only flightless parrot in the world, and was saved from extinction by a combination of moving it to a predator-free island, supplementary feeding and intense monitoring. Even today there are only a couple of hundred individuals, but the population is growing slowly. However, in its heyday the kakapo was found throughout New Zealand, and seems to have retreated to forest habitats because of introduced predators. It is a remarkable bird, the only parrot where the males get together and display to the females on a ‘lek’. Without the eradication of predators, however, I foresee it living out its years on the islands to which it has been introduced, under the watchful eye of humans.

Photo Four By Department of Conservation -, CC BY 2.0,

Sirocco the kakapo (Photo Four)

And for those of you who have never seen Sirocco ‘in action’ with BBC presenters Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry, you might want to have a look at the clip below, which is absolute television gold…

Photo Credits

Photo One by KenVanVleck / CC BY-SA (

Photo Two by David Dennis / CC BY-SA (

Photo Three  By John Game, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Four By Department of Conservation –, CC BY 2.0,


The Walks in Dorchester

Dear Readers, after my Dad’s interment yesterday I felt a real need to get out and walk – it was the most glorious day and Dorchester is such an interesting spot. We started off by circling along the Walks, a path that goes past the Roman Town  House. Sadly, in all the years I have been going to Dorset I have never seen the Roman Town House because the paths around it, or the structure that houses it, is always undergoing repair. Never mind. The wall itself is a fascinating mix of flints and bricks, with some round turrets in the middle. It apparently traces the line of the old Roman walls of the town, but these look a bit more recent, though it appears that we might have walked past a section of the original wall. All the more reason to come back for a second look!

We turn down to the river, which at this point meanders gently along the back of the houses. As mentioned previously, there are water meadows here, along with the gates and locks that were used to control the flow of water. There was also a family of sleepy swans, dozing in the shallows. I was a little concerned that that they might be unwell, but on balance I decided that they were just sleepy.

We took a little detour through the nature reserve here, and for once we could walk right the way round the boardwalk – on every previous visit, a portion of the path has been underwater. Like everywhere around here though the watercourse is pretty much choked with Himalayan Balsam. It’s definitely pretty, but what a thug! Some of the plants here are seven feet tall.

Himalayan Balsam

The Boardwalk

Then we walk along the main road, past the car dealorships and the garage and the site where an Aldi supermarket was supposed to appear (but hasn’t yet) to Grey’s Bridge, which always feels to me like the edge of town. We cross the road and then cross back because the path is on the other side. What a splendid view of the town, and some Friesians.

And another swan.

Look at the mixture of Himalayan Balsam and willowherb here, though.It’s definitely narrowing the watercourse. I suspect that the Himalayan Balsam thrives on the nutrient-rich water here, what with all the run-off from the fields.

Somebody’s thatched cottage is getting a haircut and trim, very nice too. This is such skilled work, and you need a nice long patch of dry weater to do it.

Onwards! It has been a very good year for yarrow.

And for rosehips

I love that this tree has a huge sign on it saying ‘KEEP AWAY’. It certainly looks very dead, so maybe there’s a danger from falling branches. Why is it that the sign makes me want to run over and investigate? Curiosity is a dangerous thing.

And then by a miracle of navigation, I find the path across a field that takes us back to where we walked on Friday, past those magnificent trees.

I love the twist in the bark of this one. I wonder how old these trees are, and wonder how they’ve all been allowed to remain. There is what looks like a very big estate next to the path, so maybe they belong to the people there.

And then we stop while my husband takes a phone call from his brother in Canada. His Mum is unwell, and while he discusses the prognosis I try to take a photo of the flighty little brown bird in the tree on the other side of the river. I don’t manage it, but I do suddenly notice the spiders’ webs. They seem to be everywhere.

For me, there is nothing more autumnal than a spider’s web filmed with dew, or whitened with frost. Spiders are with us from early spring, but many species only get large enough to come to our attention at this time of year. So many creatures are living their lives out alongside us, completely unnoticed. We see such a tiny fraction of the richness and complexity that surrounds us.

And look, a buzzard. The bird looks about the size of a smallish door as it flies over, soon to be hotly pursued, as usual, by crows. For a few seconds, though, it sails through the sky unmolested and serene.

And talking of serene, here is a short video of the stream at the start of the walk, with the waterweeds swaying gently in the current. They somehow sum  up how I feel – I’m just going with the flow, letting the water take me along for a bit. I feel as if I’ve done so much fighting and organising and planning and trying to make things happen for this past few years that a bit of serene acceptance might not be a bad thing, at least for a while.


Together at Last

Dear Readers, today we interred the ashes of my Dad with my Mum. We had been hoping to give Dad a proper send-off, but the pandemic put paid to gathering people together from different parts of the country, especially when they’re elderly and vulnerable themselves. So on this glorious autumn day a handful of us gathered to reunite Dad with the love of his life.

St Andrews Church, Milborne St Andrew, Dorset

I love the spot where Mum and Dad’s ashes have been laid to rest – they are next to a cherry tree and a crab apple, and in the spring the field next door will be full of sheep with their new lambs.

And it is a peaceful spot, with the last of the house martins flying over before they head south for the winter, and the jackdaws chuckling as they play in the wind.

I’d chosen three poems. One was Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’, because Dad fought every step of the way when he was dying. Mum, I think, had had enough and was ready to go, but Dad was not, and that was what made sitting with him during that last day and night so difficult for me. But then, after someone suggested that I try giving him a head massage, he quietened and past away so gently and peacefully, like thistledown carried on a gentle breeze.

The second poem was ‘The Dead’ by Billy Collins. I hadn’t come across it before, and I suppose some might find it sentimental, but I found the idea of Mum and Dad in a glass-bottomed boat somehow very soothing.

The Dead by Billy Collins
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
And finally, there was this by Emily Bronte. I loved the hopefulness and the fierceness of it,

Inline image

What can I say about my Dad? He could spin a yarn, or speak the simple truth. He could tell a rioja from a pinot grigio even after he got dementia, and he never knowingly hurt a woman. He was a gentleman and a mischievous elf of a man. He was beating me at Pointless a year ago, and yet he’d forgotten who I was. He was so optimistic that he thought the nursing home was a cruise ship, and yet he was often prepared to think the worst of people. He would wait years to get his revenge and he never forgot a perceived slight, and yet he could be generous and forgiving. His life centred around my Mum and trying to make her happy, and now at last their physical remains, at least, are together. I would love to believe that in some world they are whole again, and that Dad is tunelessly whistling along to Julio Iglesias while Mum looks fondly up from some complicated crocheted doily that she’s making. But at the very least they are both out of the physical pain that beset both of them in their last years and that was no small solace to me today.

Goodbye Dad. Travel well, my friend. Say hello to Mum for me.

A More Sensible Walk in Dorchester

Dear Readers, after yesterday’s rather hallucinogenic ride down to Dorchester on the train, I went to Dad’s care home to collect some of the photos that I’d had to leave behind after he died in March.There was no time then to even think about what I wanted to preserve, and what I was happy for the home to use or give to a charity shop. But yesterday, I had the chance to go through Dad’s ‘bits’ and pull out the things that really mattered – a lovely photo of Dad as a young man, a photo of Mum and Dad on their wedding day, the lovely portrait that my friend J made a few years ago, and Mum’s address book that I thought was lost, but has turned up. Dad has written a few most peculiar things in it, mainly messages to his friend Derek, who was as close as a brother when they were growing up. It’s sad to see how his writing had deteriorated to a spidery line, but then I remind myself that even as he was losing his writing, he was rediscovering his creative side, and was drawing and painting. Everything, though, has the same lop-sidedness – trees often leant to the left in a most precarious fashion. I shall have to have a look to see if anyone has done a study of how dementia effects the way that people see the world.

So, it was a painful day, but while I was there the care staff brought me another box labelled with Dad’s name, that turned out to belong to someone else entirely ( I knew that Dad would never voluntarily have worn a pink  cardigan).  It belonged to a lady who had died and who had no family or friends to go through her clothes. At least Dad had people who loved him at the end, though I’m sure that the lady had had people who had loved her too. Maybe she just outlived them all. But being childless, it does make me wonder. Maybe I should cultivate some much younger friends. Any volunteers?

And today my husband joined me and, on a blustery but sunny day, we took a walk around the meadows and along a newly-discovered bridle path.

The berries are magnificent this year, and people keep telling me that it means a hard winter. Surely it means that we’ve had a good summer though?

I am spotting a fair bit of Himalayan Balsam, and i noticed some Japanese Knotweed as well. All I need now is some Giant Hogweed and i’ll have the full triumvirate of scary invasive plants.

Himalayan Balsam

Japanese Knotweed

This is such a pretty path though, criss-crossed with gurgling streams.

I might have mentioned last time that I did this walk that there are plans to build on the meadows. Someone recently suggested that the all-too familiar WTF could have been replaced with ‘What TomFoolery’ in Medieval times, and so I leave it to you to choose which of the acronyms you’d like to apply to such nonsense. What part of ‘water’ meadow did the developers miss, do you think?

We walk past a field full of the most beautiful old oak trees, somehow preserved and thriving. Thank you farmer!

And then we’re on to the new bridle path. It’s very narrow, and if you were riding a fat horse I imagine you’d be in trouble, but it is delightful. I can tell it’s autumn because craneflies bust out of every piece of greenery and dangle away into the hedge as we pass.

The new bridle path

And look! A  pair of roe deer are grazing in the field next door. For a city girl like me this is always a treat.

I love those long, slender legs, and the way that, when disturbed, roe deer seem to be spring-loaded, tucking up those limbs and bouncing away.

The heads of the cow parsley and hogweed look particularly splendid in the late afternoon sun.

And there’s quite an interesting deadnettle too – I’m wondering if it’s henbit deadnettle but as I’m away, and resisted the temptation to bring all my field guides, I am unsure. Feel free to pitch in if you know what it is, otherwise we will all have to wait agog (especially me)

And look at the flowers on the ribwort plantain! Very impressive….

And because it was a windy day, I thought you’d appreciate a little bit of  ‘grassy waves moving across a field’. You’re welcome.

Well by now it was time to head back for something to eat, but on the way we passed this rather splendid weathervane.

And look at these views across the meadows towards Fordington Church. Could anything look more quintessentially English? I can feel Thomas Hardy firing up a few coincidences for his plots even as I write.

And so, tomorrow is Dad’s interment, and the weather looks good for an outside service. My brother is self-isolating following contact with someone with Covid, so it will just be a tiny group of us again, but I don’t think Dad would mind. I’m sure he’s already with Mum, but the act of putting their physical remains together will bring me some peace of mind, and some small sense of completion. What a year. It’s been full of challenges, but also of unexpected moments of beauty and joy. If nothing else, it’s given me a greater appreciation of the importance of community, both in real life and online. Thank you for all your support, readers. It’s meant the world to me.



Down to Dorset

Waterloo Station

Dear Readers, today was my first trip down to Dorset since Dad died back in March. What a strange day it’s been!  From the announcements about face masks at every station by the guard to the signs about Covid on every platform, it’s impossible to forget that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Even the familiar sights of the route down to Dorchester seemed strange and dream-like. I wanted to take some photos en route and when I uploaded them, I realised how surreal the whole trip had seemed. See what you think!

Outside Waterloo Station

Woodwork at Clapham Junction

Clapham Junction bricks

Social Distancing at Woking

A lack of social distancing at Winchester 🙂

Winchester Bricks

Weather getting worse…

Coming into Southampton station

Southampton Town Hall

Paintwork at Southampton

Getting a bit on the damp side…

Countryside impressions…

New Milton’s lovely flowerbeds

Bournemouth ironwork

Electricity pylon

Bamboo at Pokesdown station. Bet they’re sorry they planted this….

Apples on the platform at Holton Heath

And this is the exact spot where Mum and Dad used to wait on the platform at Moreton to wave me off when I went home after a visit. I’d wave like mad from the carriage, but somehow they never seemed to be able to see me as I went past. And today, as the train pulled out I found myself raising a hand, though what I was saying goodbye to I couldn’t exactly say. Maybe in some parallel universe they’re still there, scanning the carriages and waving just in case I can see them. And I almost could see them, as the train pulled away.

September Thoughts

Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….

Dear Readers, on 21st September 2017, Mum and Dad had their 60th Wedding Anniversary party.  Thirteen months later, Mum and Dad were both in a nursing home, and Mum died in December 2018. Dad died on 31st March this year, and  on Saturday I will be travelling to Dorset to inter Dad’s ashes, finally, with Mum.

I am so glad that we had the party for Mum and Dad, and that they were both well enough to attend. For those of you who were reading the blog a few years ago, you might remember that by that point Mum and Dad were in and out of hospital with chest infections, urinary tract infections and cellulitis. At one point it was like one of those Swiss clocks where the lady comes out and the gentleman goes in. But for that one day, they were both in their element. Mum sat in her wheelchair and received all her visitors, and Dad got through his speech, even though he didn’t have the right glasses and forgot what he was talking about halfway through. Thinking about it now, his dementia was already beginning to show itself: at a party to celebrate their 50th anniversary he’d been able to deliver a witty speech off the cuff.

Dad making his speech at the 60th Wedding Anniversary Party, with Mum preparing to give encouragement where needed…..

It is very poignant to me that, when he was in the home, Dad would often get up at dinnertime to thank people for coming. The last time that I saw him when he was still relatively healthy was when there was a ‘Spanish lunch’ at the nursing home, and he asked me if I thought he should make a speech. He was always a very gracious man, and he did love a big party.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1957. Not sure who that other woman is 🙂

Mum and Dad got anniversary greetings from the Queen as well, which made Mum’s day. Our local friend Eva made a pair of matching cakes. All the flowers on top are in sugar work.

Cakes from Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party in 2017. Note the freesias!

But what made it all worthwhile was that at the end of it, Mum said that it was the best evening of her life, and that she’d enjoyed it more than she enjoyed her wedding. That really is something for me to cling on to when I think about the utterly miserable last year of her life, when she was in and out of hospital and in constant pain. She had a long life, and she was mostly happy. Gradually those tough times are fading in my mind, and I am remembering her and Dad’s lives as a whole, all those good times as well as the bad ones.

So, today I will be on the train heading up to Dorchester for the first time since Dad died. I am dreading it, and also looking forward to going back to the same guest house, walking the same streets. The nursing home is still in lockdown, quite rightly, but I’m hoping to pick up a few of Dad’s photos and personal effects. And on Saturday we will be in the churchyard at St Andrews Church in Milborne St Andrew, putting Dad’s ashes to rest with Mums under the cherry tree. We will have to wait till the spring to see if we can have a proper Thanksgiving service for Dad, but in these difficult times I’m glad of anything that I can get in the way of remembrance.

Wednesday Weed – Hops

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Dear Readers, as we come to the end of the summer what could be nicer than a last cold beer, preferably in the open air with at least two metres between you and your compatriot? Well, until the Middle Ages your beer would have been called a ‘gruitt’ and would probably have contained mugwort, dandelion, horehound, ground ivy, burdock and a whole host of other ‘bitter herbs’ , but there wouldn’t have been any hops. Hops probably became a principal ingredient when it was noticed that beer made with hops didn’t spoil as quickly as those fancy herbal mixtures: hops have an antibacterial quality which makes it harder for the bacteria who change the flavour of the beverage to multiply. However, not everybody was initially a fan: Henry VIII banned beer made with hops in 1524, considering that they adulterated the brew. Typically his son, Edward VI, reversed the ban in 1536 and said that beer made with hops was ‘notable, healthy and temperate’. (Update: one of my eagle-eyed readers has pointed out that Edward VI didn’t start his reign until 1537 and I have discovered that the legislation was not passed until 1552 which makes a lot more sense).It’s worth remembering as well that beer was much weaker in those times than it is now, and people drank it all day as they laboured in the fields. The beer was undoubtedly healthier for the drinker than the contaminated water that would have been working people’s other option.

In more recent times, the harvesting of the hops was a very labour-intensive occupation, and so people used to be recruited from London to do some hop-picking. At one point 40,000 Londoners would head to Kent for a few weeks of fresh air and sunshine, and children would sometimes spend the whole of the six week summer holidays messing about in the rarely-experienced countryside. You can read a lovely account of it here. In my living memory it was not unusual for city folk to head to the country to help with the harvest – my Nan used to go strawberry picking with a bunch of her friends, and when I was in Dundee in the 80’s the chaps would often go to help gather in the berries in Tayside (very popular) or to sort out the potatoes (rather less popular).

Photo One from

Elaine Bauckham Mithell and her family in the Kent hop fields (Photo One)

I spotted these hops at Walthamstow Wetlands, and what strange ‘flowers’ they have! They are actually called strobili, and they appear only on the female plants (hops are dioecious, meaning that the male and female plants are separate). What elegant forms they are!

Photo Two by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (

Male flowers (Photo Two)

Photo Three by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (

Female flowers (Photo Three)

Photo Four by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (

Ripe strobili on female plant (Photo Four)

Hops are native to pretty much the whole northern hemisphere, and it is an extremely vigorous vine. Its Latin species name ‘lupulus’ means ‘little wolf’, probably referring to the way that it strangles other plants, particularly young willows, hence one of its vernacular names, ‘willow-wolf’. However, in many parts of the UK, especially hop-growing areas such as Kent, it was seen as a lucky plant, often included in garlands which were hung in farmhouses and pubs.

Photo Four from

Dried hop garland (Photo Four)

While dried hops are obviously used to make beer, the plant itself has been eaten, both as a salad ingredient and cooked. See here for a hop bruschetta . Most people talk about how bitter the plant tastes, and one article on the Hop Shoot festival in London (who knew there was such a thing?) said that munching on the raw plant was like ‘eating a hedgerow’. Most people seem to agree that the leaves and shoots are more palatable cooked, but you might want to restrain yourself if you don’t have a plant nearby, as apparently hop shoots are the amongst the world’s most expensive vegetables, at 1000 euros per kilo. This seems a bit of a high price to pay for what is basically a waste product from the brewing industry, but then nothing surprises me any more.

Although hops didn’t crop up in beer until the Middle Ages, they have been used as a medicinal ingredient for much longer. Roy Vickery in Vickery’s Folk Flora recounts how he was told that:

An ounce of hops to a pint of boiling water taken some time before meals is a good cure for loss of appetite. A poultice of the tops will relieve sciatica or lumbago. An infusion of the flowers will cure worms in children. Put hops into a muslin bag and use the bag as a pillow and you will cure insomnia’. 

The idea that a hop pillow is a cure for sleeplessness recurs many times; it’s said that it was a hop-filled pillow that finally cured George III’s insomnia, and created a whole new market for hop growers.

Apparently, just as the animals can talk on Christmas Eve so dried hops will turn green overnight. It’s.a lovely thought.

Now, back to the hop-picking. I love this image from the Wellcome Institute of a group of hop-pickers ‘hard at work’. In the background a couple of ‘gentlemen’ buy some hops, no doubt to knock up a barrel of home-brew. Rosy-faced children sit under an umbrella, a woman feeds her baby and all in all there is not a whole lot of hop-gathering going on. This is the kind of agricultural work that I could really get into, given enough suntan lotion and cold drinks.

Photo Five from Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Men and women work in the hop fields, possibly in Kent or Surrey, England. Right, two gentlemen buy some hops. Foreground, young children of the hop-pickers. Right background, oast-houses and the mansion of the proprietor. 185u By: Leighton Bros. (Printer) and A. HuntPublished: [185-?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

L0051312 Hop pickers at work (Photo Five)

And finally, a poem, by Boris Pasternak, translated from the Russian. It seems to sum up that whole sense of late summer and the freedom of being outdoors, and the general air of hedonism that people must have felt when released from their work.

Hops by Boris Pasternak

Beneath the willow wound round with ivy
we take cover from the worst
of the storm, with a greatcoat round
our shoulders and my hands around your waist.

I’ve got it wrong. That isn’t ivy
entwined in the bushes round
the wood, but hops. You intoxicate me!
Let’s spread the greatcoat on the ground.

translated from the Russian by

Jon Stallworthy and Peter France

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (

Photo Three by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (

Photo Four from

Photo Five from Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Men and women work in the hop fields, possibly in Kent or Surrey, England. Right, two gentlemen buy some hops. Foreground, young children of the hop-pickers. Right background, oast-houses and the mansion of the proprietor. 185u By: Leighton Bros. (Printer) and A. HuntPublished: [185-?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Thoughts from an Open University Course 1 – The Keeling Curve

Photo One by By Delorme - Own work. Data from Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography., CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo One

Dear Readers, as you might remember I am just about to start my BSc degree with the Open University, and I threatened to share with you some of the things that I’m learning. So here, for week one, is the Keeling Curve, the first study to show that CO2 was increasing in the world’s atmosphere over time, and considered to be one of the most important scientific works of the 20th Century.

Charles David Keeling, of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography at the University of San Diego was the first person to make systematic measurements of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, both from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii and from Antarctica. He started the readings in 1957 and continued until his death in 2005, when his son took over. The Mauna Loy site was chosen because it was remote from the pollution of the continents. Although the site is actually on a volcano, Keeling measured the onshore breezes and saw that they meant there was no contamination from the ‘vog’ (volcanic smog) that plagued sites further down the mountain.

Photo Two by By National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -, Public Domain,

The Mauna Loa Observatory from the air (Photo Two )

Funding was always a problem for Keeling: for several years he wasn’t able to continue his monitoring in Antarctica, but he always scraped together enough to ensure that the Mauna Loa readings were done. As early as 1965, however, President Johnson’s Scientific Advisory Committee was using Keeling’s research to warn that the ‘trapping of gases’ was likely to cause the climate to warm up. As time has gone on, we are starting to appreciate the importance of ‘boring’ science – the taking of readings consistently over time to gradually build up a picture.

So, what do the readings show? In short, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have increased from 313 parts per million(ppm) in dry air in March 1958 to 406 ppm in November 2018. Scientists are in no doubt that this is largely due to the release of carbon back into the atmosphere via the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, and I’m sure that I’ll have lots more to say about this as the course develops. Today, CO2 measurements are done at over 100 locations around the world, and their findings support the trend shown in the Keeling curve.

Interestingly, in the Northern Hemisphere there is an annual fluctuation in the CO2 levels. From a maximum in May, the level drops as plants put on new leaves and grow, taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. Then in October, as leaves fall and growth dies back, the CO2 levels climb again. You don’t see this effect in the Southern Hemisphere because there is a lot more ocean and a lot less land. However, we also need to bear in mind that in tropical zones plants don’t follow this cycle and only release their carbon when they die – also, they are normally very quickly broken down by all sorts of organisms, from bacteria to fungi, who tie the carbon back up again. The burning of tropical forests in the Amazon and South East Asia is hence particularly pernicious, as it is releasing massive amounts of carbon that might otherwise have been tied up for years.

The steady accumulation of scientific data by Keeling, in spite of facing many obstacles in getting funding, has been invaluable in alerting the scientific community to the rise in CO2 levels. This modest, self-effacing man was finally rewarded with the prestigious Medal For Science by President Bush, and received a special achievement award from Vice President Al Gore in 1997. But Keeling was a talented classical pianist, and one point early in his life wanted to pursue a career in music. I wonder who would have done this work if he hadn’t?

Photo Three by By National Science Foundation - [1] [2], Public Domain,

Charles Keeling receiving the Medal for Science from President Bush in 2001 (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Delorme – Own work. Data from Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography., CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two by By National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration –, Public Domain,

Photo Three by By National Science Foundation – [1] [2], Public Domain,

Towards the End

Dear Readers, you might remember that, during the past few years, I’ve been making regular visits to Somerset to visit my husband’s aunt H. I had a great fondness for the country lanes around her cottage (which could always be guaranteed to produce a Wednesday Weed) and for her garden, awash in spring with wild primroses, tiny cyclamen and bluebells. You can read about it here and here and here. But last year, aged 92, H had a fall, and decided that the time was right to decamp to a care home. A few weeks ago she had another fall, fracturing her pelvis. A liver scan has shown that she also has liver cancer.

We went to see H yesterday. Her care home is (rightly) locked down, but visitors are able to meet residents in a marquee outside for half an hour. When we saw H she looked a little pale and frail, but was mostly concerned with the fact that she hadn’t been able to have a hair cut. She was always a most pragmatic woman and she seems able to face what is to come with equanimity. She has a strong faith and her life has been one of service to her community, both facts that I think will help her through the difficult months to come.

For us mere mortals though, it’s very hard. Although H is far from being at death’s (immediate) door, the pandemic has made us all aware of how suddenly things can change. We talked about the clearing and selling of the house, and the possibility that someone might knock it down and build on the site. It makes me so sad to think of the garden gone and concreted over, the plants surviving only in my photographs. We talked about the people that H still wanted to contact, whether she has a do not resuscitate order, what her thoughts are about pain relief. What we can’t do is give H a hug, of course. But we said what needed to be said, and moved the practicalities on, and that at least is something, and more than some people have had the time to do during this awful time.

When we get back to Taunton station, I go for a little trot up the platform to look at the plants, as usual. The space between the rails can be a fascinating place, with a wide variety of microhabitats, but I think what I really wanted to do was to try to ground myself again. As regular readers will know, I have lost both my Mum and my Dad in the past eighteen months, and in fact my Dad’s ashes will finally be interred with Mums on Saturday. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Sometimes it feels as if death and loss is everywhere. But those ‘weeds’ are the best example of resilience that I can think of.

When I look along the rails of Platform 6, it’s easy to see how important light is: the variety and size of the weeds increases on what I’m sure would be a steady curve as we get towards the sunlight.

As we get to the edge of the light, there are a selection of plantains, sow thistles and dandelions.

In full sun there are even some rather stunted evening primroses, in full flower.

On the platform itself there is a mass of herb robert turning red, and some Canadian fleabane with its flowerheads just turning fluffy with seeds.

On the opposite platform, much used by express trains, practically nothing grows between the rails, but there is some fine Oxford ragwort growing in the middle.

I take such comfort from weeds. In a world where nothing is certain, they always seem to be there. They take advantage of wherever they happen to find themselves. They are the little-noticed backdrop to our lives, but they are worth noticing, because the yellow flowers of an evening primrose, the fluffy seeds of fleabane, the crimson foliage of herb robert are all minor miracles of the everyday. We are not separate from this world, however much we like to think we’re special: we are just little naked animals with huge egos and a mistaken belief that we can control what happens. There is something very humbling about remembering that weeds will defeat us over time in any battle. We might as well enjoy them.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Das_große_Rasenstück,_1503 (from the Albertina Museum in Vienna)