Earlier in the week, and in between leaf gathering for the allotment leaf mould project, finishing off a short story about Swahili spirit possession, I took myself on a wander around Wenlock’s byways to see what was what. We are very lucky in that respect. Our town is compact, having grown up around the medieval Wenlock Priory. One minute you’re on the High Street, the next you’re out in the Shropshire countryside. And there’s just so much to see out there.
This wild clematis, aka Old Man’s Beard, caught my eye (above and below). It was arching over the path beside the abandoned Shadwell Quarry, and had then anchored itself on the fence. I like the congruity of the barbed wire and the twining plant stem.
It comes into its own in the autumn with its feathery seed heads, and as you will see in a moment, it is an impressive climber.
During the summer it mostly creeps greenly through the trees and you tend not to notice it. I’m also grateful to Richard Mabey’s treasure book Flora Britannica for reminding me that another country name for this plant is Traveller’s Joy. Mabey tells us that the plant was christened by 16th century botanist and herbalist, John Gerard who named it thus because of its habit of ‘decking and adorning waies and hedges, where people travell’. He sounds like a sound chap, to pay tribute to the joy-making qualities of plant life.
Like many varieties of clematis, this one does have medicinal properties – for kidneys and skin complaints – but as the whole plant is very acrid, it requires careful preparation. The most common traditional use is to roll the dried stems and smoke them as cigarettes, hence the plant’s other names of boy’s bacca and smokewood.
But this next plant is definitely one you do NOT want to consume in any form, despite its being related to cucumbers. All parts of White Bryony are poisonous and cattle deaths from eating it have been well recorded. But in autumn it is so very beautiful, and twines through hedgerows like strings of red and gold amber beads.
The roots, though, are particularly toxic and grow very large. In 18th century Britain they featured in the mandrake root scam. Mandrake is a Mediterranean plant with a root that looks pretty much like a naked man or woman. It was in great demand as an aphrodisiac and narcotic. (If you know your Harry Potter, you will know that mandrake shrieks when it is being uprooted.) Unprincipled persons of the rabbit-catching variety thus began to fashion bryony roots into the highly desirable mandrake root. It was by no means an easy process either, and involved several phases to complete the subterfuge. Presumably the recipients did not live to tell any tales.
And here are some crab apples, Malus sylvestris in Latin, woodland apples. They make brilliant, jewel like jelly which is good on toast or with roasts. Mabey says they are the ‘most important ancestor of the cultivated apple, M. domestica. More than 6,000 named varieties have been bred over the centuries, of which probably only a third still survive.’
I found these, a little bruised, beside the old railway line that once served Shadwell Quarry. Now a footpath, this is one of the town’s most attractive places to walk. Ash trees and ivy overhang the track these days, and it has an other-worldly feel, far removed from industrial quarrying, trucking and smelting .
It is hard to imagine that steam trains once came chugging down this track. The branch was built specifically to haul away Shadwell limestone to use as fluxing stone in the iron-smelting industry. In 1873, alone, 22,500 tons was shipped out of Wenlock.
You can walk ‘there and back’ along the path, or there’s a longer circular route that takes you across fields, and down the lane to the Priory and into town. Out in the fields I found that the rose-hips, fruits of wild roses, were doing pretty good jewel impressions too. They are also known as heps or itchy-coos.
The fruit have hairy insides which are a powerful irritant (and presumably much known to aggravate the coos or cows), but once removed, the hips have highest vitamin C content of any common native British fruit. During World War 2 and into the 1950s there was a national campaign to collect hips to make syrup according to Ministry of Food guidelines. It involved much mincing, stewing and straining, and a lot of sugar which I think was possibly counterproductive health benefit-wise. Nonetheless, caring mothers spooned it into their children. Some of us will still remember the taste.
Finally a note about this post. Apart from celebrating the Shropshire countryside, it’s also inspired by 1) Lucile Godoy at Photo Rehab and Perelincolors who in Tech of the Month have been urging us to ‘fill the whole picture’ in our compositions. See their blogs for some useful guidance. (Photos here taken with a Kodak EasyShare 380).
And 2) by Jo’s Monday Walk.
Happy composing and walking everyone.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell