Over Dunmail Raise

In a car you hardly notice the steep climb over Dunmail Raise, as you drive the busy Loughrigg Circuit February 2014 023tourist route from Grasmere to Keswick. Just another hill on a fast stretch of road, widened in recent years so that motorists might overtake struggling lorries and holiday coaches. Not considered one of the classic Lake District mountain passes, despite the dramatic crags and summits all around. The great stone cairn, between the two carriageways, looks interesting but flashes by in an instant.  Motorists probably don’t know that the Raise once marked the southern boundary of the kingdom of Strathclyde or the division between Westmorland and Cumberland.

But looked at from the surrounding summits of Steel Fell, Helm Crag or Seat Sandal, you get a perspective of Dunmail’s importance as a mountain pass giving access through the surrounding high ground.  Its significance as one of the few easier routes across the Lake District confirmed by the presence of a World War Two Pillbox, guarding the pass from both directions. A wise precaution. Armies have marched this way for thousands of years.

     The Raise gets its name from just such a warrior, Dunmail,  Norseman and King of Cumberland, defeated in battle here by the Saxon King Edmund in 945 AD. The giant cairn, or raise, now hemmed in between  two modern carriageways, is said to be his last resting place, the stones laid over his body by his surviving troops.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the cairn has been  repositioned on several occasions by road-builders, absorbing rocks from a drystone wall that once marked the county boundary.

Legend says Dunmail’s golden crown was taken from the pass to nearby Grizedale Tarn and thrown into its dark waters, until Dunmail might rise to lead his men again. Once a year his phantom army appears to take the crown from the tarn down to the Raise only to hear Dunmail’s voice moan in the wind “Not yet, my warriors. In a little while. Not yet!”  On dark stormy days, as you follow in their footsteps, you can almost believe it.  The legend is rather compromised by the fact that Dunmail apparently died on pilgrimage to Rome many years after 945.

The old tale was often in William Wordsworth’s mind, as he walked the once narrow road over the Raise, a route he took by day and night, whatever the weather.  During the Napoleonic Wars he would come this way in the dark with Thomas de Quincy, author of The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, so that they might waylay the courier bringing news from Keswick of Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain. There must have been sad memories for Wordsworth when he made this journey in later years. It was in the hills above the Raise that he had taken a last walk with his brother John, who drowned when his ship was wrecked in the English Channel in 1805.

Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would regularly tramp ‘over the Rays’ to Keswick and back, sometimes diverting via the summit of Helvellyn. Towards the end of her life, Dorothy Wordsworth could still mount the steep hill at a steady four miles an hour, such was the conditioning brought about by many years of hard fellwalking. In the Wordworth’s time, travelling on foot or horseback was the regular way to travel the road leading up to the Raise, so much so that Dorothy commented in her journal on the unusual sight of someone making the journey in a chaise.

The arrival of the railway from Kendal to Windermere encouraged a regular stagecoach service onwards to Keswick, Dunmail Raise representing quite a challenge to coachmen. On the northward  journey the coach driver would sometimes make fitter passengers disembark and walk up the steep hill, so that his horses could cope with the gradient. The descent could be equally perilous, great skill being needed to prevent the coach running away.  The Lakeland writer William Palmer, recalling Victorian days, tells how the road was scored by the skid marks of coaches as drivers hauled on their brakes during the descent.

At Town Head, on the Grasmere side of the Raise, was the toll bar, where the toll-keeper would take the fee for using this stretch of road. In 1851, John Hawking, a man well-known to Wordsworth, was still working away at this unpopular job at the age of 76, aided by his 52 year old wife Betsy.  Most of the tolls he collected would have been taken from carriages of early Lake District tourists, or the occasional carrier’s cart. Wilier Lakelanders, droving sheep or cattle, or moving goods by pack-pony, would  bypass Dunmail Raise altogether to avoid paying the toll.  Coach fares would have been well beyond the pockets of working people. Horse-drawn coaches for tourists continued to come through the Raise as recently as the 1920s.

In Victorian times this bleak pass was well known as an atchin tan (camping place) for Romanies. Why choose such an exposed place to halt?  Possibly to avoid conflict with the farmers and villagers of Grasmere. The Lake District writer William Palmer recalled pulling a Gypsy lad from under the wheels of a horse-drawn coach at this point, earning the gratitude of an ancient fortune-teller, who told him he would only prosper with a lifetime of hard work. Palmer noted that she spoke pure Romani and that her words had to be interpreted by a cheroot-smoking younger woman

During its days as a county boundary, the head of the Raise was considered very much a frontier between the north and south of the Lake District, residents on each side holding the belief that little good came from the opposite end of the pass, a prejudice broken down only with easier access to cars and travel.

By the 1930s, Dunmail Raise was starting to become the busy motor road that we see today, deterring the traveller on foot or on horseback.  William Palmer, who had known the road from Victoria’s reign, noting that many of the old hummocks had been ironed out by successive road builders. More recently, the Raise has become the only Lakeland pass with an effective dual carriageway, the two opposing lanes trapping King Dunmail’s cairn on an island that can be hazardous to anyone who wants to walk there.

But despite these changes, today’s traveller is seeing much the same views of wild mountains and the broad vale of Grasmere as Wordsworth, William Palmer’s Gypsies, and the coach passengers who visited the Lake District during Queen Victoria’s reign. Every wanderer through this Lake District pass adds a tale to the long history of Dunmail Raise.

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No Man’s Land

The concept of No Man’s Land seems strange in relation to country walking. Surely it’s a military term, the terrain between two opposing armies, such as on the Western Front in the Great War?

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Appleby Fair Hill (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Seventy-five years ago, my father was stationed near Battle Abbey in Sussex, waiting to participate in the Normandy Landings. The last minute briefings would have been taking a long hard look at the military concept of No Man’s Land. Interesting, I always think, that he was at a place so associated with the Norman Conquest in 1066, when he was about to go the other way and invade Normandy.

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Our Land (c) John Bainbridge 2010

But in fact No Man’s Land has its origins a long way from military battlefields. No Man’s Land was literally that – those odd patches of land scattered around the edges of highways and heathlands that either had no owner, or had an ownership that didn’t realise they were included in a domain or places were two parishes met and no one could define the exact boundary.

It’s an old term – there are references in Domesday Book to land lying just outside the city walls of London. The term No Man’s land – historically nonesmanneslond, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1320.

Sometimes, the term was applied to land subject to a legal dispute. George Borrow, in his wonderful book Lavengro, relates how he camps in Mumper’s Dingle, a deep valley embroiled in litigation.

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On the Flashing Lane (c) John Bainbridge 2019

When I was a boy, we often visited a family of Gypsies who used such a stretch of land on the rural edge of the industrial Black Country. They were relatively safe, for the authorities couldn’t prove that anyone owned their site.

No Man’s Land offered the opportunity to camp and reside – at least temporarily – in the countryside when the barriers were being put up during the dreadful times of the Enclosure Acts, when the majority were being robbed of their rights to the land. A situation that has not changed to this day, when 1% of our population own 50% of the lands in England.

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Vardo (travelling wagon) in Appleby (c) John Bainbridge 2019

There’s also the thought that the No Man’s Lands of old represented in-between places, the stretches of land between the jealously-guarded private properties and the public highway, one of the few places you could safely access at a time of man-traps and spring guns. Places that were somehow in between what is lawful and what is not lawful. Another reason why the very idea was hated by the Establishment.

Ramblers and country walkers often found themselves in the forefront to reclaim some rights to the captured landscape. The iconic Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in 1932, which saw ramblers sent to jail by a loaded jury and a biased judge, shows how one has to fight hard to access our own land.

Those bits of No Man’s Land that survive are a hugely important part of our social history – they deserve preservation orders so that they might stay wild and free.

Up in Cumbria next week is the New Fair at Appleby (once the county town of Westmorland), the most important date in the Gypsy Calendar, attracting Romany travellers from all over Britain and beyond, who come to trade in horses and race horse-drawn sulkies in the “flashing lane” above the town to prove their worth. As you watch the horses being washed in the River Eden, you are seeing a little bit of an older England brought vividly to life.

This coming week, if you are travelling around the North Pennines, around places like Barnard Castle and Kirkby Lonsdale, you can see the Gypsy wagons and tents drawn up on the roadsides leading to the fair. Some of these atchin-tans or campsites have been used for generations. Some are bits of No Man’s Land still in use.

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Jubilee Ford, Appleby (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Sadly, with road widening, some of these important parts of our history are being swept away. The grubbing out of hedgerows, building developments and mercenary raids on open spaces are taking away a lot more. And there is – certainly in England – a presumption against people using our bits of No Man’s Land for traditional purposes.

Which is a pity, I think…

The Appleby New Fair starts next Thursday, though Friday and Saturday are the best days. The horse are washed in the town itself, but the fair and the flashing lane are up on the hillside on the far side of the A66. If you want to go and have a look at the fair, do get there early, as traffic can be very bad and parking places are taken up very quickly. You can always get there by train on the Settle to Carlisle Line.

The Hoff Beck Walk

I was pleased to see that the Eden Rivers Trust has created a formal walk – the Hoff Beck Walk – along the lovely little river of that name close to Appleby in Westmorland. The new trail follows the Hoff Beck from Colby to the picturesque Rutter Falls, passing through peaceful and uncrowded countryside.

Rutter Falls (C) John Bainbridge 2019

I’ve walked the Hoff Beck many times over the years, starting from Appleby. It really is a grand stretch of river and you rarely see any other walkers. While I’ve walked the length of the new trail, I usually complete a circuit via the village of Ormside, returning along the River Eden.

The Eden Rivers Trust has placed informative noticeboards at several points along the walk, giving details of local history and riparian wildlife – the Hoff Beck is particularly good if you want to watch herons. I saw a kingfisher once near Bandley Bridge, and there are otters too – though you have to be lucky to see one. If you want a better chance do the walk just after dawn or in the late evening.

The other day, we walked out from Appleby, taking the attractive bridleway through Rachel’s Wood to Bandley Bridge. You can stroll downstream to Colby and back from here if you wish to. Although the footbridge at Bandley is relatively modern, the crossing place is ancient. The first record of a crossing here dates back to 1292, where it is described at Bangelmibrigg.

The crossing here probably dates back a long time before that, to the time when the Vikings settled around Appleby, giving the name to this river, Hoff and Beck are both Norse words in origin.

Following the Hoff Beck upstream, we descended to Cuddling Hole. Now I’ve always puzzled as to the origins of that name, my mind going off in various lascivious directions. I’ve been wrong in those assumptions and I should have known better, for I was well acquainted with a very similar word.

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The Hoff Beck (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Cuddling is a local expression for tickling trout, a way of catching them by hand. I really should have guessed, for guddling is a well-known expression in the Lake District (Arthur Ransome used it in his novel The Picts and the Martyrs – a terrific read which I recommend to you). Interestingly, the word used to be current on Dartmoor, very familiar with an old poacher I used to know there. Arthur Ransome used to fish in the nearby Eden – perhaps he tried the Hoff Beck as well?

A walk across the fields brought us to the hamlet of Hoff, where there’s a pub if you need refreshment. Some lovely ancient barns here. A place lost in time. The next few fields below Low Rutter farm can be muddy after wet weather, but on the frosty day we walked it they were fine.

I’ve done this walk in pelting rain, snow and in last summer’s heatwave and it offers something new each time. In last summer’s drought, the waterfall of Rutter Force had dried up altogether. Now the water was back, making the picturesque falls a delight to see. The building next to the force started out as a corn mill and was latterly a bobbin mill. With its footbridge and ford it must be another ancient crossing place, though I miss the tea shop that used to be there. It marks the official end of the Hoff Beck River Walk.

We walked up to the lane and crossed the fields to the house marked on the map as Porch Cottage, though now called the Donkey’s Nest. From there a quiet lane took us down under the Settle to Carlisle railway line to the peaceful village of Great Ormside.

The church here, standing next to a farmhouse with a Pele Tower, is one of England’s gems, built on a defensive mound that was used by both Saxons and Vikings. I’ve written in praise of it in my walking book Wayfarer’s Dole. As with many Christian buildings it began its existence as a Pagan site, used as a burial ground by the Vikings. Much of what you see today dates to the late 11th-century.

In 1823, the Ormside Bowl, Anglo-Saxon in origin and dating to the 7th or 8th century was found in the churchyard. It’s now in York Museum. In 1898 the body of a Viking warrior, complete with sword, was unearthed in the churchyard. You can see his sword at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.

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Great Ormside Church (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Sadly, cracks have appeared in the church tower and expensive repairs are needed. If you can send a donation to help please do.

The parishioners are certainly rallying round with fundraising measures. We bought a delicious jar of home-made marmalade, which was on sale in the church. So if you do visit take some spare cash to support this worthy cause!

Leaving the village, we went under the Settle-Carlisle railway once again, to follow the River Eden back to Appleby. This path starts in woodland high above the river, before descending to its banks, giving more chances to see wildlife. A peaceful stretch of river, now part of the Lady Anne’s Way trail – which follows in the steps of Lady Anne Clifford, the well-known diarist of the 17th century.

After the woodland ends, the path follows the river through water meadows, emerging at Jubilee Ford at Appleby – a popular crossing place for Gypsies during the Appleby Horse Fair week in June.

A grand walk of about eight miles – and it is good that the Eden Rivers Trust has delineated some of it as the Hoff Beck Walk – a Westmorland river that deserves to be better known.

The Stopping Places

Damian Le Bas, The Stopping Places: A Journey through Gypsy Britain (London: Chatto and Windus 2018). ISBN: 978178471037. Hardback, price £14.99. A review by John Bainbridge. The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain by [Bas, Damian Le]

In this fascinating and well-written book, Damian Le Bas overturns many of the public perceptions about modern Gypsies and their way of life, but carefully references Romany heritage and the old travelling traditions.

The stopping places of the book are the atchin tans, the places where Gypsies and Travellers – and Le Bas is rightly insistent that those are ethnic descriptions and should be capitalised – rested up in the past, and sometimes still do. Inspired by family stories, Le Bas set out to visit some of the best known of these in Britain – with a brief diversion to the Camargue for the Romany pilgrimage celebrating Saint Sara. Le Bas sets out not in a horse-drawn vardo, or even a modern caravan, but in a transit van.

But the journey is not just some Gypsy travelogue, which merely details places visited. It’s an examination of what it means to be Romany in the 21st century. As he journeys between stopping places, the author discovers as much about himself as the stretches of countryside where his forebears often lingered.

The wider public have a perception of just what a Gypsy should be. Damian Le Bas doesn’t immediately fill that stereotypical description. He is particularly fair in looks, went to public school, has a first-class degree in theology from Oxford University. He acts, writes poetry and is an artist. It demonstrates a great deal about how misunderstood this one minority group is, that any of the above should seem strange at all. One of the joys of this book is that it banishes so many public perceptions and prejudices.

Le Bas is a most self-effacing author, not the least boastful, often admitting to finding life on the road difficult. He is nervous about spending the nights alone in remote places. He has trouble being accepted by other Gypsies as one of their own. There’s a telling example where he’s ‘faced out’ from the traditional camping ground at the Appleby Horse Fair by an aggressive opponent who questions his very right to be there. He’s looked on with suspicion by some of the Romanies at the Feast of St Sara. But opposition is often removed by Le Bas’s considerable knowledge of Anglo-Romani. Interesting too that, because of that understanding, he finds he can relate easily to the Roma who have settled in Britain in recent years.

His passages on Romanes, and how the language is used today are very relevant to anyone with an interest in the language. George Borrow gets a too-brief mention, but there’s a good account of that great Rai John Sampson’s researches into the pure Romani of the Welsh Gypsies. There’s a useful glossary in the book for beginners, interestingly with some word variations I haven’t encountered before.

The book is beautifully written. Le Bas has the true writer’s gift of being able to summon up the atmosphere of a place in just a few lines, whether the particular atchin tan is in some beautiful location or somewhere hideous or threatening. He has a similar skill in describing the people he encounters. They come alive from the page, often in just a few words.

If you are near Keswick in March, the author will be giving a talk at the theatre there, during the Words on the Water Literary Festival.

George Borrow’s Scottish Tour

George Borrow, the Victorian writer and traveller, had links with Scotland long before he undertook his great tour of the country in 1858. As a boy he had studied at the High School in Edinburgh during the winter months of 1813-14, arriving in the city with his father’s regiment, the West Norfolk Militia, garrisoning the Castle towards the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

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Oban Harbour (c) John Bainbridge 2018

These were wild times for the young Borrow. When not at school he was caught up in boyish battles between the Old and New Towns. He made the acquaintance of the militia’s drummer boy, David Haggart, who deserted soon afterwards to become a notorious burglar and footpad, hanged in 1821 for killing his gaoler at Dumfries. Borrow spent much of his youth on the march with the regiment, giving him a taste for a life of vagabondage.

Despite an adventurous adulthood, spent living with Gypsies in England and touring Spain as a missionary – expeditions that inspired his books Lavengro and The Bible in Spain – he never forgot this youthful time in Scotland. In Lavengro he was to recall the excitement of crossing the Tweed into the northern kingdom and gaining a first view of the Highlands.

George Borrow visited Scotland in 1858, mourning the recent death of his beloved mother. He had found the grief difficult to cope with and his wife suggested a palliative walking tour ‘to recruit his health and spirit’. Even in middle age Borrow was an indefatigable tramper. In younger days he had walked the 112 miles from London to Norwich in a single day. In 1854 he had undertook a vast pedestrian exploration of Wales in search of that land’s ancient literature, immortalised in his classic book Wild Wales. This inveterate walker would often remark to his long-suffering wife ‘I’m just going for a walk’ and then disappear for weeks at a time.

Writing to a friend he was to recall that ‘in the latter part of the year ’58, I visited the Highlands and walked several hundred miles amongst them’. Borrow’s notebooks and letters suggest that he had thoughts of turning his experiences into a book, a companion to Wild Wales, but depression and the ill-fortune of a writing life meant the project was abandoned. It is, however, possible, using the notes he made, to recreate the route Borrow took during this extensive Scottish tour.

Borrow started out from his old stamping ground of Edinburgh, after coming much of the way by ship from Yarmouth. He was not particularly impressed. He wrote to his wife that the city was ‘wonderfully altered since I was here, and I don’t think for the better’. A winding route took him through Glasgow and on to Inverness.

These early days were not happy, for Borrow, argumentative at the best of times, had fallen foul of a ferryman whilst crossing the Firth. ‘The other day,’ he complained to his wife, ‘I was swindled out of a shilling by a villain to whom I had given it for change.’ Borrow had wanted to recourse to law but, he reported, the ferryman ‘had a clan about him…and I should have been outsworn’.

Once on the move, Borrow was much happier. He took a steamer from Inverness to Fort Augustus, amidst what he describes in his notebook as ‘a dreadful hurricane of wind and rain’. Despite the weather he was more in his element, meeting a woman from Dornoch who, though having no Gaelic herself, showed him a Gaelic book of spiritual songs by ‘one Robertson’ and talked to him about Alexander Cumming, ‘a fat blacksmith and great singer of Gaelic songs’. Borrow was a polyglot who could speak over twenty languages and had more than a nodding acquaintance with the Gaelic.

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Melrose Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2018

He spent four days in Fort Augustus, exploring the locality. He records that ‘the first day I passed over the Corryarrick…nearly up to my middle in snow. As soon as I had passed it I was in Badenoch. The road on the farther side was horrible, and I was obliged to wade several rivulets, one of which was very boisterous and nearly threw me down’.

On October 22nd Borrow left Oban for Mull which in his own words he ‘traversed in every direction’, commenting that the scenery was ‘very wild country, perhaps the wildest in Europe’. From his notes and letters it is clear that he climbed Ben More, where he gathered some moss for his step-daughter Henrietta, and visited Salen, Iona and Tobermory, whilst staying with Ann Petrie at the Mull Hotel for a shilling a night. On the conclusion to this visit, Borrow noted that ‘the best Scottish Gaelic is said to be spoken in the Isle of Mull, which, however, is very thinly inhabited’.

According to his notes, Borrow left Oban for Greenock via the ‘Mull of Cantire’ (Kintyre) finally arriving in Glasgow, the whole journey accomplished in one day on November 3rd, though by what means of transportation is unclear. From Glasgow he returned to Inverness by train.

This journey was the occasion of another Borrovian argument. Stretching his legs during a ten minute break in the journey at Huntly, the train went without him. ‘Purposely,’ he complained to his wife, almost as though the locomotive had a life of its own.

He telegraphed ahead to Keith so that his luggage might be rescued. A reply came that it could not be found. ‘I instantly said that I would bring an action against the company, and walked off to the town, where I stated the facts to a magistrate. He advised me to bring my action. I went back and found the people frightened. They telegraphed again – and the reply came back that the things were safe’. Borrow in full ire could be a threatening prospect, over six feet tall and trained in the art of boxing.

By 21st November Borrow was in Thurso, writing to his wife that since his last letter to her he had walked 160 miles. ‘I have been to Johnny Groat’s (sic). I had tolerably fine weather all the way, but within two or three miles of that place a terrible storm arose; the next day the country was covered with ice and snow. There is at present a kind of Greenland winter, colder almost than I ever knew the winter in Russia’.

After having to wait impatiently for a steamer, Borrow crossed over to Orkney where he visited the cathedral in Kirkwall and Hoy. Here he had a chance to revel in his status as a famous author. ‘I have been treated here with every kindness and civility. As soon as the people knew who I was they could scarcely make enough of me’. On the 28th November he crossed to Shetland, buying ‘shawls, veils and hosiery’ in a shop in Lerwick, before returning by boat to Aberdeen, then back to Inverness.

Sending on his possessions, Borrow undertook one last magnificent tramp through the Highlands, from Inverness to Dunkeld and then to Stirling. ‘I never enjoyed a walk more – the weather was tolerably fine, and I was amidst some of the finest scenery in the world’. From Stirling he took the fashionable walking tour into the Trossachs to see Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond ‘thirty-eight miles over horrible roads’. He had read about the area in the novels of Walter Scott, whose books he admired even though Borrow couldn’t ever stomach the promotion of what he called ‘Charlie-over-the-waterism’, being a confirmed anti-Jacobite.

At the end of his long journey, Borrow wrote to his wife ‘I have now seen the whole of Scotland that is worth seeing, and walked 600 miles; a person here must depend entirely upon himself and his own legs’.

He died at Oulton in Suffolk in 1881, mostly forgotten and with his books out of favour. Only with the renewed interest in country walking at the turn of the 20th century did George Borrow become popular again. It is one of the tragedies of walking literature that Borrow did not write a book on Scotland to match Wild Wales. His interest in the Scottish people and the Gaelic language might have provided a classic of Scottish travel.

I’ve written a short eBook about my interest in George Borrow (out now for just 99 pence/cents.) Here’s a link if you want to have a look.

 

And do visit the website of the George Borrow Society for lots more about this fascinating author at http://georgeborrow.org/home.html

Foxgloves

From early summer the countryside is punctuated by one of our most flamboyant and easily recognised wild flowers, the foxglove. Their tall purple spires catch the eye against a background of greenery. The velvety tumbling bells take many of us back to childhood. Thought to be indigenous, this lovely wayfarer grows widely throughout Europe and the forests of North America.Foxgloves 3 Howard.JPG

Though growing in profusion amid hedgerows, heaths and hillsides, foxgloves are often found far within woods. Scattered along footpaths and rides, they seem to entice the rambler deeper beneath the dappled shade and indicate the way like fingerposts.

Even before the stems shoot skywards, the foxglove’s cabbage-like leaves are an attractive sight. They are the source of digitalis, the drug well known to combat heart disease. Though it helps many people today, few know they owe their thanks to the tenacity of William Withering, an 18th century Shropshire doctor.Foxgloves 4 Howard.JPG

Born in 1741, Withering was the son of a surgeon and started out as his father’s apprentice before studying at Edinburgh University. He was known to be interested in the properties of plants and published two volumes on A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain.

Dr Withering had a patient expected to die of a failing heart. There was no treatment. However, the patient sought a herbal remedy from a Gypsy woman and recovered. Withering found the old woman in Shropshire and learned the concoction of herbs she used, which included foxglove.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

At the time foxglove was a traditional cure for dropsy, which was often a symptom of heart failure. Knowing the extract was potentially poisonous, Dr Withering spent the next decade experimenting to find a safe dosage, sometimes trying infusions on himself and fellow physicians.

In 1785 he published An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medicinal Uses. This became a classic reference work and an extract of the powdered leaf was introduced into medicinal use. When Withering lay dying in 1799 a friend supposedly commented: The flower of English physicians is indeed Withering.

Tradition has it that Withering wrote the following lines:

The Foxglove’s leaves, with caution given,
Another proof of favouring Heav’n
Will rapidly display;
The rapid pulse it can abate,
The hectic flush can moderate,
And blest be Him whose will is fate,
May give a lengthened day.

A century before Withering, foxgloves were recommended by herbalists for a variety of ailments, especially skin complaints. The leaves were bruised to make ointment or applied directly to wounds as a poultice. Nicholas Culpepper wrote in 1653:

It is of a gentle cleansing nature… I am confident that an ointment of it is one of the best remedies for a scabby head that there is.Foxgloves 2 Howard

The foxglove family name Scrophulariaceae refers to its use in treating scrofula or the King’s Evil.

Foxglove was said to be effective for both green and old wounds. In Ireland it was traditionally used to heal skin complaints such as ulcers, bruises and boils. John Gerard even advocated it as a cure for “those who have fallen from high places as well as for cleansing the body of clammy and naughty humours.”

The name foxglove is thought to be a corruption of ‘folksglove’ meaning glove of the fairy folk, possibly as fairies were believed to dwell hidden in woods and hollows. Its Latin name Digitalis purpureais ‘purple finger’. Only in Scandinavia is there a link with the fox. Their legend tells that mischievous fairies gave him the flowers to muffle his paws as he prowled village henhouses.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

Irish legend has it that the distinctive markings on the corolla are where the elves touched them to leave warnings that the plant was poisonous. These tales are reflected in its other colourful names such as glovewort, fairy’s thimble, dead man’s bell and bloody finger.

According to country lore, foxgloves stimulate the growth of neighbouring plants. Apples, tomatoes and potatoes are said to keep longer if they are grown nearby. Worth a try maybe, for this beautiful plant has already proved to be of remarkable use.

Text and pictures (c) A and J Bainbridge