In beautiful May sunshine, a large group of us gathered at the Coach House to join herbalist Sara Jane Glendinning and musician Jo Burke for a walk up Whitehawk Hill.
Those nettles may be too old now to make a spring tonic - but this walk was one, for sure.
Before we set off, Sarah Jane explained that the walk was inspired by the 17th century radical herbalist Nicholas Culpepper. Brought up just outside Lewes, he studied at Cambridge before becoming apprenticed to an apothecary. He was unpopular with the medical establishment for translating medical and herbal texts from Latin to make them accessible to the poor, and for offering his medical treatments at low cost. His Complete Herbal has not been out of print since it was first published and with a copy tucked under her arm, Sarah Jane set off and we followed.
Under Sarah Jane’s guidance, we looked at plants we may or may not have known but now with new insight. The first plants we inspected – nettles and goose-grass – are good for making a spring tonic; they’re lymphatics, so good for clearing away our bodies’ winter waste, although we were advised the ones currently growing were a little too old and would be an irritant to the kidneys. Next Sarah Jane drew our attention to the plant with the little pink flower, Herb Robert. Apparently it’s part of the germanium family and can help remove metals from the body and can ease skin conditions. Next was an ash tree, beautiful, with bunches of ash keys – the bark is used for quinine – and hawthorn, lots in Sussex and the tree of May with its white frothy blossom just on the way out, is a number one heart medicine.
At this point, Jo told us some of the folklore behind these trees: ash was believed to be protective against bad spirits and hawthorn to have magical qualities, for example. And then some real magic - Jo sang Oak & Ash & Thorn, from a poem by Rudyard Kipling that was set to music by Peter Bellamy. Her fabulous voice reverberated with all-encompassing clarity and magnificence. And this was how the walk continued. Inspection of trees and plants – plantain, cow parsley, burdock, speedwell, ivy and more – with a summary of their (and other plants) medicinal properties from Sarah Jane, so knowledgeable and passionate about the subject that it was infectious (no pun intended), interspersed by Jo’s retelling of the stories and folklore around them and her singing of folk songs. There were great stories too from Jo about the collection of the songs she sang and their origins.
It was a great way of spending two or so hours: convivial company, being outdoors exploring natural surroundings, superb singing and stories and knowledge. Those nettles may be too old now to make a spring tonic - but this walk was one, for sure.