Two swallows don’t make a summer

That’s true alright. On our walk last Saturday we saw several swallows in the valley below South Stoke as we followed the lower part of the Somerset Coal Canal. Sadly the sunshine didn’t last and we’ve had grey skies, cold winds and rain every day since, except for a wonderful (temporary ) reprise yesterday. I’m sad to say that I forgot to mention the Swallows or the abundant Brimstone butterflies which seem to be having a good year. But it was the single plant in the top photo that arrested my attention when we perched on the edge of the abandoned railway line that followed the canal, for a rest. The photos below were taken in July 2019 after the Bath Quays site was cleared and the archaeologists had gone home.

I’d gone to South Stoke with my imagination filled with narrow boats and the railways that put them out of business, but when we got home it was the single Weld plant – Reseda luteola, or Dyer’s Weed that seized my imagination. Of the long abandoned canal there was very little trace, but the plant was a reminder of a much earlier industrial revolution – of wool and cloth that brought great wealth to the Cotswolds and these lovely villages surrounding the town of Bath; smaller and more modest stone buildings, from cottages to tithe barns and grand manor houses that preceded the famous Georgian architecture of the city that was mostly funded by slavery and imperial wealth.

Wealth and squalour have always existed side by side in Bath; we just don’t like to brag about it. Occasionally I’ve written about drug addiction and homelessness in the area in which we live. Sometimes it boils over into county lines battles but most of the time it’s a faintly simmering sense of antisocial behaviour mixed – as in all the best places to live in cities – with a crowd of creative and musical types retired professors, ne’er do wells and radicals of most persuasions. When they cleared the Bath Quays site for a tree lined flood prevention scheme, they found the remains of the old Kingsmead with its brothels and pubs – lots of pubs. The best of the drainage arrangements sent the sewage straight into the river and at the worst just let it find its own way. Not much has changed there then!

I’ve always been interested in the uses to which plants have been put; herbal medicine, foodstuffs and of course dyeing and cloth production. In medieval times three plants reigned supreme for the dyers. Chaucer knew them all and mentioned them some time around 1387 ( he wasn’t keen). They were Weld, Madder and Woad. Weld gave yellow, Woad, blue and Madder gave a red dye. The process of extracting dyes from plants was as filthy, smelly and disgusting as anyone could imagine. If you’ve ever made a liquid compost from Comfrey you’ll know what I mean. Brilliant it may be as a low cost organic fertilizer, but the smell is so nauseating it’s like accidentally stepping on a dead sheep in a ditch – don’t ask! The process usually begins with fermentation and then the dyeing itself requires a mordant solution to fix the colour in the fabric. These days nearly all dyes are synthetic but even they still need to be fixed – usually with a chemical mordant. In the old days they used a lot of urine; the older and more stale the better – all this done at moderately high temperature.

So both ends of the cloth industry depended on water and fuel and both relied upon and produced lots of effluent. South of Bath there is an abundance of brooks and streams flowing down from the hills, a river for transporting the goods, and later on, canals and railways. One further process in the production of woolen cloth was known as fulling in which the woven fibres were pounded with a special form of clay known by geologists as Bentonite and by everyone else as Fullers’ Earth. The power of nature had thoughtfully provided a Fullers’ Earth deposit above South Stoke.

As I said at the top, two Swallows don’t make a summer and a single plant rosette at the side of an abandoned railway line, or second group in flower on a building site don’t constitute a plant record of a whole industry. But they might remind us of the fact that even a beautiful Georgian city like Bath had its filthy industry, its poverty and squalour. Looking back towards an arcadian past of green fields and gambolling lambs is a dangerous kind of self-deception. The river is still filthy and polluted but it’s possibly been like that since the middle ages. In Bristol the dyeing trade was carried out in Redcliffe which is why the wealthy merchants moved up the hill to Clifton to escape the pollution and stink. That’s exactly what they did in Bath too. The weaving and fulling were probably mostly done in the surrounding town and villages with streams and watermills and the dyeing being done in the towns and cities where there was more available mordant – the collection of which known at the time as a separate occupation called taking the piss. The question I haven’t answered – because I can’t – is where the original dye plants were grown at crop scale. A quick check on the BSBI Atlas shows that Weld is still common but Woad and Madder have declined dramatically. I can imagine that the stinking balls of fermented Woad used in producing blue colours would have been transported, like Madder all around the country.

I’ve got a greatly treasured copy of J W White’s “The Bristol Flora” first published in 1912. Madder shows up briefly as an native plant but not in any quantity. Woad was grown in Wickwar; Keynsham and near Frome and White gets quite lyrical about dyeing in Glastonbury. As for Weld, White writes of its greater abundance in this district than in many others and he found it in exactly the spots where you might find industrial remains today. There’s a great deal more work to be done on this thread, but it’s been lovely to speculate on the role of these plants in another revolutionary age.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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