Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.
But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.
However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.
So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.
I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.
The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!
“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “‘Wildflowers of Ireland’ website
* Archaic term for abscesses.”