Going on a road trip by myself has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. When I started my PhD, I made the decision I would go on a road trip around England when I handed in my thesis. Well, on Friday 28th August 2020 I successfully completed and handed in my thesis, so you know what comes next!
For two weeks, I’ll be travelling around England and identifying some iconic plant species in each of the places I stop in. In this post, I’ll cover a few of the plants I spotted in Hampshire, Kent and Surrey, including one with cute names, one with unusual toxicity and one that proves beer can be medicinal.
Odiham: Traveller’s Joy
The very first stop on my road trip was in Odiham. Odiham is a historic little village in Hampshire. My friend’s gave me a book featuring iconic ruins from all over the UK and Odiham Castle was one of the first ruins that really caught my eye. When I got to Odiham, I found the most beautiful little canal.
Walking along the canal, I got to enjoy a lot of local wildlife, including fish, dragonflies and ducks. There were vast reed beds which are perfect for wetland birds, and a signpost outlining the conservation work being done along the canal. The plant that caught my eye here seems to be the most fitting one to start off my journey: Traveller’s Joy (Clematis vitalba).
You can often find Traveller’s Joy clinging to hedgerows, which is exactly where I found it. In the summer months, they have beautiful little white flowers with many stamens. In autumn, their iconic, feathery fruits can be seen trailing the hedges and those are what I saw in Odiham (pictured above).
Their fluffy appearance is what gives them their common name Old Man’s Beard, but it was wonderfully names Traveller’s Joy by John Gerard, a herbalist from the 17th century. He wrote that it,
“maketh in winter a goodly shew, covering the hedges all over with his feather-like tops”.
The species has a lot of other really cute common names around the country, including Tuzzy-Muzzy, Hedge Feathers, Grandfather’s Whiskers and Willow Wind.
Shere: English Yew
Driving from Odiham to Canterbury, I heard nature calling and looked for the nearest village to stop in. I saw a sign for Shere and thought I’d check it out. How fortunate I was. Shere is in Surrey and checks all the boxes for a quintessential English village. To give you an idea of how cute it is, the village signpost included which direction to go in to find ducks.
After a quick waddle over to the duck house, I carried on through the village and up to the church. One thing I have learned from plant identification is that a lot of great plants can be found in churchyards. The reason for this is because they are protected bits of land, so very old, rare trees can often be found growing in them.
Right on cue, I stumbled upon the most beautiful, big English Yew (Taxus baccata). English Yews can live up to 600 years old and sometimes much older; there are Yews in Britain believed to be from the 10th Century. In fact, not far from this particular English Yew, there is another in Crowhurst, Surrey, which is believed to be 4000 years old.
The red “berries” you can see on the tree are not berries at all, but are instead “arils”, which are outgrowths from the seed, partially covering them. Although the bright red colour of the aril is suggestive of toxicity, this is the only part of the Yew that isn’t poisonous.
Finally, at the end of a long first day, I found myself in Canterbury, in Kent. Canterbury is a famous English city situated on the River Stour. I grew up reading “The Canterbury Tales”, not realising that it was a real place until I got a little older. As a result, it is somewhere I have always wanted to visit.
Of course, I had to make a stop at Canterbury Cathedral, probably one of the most iconic cathedrals in England. I met a lovely tour guide called Roger there and he showed me all the little Latin inscriptions that I might have otherwise missed. Did you know that Fido is a popular name for dogs because dogs represent fidelity (loyalty)? Roger taught me that.
Anyway, after Roger and I had finished touring the cathedral, I took a walk around the grounds outside and stumbled upon the medicinal herb garden. By stumbled upon, I mean I made a beeline for it. If you’d like to find out more about herbs, I have a post about my own Sensory Herb Garden. Among the herbs I discovered some Hops (Humulus lupulus).
Hops are very famously and historically brewed to make beer because they help prevent spoilage, but they also have medicinal benefits. Hops have been used in traditional medicine in a similar way to Valerian, as anxiety and insomnia treatment. Research suggests that a non-alcoholic beer before bed could help you sleep .
What is really amazing to me is that these three stops are all so close to London and yet they are so reminiscent of a much older time in England. The quaint little villages and historic city architecture takes you back centuries. The plants are also tied up in so much history, they act as time capsules a long with the buildings and ruins dotted around our landscape.
 Franco, L., Sanchez, C., Bravo, R., Rodriguez, A., Barriga, C. & Juanez, J. (2012). The sedative effect of hops (Humulus lupulus), a component of beer, on the activity/rest rhythm. Acta Physiol. Humarica.