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 East Sussex, Wiltshire and Dorset, including one used in Victorian wine, one used in gin and a clarification on when an algae is a plant and when it’s not.
Beachy Head: Eyebright
Driving down to the coast, I decided to make my first stop at Beachy Head. I’ve heard about it from friends and family and loved the threat of a fast eroding cliff face. Beachy head is a chalk headland in East Sussex, a picturesque little spot with the most adorable little lighthouse.
Interestingly, the name Beachy Head has nothing to do with the fact that it’s beachy or a headland. Instead, the original name has just been butchered since the 1200’s. Originally, the cliff was known as ‘Beauchef’, French for ‘beautiful cliff’. Over the years, a game of Telephone has caused Beauchef to become Beachy Head.
While I was walking back to the car, I came across an adorable patch of tiny flowers. Upon closer inspection, I realised they were Eyebrights (Euphrasia officinalis). With a name derived from the Greek Goddess Euphrosyne of Good Cheer, it brought me a lot of joy to see their gorgeous little purple and yellow faces smiling up at me.
It’s not just their name that is linked to good cheer. In the Victorian Era, Eyebrights were used in the making of wine. English poet Gervase Markham wrote of the plant,
“Drinke everie morning a small draught of Eyebright wine”.
The reason being that Eyebright distilled into wine, water or ale was thought to ‘clear a man’s sight’ and was regularly used to cure redness and swelling caused by conjunctivitis and other eye conditions. Hence the name, ‘Eyebright’.
During the week, I took quite the detour inland to visit some friends in Laverstock. Laverstock is a parish council near Salisbury (famous for Salisbury Cathedral, where one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta is kept), in Wiltshire.
On first appearance, Laverstock might seem an unassuming little village, but if I’ve learnt anything on this journey it’s that you cannot underestimate anything. Laverstock is steeped in history, with evidence of settlements from the Neolithic era, the Iron and Bronze ages and the Roman period. Even Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury has been there.
After a wonderful lunch, hosted by my friends, I offered to take their dog for a walk in the surrounding areas while they were working from home. On our walk, Poppy and I came across these curious little bluish/black fruits. With the help of my Candide app, I was able to identify them as Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa).
They are named Blackthorn because of their very dark wood and spiked branches, and those with eagle-eyes may have noticed their genus, Prunus. Blackthorns are from the plum family. The fruits are called sloes and have been used for centuries to make sloe gin. They’re also enjoyed in jams and chutneys. But if you are going to go out picking them, folklore tells us not to use a metal fork unless it is made of silver.
Lyme Regis: Green Algae
I’m going to use this final plant to rectify a confusion caused by my “What do you mean it’s not a plant?” post. As I made my way around the coast, heading for Cornwall, I decided to stop at Lyme Regis. My parents are both geologists so I grew up fossil hunting on beaches and quarries, identifying every rock and fossil we found.
Lyme Regis, a town in Dorset, has a beach on the Jurassic Coast where you can wander five steps and trip on fossils imprinted into every third rock. The Mother of Palaeontology, Mary Anning, made many discoveries at Lyme Regis, and other locations up and down the Jurassic Coast. While I did find myself a little ammonite souvenir, I also found a familiar green friend.
Coating many of the coastal rocks is a soft, fuzzy green plant, known as green algae. Whenever I slip and fall into rock pools, it’s usually because of this slippery little guy. In my blog post, I stated that algae is not a plant, but that was a confusing statement. What I meant was, not all algae are plants.
The algae you see in the image below, kelp, is not a plant. However, its fuzzy green neighbour is. The difference is in their cellular structure and evolution, something I will not be able to cover in the next few sentences. Just know this, as everything else in life, sometimes you have to look below the surface to truly understand why things are the way they are.
Travelling around the coast has been a real treat for me. While I’m familiar with the plants in the grassland and meadows around my house, I rarely get close enough to the coast to investigate marine and coastal plants. The stories and heritage they represent teach me a little more about Britain with every stop I make!