Friday, July 27, 2012

Industrial Archaeology ... and Medical Archaeology too?

Just north of Blanchland in Northumberland there is a road and then a footpath that leads out over moorland towards Slaley, that passes through a little valley where you can find this impressive ruin. It's the engine house that housed the machinery for pumping water out of the lead mines and was built 200 years ago. In its heyday 170 people lived and worked in this valley, extracting minerals underground in work that was back-breaking, debilitating and dangerous. You can read all about the history of this place - and find some fascinating insights into the lives of the people who lived and worked there, by clicking here

The engine house site has recently been cleared of the tangle of vegetation that threatened to engulf it and has been stabilised, so you can have a look at the site. The disturbance has led to the germination of some interesting plants that would have been familiar to the people who once lived and worked here. There are some exceptionally fine specimens of common mullein or Aaron's rod, Verbascum thapsus, that often thrives in disturbed ground. 

The plant produces a few new flowers each day along its long flower spike, so blooming continues for a long time ....

.... and produces a constant supply of pollen for bumblebees over a prolonged period. It's easy to spot these visitors because their pollen baskets are always full of orange pollen.

Mullein is a biennial and produces a beautiful rosette of densely hairy leaves in the first year, that look particularly fine when they are covered with dew on sunny autumn mornings, then in the second year the flower spike elongates. The dense hairs were once shaved from the leaves, dried and used for making lamp wicks and tinder that ignited easily with the slightest spark. A mucilaginous extract of the leaves, boiled in milk, produced a medicine that that was used to treat coughs and it's tempting to think that those who worked in the constantly damp conditions underground here might well have used these plants for that purpose.

Mullein produces vast numbers of seeds but as Sir Edward Salisbury, former Director of Kew Gardens and author of the classic Weeds and Aliens discovered, most fall within about 12 feet of the plant and so it tends to occur in locally dense, self-seeded patches - as it has at this location.

According to C. Pierpoint Johnson in his treatise on The Useful Plants of Great Britain, published in 1863, the tiny seeds "are said to intoxicate fish when thrown into the water, and are used by the poachers for this purpose".

This musk mallow Malva moschata, growing in amongst the mulleins, is also a mucilaginous plant whose extracts were used as an emollient to treat pulmonary complaints.

It's tempting to speculate that this local concentration of plants with medicinal properties is not here by chance, but might have been used by the local miners when they were the amongst the few treatments for their ailments that were available to them. Maybe they are survivors from gardens of houses that have long since vanished .....


  1. This look as if I would enjoy a visit. Thanks for the post.

  2. It's a very pleasant walk Adrian. If you turn left out of the car park and follow the road uphill you pass this building, then when you get to the houses right at the top you can turn left through 270 degrees and walk back over moorland. Magnificent views and the heather is coming out now .......... best before the Glorious 12th., though ...