Cooling Culture

The Cooling Towers at Ironbridge Power Station, Winter 2017. Photo copyright Holly Allen

On Friday 6 December, 2019, the cooling towers at Ironbridge power station were demolished. It can have taken no longer than ten seconds for these monumental, iconic structures to be razed completely flat, realigning the landscape yet again via the human cycle of accretion and attrition: making, building, powering, dismantling, demolishing, voiding. Starting again.

The towers, and their immense chimney (scheduled to be demolished sometime in 2020, but still standing in March 2021) have occupied their spot like a quintet of full stops at the end of the Ironbridge Gorge for half a century. The end of their usefulness as a functioning part of the power station and now as an iconic structure, loosely marks the end of the area’s relationship with its industries, of which there have been many. So many, in fact, that the Ironbridge Gorge in its entirety was granted World Heritage status (incorporating the power station) in 1986. To list a few: Mining, of coal, limestone and clay, fabrication, of exceptional decorative tiles, utilitarian roof tiles, clay pipes, bricks, doll parts, foundries casting ambitious iron structures, beautiful wrought ironwork – urban ballustrades, bollards, and lamp posts illuminating streetscapes, imposing gates safekeeping the country’s finest palaces, parklands and estates. The rendering of dreams through industrial and creative endeavour.

The alliance of industrial output and the concurrent blossoming of the creative industries could hardly be more evident than in this accidentally fecund location. For me, the cooling towers were a symbol of what had become a tradition, in this unbelievably rich area of industrial heritage, of understanding industry’s relationship with aesthetics, and its responsibility to occupy the landscape in the most harmonious way possible. These motivating forces may well have arisen from the undeniably dystopian entropy of early industry in this area, which was anything but picturesque – vicious, all consuming, dirty and essentially a recipe for a very short, very hard existence.

Bedlam Furnace, Madeley Dale, Shropshire 1803 Paul Sandby Munn 1773-1845 Purchased 1986

Some of the later industrialists (especially those of Quaker descent, like Abraham Darby III, who inherited the Coalbrookdale Foundry from his father) attempted to provide a counterpoint to the exploitation of people and resources, reframing it as a duty to care for workers and protect their environment. Darby’s mission was to succeed in industry whilst consciously attempting not to inflict the previous misery and hardship; and arguably won the area’s ‘progressive’ reputation in its industrial genesis. He clearly possessed a strong visual acuity, too. Everything had to be beautiful and well designed.

Cygnet and Child fountain, cast at Coalbrookdale Foundry, Mexico City. The benches in the background look very Coalbrookdale, too.

I like to think that Ironbridge’s power station (built in the mid-twentieth century) should have had the same ambition, but the reality is that in utilising ‘dirty’ industry, it didn’t, and many people saw the power station as regressive. The fallout from workers falling ill during the construction process, and later, as a result of pollution from it, does nothing to soften the local image of the power station as a ‘blot on the landscape’ and even a looming, malevolent force, serving as a kind of monolithic reminder of industry’s brutal exploitation of people and the countryside. All of this fuels the narrative that industrial architecture is inherently ugly and lacking in value: a great misconception. However, the filth generated by a coal-fired power station would have been understandably unpopular and this, pitched against the bucolic gentility of places like the uncomfortably nearby Benthall Hall, would simply have been seen as a poor fit with the more ‘countrified’ Shropshire side of the gorge.

National Trust Benthall Hall

The gradual demolition of the industrial past is often seen as positive erasure of the ‘bad old days’. If it does not fit the prerequisite pastoral idyll, it is somehow not worthy of preservation or affection (unlike the first Iron Bridge, cast at nearby Coalbrookdale foundry.) Often the value and beauty of ex-industrial structures goes unrecognised as a result of the collective local experience of such structures as destructive or detrimental to public health. The Iron Bridge escapes this, partly as a result of the positive symbolism and pioneering spirit it seems to embody, and its function as a lasting monument to engineering progress.

As a result of our lack of veneration for ex-industrial buildings, we are in danger of dismissing an entire genre of critical heritage. As the need to create homes becomes ever more pressing, the inevitable tide of brownfield site ‘boxhome’ housing targets multiplies and overwhelms. In 150 year’s time we might think grand country houses and Capability Brown style parkland are the only landscapes worth saving – however the vast number of artists and creators inspired by the cooling towers at Ironbridge would suggest otherwise. A quick look at the work of Hiller and Bernd Becher is also useful in this context.

The naturally curvaceous, voluptuous warmth of cooling tower form is accidentally appealing by design, being primarily utilitarian. The remaining structure of Ironbridge power station (now also demolished, bar the chimney) was typically 1950’s and striking for the disharmony it created as a standalone structure. It was almost invisible in the shadow of the titanic cooling towers, but now they are gone, the emptiness is very present.

Imagine this picture with no towers. Photo Andy F

The cooling towers added so much to this piece of gorge on the Severn. So many varied and surprising views, the pleasing way their arrangement hugged the bottom of Benthall Edge in an embrace, and the soft warmth of their colour, echoed in the ubiquitous red clay bricks of the area and the red rocks and clay soil of nearby Bridgnorth. Not only this, but in the scaled-up repetition of the familiar shapes of the once numerous bottle kilns, firing all those bricks and Coalport china, the Jackfield tiles used all over the world. They did everything that all good architecture should do. They sat in the landscape perfectly. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, when I arrive at a place where their presence made an especially complete view.

The Europeans

We British as a nation have always liked to think of ourselves as excelling at freethinking, and breaking new ground. We hold a kind of rose-tinted affection for characters like Alfred Russel Wallace…  a public figure in England during the second half of the 19th century, known for his courageous views on scientific, social, and spiritualist subjects… His formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection… predated Charles Darwin’s published contributions‘.


Alfred Russell Wallace, Singapore 1862. Very Magritte



Detail from Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Arcihpelago field study, 1854-1862 (Dutch East Indies)

Wallace, like Darwin and many others during the Victorian age, revelled in pioneering, swashbuckling tales of audacity and derring-do. In a similar mould, David Douglas, (of Douglas Fir fame) boldly went plant hunting:

Look, there’s the humble flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, whose rosy-red racemes mark the beginning of spring. This was introduced by David Douglas, as were lupins, California poppies and many of the conifers that are now staples of our arboretums and suburban gardens… Douglas paid for his discoveries with his life: he was killed in Hawaii at the age of 35 in a pit dug to trap wild bullocks.’ (Plant Hunters, Victoria Summerley, The Independent 2012)

Perhaps this independent, fighting spirit goes some way to explaining the British intractability and dislike of being ‘told what to do’, and our often obstinate refusal to have our national character ‘compromised’ in any way. On our travels through and past the Victorian age, we have taken the liberty of passing where, when and how we like, but remain sceptical of the rights of others to enjoy the same privileges in return.

Perhaps we believe that our role in developing significant scientific theories, ‘taking charge’ in the name of civilised society, and (when not meeting dramatic and bitter ends on our intrepid adventures) generally patronising the world at large and providing a kind of template for what an aspirational, civically-minded modern citizen should look like, are good enough reasons to continue.

In the C18, Like the British, the Dutch, the French and the Spanish were also busily building empires with the human wealth of regiments and commandeering small countries in honour of their sovereign rulers. Eminent plant hunters Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (accompanied by talented early botanical artists like Claude Aubriet) were expanding the plant palettes of their respective countries and creating incredible botanical art for the record.

So it seems that this outward looking, exploratory tendency has brought a world of diversity to our doorstep. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have been enough to sate our voracious appetites for novelty. George Shull (an American, no less) discovered something known as ‘hybrid vigour’ – the process of selecting desirable qualities through the mixing of material with distinct/diverse genetic differences to create a strong, uniform hybrid:

‘For over a century animal and plant biologists have known that mixing two diverse strains of a plant or animal can result in more vigorous and healthy offspring. This “hybrid vigour” was first shown by American Plant Scientist George Shull at the Station for Experimental Evolution, Cold Spring Harbor, in 1908 when he crossed two different corn strains resulting in a more vigorous hybrid…’

‘Hybrid offspring are called the first filial or “F1” generation, hence the term gardeners are familiar with when buying seed; ‘F1 hybrid’. To produce F1 hybrids, the farmer crosses two pure-bred parent strains. Often, these parent stocks are relatively small populations and hence are genetically rather uniform. For this reason, the hybrid offspring tend… to be more vigorous than their parents…’ The Difference: A Modern Genetic Perspective, channel 4, 2000


DNA Sculpture at Clare College, Cambridge. By Charles Jencks

That said, it is difficult to quantify good and bad qualities, which in reality, are as far from binary as it is possible to get – is uniformity really a good quality, and is unattractiveness really a bad one if we are only going to eat something?  Talking of bad qualities – we Europeans (for our sins) also spawned the Drumpft, who is allegedly descended from Scottish and German stock. Happily exported, and thoroughly naturalised abroad.

Genetic diversity (and indeed diversity in general) is also partly why we need open pollination and heirloom varieties too.

‘…we slowly came to realise that most modern varieties have been bred for the needs of large-scale chemical farming, where all aspects of the environment are controlled with fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

After all, supermarkets demand shiny fruit, that are tough to survive shipping and display, and so these are what are being bred. But these commercial varieties give poor results when grown on a home scale without all their chemicals. And whatever has happened to qualities such as flavour and tenderness?’ Real Seeds

I digress.

Even British natives, (now frequently hybridised beyond recognition) like Dianthus gratianopolitanus, were accidentally introduced along with early Norman stonework imported from northern France for the construction of castles and fortresses after the invasion of England by Norman Vikings in 1066.



Dianthus gratianopolitanus, (also known as the Cheddar Pink)


So some of our most famous ‘natives’ were, in fact, secret stowaways, introduced by accident. No one ever seems to agree on the precise origins of a plant and the same often applies to people. Indeed in many cases, it does not appear possible to make a definitive case.


Convallaria majalis is often considered to be native to the UK, however: ‘It is often difficult to separate native and alien plants and the map must be regarded as an approximation’ (Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora)

Species seem to creep across continents and as climates change, they adapt. So what is a ‘true’ native – how can it be defined? Does it have inherent genetic weakness from millennia of breeding with only the true and ‘proper’ form, or does it enable noble and ‘pure’ lineage? Is a hybrid culture or material stronger because of its hybrid status? I have found investigation of this topic generates considerably more questions than it answers.


Jolly Old QE2, looking lovely. She’s a tiny bit German, you know.

Where exactly does the cutoff point lie, and is it ever possible to identify it?  I am ‘White British’. But I am descended from Scotland, Ireland, Norfolk, (maybe some Dutch) Newcastle (maybe some Viking or Northern European), and Lancashire. And those are just the parts of my lineage I know about – should I decide to research my ancestry further, I’m sure I’d find a few surprises.

It’s complicated. Like me and my fellow inhabitants of the British Isles, many plant species are now completely naturalised and are not only valuable in terms of interest but now fully adapted to the climactic meteorological fripperies and caprices of the UK, of which there are multitudes (just in case you hadn’t noticed.)

Gene Music

David Bowie, Jean Genie

Time, ‘What Science Says About Race and Genetics’, Nicholas Wade, 2014
Channel 4 ‘The Difference’, 2000
The Independent ‘The Plant Hunters’ Victoria Summerley, 2012
Real Seeds Online
Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora
The Origin of Plants, by Maggie Campbell-Culver
The Douglas Archives
Wikimedia Commons



Pax Plantae

Nelumbo nucifera, or the lotus, is an aquatic plant known for its ability to grow from brackish, muddy swampland – and perhaps a little-known emblem for peace and purity in some regions of the world. It’s completely unrealistic, but the sentiment here is irresistible: ‘…According to Hindu philosophy, human beings ought to live like a lotus flower in this wily, unscrupulous world, completely detached and pure hearted, untouched by evil forces.’


Lotus Flowers with A Landscape Painting in the Background. c. 1885-1900. Martin Johnson Heade, North Carolina Museum of Art

In many Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, the lotus is used repeatedly to represent inner peace and purity in much spiritual illustration. The idea that filth and pollution can be transcended and separated from earthly degeneration by meditating upon the lotus flower is seductive, although we all know purity and cleanliness are more likely to be achieved with graft and chemical karma: rivers of elbow grease, a giant lakesworth of Mr. Muscle (other cleaning products are available) and several reservoirs of bleach. The chemical angle doesn’t work for the mind, unfortunately. In Buddhism, the lotus is said to represent total purity of body, mind and speech: duck-like, its repellent qualities see water droplets slide from the smooth surface of the petals like mercury.


The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding & standing on a lotus, Raja Ravi Varma ‘Lotus (he 荷, lian 莲) The lotus is the flower of the sixth month and summer. It is a symbol of purity because it rises out of the mud to bloom. Lotus blossoms are often depicted as a throne for the Buddha, and the lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism (ba jixiang 八吉祥).’


Jiezi Yuan Huazhuan, Lotus Flowers (Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual)

‘Legend has it that the 14th day of June in the Chinese lunar calendar is the lotus’s birthday, commonly known as the Lotus Festival. This custom originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279)’

There is an annual lotus festival in Guangzhou, China: ‘Guangzhou’s Fanyu District is the ideal location for this picturesque outdoor event, with its many waterways, ponds and lakes… The Lotus Flower Festival showcases over 280 different varieties of lotuses, with a total of around 15,000 individual flowers on display.’

The lotus is not just vital to Indian and Chinese depictions of inner peace and purity, but was also central to ancient Egyptian culture and symbolism. Because the flower closes at night and reopens at dawn, it was used repeatedly in the applied arts to symbolise rebirth and regeneration – an archetypal Egyptian preoccupation.


Egyptian Lotus Chalice, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA

Probably a more universally recognised symbol of peace, the olive branch, inhabits the collective consciousness as a traditional peace offering.


Olea europaea, Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen 229, by Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen

‘Early Christian art often depicts a dove flying and holding an olive branch in its beak. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and it brings the olive branch (a symbol of peace) down to the people on Earth. Christian tradition also adds a dove carrying an olive branch to the story of Noah and his ark, a sign for Noah and his family that the flood and storm had finally ended after 40 days and 40 nights.’


Olive Trees, Vincent Willem van Gogh

One of the oldest living olive specimens can be seen at the Garden of Gethsemane. Ironically, plumb in the middle of a religious conflict which has been going on for as long as I can remember.


One of the oldest olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, by Bogdan Kosar

Art Spot

Pablo Picasso, Colombe de L’Avenir 1962, featuring a dove carrying an olive branch.
Picasso was an active member of the communist party from 1944 until his death in 1973 and a dedicated advocate for peace:

‘In 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Picasso joined the Communist Party and became an active participant of the Peace Movement. In 1949, the Paris World Peace Conference adopted a dove created by Picasso as the official symbol of the various peace movements. The USSR awarded Picasso the International Stalin Peace Prize twice…’ Therein lies yet more irony.

Bed For Peace‘, performance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1969.
A useful article revisiting the impact of their performance can be found here.

Literary Corner

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy


Sunset_at_Bahai_Temple_(Lotus_Temple)_Delhi_(2239117950) (1)

The Lotus Temple or Bahai House of Worship, New Delhi, designed by Fariborz Sahba

Blog Soundtrack

Imagine, by John Lennon

Organisations for Plants and Peace

Plant for Peace is an initiative designed specifically to assist rural communities and smallholder farmers in conflict and post conflict territories around the world to achieve food security and sustainable economic development thereby contributing to stability by empowering communities to become self sufficient through sustainable agriculture and trade.’

Famous Pacifists

Sophie Scholl
Julia Ward Howe
Two Bobs – Dylan and Marley
Nelson Mandela
The Dalai Lama
Mother Teresa
Leo Tolstoy
John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Pablo Picasso
Albert Einstein
St. Francis of Assissi
Linus Pauling
Jane Addams
Joan Baez

All images Wikimedia Commons, with the exception of ‘Peace Signed Official’ Headline from the Pall Mall Gazette, below (Imperial War Museum Archive)

Pace Paix Pax say Peace in every language


Placard for the Pall Mall Gazette. Refers to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
Imperial War Museum, London Art.IWM PST 12972

Notes: The Nobel Peace Prize, first awarded in 1901, is an invaluable resource for finding out more about individuals and organisations widely considered to have made outstanding contributions to world peace.




We have begonias with fancier pants than the ladies of the Folies Bergères in 1910, Chrysanthemums brassier than Angie Watts circa 1987 and potatoes more purple than Prince’s paisley pantaloons (read Sally Nex’s blog for Crocus on the French heirloom potato variety ‘Vitelotte’). All the results of meticulous and laborious selection, over many painful years indeed – but still – just by selecting and manipulating specific forms, to breed in the characteristics we value.

Vitelotte potatoes. Not irradiated.

Vitelotte potatoes. Not irradiated.

spider chrysanth

What?! I’m not fancy?

So. Given the almost infinitely ludicrous diversity of the plant kingdom – including a vine with a flower that resembles a pelican’s bill (Aristolochia grandiflora) and orchids that look like tiny people; mimic bats, moths, or pretty much anything in their immediate locale – the idea of deliberately mutating plants by blasting them with radiation seems… well… a bit mental.


Aristolochia grandiflora

I had never heard of ‘gamma gardens’ until a friend sent me a link to an article about experimental gardens or ‘gamma fields’ being developed by the Japanese and the Russians in the 1950’s and 1960’s; a practice later more widely known as part of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ pro-nuclear propoganda campaign launched by the Americans in 1955 to clean up the appalling image of the nuclear industry following the disastrous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The advancement of this original research is still being built upon today at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York, which opened in 1947 as an atomic research facility. However their research themes have broadened significantly to include such lofty enlightenment as ‘Exploring cosmic mysteries across the smallest and largest scales imaginable, from neutrinos to dark energy’ and ‘colliding subatomic particles to recreate matter from the dawn of time, and study the force that gives shape to visible matter in the universe today’. The list of Nobel Prizes is a little dizzying. Perhaps a bit beyond my pea-brained forays, but still. We press on.

atoms for peace

The Atomic Gardens grew out of post-WWII efforts to use the colossal energy of the atom for peaceful pursuits in medicine, biology, and agriculture. ‘Gamma Gardens’ at national laboratories in the US as well as continental Europe and the USSR bombarded plants with radiation in hopes of producing mutated varieties of larger peanuts, disease resistant wheat, more sugary sugar maples, and African violets with three heads…’

Improbably, an irradiated peanut fell into the hands of an housewife and atomic gardening enthusiast from Eastbourne, one Mrs. Muriel Howorth. The said peanut was gifted by progenitor Walter C. Gregory of North Carolina State College, U.S.A, and became a local celebrity in its own right when it sprouted and grew to gargantuan proportions in Mrs. Howorth’s back garden in Eastbourne.

Atoms for Peace Stamp

Here’s a postage stamp, released for the launch of ‘Atoms for Peace’ in 1955 (just because I like it)

The experiments led by the Japanese, the Russians and in the USA under the Atoms for Peace banner sought to ascertain whether any desirable qualities could be bred into crops using radiation technology in a peaceful, productive, economically responsible and positive way: “It’s clear from reading the primary sources that most people involved were deeply sincere. They really thought their efforts would eradicate hunger, end famine, prevent another war.” Paige Johnson, Pruned, ‘Atomic Gardens’

The only known functioning ‘gamma garden’ appears to be the Institute for Radiation Breeding in Ibaraki, Japan; (please, if anyone has information to the contrary please correct me) although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ‘secret labs’ all over the place. I once heard a rumour there was one in a disused warehouse in Fairfield, Hebden Bridge, specialising in a mutant strain of giant rhubarb. I can’t corroborate on the Fairfield facilities but the ones in Ibaraki are comprised of a purpose-built ‘gamma room’ (for irradiating seeds, bulbs, scions and tubers), a ‘gamma greenhouse’ for experiments on subtropical plant material, and a working ‘gamma garden’, for irradiating plants growing in situ – creepily arranged in concentric circles with a ‘radioactive pole’ in the centre to deliver the radiation.

Eminent nanotechnology researcher and inspirational garden history and landscape blogger Paige Johnson (interviewed here by the brilliant ‘Pruned‘ blog) briefly describes the working process of ‘mutation breeding’ as:

‘basically a slug of radioactive material within a pole; when workers needed to enter the field it was lowered below ground into a lead lined chamber. There were a series of fences and alarms to keep people from entering the field when the source was above ground.

The amount of radiation received by the plants naturally varied according to how close they were to the pole. So usually a single variety would be arranged as a ‘wedge’ leading away from the pole, so that the effects of a range of radiation levels could be evaluated. Most of the plants close to the pole simply died. A little further away, they would be so genetically altered that they were riddled with tumors and other growth abnormalities. It was generally the rows where the plants ‘looked’ normal, but still had genetic alterations, that were of the most interest, that were ‘just right’ as far as mutation breeding was concerned!’

‘That’s a pretty direct route; the genetic change produced by irradiation remains in the commercially cultivated variety, as my research shows so far. So yes, it is possible that someone, planting atomic seeds in their allotment, produced a plant with a genetic mutation that was robust enough to still possess the mutated ‘feature’ today.’


Apples at Bernwode Plants. Images: Holly Allenapple diversity

It is impossible not to ask yourself why we need to ‘hurry’ more desirable genetic traits into crops using radiation when we already have plenty of diversity and disease resistance in existing plant material.

‘Atomic gardening’ was considered a fast route to selecting desirable genetic traits in plant material, and a primitive precursor to modern genetic engineering and GMO techniques – although the safety of the end product is arguably less controversial.


Grapefruit ‘Rio Star’

Gamma gardens have produced many cultivars of irradiated crops with ‘useful’ mutations. Positive mutations in specific plants have been identified and directly utilised in commercial production, including the ‘Rio Star’ grapefruit, widely grown in Texas – famed for their ultra-red flesh and juice – and the psychadelic sounding ‘Purple Orchid III’ a mutagenic sweet potato grown by the Chinese. FROM SEEDS TREATED IN SPACE. YES. IN SPACE.

Ipomoea batatas (sweet potato) Not necessarily Purple Orchard 3, but as you would expect it to look...

Ipomoea batatas (sweet potato) Not necessarily Purple Orchid III, but as you would expect it to look… Picture Donavan Govan

In the mutagenic varietal olympics, The People’s Republic of China definitely gets the gold for the most mutagenic varietal cultivars released globally at 25.2%. With silver, Japan wins with 15%, and in bronze position is India, with 11.5%.

Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the celtic and anglo-saxon penchant for getting out of our minds, gamma gardens have offered us ‘Golden Promise’ barley – a salt-tolerant dwarf-mutant barley form used in the brewing industry for beer and whisky – and we took it. Interestingly, the Whiskies of Scotland PR machine fails to mention their choice barley cultivar was created using radiation.

I’m guessing that most of us would be clueless about the ‘atomic heritage’ of plant material or seed. In the same way as many products made with GMO crops are unlabelled,  ‘it is unclear how many of these varieties are currently used in agriculture or horticulture around the world, as these seeds are not always identified or labeled as being mutagenic or having a mutagenic provenance’. *shudders*

Art Spot

Atomic Bomb, by Andy Warhol, 1965

Obviously this is not the piece. Nor is it actually Andy Warhol

Obviously this is not the piece. Nor is it actually Andy Warhol

Literary Corner
Atomic Gardening, by Muriel Howorth, 1960

Track of the Month
‘Atomic’, by Blondie

Further Reading
Postnatural, highly recommended.
Any papers by Paige Johnson

Cleopatra’s Garden

Officially it has now been British Summertime for some weeks. However I’m still reclining on the sofa in a cold-weather slump, wearing a zebra-print onesie and day-glo green legwarmers, wishing I hadn’t thrown away my worn out winter friendly yeti-slippers. I should be sashaying langourously in my resplendent garden dripping with lush fertile beauty, while being fanned by an unwaveringly devoted team of eunuch puckawallahs, anointed with platinum and gold-leaf paint, kohled to within an inch of my life, massaged, depilated, scrubbed, and generally worshipped in a fanatical and obsessive fashion. Needless to say I’m a notorious daydreamer and this is hardly likely to happen, even with the most benevolent of summers and the very best of future outcomes.

The nearest I can get is to run a steaming hot bath in my tiny bathroom overlooking the garden, open the window and apply as many exotic and fanciful unguents to my body and hair as I possibly can, preferably containing copious quantities of argan oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil, orange oil, and other similarly beautifying and olfactory delights.

Should I suddenly transmogrify into a modern-day Cleopatra (for some reason I am channelling Kim Kardashian here) – and I could have a garden anywhere in the world, it would probably be in the one of the most fecund riverside regions imaginable, with a dreamy climate and the finest alluvial soil known to humanity. I wouldn’t marry Kanye though, just for the record.

The Heart Truth - Kim Kardashian backstage at The Heart Truth's Red Dress Collection.

Kim Kardashian backstage at The Heart Truth’s Red Dress Collection

Somewhere a bit like ancient Egypt, perhaps? Mesapotamian Babylonia? Or maybe the Hanging Gardens of Basingstoke are a little more realistic – if quite a lot less glamorous. Glamorous they may not be, but interesting they most certainly are. The gardens are at Mountbatten House, Basingstoke and were built between 1974 and 1976. They have recently been added to English Heritage’s stable of postwar architecturally notable buildings and landscaped areas.

‘Director of designation at English Heritage Roger Bowdler said: “…These offices show how architecture has adapted to recent radical changes in how we work, they show how the open-plan working space for computer-led work came about, and how architects responded to the need for lettable, attractive spaces with ingenuity and a deep understanding of human needs.”‘ (HortWeek, Jan 28 2015)

Enough of Basingstoke. Onwards to my palace. No self-respecting Egyptian (or Basingstoke) Queen could go without a fig or two (Ficus carica) and I would have to have figs that looks as good as they taste, so I would have a whole palace wall full of Ficus carica ‘Panache’.

Fig 'Panache'

Fig ‘Panache’

I would alternate ‘Panache’ with a dark purple, brunette bruise of a fig like Ficus ‘Violette De Solliès’ as a brooding counterpoint to the blonde elegance of Panache. I would only want impeccably pruned fruit from trees inspired by other royal palaces, though, and I would be far too busy pampering myself for gardening. So I’d employ a team of gardeners to do a West Dean Gardens job in the walled garden (in this case, the pruning was inspired by a visit to the Potager de Roi at Versailles). But I might have to interfere from time to time in a regal manner.

tree training w dean

Fruit tree pruning at West Dean Gardens, April 2015, Photo by Holly Allen

As Queen, you have many responsibilities, so it would obviously be impossible to survive without getting elegantly wasted from time to time. Or at least wasted. For this you would need a vineyard, full of the choicest grape varieties known to man. It simply wouldn’t be seemly to go without impossibly huge dripping bunches of grapes with dewy-fresh bloom to decorate your solid gold table receptacles. And, of course, for your minions to feed to you in front of the company.

Vitis vinifera

Vitis vinifera

The next royal plant would have to be the pomegranate (Punica granatum, literally meaning many-seeded apple, or pome) -only matched in beauty by its immense mythological and symbolic reputation. I would have a grove of these. Preferably on a gentle slope, so I could enjoy the jewel-like ornamentation of the fruits, dripping down the hillside. I’d have rare Iranian black pomegranates interspersed here and there for a little variety. Legend has it that monks in medieval Yorkshire managed to grow black pomegranates in walled courtyard gardens before the Reformation and inspired some of the beverages associated with the Temperance Movement, including Hebden Bridge ‘Black Pome Mead’*

Pomegranates not only look incredible in flower and in fruit, but they are also a superfood stuffed to the brim with antioxidants, essential for detox. I might even be impelled to wallpaper my dressing room with Morris lemon and pomegranate print in reverence.


Punica granatum, Jardin des Plantes, Paris


Before the detox, I would get my personal mixologist to work on my cocktails – using real grenadine for my Tequila Sunrise, of course. All you need to know about pomegranates can be found here. (I could elucidate, but that’s another post).

After all that booze, a girl needs a bit of body maintenance the morning after the night before. So I would ask my mixologist for a Shirley Temple, then I’d send my Moroccan beauty guru out to the Argania spinosa grove, which would be within a stone’s throw of the palace so my minions could whip up a few artisan argan oil hair products to make my tumbling locks shinier and silkier than the surface of the Nile at twilight.

Argan tree, Tighrassen, by F.Benotman

Argan tree, Tighrassen, by F.Benotman

I would also have to have citrus groves. You cannot have cocktails without citrus fruits – so a grove of oranges, lemons and limes would be de rigeur. These would be perfect for vitamin C after all that overindulgence, not to mention indispensible for making a myriad of cleansing balms and lotions. My grounds would not be complete without a brace of Prunus dulcis and persica, to provide me with almond milk and peach kernel oil for my delicate complexion; not to mention some more very tasty fruit and nuts.

Cyperus papyrus

Cyperus papyrus

When my primping and preening was complete for the day, I  may consider turning my attentions to affairs of the heart. Then I would send one of my messengers on a love quest with paper made from Cyperus papyrus; love letters for only the most privileged of my devoted admirers. Cyperus would look beautiful submerged in a rill in my interior courtyard, too.

Phoenix dactylifera

Phoenix dactylifera

Neither could I forego Phoenix dactylifera. I would have as many dates as possible, to furnish my palace with stately and imposing palms and to keep a girl at leisure properly occupied and entertained in the manner befitting. Just call me HRH.

A few more regal plants I could not be without:

Indigofera, for fabric dye.
Alliums, for ornamentation, dye, flavourings and for medicinal preparations.
Coffea arabica. Enough said.
Theobroma cacao. Ditto.
Lilium sp, for cut flowers.
Piper nigrum, for spicing things up.
Vanilla planifolia, for perfume and flavouring sweet dishes.
Cocos nucifera, for beauty products and flavouring.
Olea europea, for oil, olives and beauty products.
Salix alba, for aspirin – after all those goblets of wine and grenadine cocktails.

*This is complete balderdash, unfortunately. I wish it were true. NB The actual ‘Temperance Movement’ – not to be confused with one of these new-fangled bands, as the equally new-fangled Google and YouTube might suggest. Kids today *tuts*

Track of the Month

Queen,Killer Queen’

Book of the Month

Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.

Art Spot


‘Cleopatra’ by Gustave Moreau

William Morris lemon and  pomegranate print wallpaper

William Morris lemon and pomegranate print wallpaper

Club Tropicana


As an ‘evegalist’, I should really be extolling the invernal virtues of curly kale and brussels sprouts, but my heat and light longings induce visions of Carribean promise, and the sweetest of all bromeliads, the pineapple.

Pineapple Inflorescence, H. Zell

Pineapple Inflorescence, H. Zell

The pineapple is an unlikely symbol of the British will to succeed in growing something entirely inappropriate against all the odds. For me, it is synonymous with ostentatious carved Victorian gateposts and finials, carnival, glamorous cocktails, the tropics, Barry Manilow – and by loose tropical-themed association, Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ and Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’. I’m sure I recall pineapple motifs in the 1980’s, too, but I may have just made that up*. I certainly remember plenty of school discos serving cheese and pineapple hedgehogs and doing a ridiculous dance to Black Lace’s classic ‘Agadoo’, which seemed to involve a great deal of inexplicable pineapple-pushing.


The quite fabulous (but not very tropical-looking) Barry Manilow. Photo Alan Light

The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is a fascinating plant, which lends itself naturally to design, (even harbouring the famously harmonious Fibonacci sequence, manifest in the ovules). The sequence is visible as raised, diamond shaped segments on the husk, which connected, form diagonal spirals around the entire fruit.

‘The Paraná-Paraguay river drainage basin is thought to be the region where the pineapple originated. It was also the home of the Tupi-Guaraní Indian tribe. . . ‘Ananas’ comes from the Tupi word nanas, meaning ‘excellent fruit’, as recorded by André Thevet in 1555. . .  ‘comosus’ means tufted, and refers to the stem of the fruit. . . (it) is a perennial monocotyledonous plant with terminal inflorescence and fruit.’¹

Christopher Columbus, on his epic and impossible-seeming sea voyage, was the first European to taste a pineapple in Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1843 – but people didn’t figure out how to grow them until 1719, when the first greenhouse fruits were cultivated.

Fruit and vegetable growing went on to become a competitive sport amongst the Victorians, who strove to grow all the most elusive and exotic hothouse fruit and flowers in order to impress their eminent houseguests. ‘Rare, exotic and hard to grow, Pineapples were a symbol of great status and wealth in Victorian times. ‘A pineapple on your dining table meant you were a person of discernment, style and affluence’².

If money were no object, and I could buy any house, anywhere, my money would have to be on the Dunmore Pineapple, Falkirk. Not only is it an immensely eccentric piece of British architecture, it presides over a huge walled garden, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) used to house numerous pineapple pits and glasshouses. And you can actually stay here, in the gardener’s annexes flanking the pineapple. Heaven.

‘The Pineapple is an elaborate summerhouse of two storeys, built for the 4th Earl of Dunmore. Though classical and orthodox at ground level, it grows slowly into something entirely vegetable; conventional architraves put out shoots and end as prickly leaves of stone. It is an eccentric work, of undoubted genius, built of the very finest masonry. To house the gardeners, stone bothies were built on either side of The Pineapple and it is in these that you stay. . .

The Dunmore Pineapple, Central Scotland.

The Dunmore Pineapple, Central Scotland.

It probably began as a pavilion of one storey, dated 1761, and only grew its fruity dome after 1777, when Lord Dunmore was brought back, forcibly, from serving as Governor of Virginia. There, sailors would put a pineapple on the gatepost to announce their return home. Lord Dunmore, who was fond of a joke, announced his return more prominently’³

When I think of some of the achievements of the Victorian age – the incredible, labyrinthine and still-functioning drains under London, numerous engineering conundrums in the form of improbable bridges, huge, towering iron behemoths and multiple industry-fuelling engines of mammoth proportions – growing a pineapple seems small beer. Horticulturally, however, it is no mean feat. Dedication and constant cossetting is mandatory for pineapple maintenance. I have seen it done with great success at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, where they have what they believe to be the United Kingdom’s ‘…only pineapple pit, the only working, manure-heated pineapple pit in Britain today. It was unearthed in 1991 and architectural and horticultural historians spent many months researching the history of its construction and technology. The first structure here was probably built in the eighteenth century’†.

View through the glass of the pineapple pit, The Lost Gardens of Heligan

View through the glass of the pineapple pit, The Lost Gardens of Heligan

From this incredibly labour intensive and high maintenance Victorian affectation, the pineapple grew to symbolise wealth and fecundity, which (in a highly ironic about turn) in the modern world is more likely to be seen as emblematic of an excessive consumer thirst for exotic curiosity, and comes at a price: the ubiquity of intensive farming, monoculture, environmentally and socially damaging growing practices and unsustainable air-miles. Maybe I will have a kale and sprout superfood powershake instead of a piña colada after all.

Pineapple Field, Ghana

Pineapple Field, Ghana

Track of the Month

Wham! ‘Club Tropicana‘ Party staple of my school discos in the 1980’s, and featuring George Michael, object of my (sadly misdirected) pre-adolescent desires.

Book of the Month

‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life’, an inspiring book by one of my favourite authors of all time, Barbara Kingsolver.  A highly political slow-food rollercoaster about the Kingsolver family’s decision to take a militant pro-local food stance and give the twos-up to massive agribusiness, intensive farming, chemical-peddling, gene-manipulating multinational corporations. An illuminating book to inspire and educate fledgling heirloom gardeners and smallholders to continue with their struggle to grow diverse, locally produced food selected for flavour, and perhaps even adapted to local conditions. (The Seed Savers exchange is well worth a look if crop diversity and heritage cultivars are your bag).

Art Spot 

Maria Sybilla merian, Pineapple and cockroach, illustration from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Amsterdam, 1705); Royal Library of Denmark

Maria Sybilla Merian, Pineapple and Cockroach, illustration from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Amsterdam, 1705) Royal Library of Denmark



*I did a quick poll on social media about this, and found that my memory was not as bad as had I feared.
The National Trust for Scotland
Barbara Kingsolver
Natural History Museum
²†Lost Gardens of Heligan
³The Landmark Trust
Anton Seder Prints, Images courtesy Panteek, Wikimedia Commons

Related Articles

Bitter Fruit: The Truth about the Supermarket Pineapple 

All other photos: Wikimedia Commons


Acers just beginning to turn leaf at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

Acers just beginning to turn leaf at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

A tree turning leaf from verdant green to fiery vibrancy is like nature’s lightbulb moment – a flash of brilliance before winter sets in. The riotous conclusion, hidden since budbreak, appears from almost nowhere. Mother nature throws up her showgirl-skirt ruffles with abandon; flashes us her rainbow knickerbockers and chucks on her gaudiest baubles.

Cotinus coggygria

Cotinus coggygria at Waterperry Gardens, November 2014

Plain old Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) and Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry)

Plain old Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) and Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry) in a local hedgerow, Bedfordshire

This sudden flash of brilliance soon gives way to the sedate evergreens and minimal silhouettes of winter. November is a month when glow, hue and luminescence are at the forefront of the imagination; the absence of summer colours and sunny brightness gives way to the brazen blaze of senescent fire you find in autumn colours, the reds, oranges, yellows and pinks which light up the grey skies like an open fire in a windowless boxroom.

Acers at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

Acers at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

Lux, lx, illuminance. Lumen, lm, luminous flux. Watt, W, power, radiant flux. These are scientific terms used to describe and measure the levels and power of light. One of the eminent founders (or ‘Lunarticks’) of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, James Watt –  was responsible for coining the term ‘horsepower’ and was named for the measurement of radiant flux, or ‘watts’. The Lunar society were a group of industrialists and philosophers at the forefront of the ‘Birmingham Enlightenment’, who met monthly on the Sunday falling nearest to the full moon, between 1765 and 1813. They remain esteemed as one of Britain’s most significant and influential groups of active pre-industrialists, the original ‘ideas’ men.

Iris foetidissima erupting orange berries from the dull, unprepossessing pod

Iris foetidissima erupting luminescent orange lightbulb-berries from the dull, unprepossessing pod, November 2014

Species rose with Cynara cardunculus (Cardoon) heads

Species rose with Cynara cardunculus (Cardoon) heads at Waterperry Gardens, November 2014


Jolly winter fun at Blackpool illuminations (and Funland)

One of my own early ‘lightbulb’ moments during my misspent youth in Yorkshire involved badgering my parents to take me and my friends across the perilous border into Lancashire to see a ridiculous amount of lightbulbs all in one place and make ourselves frightfully sick on the big dipper. Yes, the multiple highlights of Blackpool seemed to me to be the height of fun in the 1980’s. It certainly beats sitting in a wet field watching my dad turn the headlights of our Ford Cortina on and off on the Widdop Road c.1985. Incidentally, Strictly Come Dancing hailed from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom on Saturday 15 November (where if you went back in time, you could also see an eight year-old me dancing to the famous Wurlitzer organ). Lightbulb overload.

For an alternative route to illumination, you could swing east to Parcevall Hall Gardens and religious retreat for an almost impossibly contrasting experience. Enveloped in the undulating Wharfedale-towards-Nidderdale hillscape of North Yorkshire, Parcevall Hall was created in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s by one of the founding members of RHS Harlow Carr – W.P Milner. Parcevall Hall is now owned by the Diocese of Bradford and is still used as a religious and spiritual retreat today.

Milner was a devout man with a penchant for rare Chinese and Tibetan plants. He laid out his garden in the late 1920’s utilising natural outcrops of rock for his famous rockeries, and copious quantities of gritstone from the hall’s dedicated quarry were hauled down to shore up the immense buttresses he used to contain his ambitious cruciform terracing.

Gritstone buttressing at Parcevall Hall Gardens

Dramatic gritstone buttressing at Parcevall Hall Gardens, October 2014

The result is a dramatic (and slightly gothic) combination of intriguing eastern planting, (much of which is characterised by vivid autumn foliage or berries) framed by immaculate, imposing stonework and structural, geometric hedgework.

Many old and heritage apple cultivars can be found here, and the bright palette reminds me that the traditional garlanding and decoration we see at winter festivals are all about bringing light and colour to the oppressive seasonal darkness and are undoubtedly inspired by the natural ornamentation we see on our native trees and in the hedgerows: Ilex aquifolium, Euonymus europaeus, Taxus baccata, and Malus species, fruits and berries beading the boughs well into winter.

Apples at Parcevall Hall gardens on Hallowe'en

Apples at Parcevall Hall gardens on Hallowe’en

Art Spot

Two works of art about light in the darkness, ideas as illumination – literally and metaphorically – sparks, inspiration and transformation.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, by Albert McNeil Whistler. Detroit Institute of Arts

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, by Albert McNeil Whistler. Detroit Institute of Arts

The iconic 'An Experiment   on a Bird in an Air Pump' by Joseph Wright of Derby. One of my favourite works at the National Gallery, London

The iconic ‘An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump’ by Joseph Wright of Derby. One of my favourite works at the National Gallery, London

Track of the Month

High Voltage, by Electric Six. Coincidentally, also from Detroit, Michigan – where Nocturne In Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket currently resides. Currently? See what I did there – I’m on (electrical) fire. Somebody pass the fire extinguisher.

Book of the Month

The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810, by Jenny Uglow

Plant of the Month

Rosa moyesii ‘Sealing Wax’, a species rose collected by all-things-eastern enthusiast W.P Milner in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

A rose of distinction: Rosa moyesii ( J.N.Fitch lithograph, Curtis's Botanical Magazine, London  vol. 136)

A rose of distinction: Rosa moyesii (J.N.Fitch lithograph, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, London vol. 136)

Molten red Rosa moyesii hips at Parcevall Hall Gardens

Molten red Rosa moyesii hips at Parcevall Hall Gardens,  October 2014


All images my own, with the exception of the landscape photograph of Blackpool Tower and the Illuminations and the botanical drawing featured at the end of the post, which are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Parcevall Hall Gardens
Diocese of Bradford
The National Gallery
Detroit Institute of Arts



Devonshire Quarendon

The Devonshire Quarenden, from William Hooker, Pomona Londinensis, 1818

There is a freedom and creativity that resonates in the naming of apple and pear cultivars which I have long appreciated. I like to revel in the Anglo-Saxon olde-englishness of these names, which are frequently punctuated with an insolent gallic shrug or a royal continental flourish. These vivid, descriptive names make it easy to imagine what inspired our ancient, not-so-ancient and new-world growers to christen their apples so peculiarly and poetically. There is also a bawdiness and an undercurrent of innuendo in some of these names that definitely has an appeal all of its own.

So here is my pome-poem to celebrate my love of this eccentric British tradition.

Illustration of a pear variety from the Herefordshire Pomona

Illustration of a pear variety from the Herefordshire Pomona, c 1878

American Beauty
Rubens, Gorgeous


Redstreak, Forty Shilling
Greasy Jack


Ten Commandments, Bishop’s Thumb
Red Delicious


Spartan, Empire
Snowsweet, Winesap
Early Windsor


Cox, Empress
Swan’s Egg, Princess
Api Noir


Holly, Allen’s Everlasting
Gipsy King


Lemon Pippin
Porter, Gin


Marriage Maker




Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depicting apple cultivars Crimson Beauty and North Star, 1909

Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depicting apple cultivars Crimson Beauty and North Star, 1909

Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depicting apple cultivars McIntosh Red and Grimes Golden, 1909

Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depicting apple cultivars McIntosh Red and Grimes Golden, 1909


Book of the Month

The Herefordshire Pomona
‘The Herefordshire Pomona’ – containing original figures and descriptions of the most esteemed Kinds of Apples and Pears’, by Robert Hogg and Henry Graves Bull, first published between 1876 and 1885 is currently on sale on ABE books at a mere £13,000.00. But it is in very good condition.

 Track of the Month

Apple Stretching, by Grace Jones


Grace. Getting the funk on

Art Spot

Paul Cézanne, ‘Apples and Oranges’

Paul Cezanne Apples and Oranges

Paul Cézanne, ‘Apples and Oranges’, 1899

‘Apples and Oranges. . . combines modernity and sumptuous beauty. . . the most important still life produced by the artist in the late 1890’s’ (Musée d’Orsay)

Plant of the Month

Malus domestica. A blazing glory of cultivars and varieties.


Brogdale National Fruit Collection
Bernwode Plants
ABE Books
Adam’s Apples
Oxford Pomona

Images: Wikimedia Commons, Musée D’orsay

Bittersweet: Saccharum officinarum


Saccharum officinarum, Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen 125, by Franz Eugen Köhler

Sugar cane is a stately plant, and a member of the grass family (Poaceae). It is not dissimilar to some of the the Bamboos in appearance, with thick, often striated culms and marked, conspicuous internodes.

'Saccharum officinarum' by Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.) - Flora de Filipinas

‘Saccharum officinarum’ by Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.) – Flora de Filipinas

It is incredibly tall (up to four metres) and in flower has a magnificent plume, rather like a giant Miscanthus, It is usually grown as an annual, from cane cuttings. There is an especially beautiful Hawaiian cultivar called ‘Pele’s Smoke‘, a towering grass with glossy, dark purple leaves.

Saccharum officinarum is likely to have originated in New Guinea and the South Pacific, where it is locally known as a ‘Canoe plant’ – the freight transport method of choice in Polynesia. Not quite logistics on the scale of Norbert Dentressangle or Eddie Stobart, in other words.

Image collection Tropenmuseum

Image collection Tropenmuseum, Holland. Cane being loaded onto a tractor, KIlombero, Tanzania 1964

While we’re on the subject of transportation, I once took a bus tour in Cuba, where our antedeluvian bus broke down next to an enormous sugar plantation. While we waited for the driver to FIX HIS OWN BUS (which he duly did), an old couple proceeded to cut a cane with a pocket knife and showed us how to chew the cane for the refreshing juice. It wasn’t a bad way to spend an hour and gave me pause to ponder quite how resourceful people become with so little. Cubans are the ultimate heroes of recycling.


Saccharum officinarum, B.Navez

Sugar cane is an incredibly utilitarian crop – paper can be made of the fibres when all the cane juice has been extracted and is a key crop in the development of ethanol and biofuel. It is also used for thatching, basket making, weaving, and has a variety of medicinal applications.

On a less utilitarian (and more fun) note, you can make rum from molasses and cachaça from fermented and distilled cane juice, both of which I sampled* in Cuba. Party time! Cachaça is the most popular spirit in Brazil – approximately 1.5 billion litres are consumed annually. And the Brazilians know a thing or two about the party spirit.

Wood barrels of cachaça in Ypióca's Museum of Cachaça, Brazil. Photo Eric Gaba

Wood barrels of cachaça in Ypióca’s Museum of Cachaça, Brazil. Photo Eric Gaba

There’s a Yorkshire version of Cachaça (Foggage) made using fermented moss and new fern foliage, which is traditionally made in a peat bog during Whitsun week (ideally wearing clogs). It is particularly popular in the old mill town of Hebden Bridge, but beware, 70% proof is almost too alcoholic even for the rock-hard locals. Foggage goes some way to explaining the common chant of ‘You’re going home in a Yorkshire Ambulance’ on a Friday and Saturday night down Hebden.

Although sugar is a crop grown far afield in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world in a climate so different to our own, it is enmeshed with the rising and falling fortunes of Great Britain and Empire. 

The British Empire grew from the original  English Empire, first recognised in the early 1600’s when the English settled in the ‘Thirteen Colonies‘ (which in 1776 finally became the independent ‘United States’) Alongside these settlements increasing colonisation and exploitation of the small islands of the Caribbean was also occurring. These smaller sugar plantation islands quickly became Britain’s most profitable colonies.

It is impossible to talk about sugar without mentioning Sir Henry Tate, founder of the Tate Gallery and prolific art collector, was a successful grocer and entrepreneur before making his fortune in the sugar trade, just as the British Empire was expanding and during one of the most rapid periods of economic growth in British history. Tate bequeathed his collection to the people of Great Britain in the form of the original Tate Gallery opened in 1897 (now known as Tate Britain).


Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery. Photo Tony Hisgett

It is noteworthy that Tate’s success was largely attributed to the patenting of a method of creating the sugar cube, and that our ideas about contemporary art have such strong associations with the white cube, or an inverted white cube – the four white walls of a traditional art gallery interior.

Henry Tate might be in a spot of bother if he was around today. Health professionals and diet and nutrition specialists alike seem to agree that we are pretty addicted to sugar, which is used as an additive in pre-prepared food with abandon and seems to sneak into almost everything

You could certainly include sugar alongside other plants with significant addictive properties; Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) Erythroxylum coca (Cocaine) and Coffea arabica (coffee). The insidious use of sugar as a high-calorie and now nutrition additive in pre-prepared food is squarely blamed for the global obesity ‘epidemic’.

sugar loaf monument sussex

Brightling Park, Woods Corner, East Sussex by Janet Richardson

An ode to sugar, Fuller’s Point in Sussex, (reputedly built by the Squire of Brightling John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller to win a bet) represents a sugarloaf, which before 1872 – the year Henry Tate patented the sugar cube – was the iconic conical shape in which sugar was traditionally formed for retail. Previously, bits would have been broken off and sold to individual customers in groceries at point of sale. Sugarloaves were rendered obsolete by the event of Tate’s patent on sugar cubes.

John Fuller was an Eton educated member of the landed gentry and was a conspicuous advocate of slavery, having inherited several West Indian plantations on his father’s death, including sugar plantations. He was a notorious drinker, patron of the arts, bachelor and generally a bonkers egomaniac with a penchant for follies and an inexplicable philanthropic streak. His mausoleum is an extraordinary miniature pyramid which looks entirely out of place in the sleepy churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket, Brightling.

‘Local legend had it that Fuller was entombed in the pyramid in full dress and top hat seated at a table set with a roast chicken and a bottle of wine. This was discovered to be untrue during renovations in 1982. Fuller is indeed buried in the conventional manner beneath the pyramid.’

Mad Jack Fuller's Mausoleum

‘Mad Jack’ Fuller’s Mausoleoum at the churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket, Brightling

The mausoleum inscription from the 1791 poem by Thomas Gray ‘Elegy Written in a Country Chutchyard’ is beautifully apt and demonstrates that Fuller was not completely unthinking:

‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Await alike th’ inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave’

The cultivation of sugar cane, along with cotton, indigo and rice, are all crops tainted with the spectre of slavery; the largest forced migration of workers to plantations and processing points of all time. Slavery bound generations of black Africans and West Indian people to a brutal system of obligatory and unremunerated life of toil and hardship, reducing people to articles of property, wrenching families apart and in the worst cases, completely brutalising slave owners and enforcers as well.

Slavery in America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco’.

Annually, a Slavery Remembrance Day is held on 23 August;  ‘a significant date as it commemorates an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) in 1791’ (Liverpool Museum of Slavery)

Slavery was not abolished in the UK and the British Empire until 1833 and remained legal in many states in the USA until 1865.

Sadly there are still many problems associated with sugar production, low wages, and cases of unexplained diseases (mainly in Central America) in plantation workers – especially relating to kidney failure – which appear to be connected to cultivation and more specifically, harvest. 

Many medical professionals are attributing the high levels of fatal kidney failure in plantation workers to heat stress and dehydration, while others believe the unrestricted use of chemicals banned in many other parts of the world where sugar cane is cultivated may also be a contributing factor. 

Art Spot

Victor Patricio 'Corte de Cana, 1874' by Habana, Cuba, 1889)

Victor Patricio ‘Corte de Cana, 1874’ Habana, Cuba

Two pieces; Victor Patricio’s painting ‘Corte de Cana’, 1874 (above)

and SIR HENRY TATE’S MAUSOLEUM, 2012,  Brendan Jamison

A perfectly pitched piece by Irish artist Brendan Jamison. A replica of Sir Henry Tate’s Mausoleum in miniature rendered entirely in carved sugar cubes. Well worth a click on the link.

Books of the Month

Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz
Fifty Plants that changed the Course of History, Bill Laws
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher-Stowe

Track of the Month

It has to be ‘Sugar Sugar’, by The Archies

Plant of the Month

Saccharum officinarum ‘Pele’s Smoke’

'Sugarcanes, Tahiti' by Coulon - Clement Lindley Wragge (1906) The Romance of the South Seas, Chatto & Windus

‘Sugarcanes, Tahiti’ by Coulon – Clement Lindley Wragge (1906) The Romance of the South Seas, Chatto & Windus

*Drank copiously


English Heritage
Encyclopedia Brittanica
LIverpool Museum of Slavery
National Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Missouri Botanic Garden
The Poetry Foundation
BBC News
Guardian News
British Medical Journal

All images Wikimedia Commons. Attributions have been included.

Jet Black

Who knew that jet – a hard, black, organically-derived mineraloid commonly found in the gothic cliffs of Whitby in North Yorkshire, is formed from the fossilised remains of  Araucaria araucana (Monkey Puzzle) tree?

Definitely would puzzle a monkey

This would definitely puzzle a monkey

‘. . .Araucaria is derived from the Arauco region of central Chile, where the Araucani Indians live. This is the land of the monkey puzzle tree (A. araucana), so named because the prickly, tangled branches would be difficult for a monkey to climb. It has been suggested that an armor of dagger-like leaves on ancient araucariads might have discouraged hungry South American herbivorous dinosaurs, such as the enormous Argentinosaurus that weighed an estimated eighty to a hundred tons!’

The Araucariacae family encompasses three genera: Araucaria, Agathis and Wollemia. Within these genera some incredible ancient trees can be found, some of which are at least equal in their outlandish beauty to A. araucana. Living fossil Wollemia nobilis (discovered in Australia in 1994) is definitely one of them.


Wollemia nobilis

‘Fossil evidence indicates that the Aracauria family reached its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, between 200 and 65 million years ago, with worldwide distributions. At the end of the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs became extinct, so did the Araucariaceae in the Northern Hemisphere’.

So, Araucaria araucana probably became extinct in Whitby between 200 and 65 million years ago, and mindblowingly, the fossilised remains of those extinct trees now yield significant jet deposits along a very short stretch of North Yorkshire coastline, between Runswick Bay and just to the North of Whitby. The Romans loved it – York being the centre of the Roman trade – and Neolithic/Bronze Age examples of jet jewellery have also been found.

Neolithic and Bronze Age jet beads, British Museum

Neolithic jet beads, British Museum

Jet was highly prized by the remarkably gothically-minded Victorians, who loved a bit of hard black shoegazing. Queen Victoria famously wore it among her widow’s weeds on the death of Prince Albert in 1861, and its subsequent links with mourning and Victoriana have been set in stone ever since.

Nineteenth century mourning jewellery, similar to the kind that would have been worn by Queen Victoria

A  German example of Nineteenth Century mourning jewellery

Whitby itself is more or less the epicentre of English gothic high-kitsch, with vampire and ghost tours whispering their terrors on blackboards advertised around each cobbled bend on every Whitby street.

I have often wondered if the gothic legacy of jet itself is partly responsible for Whitby’s morbid obsession with all things crepuscular and dark. Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic novel ‘Dracula’, famously partly set at Whitby Abbey, obviously has more than a bit-part to play in the nocturnal notoriety of the town’s undeniable witching-hour romanticism.

It was a stroke of genius that Stoker chose Whitby, with all its associations with mourning, death and disaster, to frame his novel. His treatment of the town itself is decidedly anthropomorphic, with the town emanating a ghostly sea-misty malevolence compounded by many tales of shipwreck, gore-soaked whaling voyages seeking yields of whalebone for stultifying, suffocating corsets and stays, as well as blubber oil for lamp burners. Throw in a few biblical coastal storms and you have a potent briny literary brew which for me is completely unrivalled in atmosphere.

Luckily for Stoker and his iconic gothic novel, he seems to have divined Whitby’s ongoing knack for misfortune, which has only served to reinvigorate the powerful and magical dark mysticism invoked by ‘Dracula’. In 1914 Whitby Abbey (a glorious manifestation of incredible architectural gothic provenance and having survived centuries of assaults, including The Reformation) sustained further damage from two German battlecruisers Vann der Tann and Derfflinger. A hospital ship, Rohilla, was also sunk in the bay during the attack.

photo whitby abbey

Whitby Abbey, by Rado Bahna

You can certainly feel a very peculiar ambience at the Abbey, if you brave the 199 steps to the top – even surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. Perhaps it is the dishevelled countenance of the Abbey, with all the sea and wind-pocked headstones and the merciless position high up on those precipitous cliffs. Or perhaps my knowledge of the Abbey’s tumultuous and tortured history is seeping in? I’m never quite sure.

What I am sure of is that Whitby is one of my favourite British seaside towns. As a child all those gothic tales and the beautiful black-as-night jet jewellery caught and charmed my imagination just as much as they do now. It was also a brilliant day-out escape from Hebden Bridge – which, as you will know if you have read my blog before – has a personal legacy of bleak gothic romance. Thank you very much rain, bleak industrial heritage, desolate moorland, Brontës, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes – and Kate Bush, you didn’t help either. From one cruel, windswept romance to another. HEATHCLIFF!!!

Plants of the Week

Auracaria auracana

Capsicum ‘Vampire’

The Dark Lady of the capsicum world, 'Vampire'

The Dark Lady of the capsicum world, ‘Vampire’. She drinks BLOOD!

Book of the Week

‘Dracula’, Bram Stoker

Track of the Week

‘Night Shift’ from the 1983 album ‘Nocturne’, Siouxsie and the Banshees

Art Spot

‘Abbey on the Hill, Whitby, Yorkshire’ by George Scarth French

Abbey on the Hill, Whitby, Yorkshire by George Scarth French

Abbey on the Hill, Whitby, Yorkshire by George Scarth French, Courtesy BBC MyPaintings

‘Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel’, James A.M. Whistler

Whistler Black and Gold

James A.M. Whistler, ‘Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel’, 1875, Tate


Whitby Abbey: English Heritage
Corsetry: The Vintage Fashion Guild
Terminology: Checked using Oxford English Dictionary
Paintings: MyPaintings, Tate
Jet jewellery: British Museum, Wikimedia Commons
History of Jet, Geology: The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, and
Taxonomy/Distribution of Araucaria: The Gymnosperm Database
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons and my own

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