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‘.
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
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
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.
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.)
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
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
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.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
The Lotus Temple or Bahai House of Worship, New Delhi, designed by Fariborz Sahba
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.’
Julia Ward Howe
Two Bobs – Dylan and Marley
The Dalai Lama
John Lennon & Yoko Ono
St. Francis of Assissi
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Book of the Month
Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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’.
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.
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 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.
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’
LIverpool Museum of Slavery
National Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Missouri Botanic Garden
The Poetry Foundation
British Medical Journal
All images Wikimedia Commons. Attributions have been included.
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?
‘. . .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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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
Book of the Week
‘Dracula’, Bram Stoker
Track of the Week
‘Night Shift’ from the 1983 album ‘Nocturne’, Siouxsie and the Banshees
‘Abbey on the Hill, Whitby, Yorkshire’ by George Scarth French
‘Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel’, James A.M. Whistler
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 british-history.ac.uk
Taxonomy/Distribution of Araucaria: The Gymnosperm Database
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons and my own
Other websites and relevant articles, click on the link