Illegal Mandrake Collecting

I have just read about an online petition that has been set up by the RSPCA to ban the illegal use of dogs to harvest mandrake roots.  Mandrake, Madragora officinarum, has been harvested for millennia for its medicinal properties.

Mandrake 2


The problem is that the plant screams on being torn from the soil and anybody hearing the screams will die. EU Health and Safety Regulations now require all mandrake harvesters to be properly trained in order to gain a licence to collect the roots. They must also wear the correct protective clothing, including a special ear protector that is tested to above the usual regulatory limits.

An RSPCA spokesman said that although EU countries comply with the correct safety measures, because of the cost involved, illegal harvesters are using the traditional method of tying a starving dog to the plant, and then standing a safe distance away, waving a bowl of food at the dog. The hungry animal rushes towards the food, pulling up the plant as it does so and promptly dies.

Mandrake 1

A dog being used to pull a mandrake from the ground.

Protestors have complained of the cruelty involved, even before the dog is sacrificed in order to harvest he much prized root. Although the risks are great small fortunes have been made by the illegal harvesting of the roots.

Mandrake 3

A Mandrake Root

The EU are holding an emergency meeting to discuss this matter today.

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William Cowper- A critic of Lancelot Brown

Although we are celebrating Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown this year, he was not without his critics. One was the poet William Cowper who lived in Olney – famous for the Pancake Race- and later Weston Underwood, a short distance away.

Cowper is known for his love of the countryside, so you would expect him to enjoy an English Landscape Garden, not a formal one. Yet this is not the case. In a letter to Lady Hesketh he mentions the recent pruning of the Lime Avenue. This was part of the  park garden of the Throckmorton’s of Weston Underwood and ran from the outside of the Wilderness Garden towards the Alcove which Cowper would often visit on his walks.


The Alcove


28 July 1788. To Lady Hesketh.

‘We also, as you know, have scenes at Weston worthy of description, but because you know them so well, I will only say that one of them has, within these few days, been much improved; I mean the Lime Walk. By the help of the axe and the woodbill, which of late have been constantly employed in cutting out all straggling branches that intercepted the arch, Mr Throckmorton has now defined it with such exactness, that no cathedral in the world can show one of more magnificence or beauty. I bless myself that I live so near it; for were it distant several miles, it would be well worth while to visit it, merely as an object of taste; not to mention the refreshment of such a gloom both to the eyes and the spirits. And these are the things which our modern improvers of parks and pleasure grounds have displaced without mercy, because, forsooth, they are rectilinear! It is a wonder they do not quarrel with the sunbeams for the same reason.’



Some of the surviving trees from the Lime Walk.

Cowper is equally forthright in his poem, ‘The Task‘ where he calls Brown the ‘Omnipotent Magician’ who waves his wand to alter the courses of streams and causes valleys to rise. In this case, although he criticises Brown, he also is more intent on ridiculing the vanity of the owners of estates who squander their money and bankrupt themselves to follow the latest trends in gardens and for the sake of being at the height of fashion, they bankrupt themselves, and somebody else gets to enjoy the fruits of their spending.


Storer, who later wrote a book about Cowper’s walks around Olney, claimed that Weston Underwood Park had in fact been designed by Brown, but he was mistaking his Westons; Brown designed Weston in Shropshire. Weston Underwood seems to have been created by the Throckmorton’s themselves and even a cursory visit shows a landscape completely at odds  to brown’s design preferences.

I have been trying to discover more about the gardens at Weston Underwood, but there are very few records concerning the. One document is an agreement to build walls around the garden; the other is an agreement for iron railings to be made at Bedford, which were probably intended for Weston as the surviving pictures do show such railings in front of the house.




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A Valentine’s Day Rose


Rose BudWho Saint Valentine was is not at all certain. He may be a conglomeration of more than one saint, and although no churches in England are dedicated to him, his popularity is now virtually un-rivalled across the world.

Chaucer wrote in his, ‘Parlement of Foules‘ that the birds seek their mates on Valentine’s Day, which is not so erroneous if the weather is warmer than it usually is lately.

                         or this was on seynt Volantynys day

                        Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

As ever, it was the Victorians who were responsible for popularising and, as ever, profiting from the saint with their use of Valentine cards.

The Rose

Roses were sacred to many goddesses in ancient times, including Venus and Aphrodite. The Romans were very fond of roses and the wealthy would shower them from the ceilings at banquets; some reports say people suffocated under the petals. When they could no longer supply enough roses from Rome the petals were imported from Egypt.

The church was very aware of the rose’s association with profane love and initially the rose was frowned upon; but you can’t suppress flowers in the same way as you might books and creeds. The church, with its usual method of adopting pagan customs and then Christianising them, relented, and the rose came to take on Christian symbolism.

According to one medieval myth, roses were originally white. The story tells how the Crown of Thorns was in fact a rose briar with white flowers. As Christ bled, the petals were stained red with his blood. Red roses thus represent Christ and martyrdom. The white rose represents the purity of the Virgin Mary.

The rose bud may also represent Christ, or in the secular world, the object of the lovers affection and devotion; the lover of course, always being a man.

The monk may seek and praise Christ as the rosebud in the heavenly realms , whilst the courtly lover would search for her in a physical form, here on earth.

The most popular book during the medieval period was the ‘Romaunce of the Rose.’ The book was begun by Guillaume de Lorris c. 1230, and it is generally accepted that he failed to finish it. Jean de Meun completed the book c. 1275. Although written in French, educated knights would have had no problem reading the book. Later, when the 100 years’ war with France made it more politically correct to speak English, Chaucer made his own translation.

The story is set within a garden and tells of the trials and tribulations of the lover to achieve his heart’s desire – the rose bud.

Nowadays we are unlikely to chase our desire in a garden, as many people are glued to their various electronic devices. Ordering your roses online is very easy – and paying is even easier.

The sale of roses for mid-February is huge, with the price often trebling its usual level. No self-respecting lover will accept anything other than red roses.

The more cost-aware lover may well buy his roses considerably cheaper after February 14th, but I suspect the object of his affection would be most unlikely to appreciate his financial acumen.

The modern Valentine Day rose is usually in bud; for the manufacturer’s advantage not ours, as they are less likely to be damaged.

The recipient, meanwhile, can try as she may, but the rose buds rarely open, and even more rarely bear any scent.

How may well Shakespeare lament,

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’

when sadly, these roses do not smell at all.

Maybe today it is enough that you send a text and tag a heart to it. Not very romantic, but that is the modern world.

‘Amor vincit omnia,’

‘Love conquers all,’

as the bracelet of Chaucer’s prioress proclaimed.

Happy Valentine’s Day.



To see a fine collection of old Valentine’s cards, visit the Oxfordshire Mueum at Woodstock:

Where I shall giving my talk

‘A Garden Enclosed – Sacred and Secular Love in The Medieval Garden’

on March 5th 2016 at 2.30 pm.

See the museum web site for more details.


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The Georgian Surveyor. The equipment that Capability Brown could have used

The Georgian period was a good time for to be a surveyor.

Me, using my graphometer.

Me, using my graphometer.

At home estates needed mapping to ensure that you could fend off land-grabbers, so you needed to know where your boundaries were.

Surveying was needed so that you knew what your income would be from your land, as produce and as rents.

Tied in with this was the need to know how much to pay the church as tithes, or 10% of your produce. Tithes would not be abolished in England and Wales until 1839, when they were converted to tithe rentcharges.  Rentcharges were finally abolished in 1936.

Surveyors were also required in the colonies for the new lands that were to being claimed and had to be mapped.

But there were more pleasurable requirements for surveyors; if you had the money. Old habitations were being either remodelled or completely rebuilt, in the new classical style. In the early part of the Georgian period you may be setting out formal gardens, but later any person of taste would want the latest fashion of landscape gardens. There was also going to be a walled garden to grow your food. All of this would require the services of a surveyor.

To measure land you could use a Gunter’s Chain, designed and introduced in 1620 by the English clergyman and mathematician, Edmund Gunter (1581–1626

The chain is 22 yards long and consists of 100 links, sub-divided into tens that are marked with brass tags. My chain has marked tags that run from the handle to one, two, three, four, five and then decrease to the next handle so you can use it from either end.

Links, handles and tags on a Gunter's Chain.

Links, handles and tags on a Gunter’s Chain.

Ten square chains equal an acre, which was the common land area measurement.

There are eighty chains to a mile.

Reid's table of measurements.

Reid’s table of measurements. All now obsolete in the UK.

It is hardly surprising that a cricket pitch is twenty two yards long. The only flat and mown grass was at the estate lands and every estate would own chains. It is also very difficult to fiddle chain measurements to create a home-team advantage.

The chain could be used to measure fields or even whole estates, by plotting out triangles to ensure the correct angles were maintained. Very few mathematical calculations would be needed.

You could use a ‘Plane Table’ to plot the land. This is a small table set on a tripod and levelled. The tripod is set over a mark on the ground using a plumb line. Paper is fixed to the table and north marked from a compass.

The surveyor uses an ‘Alidade’ made of wood or brass. He lines the alidade with the object that he wishes to put on the plan and then draws a line along the alidades edge. Using the same method, the surveyor proceeds to include any object that he wants on the plan. The next part is a very time consuming process. The surveyor and his assistant have to measure the distances from the plane table to the objects using the chain. Once the lines are measured and recorded it is quite a simple task to draw a plan or map. Again, very few calculations are required.

A plane table and chains work very easily on flat and accessible ground, but if the ground is very uneven the chain measurements will be inaccurate. This is where a Circumferentor or a Graphometer are useful. The Circumferentor is a circle of brass, with 360 degrees marked around the edge and had a sight that rotates around the middle. A compass is often included. They were expensive to make, so many people used the Graphometer instead, as it was only 180 degrees, similar to a protractor. It also had a rotating sight and a compass. I have a Graphometer for the same reason.

My graphometer

My graphometer on its tripod viewed from above.

The Graphometer would be set up over a mark using a plumb line. The alidade is sited onto the objects to be included in the survey and the angles are recorded in a book. The Graphometer is then moved a measured distance and set up again over a mark. The same objects are sighted again and the angles recorded. You now have a base line of a known measurement and two angles. It is fairly straightforward to draw this to scale, and then a protractor and compass, to put in the angles. Once again very little calculation is required.

I have a reproduction copy of John Love’s, ‘Geodaesia, or the Art of Surveying and Measuring Land made easie’, third edition, printed for W Taylor, 1720.

This is very useful as it not only includes a description of the surveying and drawing equipment that you will need, but also gives exercises in drawing and surveying.


Useful surveying tips in Reid’s book, Geodaesia.

Even more useful nowadays, bit includes all the tables that you are likely to need for your work. I tried buying a book of Log Tables, but they are not available in the high street shops any more. Most shop assistants didn’t even know what they are.

Log Tables in Reid's book.

Log Tables in Reid’s book.

To draw out a straight line on the ground for building foundations, walls, roads, avenues of trees or gardens you can use ranging poles. The surveyor stands at the start point, having placed a visible pole at the far end of the line. He pushes a pole in the ground at the start point by standing behind the pole and lining it up with the end pole. He then directs assistants to place poles between the two; much as the Romans had done.

In his book ‘The Scots Gard’ner’ of 1683, John Reid suggests that you use a ‘Surveyors Cross’ to help you line up with buildings more easily. He suggests that instead of buying an expensive one that you make your own from two pieces of wood set at right angles to each other with sights at the ends. It is a very similar idea to the Roman ‘Groma’ that used lead weighted strings as sights. I have made my own wooden cross, but it is rather large.

My home-made Surveyors Cross.

My home-made Surveyors Cross.

Professional surveyors could have used a more portable brass cross. I saw an egg-shaped one for sale that was of Georgian date, but it was extremely expensive.

A Surveyors Cross. This one also allows you to sight 45 degrees.

A Surveyors Cross. This one also allows you to sight 45 degrees.

Drawing equipment usually included rulers, protractor, compasses and dividers, line drawers for ink lines, parallel rulers and pens.

Drawing set. The Sector and rulers are in the bottom layer of the box.

Drawing set. The Sector and rulers are in the bottom layer of the box.

A sector for calculations was often included. This was a primitive form of slide rule that used dividers to measure off the calculations. If your dividers were damaged the answers could be quite wrong. I am struggling to use a sector competently.

Parallel Ruler and an ivory Sector.

Parallel Ruler and an ivory Sector.

© M. J. Brown. 2015

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Mascall’s ‘Hare Pipe’ Trap

I was preparing some items to take to Aston Court to give my talk, ‘Those Tempestuous Tudors.’ The talk is about the use of plants during the Tudor period, but it includes poisons and a few other gruesome gardening subjects. I thought a trap would also be a useful addition. With a limited amount of time available, I consulted my copy of Leonard Mascall ‘s

‘A Booke of Engines and traps to take Polcats, Buzardes, Rattes, Mice and all other kindes of Vermine and beasts whatsoever, most profitable for all Warriners, and such as delight in this kinde of sport and pastime’.

It was printed in 1590, a year after his death. Mascall did not invent these traps, he only describes what is already available, as many early writers did, whatever their subject.

My book is a photocopy of the original. The pictures can be vague and the descriptions no better. I decided to make the ‘Hare Pipe’. It looked quite easy to construct, the picture and instructions seemed very clear and it would not need any special equipment.

The victim puts its head or foot through the noose, the more it struggles, the more the teeth on the pipe drive into the flesh. Not very pleasant, but nor are most other traps.

Mascalls Book

Mascall says that the pipe is made of elder, presumably as the pith can easily be removed to make a pipe.He also says that you can make the pipe from metal if you want to catch dogs and foxes. I fetched a saw and cut several lengths of elder form a tree in my garden. I chose a piece that had plenty of pith in the middle and went back to my garden seat.

Elder stick

I found my sheath knife, which must be 40 years old or so, and began to slice off the bark. The knife may look rusty, but it is very sharp.


I flattened two sides of the stick and began to cut a point. Then, very carefully, I cut back into the stick to start forming the two teeth. This was fiddly, but safe enough as I kept my fingers well out of harm’s way. I used to be a butcher’s boy many years ago and I have a very healthy respect for sharp knives.

Once the teeth were cut I cut off the send. Holding the knife edge against the wood at the length that I wanted I rolled the wood several times to give a good ring before whittling off the surplus wood.

Cutting off end

I found some wire and a long nail that I used to push the pith out of the stem. Mascall’s drawing shows the string knotted on the outside of the pipe, so I drilled a hole with the point of my knife and cleaned the edges of the hole.

The next part was fiddly. I pushed the noose string through the hole and tied several knots to form a big lump of string. I fed the other end of the string back down the pipe, using the wire to push it through. I tied a peg onto the end and the trap was finished. One thing that I should say is that the ‘Hare Pipe’ will never be used; it is only for show at my displays and talks.


P. S. Mascall also mentions using hellebores to poison mice. Hellebore roots or seeds can be mixed with barley meal and some honey and made into small cakes. Herbals from the ancient Greeks and Victorian gardening books both suggest a mouse poison made from hellebores.

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Scaring the Birds

Birds have always been a problem for gardeners. Many old gardening books describe the damage that birds caused to the Pleasure Gardens, but the biggest problem was the damage caused in the productive fruit and vegetable gardens.

Since at least the medieval period children have been given simple wooden scarers and told to go off and make a lot of noise.

At my displays i encourage children to use my bird scarers- and they can make quite a racket!

SAM_9465 - Copy

The so-called football racket is far older than many people imagine- it is shown in a medieval painting of a leper. A wooden rattle is much more affordable than a metal bell.

The renowned diarist, John Evelyn, wrote a book about gardening. In it he included pictures of the tools that a good garden would need. He included a a rope hung a series of scarers made of four feathers stuck in clay or a potato maybe. I use a potato, but that may be an extravagant waste of good food!

Bird Scarer

The scarecrow may be thought of as fairly recent invention, but the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours suggests otherwise. One painting shows a scarecrow dressed as an English archer, enough to scare the French peasants and the birds!

1z8f8CG - Copy

Another method to catch birds is the use of bait to entice them to a net and certain doom. The birds would not go to waste; they would be eaten. Bird lime, similar to using a very strong glue, may also be applied to posts or branches to catch birds that sit on them.

It certainly adds a different point of view to the song words’

‘Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…’


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The Witches Flying Broomstick

A Besom Broom.

A Besom Broom.

As it is Halloween, I have decided to put up a suitable post.
Witches are meant to fly on their brooms, but why brooms? Every woman would have hada besom broom to sweep the house.

If the tales were written now, the witch would have to have a vacuum cleaner of some sort. The broom head was often made of birch branches, and the plant that still has the common name of Broom, Planta genista.

Broom, Planta genista

Broom, Planta genista, the plant named after the item that it was most used to make.

But does the broomstick fly, or not, and if so, how?

Surprisingly recipes for flying ointments do survive. The recipes include the fat of unbaptised children and several other unsavoury ingredients, but the ones that really matter are plant based.

Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, is usually the main active ingredient. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, is another one. Both are toxic and overdose can result in death. Aconitum was the poison used in the ‘Curry Murder’of 2009 when Lakhvir Kaur Singh killed the man who had jilted her, Lakhvinder Cheema, by poisoning the curry that she had made for him.

Henbane - Hyoscyamus niger

Henbane – Hyoscyamus niger.

Henbane is very much suitable for a flying ointment, as proven during a Channel 4 series some years ago. Under medical supervision, people were given natural plant based drugs to see how they would be affected. Those taking Henbane reported sensations of flying.

The witch who wanted to take her broom out for a trip to the local sabbath would make up the flying ointment. Any animal fat, such as the skimmings from the broth, would make a good base for the ingredients. The witch could then either rub the mixture onto her body or onto the stick of the broom. Woman in early periods did not wear underwear, so the hallucinogenic properties would be quickly absorbed into the body. The witch would then feel as if she was flying.

I should point out that it is definitely not advisable to try this yourself. The plants are poisonous and as already mentioned, have killed people in the past.

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