Old wives tales?

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Some of the Materia Medica jars have been dusted off and used for a creative writing session as part of the Manchester Science Festival 2014. Many lovely people turned up for the event and used the jars as inspiration to write some poetry. Here are some of the poems that were produced:


Cancer Defeated by Nick Duffy








The Old Ways: Alternatives by Diane Duffy

 What is left of the old ways?

 Old wives’ tales,

                                                     Old wives.

 Shrivelled nature dried under glass,

 Decayed matter on a shelf.

                                                      On the shelf

The woman and her cures become one

 A metaphor for the past.


 Alternative – no alternative.

 Wise woman translated into WITCH.

                                                  Which to choose?

 Now we have a choice!


The Materia Medica by Jemma Houghton

Down the spiral staircase

Through that old wooden door

Find yourself in a magical place

Strange looking jars from ceiling to floor


Through that old wooden door

Big jars, little jars, flat and tall too

Strange looking jars from ceiling to floor

Look them up and see what they do


Big jars, little jars, flat and tall too

Find yourself in a magical place

Look them up and see what they do

Down the spiral staircase


Thank you to poet Tony Sheppard, for running an interesting session, and to all who turned up to the event.

Jars from the Materia Medica
labels 2
Information about historic and current uses
Creative writers looking at jars


Writing creatively with help from poet Tony Sheppard


Old wives tales?

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Museum Meets

Old Wives Tales?

Thurs 23 Oct, 2-4pm. Taking inspiration from the Museum’s fascinating material medical collection, explore our relationship to medicine through conversation and creative writing. Chat about family remedies and whether there’s any truth behind natural cures. Take part in simple poetry exercises to compose your own piece about your experiences and memories. With poet Tony Sheppard and Curator of Botany, Rachel Webster. Part of Manchester Science Festival, supported by Siemens.

Price: Book on 0161 275 2648 or museum@manchester.ac.uk, free, adults

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Lindsey’s recent posts about walking make interesting reading… so I have borrowed her idea to describe a short walk in Somerset. The provisional title (which suggested itself last night in the bath), was “Not Lindsey’s walk”. That produced a chuckle, followed by the observation that I wouldn’t remember, which led along a train of thought about how to make a waterproof notebook, and then to the advisability of chuckling in the bath… but I digress.

I usually like the implication produced by a definition in the negative. Commentators commonly describe modern democracy as the “least worst system”. “Not Lindsey’s walk” sounded pretty good at first, but it doesn’t have an obvious subtext. So “Ramblings” has won the day.

The impulse to think about the world around you while walking isn’t a new one. Aristotle (384-322 BC) famously taught while walking around the Lyceum in ancient Athens. The word peripatetic describes this process and identifies disciples of the Aristotelian philosophical system. One such disciple, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, extended Aristotle’s theories of the imagination, and it is with Coleridge, or more precisely with a statue erected in his honour, that this walk (from Watchet on the north coast of Somerset to Blue Anchor, a couple of miles to the west) begins.

A statue of the ancient mariner, Coleridge's most enduring fictional creation, on the harbour-side in the Somerset town of Watchet, provides a starting point for this walk.

The coast between Watchet and Blue Anchor provides a window into a remote geological past when ‘slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea’. The slimy things are now almost magically transformed into fossils… As well as the rocks and the fossils they contain, there are fascinating plants and animals to be seen, and who could resist a journey on a steam train?

The West Somerset Railway runs a steam service most of the year and has stations at Watchet and Blue Anchor.

There is a small museum on the harbour-side at Watchet, 100 metres west of the statue, which displays local fossils including a nearly complete ichthyosaur skeleton. Walking west from the museum a slipway at a gap in a row of terraced houses provides access to the beach. This is a good place to start looking for fossils. The blue-grey limestone pebbles in the bay commonly contain bivalves, and occasional mudstones preserve the spiral traces of ammonites. There are exotic foreign rocks here too, imported to provide sea defences for the town. Some of these contain fossils, but they are Carboniferous in age and not related to the local geology.

Ammonites are very common in fallen blocks of Jurassic mudstone on the shore between Watchet and Blue Anchor

The cliffs reveal a pattern of folds and faults that illustrate the complex forces that have moulded the landscape. The oldest rocks are red, and accumulated in an ancient desert environment. Younger rocks were deposited in tidal mudflats. The youngest were laid down in warm tropical seas. The lost world they record existed 200 million years ago as the Triassic period ended and the Jurassic began. At that time, the landmass that is now the British Isles lay beneath tropical skies about 20 degrees north of the equator. The Variscan mountain range to the south and west, was gradually being worn away and by the beginning of the Jurassic period, warm shallow seas had replaced the desert.

Three quarters of the way toward Blue Anchor the character of the rocks changes and the cliffs are veined with white to salmon-pink gypsum. In the Middle Ages the gypsum deposits were worked to produce alabaster for carving and to make Plaster of Paris. The gypsum veins are exposed in the cliffs for several hundred metres before a fault throws up older orange-red Triassic rocks. These Triassic rocks, known to geologists everywhere as “Red Beds”, remain all the way to Blue Anchor.

A beautiful example of a fault in the cliffs near Blue Anchor. Red Triassic mudstones are faulted against marine sediments of Jurassic age

Coastal cliffs and the seashore provide a great opportunity to wander in the hope that nature will reveal something interesting. All sorts of plants grow on the cliffs. These include grass vetchling… a truly cryptic species, which although present in great abundance does a marvellous job of disguising itself as a member of the grass family, (at least, until it flowers). There are also orchids including the exotic greater butterfly orchid.

Grass vetchling (Lathyrus nissolia), a truly cryptic plant except in Summer when its pea-like flowers are conspicuous.
The greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). Note the long thin nectar-bearing spurs which can only be plumbed by the tongues of a few large moths.

Sea shore animals include shore crabs and nudibranchs (commonly known as sea slugs, but rather more attractive than our common garden variety). Recently, while looking at some geological specimens collected in the area I came across a very strange beast indeed… a pseudoscorpion. It will be the subject of another post, but I couldn’t resist adding a photo here!

Sea Slug
Shore crab

Different people have different perspectives on nature. Rocks and fossils or plants and animals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea! But this area of Somerset has attractions that can tempt even the hardiest non-naturalist. Foremost among these is the West Somerset Railway. This runs a steam service calling at both Watchett and Blue Anchor. A particular treat is in store in September, when the newly built peppercorn class A1 Pacific steam loco Tornado is making a guest appearance on the line.

The newly built A1 Pacific steam loco Tornado at its unveiling at the National Railway Museum, York.

A common sense approach when visiting the locations described is important. The cliffs between Watchet and Blue Anchor are tidal and the low and high tide times should always be determined. Do not start the walk on the seashore on a rising tide as the sea always reaches the base of the cliffs!

Flower Power

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Coltsfoot shouldering the tarmac aside at the derelict Middlewood Locks, between Manchester and Salford

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Written by Horace Smith in the early nineteenth century in competition with the better known short verse by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ozymandias is another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt.