Field guide: wild medicine

Bushcraft instructor Fraser Christian gathers wild plants from the forest floor to make handy extras for your first aid kit, from antihistamine tinctures to skin-protecting balms

Fraser making his antihistamine nettle tincture

Fraser making his antihistamine nettle tincture

My great-grandfather was a gypsy healer – he made wild medicines for Romany families and their animals. He would chew poultices of medicinal herbs and spit them into the mouths of horses. His son, my grandfather, said I am the last of the true gypsies in our family because I’m happy as long as I have somewhere warm and dry to lie down after I’ve been fed. He taught me the rule of threes, how in extreme conditions you can survive three hours without shelter, three days without water and three weeks without food. I teach this on my courses today.

Here, deep in the woodlands of rural Dorset, you are always aware of your heritage. Not just your parents and grandparents but that deep heritage – the splits in our genealogy when we diverged from the other animals. What was gained then? What was lost? The things I’m learning aren’t new – it’s old knowledge, waiting to be re-learned. Nature is chaotic, anarchistic, but there are patterns in it, too. It wants us back.

I’ve had three years out here, watching and listening. You have to adopt a different pace. If you can hear your footsteps, you’re moving too fast. The animals give clues through their movements and their habits. I watch what they eat, when they sleep, how they move, and how they treat themselves when they’re sick. This knowledge is not consigned to the forests. When I was in Bristol I found 12 medicinal plants on a patch of wasteland behind Temple Meads. Our native wild plants are tough and they find a way. Knowing how to use what’s around you is invaluable, wherever you live.

Guidelines for picking

  • Different parts of the plant are better to pick at different times of the year. Look at the plant and see where it’s putting its energy – the roots, the leaves, the flowers or the seeds. This is the part to use.

  • Picking after rain can save on washing, but make sure you dry the flowers before using them.

  • Using your non-dominant hand, pinch below the part that you want to take, so as not to tear it, and then pluck the top of the plant with your other hand. Pick nice examples, not tired ones. Only gather from an established community, and always leave two-thirds of the plant. Pick individuals, rather than clumps – it is all too easy to gather a similar-looking poisonous species.

  • Walk as far away from your base as possible and pick back towards the camp – you want to leave the closer plants for emergencies and times when you might not be able to walk so far. You could even seed the most useful plants just outside your front door, as I have with yarrow.

  • When I’m foraging I always carry waterproofs, a head torch, a survival blanket, sandwich bags (for storing what I pick), a knife, a lighter, a tick removal pen, a standard first aid kit and a tin of bushcraft balm (see recipe).


Identify common medicinal plants

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Cleavers (Galium aparine): You may know this plant as the one that sticks to your jumper when you’re on a walk, hence its nickname sticky willy. These are best to pick when around three inches tall. Take just the tip and use it for its cleansing properties, in a tea or a tincture. When my cat had cystitis I fed her a poultice of cleavers in the same way my grandfather treated the horses.

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Nettles (Urtica dioica): Nettles are a great first plant to forage because everyone knows what they look like. Pick the youngest tips to use in a tea or a tincture. They are a powerful antihistamine and contain huge amounts of vitamin C. The sting can promote an anti-inflammatory response. When weeding a polytunnel without gloves, I got stung all over my wrist, which was stiff from martial arts and skateboarding injuries. It felt better for three months afterwards.

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Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): This feathery plant is a powerful astringent (causes the skin and other tissue to tighten) so it’s ideal for treating small wounds. I’ve planted them outside my front door in case I cut myself. Achilles carried it with him to treat his troops during battle, hence its Latin name. Use as a poultice or in a balm.

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Plantain (Plantago lanceolata): Plantain grows in abundance on verges by motorways and railways, but can be found almost anywhere. It has distinctive lance-shaped, ribbed leaves and ‘rat tail’ seed heads. It is full of B vitamins, which makes it useful in a tea for coughs and colds, and is brilliant used as a poultice on cuts, blisters and bites.





Bushcraft balm

A tin of balm is essential in my kit, handy for rubbing on aches and pains and protecting and healing dry or sore skin, among other uses.

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Ingredients:

Sterilised jar
Sterilized screw-cap tin
Sunflower oil
Plants (for this I use plantain, yarrow leaves and flowers, mare’s tail, self-heal and water mint)
Sieve
Campfire or other heat source
Cooking pan
Water
Beeswax
Knife

Method:

  1. Put your plants in a jar and cover with sunflower oil. Together, the medicinal properties of these plants protect against bleeding, burns, allergic reactions, inflammation and other common problems you might encounter while out in the wild.

  2. Leave the jar in the sun or another warm place for a month.

  3. Strain the plants from the oil. You can use a sieve or your hand – squeeze the plants in your fist with your thumb pointed down over the jar – the oil should trickle down into it.

  4. Heat the oil in a bain-marie over a flame at a heat where the water is just breaking into bubbles but not boiling. This should be roughly 68°C (154°F) – the temperature for pasteurisation without denaturing the oil.

  5. Shave in small amounts of beeswax, then test the consistency of the balm by dropping the oil solution onto a cold surface and letting it set, then scraping it with your fingernail. If you want to make a salve, leave it quite soft. For a balm, add more wax until it reaches the desired consistency. Store in the screw-cap tin.


Tincture

A tincture is a concentrated extract of a plant. Depending on the plants you use, you can take a dose of tincture to promote a restful sleep, aid digestion and ease nausea, heartburn and allergies. For this recipe I’ve chosen to make an anti-inflammatory and antihistamine tincture using nettles.

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Ingredients:

Sterilised jar
Sterilised glass vial with a dropper
Vodka
Nettles
Sieve

Method:

  1. Pick young nettle tips (would be a good idea to wear gardening gloves for this) put them in a jar, and cover with neutral grain spirit. Ideally this would be pure ethanol, but this is only available under license in Britain, so the best alternative is a high-percentage vodka.

  2. Let the leaves steep in the jar in a warm place for about a week.

  3. Strain out the plants and store in a sterilised glass vial with a dropper. This tincture will keep for a year or so. You can make it double-strength by steeping more nettles in the same vodka. Drink it like schnapps or pour a dash of boiling water on two drops of tincture to make it non-alcoholic.

Poultice

This is a moist mass of plant material applied to the skin to relieve soreness and inflammation, drawing out toxins as it dries. To make one is easy – just chew the plant up, form a pad, then apply it to the affected area. It should fall off naturally when it dries – replace with a fresh one, if needed. Depending on the plant, these can be used on cuts, splinters, burns, bites, stings and infections.

NB: Take a reputable guidebook with you when foraging. Consult your GP before taking herbal medicines as some plants cause contraindications with prescribed medication.

This article originally featured in issue 5 of Ernest Journal

Fraser Christian is founder of Coastal Survival School, based in Dorset

Becalmed: changing terrors of the Sargasso Sea

Bring to mind ocean journeys, and you might well imagine high seas, rogue waves, ships dashed on rocks – tales of human resilience pitted against a wild and omnipotent ocean. But what of places where the elements relent, leaving boats to flounder in a windless sea?

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There is one such place renowned for its disquieting calms – the Sargasso Sea, a shoreless oval of water in the North Atlantic measuring some 2,000 by 700 miles. Bounded by ocean currents on all sides, the water rotates clockwise in an ocean gyre, slowly revolving like the eye of a hurricane. The area has struck terror into the minds of sailors for centuries. It was once known as the Horse Latitudes, after becalmed Spanish ships were forced to throw their horses overboard to save drinking water. Tales of ghost ships abound, their skeleton crews left to starve or go insane while their sails hung listlessly.

Despite its fearsome reputation, this singular place plays a vital role in the wider North Atlantic ecosystem, renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle calling the Sargasso Sea ‘the golden rain forest of the ocean’. A knotted mass of free-floating sargassum seaweed covers the surface, picked over by crabs, shrimp and curious fish. Young sea turtles shelter in the thick mat of vegetation, and most of the world’s freshwater eels are spawned here.

Sadly, these revolving ocean currents also pull in vast amounts of ocean plastics, which knot together with the sargassum to form so-called windrows: long rafts of free-floating debris. Even more disturbing, below the surface a fog of microplastics is steadily making its way into the marine food chain. The most terrifying ocean journey of all is one of our own making.

The Smog of the Sea chronicles a one-week journey through the remote waters of the Sargasso Sea; thesmogofthesea.com

The footpaths of Dungeness

Dungeness is a shingle promontory on the south coast of Kent. Technically a desert and the largest expanse of shingle in Europe, it’s not a traditionally beautiful location. Its vast flatness gives the illusion that nothing much grows there, two nuclear power stations dominate the skyline, and debris from the fishing industry litters the beaches, all of which act in stark contrast to the area’s nature reserve status. Here are just a handful of the compelling sites This Way explore on their Dungeness map.

Image courtesy of This Way

Image courtesy of This Way

1 Dungeness A and B

Two nuclear power stations and their trail of pylons dominate the skyline. Dungeness A has now been decommissioned, after being switched on in 1965, and is slowly being demolished. Its huge neighbour, Dungeness B, remains operational, powering 1.5 million of London’s 3.5 million households. As a visitor, the sheer proximity of the power stations can add an unsettling undertone, a reality that becomes especially stark when reading the ‘emergency procedures’ boards dotted around the estate. However, if you are lucky enough to spend a night in Dungeness, there is a gentle beauty in the mass of twinkling lights.

2 The Boil

Out to sea, just in front of the power stations, The Boil is a bubbling mass of water. It’s easy to spot as it’s usually surrounded by a cloud of seabirds. Nuclear power stations use 100 million litres of water per hour; when the water has run through the cooling system it’s pumped back into the ocean, now a warm 12ºC. Sadly small fish get caught in the filters and are pumped back into the ocean through the same pipes, creating a rich feeding ground for seabirds.

3 Old Lighthouse

The drift of shingle has reshaped the land enough times that five lighthouses have been and gone since the 1600s. Historically, lighthouses have been vital on this headland, which has been a hotspot for shipwrecks. Today, two lighthouses remain. A walk up the 169 steps to the top of the no-longer operational Victorian ‘Old Lighthouse’ gives impressive views across the shingle ridges.

The Dungeness Map, by This Way, is a double-sided map detailing 11 points of interest in this curious place, £5. This Way also offers six- and 12-month map subscriptions where every month a postcard featuring a walk and stories from across the UK is delivered to your door; this-way.co

Adrift in the Atlantic

French biologist Alain Bombard was so convinced that castaways could survive purely on the sea’s natural provisions that he set out to prove it on a most extraordinary voyage

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In the spring of 1951, French biologist and physician Alain Bombard was asleep in the residents’ quarters of a hospital in Boulogne-sur-mer when he was woken by a call: the trawler Notre-Dame-de-Peyragues had missed her course in the mist and broken up on the outer breakwater of the harbour. Bombard arrived at a scene that would stay with him for the rest of his life: 43 men piled up on top of each other “like dislocated puppets”, their feet bare and lifejackets intact. The doctor and his colleagues failed to revive a single one of them.

Bombard thought about how one simple error of navigation had caused the deaths of 43 men and orphaned 78 children. He thought of the 150 fishermen killed each year just in his region of France, and the 200,000 who suffered the same fate every year around the world. More than a quarter of them made it to a lifeboat, only to die in prolonged agony from lack of food and water, or the well-documented perils of losing one’s mind at sea.

Bombard became convinced that castaways could survive for long periods of time by feasting on what the sea could provide, and that countless lives could be saved if lifeboats were fitted with a few simple pieces of equipment: fish hooks, fine nets for collecting plankton – a source of vitamin C – and presses for squeezing fresh water out of fish. He even argued that drinking small amounts of seawater – a maximum of one and a half pints per day – could prolong life, contradicting centuries of evidence to the contrary. But how could he prove such a thing?

To demonstrate his point, in 1952, Bombard embarked on a singular voyage. In the hope of saving thousands of future castaways, he determined to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a 15-foot (4.5m) inflatable dinghy, using only the sea for sustenance. Onboard the aptly named l’Hérétique, he would have a sextant and a watch for navigating, his fishing kit, and a tarpaulin for shelter and catching rainwater. Emergency rations would be sealed within the craft, and checked by officials once he reached the other side of the Atlantic.

He set his sights on the West Indies, plotting a course between two dreaded dangers: the Doldrums and the Sargasso Sea. The former was an area of low pressure, where two powerful trade winds “meet in a tremendous conflict in a no-man’s land of violent storms, unpredictable turbulence and disquieting calms” (Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story, 1953). The latter was far more frightening.

On 19 October 1952 Bombard set off from the Canaries, cheered on by friends and accompanied by a “veritable convoy” of yachts. Even though the stiff breeze that sped him away from the harbour abandoned his lifeboat shortly after and left him drifting, he slept well that first night, tucking his tarpaulin up to his neck like a blanket and dropping off under a “lovely, luminous sky”.

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It didn’t take long for the reality of his solo voyage to sink in, however. After two more nights drifting aimlessly, a light breeze, which soon became a tempest, pushed l’Hérétique further into the Atlantic where it tossed the inflatable craft about like a cork. Confident in the lifeboat’s stability, Bombard decided to sleep it out, waking soon after to find himself completely surrounded by water. He began frantically bailing, scooping water out with his hat for the next two hours while more waves broke over the boat.

Being only a few days into his voyage, Bombard felt confident in his ability to weather the storms. But as October wore on, l’Hérétique continued to be buffeted by gales. The sail ripped; if he managed to sleep at all, Bombard did so shivering, encrusted with salt. When not bailing water or stitching up his sail, he mused on the nature of fear and despair. Above all, he was afraid of fear itself, recognising that increasing tiredness and exhaustion led him to expect the worst.

To keep his growing melancholia at bay, Bombard busied himself with catching fish, squeezing water out of the small ones using a makeshift press and cutting slits in the larger ones and drinking straight from their bodies like some Gollum of the Atlantic. He trapped seabirds and ate them raw and netted two daily spoonfuls of plankton to top up his vitamin C levels and keep scurvy at bay.

Sea-fearing

But fear kept creeping in and, come late October, Bombard had become fixated by the condition of his boat. Each day, he inspected the inflatable craft meticulously, noting where friction had worn the rubberised canvas thin, prising barnacles off to keep its undercarriage in tip-top condition, and putting his ear to the material to check for sounds of rubbing like a doctor with a stethoscope.

So imagine his horror when, in the middle of the Atlantic, he began to be hounded by swordfish. By now, Bombard had become a dab hand at batting away sharks, but he was defenceless against swordfish, fearing that he would enrage them if he engaged in conflict (swordfish were, he had read, prone to fits of fury). He described “12 hours of terror” fending off “a large swordfish of undeniably menacing aspect … seemingly in a rage, his dorsal fin raised like hackles”.

It’s worth noting that, by this point, Bombard was also completely lost. “[I] can no longer determine my longitude with certainty,” he admitted on 26 October. “I shall just have to guess it from the time the sun reaches the meridian”. Stubbornly, he pushed on, but his body was beginning to show the effects of his journey. He started to lose toenails and developed a rash. Losing weight, he found it impossible to get comfortable; every position he sat or lay in caused him pain.

By November, having failed to read an accurate longitude for weeks, Bombard was convinced that he was approaching the end of his journey, unaware that he hadn’t yet passed the Cape Verde Islands. Expecting to see land each new day, and being sorely disappointed, his mood dwindled. And as the days wore on, he started to become increasingly superstitious: he became obsessed with seabirds, which teased him to despair with their promise of land; Wednesdays took on a special meaning; and he believed that he could calculate wind speed by simply listening to its note against the sail.

The only tangible presence being his own, Bombard began to take comfort in the creatures around him, documenting his encounters with all the drama and character you would expect from someone who hadn’t had human contact for months. He was visited at four o’clock each day by the same petrel and was kept company for almost the entire journey by a shoal of ‘dolphins’ – actually dorados, a large type of fish, which jostled around his boat. “I began to share their sensations and reactions,” he wrote, “eating the same food and catching the same flying fish”.

Between the horror of swordfish attacks and the creeping onset of paranoia, Bombard also experienced moments of pure wonder – a half-eaten shearwater carcass illuminating the sail with a ghostly phosphorescence – and at times, he became overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings, writing long eloquent odes to the ocean. Staying awake one evening to check the time of the moonrise, Bombard was overcome by the feeling of what a strange and formidable element the sea is, writing:

It seems to form part of a system so entirely different from normal existence that it might belong to another planet. But there it is at my feet, alive yet inscrutable. Here and there lights appear in the depths... They look like stars half hidden in a cloudy night sky. The fish around me leap and swim to and fro, protagonists of an unseen and mysterious existence. Life at the surface is only the thin upper layer of another world.

Approaching desperation

Around mid-November, time began to weigh heavily on Alain Bombard. He suffered a 14-day bout of diarrhoea and would go days without sleep. To top it off, the skin on his feet had started to peel away in strips and he was down to his last couple of toenails. Towards the end of November, the wind disappeared entirely and our castaway drifted for over a week, his mood ebbing, his eyes aching from straining on the horizon. Unbeknown to him, he had reached the edge of the Sargasso Sea.

Stewing in his own thoughts under a terrible sun, Bombard soon fell “prey to every emotion”. His paranoia became overwhelming; he believed the clouds were deliberately avoiding the sun so as to deny him shade. He decided that he would not attempt to fight the next storm, trusting his fate to God. “What have I done to deserve all this?” he wrote, dictating his will and final wishes, and holding the authors of his castaways’ handbook accountable for his inevitable death.

But just as Bombard was falling into despair, a miracle happened – and it did, in fact, fall on a Wednesday. He ran into the Arakaka, a passenger cargo steamer out of Liverpool. At first he was reluctant to board, fearing it would invalidate his experiment, but when the captain shouted his location over the tannoy – and it was 600 miles (966km) further east than he thought – Bombard scrambled aboard shouting: “This is it. Fifty-three days, I give up”.

He accepted a shower and a light meal: a fried egg, spoonful of cabbage and a slither of liver. He knew he would be held accountable for his self-imposed rule breaking, but his need for human contact was too great and accepting this hospitality, arguably, saved his life. The encounter gave Bombard the morale boost he so sorely needed, and he set off with renewed vigour on 10 December, having been taught how to read longitude.

On Christmas Eve 1952, the French biologist staggered on to a Barbados beach, 65 days after setting out from the Canaries. He had lost 55 pounds (25kg), was severely anaemic, and found it hard to walk, but he was alive. And, crucially, he had proved his point, at least in his own mind.


This story featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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For more extraordinary tales of remarkable journeys, pick up a copy of our latest book The Odysseum: Strange journeys that obliterated convention (Chambers, 2018)

Shooting Snowdonia

We caught up with photographer Colin Nicholls to ask how he found shooting the wild uplands and abandoned slate quarries of northwest Wales

Colin Nicholls doing what he does best.

Colin Nicholls doing what he does best.

How did you find shooting the Snowdonian landscape? And how did this compare with shooting East Anglia for issue 7?

I am a big fan of Snowdonia, so to get to head there on a press trip was a real treat. I found it very different to East Anglia, much more walking up mountains and hills, and a much rougher landscape altogether. As expected for Snowdonia, we encountered some wet weather, so my weather-sealed cameras came in very useful. I enjoyed visiting both places but seeing and climbing mountains is something that always excites me.

What were the highlights of the trip for you?

Definitely going back to the Dinorwic slate quarry. I first visited there a few years back and loved seeing the abandoned slate workings that overlook Snowdon itself. To explore the remains of a Goliath of an industry – it really is like stepping back in time. We also had incredible weather up there with the light painting the landscape, and we were met along the way by some wild goats, one of which features on the cover!

Any low points?

I’m pretty easy going so it takes a lot to dampen my spirits, however the first night we camped the wind was howling and I got about two hours sleep. Safe to say the next day was a struggle but it was all good fun.

Where would you most like to photograph next and why?

I think for the first couple of months of the year I’ll explore my local area of Herefordshire. There’s so much around here that’s overlooked in favour of the ‘bigger’ and more well-known places to visit, and with photography being so much about light it’s nice to know that if it’s going to be a good day I can head out somewhere close for a quick and successful trip.

You're a frequent visitor to Iceland, aren't you? What draws you back again and again?

That I am! 2018 saw my fourth trip to Iceland, where I drove solo around the country, camping along the way. It was incredible! At the time Iceland was having the worst summer for 100 years, but I was lucky and the weather turned and I had some crisp, clear days and got the opportunity to take photos that make me very happy. I shot a fair bit of video, too. Overall the trip was one of the most content times of my life. I keep getting drawn back to the country’s endless beauty, epic landscapes and sparse population – it’s a place I’ll continue to visit for the rest of my life.

Who are your landscape photography heroes?

That’s a very hard question. I tend to take inspiration from a wide range of photographic disciplines. Interestingly I find war photography to be one of the most inspiring – people tasked with documenting the most hostile places in the world, while having to bear in mind the technical aspect of photography and tell a story. I try to surround myself with photography books and follow decent photographers on Instagram. Seeing what other people are up to, create stunning images, is a real drive for pushing my own abilities.

Colin, you’re known as the ‘king of snacks’ on long press trips. What’s your ultimate photography fuel?

Ha, awesome question. Cold cans of cola are number one on a hot day hiking up mountains. And cereal bars. I can survive on those bad boys for days.

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Colin shoots on a Fuji X-H1. Follow his work on Instagram or on his blog colinnichollsphotography.com

His stunning images feature in our 36-page special on Snowdonia in issue 8 of Ernest Journal. Pick up a copy today.

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