About Congleton Bath House and Physic garden
Congleton Bath House and Physic garden is a restoration and conservation community project run by the volunteers of Congleton Building Preservation Trust.
The Bath House itself is a rare
survivor of a private spring fed cold water plunge pool, from around 1800. There is also a Robert Adam inspired Garden Shelter.
The grounds of the Bath House were once owned by Congleton’s most (in)famous inhabitant – John Bradshaw, president of the court that condemned Charles 1st to death.
In the grounds of the Bath House we have created a Physic Garden telling the story of medicinal plants, and other areas where we grow different ‘useful’ plants.
National Lottery Heritage fund
Congleton In Bloom 2016
Give5 Volunteering Campaign
Tesco Bags of Help
Website by Bigblue design
Early in March, the Bath House played host to one of the Congleton Unplugged music events. The Bark Duo entertained a capacity audience (quite a small capacity!) with their lively and captivating guitar skills, covering a range of composers from classical to pop. A very enjoyable evening, and good to see the Bath House full of life, light and music, as part of a community event.
On volunteer Mondays, work continued on the construction of the curved flight of steps that will reinstate one of the original routes up to the Bath House. Meanwhile we celebrated the long anticipated, and many times delayed, connection of the site to the mains water supply.
Not to be outdone, the weather decided to contribute, and made up for a dry February with some heavy downpours. So much so, that it filled the underground storage that originally supplied the building, and we had the rare and unexpected event of water flowing through the feeder pipe and into the bath chamber. Not enough to bathe in, but enough to wet a few things that we would have preferred to stay dry. David set to with a shovel and bucket, to do some baling.
In yet more water-related news, the pond gained a large amount of frogspawn – spring is definitely here (in more ways than one).
Elsewhere in the garden, we finished preparing the meadow, and sowed some annual wildflower seeds. Under the Birch tree hellebore, native narcissus, and Japanese quince (Chaenomeles) provided colour. With its waxy-looking vibrant flowers, the latter is one of very few early blooming plants to give such a show of red petals. Although related to the common quince (Cydonia oblonga), Japanese quince is very different in appearance, being a low, spreading shrub, rather than a tree. The fruits of the two types of quince are fairly similar, and both can be used in cooking and preserves. Each plant provides for a range of medicinal uses, and you can read more about ‘our’ quince below.
Japanese Quince Chaenomeles japonica
Chaenomeles japonica, despite its modern botanical name is, according to some sources, actually native to China, Tibet and Burma, and was introduced into Japan in the 16thcentury, and then to Europe in the 18th. Other sources suggest that there are three separate but closely related species, one Chinese, one Tibetan and one Japanese… Whatever the truth of their origin, they are all part of the huge Rosaceae family of plants, which encompasses nearly 5000 known species of herbs, shrubs and trees, including the common quince mentioned above as well as many more familiar fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, apricots, plums and – perhaps more surprisingly – blackberries and raspberries. With several cultivars available, some with different coloured flowers and fruit, Japanese quince is usually seen as purely ornamental though usefully hardy, the fruits considered worthless – but this is to misunderstand and overlook its many qualities.
Left to its own devices, Japanese quince forms a spreading, tangled, thorny shrub that creates a virtually impenetrable hedge, providing excellent protection for small nesting birds, and attracting numerous invertebrates to the pollen and nectar on offer. Bees find it particularly attractive, and they pollinate its hermaphrodite flowers. The cup-shaped, five-petalled blooms are followed in autumn by fragrant, apple-like fruits. These are edible but, being almost impossible to cut or bite open, they usually have to be cooked first.
The quince fruit has three traditional medicinal properties: as an anti-inflammatory; for respiratory relief ; and as a general health-giving tonic.
It is helpful in easing joint and muscle pain; in relieving nausea and stomach cramps; in treating coughs and colds – the Japanese make a cough medicine using quince juice and root ginger, blended into a paste and sweetened with sugar.
Sometimes very ripe fruit is soft enough to squeeze, but fruit kept in the fridge will be more likely to soften, so the juice can be used as an alternative to lemon juice: it is reported to contain more vitamin C than lemon.
Quince fruit is also high in pectin, and thus makes a good jam, which has been a traditional way to preserve it since the Middle Ages when our ancestors use similar recipes for Medlar, a closely related and largely forgotten fruit. The Japanese make a fruit tea from quince, and cook it in honey to make a good syrup. They also mix quince with sugar and alcohol to make a liqueur.
The fruit is very fragrant, and the scent lasts long enough for a bowl of the fruit left out in the home to act as a pleasant room freshener. You could even keep one in the car…
Acknowledgments – thanks to the following for helpful information
A record-breaking warm February has its advantages, even if it does leave us a little nervous about what is to come – both in terms of this year’s weather, and in the wider implications of climate change. But while it is here, it makes it easier to dig over the unusually dry soil of the wildflower meadow. This helps to form a seed bed for the annual poppies and cornflowers, removing the more vigorous grasses.
There has also been time for a bit of pruning, and cutting back the last of the dry stems that had been left in place for winter interest. The warm weather is already encouraging new growth, and the woodland garden is full of colour from pulmonaria, primroses, cyclamen and snowdrops.
The corkscrew hazel is doing its thing, with tiny pink female flowers opening in advance of the male catkins starting to shed their pollen, all beautifully decorating the twisted branches. Soon the leaves will return, and it can relax back into being a dark and shapeless shrub, easily overlooked later in the year.
More progress has been made on sorting out the tool store, and putting up hooks to try to provide some structure to the tangle of tools. Meanwhile we celebrate the completion by Nino of the task of putting in a low edging of reclaimed fencing around the borders next to the garden shelter. It just remains for us to replace one of the yew trees that died soon after planting, then we can plant up these borders.
Meanwhile, work on the new steps up to the Bath House continues. They have been designed to follow a curve around the Sycamore tree, as near as possible to the route of the original steps.
This sycamore was in the garden long before we were, and will remain long after we’re gone – it’s an imposing specimen, even if it isn’t considered decorative or even medicinal by most people. [You can learn more about Sycamores below]. Nick has invented a very impressive device that enables him to draw a perfect arc whose radius inconveniently runs through the centre of this large tree. Good progress is being made, one step at a time, with remarkable precision.
Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus
The Sycamore’s native habitat is a swathe of Central Europe and Western Asia, (eastern and southern France right across to the Ukraine and Turkey). Once thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, other reports suggest it was in the Tudor era, with more planting recorded in the 1700s; and the earliest reports of naturalisation were not until the mid 1800s.
Sycamore must nonetheless be one of the UK’s most well known and widespread naturalised trees. It is described in botanical terms as a ‘coloniser’ or ‘pioneer’, i.e. one of the first to take over open land, fast growing and self-seeding. It prefers moist well drained soil but can cope with heavy clay, medium loam and sandy soils; it isn’t fussy about levels of acidity or alkalinity; it grows well in both woodland and open areas; and can even tolerate salty sea air! You’ll be familiar with the ‘helicopter’ seeds spiralling through the air, and you’ve possibly found one – or several – sprouting a two two-leaved mini-tree on your lawn… This prolific, even aggressive, growth has caused it to be regarded in some areas of the country, and by some gardeners, conservationists and others, as a ‘weed’.
Left to their own devices they can grow to 100ft in height and live to be around 600 years old, although most don’t survive that long naturally in the UK. They are initially dominant, but in the long term – over a couple of hundred years – they are gradually overtaken in number by native trees, and this actually makes them suitable for planting when creating or developing broad-leaved woods.
A member of the Acer family, of which many varieties produce glorious autumn colour, ‘our’ tree is rather humble with inconspicuous flowers and little autumn showiness. The second half of its botanical name means Like a Plane Tree, but it isn’t a member of the Plane family. (Although it’s called by that name in Scotland, just to confuse you. The rest of the UK thinks the name Plane refers to the sturdy city survivor Platanus x hispanica, also known as London Plane because it was so widely planted along the capital’s streets). This somewhat plain, if not plane, tree does get a bad press because it’s so common and taken for granted. But it has many virtues once you get to know it.
Myth and Magic
Because it’s a late introduction to Britain – compared with the millennia that our native trees like Oak and Holly have been around – there isn’t much local myth or legend to recount about Sycamore. Welsh Love-Spoons were usually carved from the wood, and a self-avowed British ‘hedge-witch’ believes it is a tree of prosperity and longevity. Whistles made from twigs, along with branches, are apparently used in old customs in Cornwall.
The most famous sycamore in Britain is probably the one in Tolpuddle, Dorset, in the shadow of which six farm labourers set up a friendly society in 1834 to protest against their ever-reducing wages. Known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, they were transported to Australia for the obscure crime of ‘swearing an unlawful oath’; but were brought back home after a public outcry against their harsh punishment. A testament to sycamores’ longevity, being probably 200 years old when it sheltered the labourers, this tree is now cared for by the National Trust.
There are plenty of references to Sycamore being sacred and a source of medicine to the native American peoples, but this isn’t of much relevance to us, because the American Sycamore is actually a Plane tree (sorry) and, as we know, our European tree isn’t.
I even found this quote on a website, referring to the American Sycamore: “it is believed it got its name from the flaking nature of its bark making it look ‘sick’ all the time!” I expect (hope) this was facetious…
References to Sycamore in the Bible are also mistaken, since that tree is actually a Sycomore, spelled correctly with o rather than a (Ficus sycomorus), a species of fig cultivated since ancient times.
So if you’re looking for information on our familiar Sycamore, make sure it’s a UK website or check the Latin name…
According to one source quoted in PFAF, the bark is mildly astringent, employed in both skin and eye washes, while the inner bark layer can be used as a wound dressing.
William Cobbett, in his treatise The Woodlands of 1825, wrote: ” Our Sycamore is a Maple… a very hardy thing makes very good fuel… It is mere brushwood; and of no more use as a tree, than the poppies, or wild parsnip, or wild carrot, are as cattle-food. [It] is a weed of the woods, and we burn it, because we know not what else to do with it.” This disparaging comment is a little unkind, as Sycamore trees do have several uses, although it is indeed an excellent fuel for the fire, whether in its natural state or when turned into good quality charcoal.
The wood is hard, heavy, but easy to work and, when carved and polished, is almost silky, with a subtle sheen. It also has a good hard-wearing edge making it as suitable for domestic utensils as for small ornamental pieces.
Sweetener / Flavouring
The sap of sycamore can be tapped for making syrups, cordials, wine or beer.
It’s not a highly decorative tree, and gets too big for most ordinary gardens, but some variegated and colourful varieties have been developed. The RHS describes two that are not only small enough to be thought of as garden specimens, but are also recommended in their list of Plants for Pollinators.
Sycamore’s fast growing character and tolerance of a variety of conditions make it ideal for wind-breaks, even by the sea, and other shelter planting. It self-sows into hedgerows, where it is usually cut back before it can outgrow the rest.
Acknowledgments – thanks to the following for information, and for the dispelling of misinformation!
– http://www.wikipedia.org (including the image of a botanical drawing)
January in the garden provides an opportunity for a good tidy up, and clear out of last year’s growth, in readiness for the new season. It is a chance to look at the bare bones, and review what needs to move, and where the gaps are – as long as you can remember which particular plant each sprig of brown growth belongs to! So there has been much trimming back of dead growth, and digging up of plants in the wrong place. There are, however, one or two plants that choose January to put on their best show and earn their continuing position. For example, our little Hamamelis pallida (witch hazel) was only planted last year, but is covered with lovely spidery fragrant flowers.
And the snowdrops and cyclamen were early into flower, repaying our efforts over the last few years to establish this woodland garden.
Meanwhile, there have been some landmark moments on the hard landscaping front. For over a year, we have from time to time written in the blog about the progress Ros was making to the paved path of rounded cobbles (or duck stones) between the gate and the garden shelter. She worked on it between other jobs on garden volunteer days and even came in on her own sometimes to continue the arduous task, using stones that have emerged from the garden to create a walkway that is both practical and beautiful. Now, at last, the job is complete, a huge relief to Ros, and a great improvement to the garden.
And another job has started that has been long in the planning. Some time ago, traces of the original steps up to the Bath House were uncovered among the undergrowth of the surrounding trees. It was decided to reinstate this route, with stone steps, and now that the work on creating the rainwater harvesting system has been completed, the first step of the new project has (literally) been made.
Ten years ago the Bath House & Physic Garden grounds had just one area of hedging : a straggling, overgrown and unloved stretch along the main public footpath. Now that area is dense, thriving and carefully managed and the whole outer border of the site has been planted up with a mix of hawthorn, blackthorn and other species. Wild roses, elder, holly and hazel provide shelter, nest sites and food for birds; and the perfect habitat for a wide range of wildlife including insects and mammals such as mice and (of course!) hedgehogs. Many fungi flourish in hedgerows as do lichens. Our local badgers, who are always welcome visitors, are of course undeterred by such barriers and have their own well established routes.
Hedgerows are still disappearing at a rapid and worrying rate. Tens of thousands of hedgerows were removed from the 1950’s onwards as grants were given aimed at increasing agricultural efficiency and many of the remaining hedges are neglected or crudely cut mechanically, resulting in thin hedges with gaps. Drifting chemical sprays have also had a negative impact. Hedge laying is the best method of managing them for wildlife but is labour intensive and often impractical. The longest stretch of hedging at the Bath House site was laid by Congleton & District Conservation Volunteers in 2008 and ten years later, the success of this method is clear. Our thanks go to them for their excellent work. Since then, our decision to continue mixed hedgerow planting over the last few years, in part supported by gifts of free hedging trees from the Woodland Trust, has brought further success, and we are happy to have contributed our own small hedgerow habitat in the heart of Congleton.
Grow Your Own Wildlife-friendly Hedgerow
While most of us don’t have huge gardens with long natural boundaries, it is still often possible to grow something more attractive to wildlife than a larch-lap fence or a forest of Leylandii. These hedges are also attractive in themselves, with flowers and fruit in season. It’s always good to plant native species, too, as our native wildlife thrives on these more than on exotic imports – sounds like common sense, but recent scientific research proves it! Why not visit your local garden centre or nursery and talk to someone about your ideas? Or you could just follow our planting scheme. And you can look on line for information and advice and specialist retailers, so here are a few sites to get you thinking:
– http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk (and its sister site, http://www.shop.woodlandtrust.org.uk)
– http://www.best4hedging.co.uk (RSPB approved hedging packs)
– http://www.hedgesdirect.co.uk (National Trust approved hedging packs)
As 2018 draws to an end, we reflect on a busy and successful year. We had two open days, one in the Spring and one in the Autumn. These brought in more visitors than ever – some who were discovering the Bath House and Physic Garden for the first time, some who keep coming back for more, and better still, some who are willing to join us as volunteers. A lot of work has been done in maintaining and improving the garden, through a very mixed year for gardening – starting with the Beast From the East, then moving on to a long hot, dry spell in the summer. All the effort was rewarded in November, when we received the results of the RHS Britain in Bloom competition. We achieved Level 5 – Outstanding, in the It’s Your Neighbourhood category, as well as an extra Highly Commended award. We went on to reward ourselves in December with a group Christmas dinner in a local pub – our numbers now happily increased by new volunteers.
On the building side, we have been putting plans together for a new utility building, to contain much needed storage space, toilet, and washing up facilities. Work has been done to prepare the ground, and make a connection to mains drainage and water. In the meantime, we have installed a rainwater harvesting system, which feeds un underground tank. This ‘green’ system diverts rainwater away from the Bath House building, and gives us a very useful water supply for irrigation in the garden.
Other highlights of the year have been the Food and Drink Festival in June, Congleton Carnival in July, the Jazz and Blues Festival in August, and the Heritage and Antiques Festival in September – all community events that we took an active role in, or played a part in hosting.
Work has continued through a very mild December. We obtained a large pile of wood chips from a local tree surgeon, and these have been barrowed up and down hill to all corners of the garden, to add as a mulch to the borders.
Even on New Year’s Eve, Ros was continuing with her cobbling (the end is in sight!)…
…and Trevor was adding a new lid to the water tank.
The completion of the water tank gives the gardeners something to think about for next year – a new planting area requiring shade tolerant plants whose roots will help to retain the bank of soil covering the tank. Oh, and of course – they have to be medicinal!
Meanwhile, the Butcher’s Broom adds a festive touch with its red berries [see below for more on Butcher’s Broom] and the snowdrops start to push their way through the fallen leaves – offering hope of good things to come in 2019. A hope which we would like to extend to all our friends, visitors and supporters – Happy New Year!
Butcher’s Broom Ruscus aculeatus
A native plant, Butcher’s broom grows well in deep shade on poor soil, so is often found in woodland, growing between the roots of the trees. It may be thought by some to be rather a botanical oddity. For one thing, it is an unlikely-looking member of the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). And the sharp ‘leaves’ that give it a holly-like appearance are in fact not leaves at all: the real leaves are tiny and flattened against the stem. Its spine-tipped growths are modified shoots or branches known as cladophylls or cladodes, and in the female plant the small greenish flowers arise in their centres. If there is a male plant near enough for fertilisation, bright red berries result, appearing cupped in the spiky cladodes.
Myth and Magic
Alternative names for the plant, many now out of use, include box holly, prickly box, sweet broom, knee holly, pettigree, pettigrue and shepherd’s myrtle. Culpeper describes it in great detail, perhaps implying that it was not in his day a commonly recognised plant, although he gives several common names for it. The current common name is probably derived from mediaeval butchers using bunches of it to scrub their benches. 17th century butchers apparently made ‘hedges’ of it between meats, as a defence against rodents.
It has been suggested that burning an ‘incense’ derived from the wood of the plant produces a calming effect; and the spiny greenery can be used in protection spells.
Culpeper lists many potential uses for this plant, but adds a cautionary note. After giving a common recipe using the root, mixed in wine with other herbs, he says, “The more of the roots you boil, the stronger will the decoction be; it works no ill effects, yet I hope you have wit enough to give the strongest decoction to the strongest bodies.”
Various remedies derived from butcher’s broom have been used in the past to treat gout, jaundice, swellings, leg cramps, kidney stones, and as a laxative and diuretic. Modern herbal medicine offers a range of Butcher’s Broom products, as dried root, tablets, capsules and liquid extracts and tinctures to treat the following conditions:
- varicose veins,
- hardening of the arteries,
- Raynaud’s disease (limited blood circulation to fingers and toes).
Compounds in the plant’s roots are known to cause contraction of the veins, so it is likely that the best results will be in cases of swelling and haemorrhoids.
Modern medicine has struggled to find remedies for chronic orthostatic hypotension, which is a condition in which the body no longer adjusts blood pressure properly according to posture, e.g. it drops dramatically when going from sitting to standing. Research into treatment using butcher’s broom as a supplement, which is safe and inexpensive, has been found to be very effective, although more studies are needed.
WARNING: Always seek professional advice before taking any herbal remedy. It is advised that Butcher’s Broom should not be taken by people with high blood pressure or kidney problems. Also, be aware that the raw plant is toxic in all parts.
Acknowledgments – thanks to the following for information:
Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey
Despite the shorter days and cooler temperatures, there is still colour and interest to be found in the garden, albeit in more subtle ways than during the height of summer. The silver birch tree in particular put on a beautiful display, before shedding its leaves. This native tree, the Betula pendula, one of only two native birches in the UK, is widespread in the wild but its smooth silvery bark and elegant form make it a popular choice in gardens as well. [See below for more about Silver Birch]
In the flower borders many of the plants have attractive seed heads that continue to look good, well into the winter. Teasel and Echinops both bristle with sharp spines, while the Solidago has soft, fluffy seed heads and reddish stems that show up well in the low angles of the autumn sun.
However, this all means that there is work to be done! We started raking leaves from the lawns last month and are continuing with this task: they are adding to our collection from previous years, which is already turning into fine leaf mould. And the plants that die back less gracefully need to be trimmed and tidied, to give us space to get in with the mulch.
An eagerly awaited addition to the garden arrived this month, when we took delivery of a bench, yet to be fixed into place, to provide a more comfortable and attractive spot in which to sit and enjoy the garden. We are grateful to Cheshire East Council for the grant which paid for this facility.
Nino has been busy this month too, putting in railings to edge the borders next to the garden shelter. This requires a bit of digging, so that we can anchor them deeply enough to resist any wayward activities.
In anticipation of a positive verdict on our proposed new utility building from the planning department, the building team has now prepared the ground. There has also been progress on completing the landscaping round the underground rainwater tank, and making a path for us to get to the tap. And Ros continues with her Herculean task of laying cobbles in the footpath to the gate. Not too far left to go!
An exciting event in November was receiving our RHS award! We’d entered the It’s Your Neighbourhood section of the In Bloom competition, and were thrilled to be awarded Outstanding again – and this time we gained an extra Highly Commended Award. The certificates were given out at an event in the Town Hall, when all of Congleton’s successful 2018 entries were celebrated.
Silver Birch Betula pendula
One of two birches native to the British Isles, the other being the downy birch (Betula pubescens), with which it often crosses, birch is a “pioneer” species, quickly colonising ground cleared by agriculture, forestry or fire. Its seeds are light and can be blown great distances, and easily germinate in poor soils. Similarly, the leaves are quick to rot and enrich the soil, enabling other species to become established such as beech and oak; however, if they are not managed carefully, forests so made eventually become too dark for the birch trees to survive.
Myth and Magic
The silver birch was considered holy by pagan peoples, a tree that drove out evil: for example, cradles made from birch wood were thought to protect the new baby from demons. A tree common in northern Europe, it appears in many ancient tales in these cold countries where its medicinal and practical properties were well-known.
It was revered by Druids in Britain, and birch branches were used to start the fires of Beltane, the festival marking new beginnings. Beltane rituals included dancing round the May Pole, which was also made from birch wood.
In Irish mythology, the tree was associated with the god Lugh, whose name means light, and Welsh legends mention it in connection with Blodeuwedd, the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, whose first name is the Welsh equivalent of Lugh.
Birch was also sacred to the Norse goddess Frigg or Freya, and it was birch twigs that made a bed for the legendary Irish lovers Diarmuid and Grainne when they fled from the latter’s betrothed, Fionn mac Cumhaill.
‘Beith’ or birch is the first symbol (B)of the Ogham alphabet, used on stone monuments and manuscripts between the 4th and 9th centuries AD. Stone examples have been found throughout Ireland, and also in England, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Wales. The word is still found in many Gaelic place names such as Glen an Beithe, Allt Beithe, and Beith in Ayrshire. Another old spelling of the tree was ‘birk’ and this appears in place names in Scotland and England. Although we can’t be sure of the derivation, we might like to think of Birkenhead and Birkdale as two relatively local examples.
An association with witches derives from the dense clusters of short twigs that sometimes grow on birch trees, caused by a fungus (Taphrina betuliina). These growths, which don’t harm the tree, are commonly known as witches’ brooms.
Birch has been important in herbal medicine for millennia, having a wide range of applications. An infusion of the leaves taken as a non-irritant diuretic was long prescribed for dropsy, a condition characterised by excessive water retention. It was also used in cases of urinary tract infection. A decoction of the bark was used as a disinfectant for wounds, and also for reducing inflammation in arthritis and gout.
Modern science recognises that birch contains useful chemicals and compounds, including potassium, which regulates fluid balance, muscle contractions and nerve signals. Birch also contains a high level of vitamin C, which is considered helpful in cases of viral infections. It also contains salicylates which, like salicin (the compound derived from willow), can help in pain relief and in reducing the symptoms of fever.
There has been recent scientific interest in betulinic acid, derived from betulinol, a compound found in birch bark, which may prove beneficial in the treatment of cancers, although research is at an early stage.
Sap: Silver birch wine is made from the sap, and a vinegar can be derived from this.
Bark: The waterproof bark has been used by such peoples as the Sami of northern Europe and Native North Americans as a light-weight roofing material and, perhaps most famously, for their canoes.
Bark: An oil or tar, known for thousands of years, is made from the dry bark by a similar method to that used to make charcoal. It is a many-purpose adhesive and can also be used to treat leather and wood or add scent to soap and perfume.
Twigs and Buds: Even without medicinal properties, birch is said to make a pleasant drink, as this recipe found on line suggests:
Gather a few handfuls of fresh silver birch twigs with buds
Steep in boiling water to the required taste
Strain the liquid, drink and enjoy!
(NB: We haven’t tried this ourselves)
The presence of salicylates in birch products means they should not be taken by anyone sensitive to aspirin.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS – Thanks for much information to the following: