A Walk on the Wild Side - Lancashire's natural herbal remedies

Lancashire herbalists Tim Cappelli and Tracey Humphries go foraging for some everyday plants with special properties

Lancashire herbalists Tim Cappelli and Tracey Humphries go foraging for some everyday plants with special properties

A walk in Lancashire’s varied and picturesque countryside is always a pleasure. However, even the best walk can be enhanced by a little foraging for some natural medicines - we just need to know what to look for.

Mankind has been using plants to heal for thousands of years and our earliest ancestors gathered them from the wild to treat themselves.

Indeed, so revered were these plants that remnants have been found in the burial mounds of Bronze Age chieftains and Egyptian pharaohs.

Today, there is a renewed interest in natural remedies and medical herbalists and we are always keen to pass on our knowledge through local walks, organised through our natural therapy and apothecary centre, Vitality+ of Ramsbottom.

A favourite walk is along the banks of the River Irwell from Ramsbottom to the hamlet of Irwell Vale - not only is the scenery interesting and beautiful, but there is an abundance of plants that we can use to make our own simple remedies.

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Leaving Ramsbottom on the east side of the river, we come to the old sports field, a weed-strewn piece of ground that might look unpromising - but even weeds have their uses.

In fact many plants we consider a nuisance have excellent medicinal value. Take nettles, the scourge of ramblers and gardeners. It is thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, who suffered from rheumatism and aching joints in this country’s damp climate.

Nettle was their remedy, and the cure involved whipping the affected joints with nettles. This may sound extreme, but this treatment, called ‘Urtication’ from the Latin urtica, meaning ‘to burn’, is still practised in some parts of the country today.

Recent research has shown that it can actually be more effective than orthodox painkillers. Modern herbalists still use nettles to treat arthritic joints, though you will be pleased to hear they won’t lash you with nettle stems. Taken as a tincture or a tea, nettle is a powerful anti-inflammatory and blood cleanser making it ideal for cases of both rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis.

Nettle is also a natural anti-histamine, which makes it an ideal home remedy for hay fever. Just take a few young leaves and steep them for 10 minutes in boiling water to make a strong tea. Drink this tea two or three times a day during the hay fever season to reduce symptoms - it tastes better than you think!

Moving upstream we pass through Stubbins and Chatterton and here, as elsewhere, Herb Robert grows in profusion along the shadier banks. This native member of the geranium family has delicate, fern-like leaves and small pink flowers. It also smells terrible, somewhere between wet-dog and burning rubber, hence it’s other common name of Stinky Bob.

This smell does have its uses though, and rubbing the crushed leaves of Herb Robert on your skin will help keep away annoying midges. It is also very strongly astringent and has long been used as a wound herb to heal cuts and bruises. Placing a few crushed leaves up your nostril will help stem a bleeding nose in no time - assuming you can tolerate the aroma!

Used in creams by herbalists, it is used to treat bruises, thread veins, varicose veins or piles. Made into a strong tea and left to cool, the leaves make an excellent gargle for mouth ulcers or gum infections, but as with all wild foraging make sure the plant is exactly what you think it is before you use it.

The river leaves Chatterton in a wide arc, turning towards Irwell Vale, and here we find a large, solitary elder perched on the river bank. The elder tree has a long tradition of use as a medicine and was once called ‘nature’s medicine chest’ as all parts of the tree were used.

Today herbalists only use the flowers and the berries, as the leaves and bark are known to be poisonous - though the leaves do make a natural insect repellent if rubbed on the skin. Legend has it that the tree is inhabited by a spirit, the elder mother, and elder branches would be placed around cottage doors to ward away witches.

Since ancient times the pale yellow flowers have been used to treat fevers, coughs and colds and are commonly used in this way today, helping the patient sweat out a cold and loosen any catarrh. In the 18th Century, when pale complexions were fashionable, women would use elderflower water for whitening the skin and removing freckles.

The elderberries are particularly useful as they not only help loosen catarrh, but are also rich in Vitamin C and have the ability to bind and neutralise virus particles, helping reduce the symptoms of cold and flu. Mixed with sugar and simmered to make a thick syrup, the berries make an ideal winter remedy for adults and children, though the raw berries should be avoided as they are mildly laxative.

All too soon, we arrive at Irwell Vale, where we can wait for the steam train back to Ramsbottom.


The countryside all around Lancashire, holds many more medicinal treasures for us to discover but you should always get advice from a qualified medical herbalist like Tracy and Tim. Their walks resume in the spring and you can find out more by logging onto their website,www.vitalityplus.co.uk, or by calling them on 01706 558904.

Twitter: @vitalityplusram

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