One of our favourite walks follows the nearby secluded Gatcombe valley with its wooded hillsides and bubbling brook. Last week we took a winter walk past the hedgerows laced with wispy Traveller’s Joy (Clematis vitalba) and a muddy woodland track that finally opens out onto large fish ponds. Rising up from here and perched seemingly precariously on a wooded slope are skeletal ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle, once the largest property in Devon and family home of the Pomeroy family until 1547. From then it was owned by the Seymours, who came to fame when Jane married Henry VIII providing the future heir, Edward VI. The castle was eventually abandoned in the late 17th century and “was left to fall into decay, and quickly became overgrown and steeped in mystery, folklore and legends” (Brown, 2009). Such mystery has been augmented by its reputation as being one of the most haunted castles in Britain, with frequent ghostly sightings, including the ‘White Lady’, Blue Lady’, and a floating cavalier (Brown, 2009).
We took our friends up to the castle for a closer look. English Heritage have done much to restore its appearance and make it safe for the many visitors to enjoy a brush with the past. Being with a botanically minded friend we became drawn to the plant life on the walls and in particular with the abundant and appropriate named, Pellitory–of-the-wall (Parietaria judaica). This is a stingless member of the nettle family (Urticaceae), characterised by reddish stems and untoothed leaves that is commonly associated with old walls. At the same time as the Seymours were extending their residence at Berry Pomeroy castle, Gerard (1597) described in his ‘Herball,’ Parietaria judaica growing on walls in London - “groweth neere to old walls in the moist corners of churches and stone buildings” (Sukopp, 2002), just as we noted on Sunday. Like the castle that this plant is so fond of inhabiting, it is equally associated with folklore and mystery. Pericles himself is said to have used this plant to heal the injuries of a workman who fell from the Parthenon during its construction (Brickell & Akeroyd, 2006). More traditionally Pellitory–of-the-wall was used for a wide range of medical uses, including urinary complaints, diuretic and laxative (Grieve, 2012). Grieve (2012) goes on to quote: Gerard (is this our man from 1597?) - “helpeth such as are troubled with an old cough,' and “the distilled water of the herb drank with sugar worketh the same effect and cleanseth the skin from spots, freckles, pimples, wheals, sunburn, etc”; Ben Jonson - “A good old woman . . . did cure me, with sodden ale and pellitorie o' the wall.”As these castellar rocks and plants intermingle over the centuries, their history and mysteries ebb and flow in their relevance to mankind. Both seem now to have fallen out of human use, relegated to quaint curiosity, but who’s to say that this will be forever.
Brickell, C. and Akeroyd, J. (2006) Contributiones ad historiam naturalem graeciae et regionis mediterraneae a Museo Goulandris historiae naturalis editae. Annales Musei Goulandris 11.
Brown, S. (2009) Berry Pomeroy Castle. London: English Heritage.Grieve, M (2012) A Modern Herbal. http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/pelwal22.html [Accessed 13/1/12]
Sukopp, H (2002) On the early history of urban ecology in Europe 1. Počátky výzkumu ekologie evropských měst Preslia, Praha, 74: 373–393.