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Notes from the Sticks: Grasping the nettle


MY husband Alan, who walks a lot further every day than I do, says there are more nettles than usual this year. In fact the miracle is that the country is not covered in them, so good are their defences and spreading mechanisms.

The common or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is found all over the world. The stems and the undersurface of the leaves are clothed in hollow hairs called trichomes or spicules with tips which break off when touched, transforming the hair into a hypodermic needle that can inject several chemicals including formic acid (which is contained in ant stings), histamine (which causes the initial reaction when you are stung), as well as serotonin and acetylcholine.

Here an intrepid 16-year-old called Ifan demonstrates the results, and some explanation follows.

(Incidentally, all the books say the stings are an ‘adaptation’ by the plant to protect itself from predators. How do they know? Could the plant not have started with stings, then it turned out that animals didn’t eat it?)

Not only is the plant safe from hungry animals, but it spreads both by seeds and by rhizomes in the soil, and it re-establishes very quickly if cleared.

Everybody knows that dock leaves, which are often found in the same vicinity, are an antidote to the stinging. However this is probably a placebo effect – certainly I have never found dock leaves any good.

Believe it or not, there is an annual nettle eating competition in Dorset. The participants are allotted a pile of stems and after half an hour the person who has stripped the most stalks and consumed the leaves is the winner. Here is a video of this year’s contest. I imagine that the cider company which sponsors it does pretty well.  

Nettles are supposed to be very nutritious and YouTube is awash with videos showing how to prepare them.

For example soup, fritters, and pasta. Frankly I would need to be pretty desperate to go to the bother, but each to their own. There are also numerous videos about how to cultivate nettles – why on earth would anyone want to do that?

In their favour, nettles provide food for the caterpillars of many butterflies and moths (which presumably have ‘adapted’ to dealing with the stings) which is why I allow a patch to grow in our garden. They are also good to put on your compost heap. They were widely used in traditional medicine, and a study in 2000 suggested they could relieve the pain of arthritis. The fibres in the stems have been used for making cloth for thousands of years, and a few companies in Europe have started to produce commercial nettle textiles. Here is an article about making your own. 


Earlier in the summer I was very pleased with my growing crop of tomatoes.

However my satisfaction did not last long as a few weeks ago most of them started rotting and shrivelling.

I had not experienced tomato blight before so it took me a while to realise what was happening, though I don’t think there is much you can do even if you do recognise it straight away. Only one variety resisted the blight, Crimson Crush, and that is still cropping well. Probably not the very tastiest tomatoes I have ever had, but at least they’re not rotten.


I expect many of you have been too hot over the last week or so but it has been perfect in Lancashire, even with a few brief showers to save me from watering. I noticed an apple tree on the river bank and I thought the red apples against the bright blue sky summed up this glorious September. I picked one from lower down and it was very tasty, a bit on the sharp side but that’s how I like them.

Although the papers have been calling it an Indian summer, I believe that technically the term should be used only if a period of good weather follows the first frosts.


Sheep of the Week

The Charollais originates in the Charolles and Saône-et-Loire regions of east-central France, the same area as Charolais cattle, and the two species often graze together. I don’t know why the spellings are different.

The Charollais was developed in the early 1800s by crossing the Leicester Longwool (which I wrote about here), also known as the Dishley Leicester, with local breeds. It was first imported into the UK in 1976, and is now either the second or third most-used sire breed, depending on which authority you consult. (The most-used is the Suffolk and the other contender for second place is the Texel.)

The Charollais is a large sheep with a broad body and low-set ears. The head is pinkish-brown and the face is free of wool with a slightly roman nose. It has light bones and a narrow head and shoulders, which makes lambing easier. The ewes are very prolific.

The sheep are known for their docile temperament, being easy to handle and manage. They are hardy and thrive in a wide variety of environments. They are also said to be healthy and robust, resistant to many common diseases and parasites.

Although the primary use is raising rams to cross-breed and produce meat lambs, the wool is also good quality and used for carpets and blankets.

Although they are widely kept, I couldn’t find much in the way of videos of Charollais, but here’s one.

And here are some lively lambs.

You can read more about the breed at the website of the Charollais Sheep Society.


Wheels of the Week

Continuing our series on steam locomotives by TCW writer JOHN ELLWOOD. This is Part Four; you can read the first part here, the second here and the third here. 

THE only thing I knew about Preston was that Tom Finney played for them. I saw him perform for North End when they played Blackpool in his final season in 1960. But for the three years from 1961, Preston on bank holiday weekends was the place that I and every trainspotter in the North West aspired to be on account of the large number of excursion specials travelling to Blackpool and the Fylde coast. 

About this time I had a little more spending money as a consequence of helping out at my father’s fish merchant business on Fleetwood dock. This income allowed me to join my photographer friend Howard on the 8.18 train from Fleetwood. The train would invariably be taken to Poulton-le-Fylde by one of Fleetwood’s Class 2 Standard Tanks from where its two carriages would be left to be picked up by a reversing Blackpool North to Manchester Victoria train, always hauled by a Black Five.

On arrival at Preston we had the option of remaining on the station or catching the bus to a cutting one mile south near a bridge known as Skew Bridge. 

Both locations would be thronging with spotters. Above the station many congregated in a perfectly located open air reception area which belonged to the former railway hotel then called the Park Hotel. However, this was not ideal for photography and we usually joined the hundred or more near Skew Bridge to watch the dozens of special trains.

The cutting was a great place to sit and watch. To the east it was possible to catch the numbers of a few rare LNER B1 4-6-0 locomotives approaching Preston from Yorkshire on the East Lancs line. To the north, the line to Southport was visible but most of our attention was focused on the main line and the various locomotives called into action for day trips to Blackpool.

The site was occasionally visited by the British Transport Police. They half-heartedly moved people away from the tracks, but it was easy to nip over a fence and quickly return when they had gone. I rarely witnessed irresponsible behaviour from trainspotters.

Most of the locomotives hauling the excursions were stabled at Blackpool Central’s sheds (Code 24E). The depot was adjacent to Blackpool FC’s home ground at Bloomfield Road. I recall watching more than one game there when the pitch was partially obscured by smoke from engines drifting over the pitch on a westerly wind. Those were the days of relative innocence in football. Blackpool, then in Division One, had stars such as Ray Charnley, Roy Gratrix, Tony Waiters and Jimmy Armfield. They were always an entertaining and fair team. 

The photographs shown were taken by my good friend and fellow steam enthusiast Howard Leach.

Our semi-autobiographical experiences of trainspotting are recorded in Steam Dreams, available from Amazon Kindle.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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