“I love your hills, and I love your dales,
And I love your flocks a-bleating;
But O, on the heather to lie together,
With both our hearts a-beating!”
Where be ye going, ye Devon maid – John Keats
If gorse is known as ‘Dartmoor Custard’ then the heathers must be the ‘Dartmoor Jam’ because invariably they can be seen together and if they are both in bloom then the colours are amazing. If there was to be a colour scheme that represents Dartmoor then it has to be a combination of gorse yellow and heather mauve, as can be seen below:
Heather pollen has shown up in various prehistoric pollen diagrams which suggest it has been present on Dartmoor from at least post-glacial times. No doubt some of its uses were for bedding, heating and cooking along with possibly roof cover.
Today, on the wetter parts of the moor one tends to find cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix), ling (Calluna Vulgaris) and bell heather (Erica cinerea) whereas on the dryer heather moors they tend to be dominated by ling with some bell heather in evidence.
What is important about the moorland heathers is the wildlife habitat it provides for such creatures as meadow pipits, stonechats, skylarks, adders, ring ouzels, lizards and the distinctive emperor moth caterpillar. Heathers also support red grouse and ring ouzel. Only the other day whilst walking between Ger tor and Dead Lake the dog flushed some red grouse from a patch of heather.
The problem which is facing the moor at the moment is that once the heathers decline they are soon replaced by bracken and in many places it has become a huge problem. There are many reasons why the heather moors are shrinking and one has been the recent trend to reduce the numbers of sheep, ponies and cattle that graze the moor thus allowing the bracken to establish itself. At one time excessive ‘swaling‘ also contributed to the reduction, swaling is the practice of burning off the old woody heather in order to stimulate new, stronger growth for pasturage. If swaling burnt off too much of the heather it also would allow the bracken to establish itself. Today, however, swaling is strictly controlled with stringent guidelines that must be adhered to. I must admit, it is a pretty spectacular sight when of a night you see the far off moors ablaze.
There can be no doubt that today the plant is a controversial one of Dartmoor’s plants, talk to the ‘environmental’ folk and they will say it’s a key species and habitat fro much of Dartmoor’s wildlife. Talk to the archaeologists and they will say that it and its roots are slowly destroying some of the historical features of the moor. Talk to the graziers and they will tell you that heather can be a huge fire risk in areas of low stocking and also take over from grazing vegetation.
Visit Exeter or any moorland town during the summer and the chances are that you will be accosted in the street by a so-called ‘gypsy’ selling ‘Lucky Dartmoor Heather’ – tell them to bugger off. It is amazing how much ‘fear’ the ‘gypsy’s curse’ still holds in rural communities – these are not true Romanies. To this day you can still see cars driving back up the M5 with sprigs of heather tied to the car which is a indication that the heather of Dartmoor is still thought to be lucky. I can remember that when the heather was in bloom father’s old Ford Anglia always had a sprig of heather tied to the radiator grill, yep that’s right – Ford Anglia – I’m knockin’ on heavens door now. But to be exact it is only the white heather that is meant to bring good luck, in particular it is meant to protect against rape or violent attack. Not only did Dartmoor provide real heather for good look but the white heather appeared on early postcards, as can be seen above. White heather was/is included in weeding bouquets, again to attract good luck for the newly weds along with peace and harmony in their new home – maybe I should have…, maybe best not go there.
There is also the old belief that white heather would stop an habitual drunkard from imbibing on their favourite tipple. This idea seems to have originated in the Victorian times and has travelled down from Scotland. Some say that when heather is burnt outside in times of drought it will attract rain although that would definitely put an end to ‘swaling’ (annual burning).
But heather has always played an important part in Dartmoor life. There are old tales of a liqueur that the monks of Tavistock used to make and today there is the honey and mead that comes from Buckfast Abbey all of which depend on heather. On the moor to talk of broom, ling or heath was to talk about heather. At one time the moorland farms would make besoms or heather brooms. The heather would be cut in the spring when the twigs were green and bendy, then they would be ‘clamped’ or bundled and tightly tied with strips of ash. Then ends would then be neatly trimmed and a hazel or ash handle fixed to the head. Indeed the Greek name Calluna (as in Calluna Vulgaris) translates as ‘sweep‘, a direct reference to the broom. It was deemed unlucky to bring a new heather broom into the house during the month of May as it would result in a member of that household being ‘swept away’ to their maker. It has even been said that to burn a fire of heather and fern will attract rain clouds in time of drought
Other uses for heather were as a thatching material, basket making, producing an orange dye for colouring wool and cloth and as a source of fuel known as ‘ling’.
Medicinally it was used as a remedy for chilblains when it would be made into a hot poultice, it was also ground down and made into a liniment for treating rheumatism, arthritis and gout. An infusion of the flowering shoots was used as a treatment for coughs, colds, bladder and kidney disorders and cystitis.
There can be no doubt that a certain romantic view has been given to heather as can be seen from Keats’ lines above, it must be a combination of stunning scenery, fresh air and a spring mattress of the stuff that gets the pulse racing. I can across the lyrics to an old Devon song that clearly demonstrates this connection:
I met her where the heather-bell
Lay brightly gem’d with pearls of dew,
When sun-light soft, first lit the dell.
And on the fount a faint blush threw.
From trance of joy the wild birds ‘woke—
Her song like theirs was sweet—was gay—
The spring flow’rs smil’d as morning broke—
And she was beautiful as they.
And ne’er a lighter footstep fell
Upon the scarce crush’d heather-bell.
I wander’d far—the heather-bell
Forsook awhile for richer fields,
But sadness on my spirit fell.
Amidst the joys their richness yields.
Uncharm’d I heard the sweeter strain
Which gay phum’d captives there might sing-
My sad heart pined to hear again
The flutter of the free bird’s wing—
For the fountain of the lonely fell—
And the maid who trod the heather-bell.
I came again—the heather-bell
Lay wither’d by the fountain’s side ;
The north wind’s wing had swept the dell,
And blighted was its flow’ry pride.
The gushing fount was lock’d in ice,
And still as death its wanton play ;
And silent was the song-bird’s voice,
And she as silent too as they
Lay slumb’ring in that lonely dell,
Shrin’d by the wither’d heather-bell.
Today heather can be found in a variety of things that range from beer and mead to various forms of cosmetics and edibles such as honey and bread, as can be seen from the small selection above.
I must say that on a warm day there is nothing more relaxing than to doss out on a fresh spread of heather and just watch the moor go by. As to the romantic idea of a bed of heather, these days it would not be recommended due to the number of people that get out on the moor – even in the remotest of spots.