With ‘Blue Monday’ on 21st January fast approaching (allegedly the most depressing day in the calendar), I felt the need to gee myself up. ‘Blue Monday’, dreamed up by inventive holiday company marketers, is ‘thought’ to be the day that we all mourn the end of Christmas and New Year, realise that summer is oh so far away and start dreaming about booking a holiday! No such dreams in the cottage this week. Instead, a severe lack of sleep has plagued us. Poppy has been ill with tonsilitis and up most nights and to add to that, I have been overcome with anxiety over the enormity of organising our move to the countryside. Thoughts of finding a new job, selling the cottage and securing a new rural home have now become a priority and brought with them oppressive insomnia and bouts of furious midnight list scribbling! Worried that if I wasn’t careful with my evening nightcaps, I might have to change my name to ‘Ginny’, I sought solace in some old-fashioned herbal remedies.
Herbal remedies? I hear you ask. Really, Margot? I know dear Reader, sounds a little wacky. However, in my youth, I dabbled in all sorts including a range of unusual interests. I can only put this down to a furtive imagination and a tendency to become carried away with things. It is a well kept secret, dear Reader, that in my younger days, I was a little on the hippy side. I once encouraged Jerry to join me on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Tintagel Castle, a ruin on a craggy cliffside reported to be the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. Our ‘tour’ in a clapped out B reg VWPolo (Jemima, may she rest in car scrap peace) also took in the the tor and sights of Glastonbury on the way back. The idea was to explore the various mythical places linked to King Arthur and the isle of Avalon en route and immerse ourselves (just Margot on this one) in the mysticism of druidery. It didn’t sound quite as ‘mad as a bag of frogs’ at the time but it certainly does now, writing it. Tasselled flowery skirts and sheepskin jackets also featured heavily, with Tori Amos (the artist of choice for teenage girls), blasting from my ‘boom’box as I smoked cherry tobacco ‘rollies’. I seem to remember that around the same time I genuinely believed that I had a gift for reading tarot cards! It is at this point that I feel I should hang my grown up head in shame but I have to add that I wasn’t the only one to indulge in some retro hippy chic. Jerry did too! He had long hair, wore flares, played in a band (they were actually rather good) and read the bizarre poetry of The Doors’ rock god, Jim Morrison. Sporting a ‘City’ haircut and in his Savile Row suit, no one would EVER believe of it Jerry now! Photographic evidence of Jerry’s misspent youth remains hidden until such a time when it may be required for ransom or blackmail! Well, alongside wishing I was the reincarnation of a priestess of Avalon, all these efforts to be a teenage misfit happened to coincide with a curiosity in herbal remedies, which leads us back to the present day…..
Decluttering the cottage in preparation for estate agents, I uncovered a copy of the ancient herbal bible, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal written by the seventeeth century apothecary and physician, Thomas Culpeper, languishing half-forgotten on a bookshelf. Aside from cures for dropsy (hideous) and torments of the bowels (equally vile sounding), it does serve as a reminder of just how many modern remedies and medicines are based on old countryside knowledge of plants, herbs and hedgerows. The book houses the most wonderful illustrations of plants too. Funny how it has almost been forgotten that herbal remedies were once staple countryside medicines. How many times has one heard of using dock leaves to relieve nettle stings? The more I read old Culpeper though, the more I was completely sure that I should not put him to the test as concocting one of his tinctures with talk of ‘balancing humours’, felt a bit like dabbling in the black arts and a cauldron most certainly would be required for authenticity. Jerry would definitely not sanction the purchasing of a cauldron. Rather than reaching for a bottle of Nytol, I persevered with the herbal burble….where better to start than tea I thought? I adore the amber liquid and am a strictly black tea drinker. (Why would anyone want to add essence of cow to such a delightfully delicate tipple?) Surely, there must be a ‘tea’ out there that would serve as a ‘nerve tonic’? The benefits of some common garden herbs are already widely known: camomile (soothing, sleep inducing), lavender (antibacterial, relaxing, good for burns) and mint (eases stomach pain, good for digestion and can be used to perk up the senses). Teas or ’tisanes’ have been made to combat all manner of ailments for centuries so there must be some remedy out there to soothe my nerves and help me sleep!
So after some painstaking research and procurement of ingredients….here you are, dear Reader: Margot’s top 3 herbal tips for banishing those wintry blues!
Lemon verbena tea
Lemon verbena has long been known for its soporific properties and thus aids a good night’s sleep. Good for indigestion and bloatedness too. To make a decent brew, use three to four leaves in a cup. Bruise the leaves with your fingers a little before pouring hot water over them. Leave to steep for a few minutes. The smell is deliciously heady with lemon and it tastes green and sharp. It is also the perfect cuppa for banishing winter blues as it is reported to be a natural antidepressant.
(I do have lemon verbena in the garden but sadly the plant was looking a little sorrowful under the recent blanket of white stuff – I turned to some dried leaves from Neal’s Yard Remedies for my evening cup instead. I am reliably informed that any reputable purveyor of teas will sell the leaves or indeed filled tea bags).
Not strictly a herb but definitely worth adding as its warming properties can heal a multitude of ailments from travel sickness to lifting one’s mood and banishing negative feelings. Packed with antioxidants, it makes the ideal thing for fighting winter bugs and boosting one’s immune system. To make ginger tea, cut a piece of ginger roughly the size of a couple of centimentres. Chop the ginger into fine slices or give it a bit of a bash with a pestle and mortar before adding to your pot or cup. Then boil over boiled water and allow to steep. Honey can be added to sweeten and a pinch of cinnamon can really make this tea zing with extra spice too.
Bath ‘tea’ bag
A good old-fashioned bath. Truly, this is cheating on the ‘tea’ front but it really works if one is feeling a little frazzled. The latest Country Life, steaming hot water and a bath ‘tea’ bag can have you feeling ready for Bedfordshire in no time. To make your bath tea bag, take a piece of muslin cloth and cut into a smallish square. Fill the square with some oats (porridge oats are fine for this), add a teaspoon of lavender flowers to this (a couple of drops of lavender essential oil onto the oats will do the job just as well) and tie up the bag with a little string. Hang over the tap so that the hot water passes through the bag as the bath is drawn. The oats are moisturising and will soothe dry, irritated skin whilst the lavender relaxes and calms the nerves.
All this talk of tea prompted me to pop the kettle on and pour myself a restorative cup. Whilst I was at it, I thought of another old countryside pastime I could take up: reading tea leaves. Now where did I put that sheepskin jacket….?