Ancient hedgerow apothecary knowledge is given a new lease of life through the collaboration of a local apothecary Christine Iverson and publishing director of Summersdale, Claire Plimmer.
Tilly Roberts visits Summersdale, Chichester’s independent non- fiction publishing house on 46 West Street. The interview is held in a cosy office space – lined with books that make up the colours of the rainbow. Tilly interviews local author Christine Iverson and publishing director Claire Plimmer about their recent best-selling book, The Hedgerow Apothecary, as well as their community ties to groups like the Women’s Institute, Writing Our Legacy, and sustainable projects like Tuppenny Barn. The grey morning outside is quickly forgotten by all. The atmosphere is fizzing with the sense of elated satisfaction one gets when an idea has come together perfectly.
Tilly Roberts: Thank you both for meeting me today. To start off, please could you tell me how you two first met?
Claire Plimmer: Well, there’s a bit of history in that I’ve been a long- term customer of the Tuppenny Barn project, which is an organic project on the edge of Southbourne and Emsworth. It was set up by somebody called Maggie Haynes. It’s been alive and kicking for a long time. I was introduced to it by my friend, and I just thought this was fantastic – a local farm selling organic produce and offering a weekly vegetable bag scheme. I’ve been a long-term customer. Christinestartedworking there looking after the Thursday produce shop, amongst other things, and we got chatting over collecting bags. Then one day, she told me that she was thinking of publishing a book, in her capacity as a ‘hedgerow apothecary’ – my eyes just lit up.
So, I spoke to Christine a bit more about her idea. [To Christine] I think you had a little sort of pamphlet in mind, didn’t you? That you were going to print yourself and distribute through your own connections that you might have in the church and the Women’s Institute. Then I asked, have you ever thought about publishing it properly? You looked pretty terrified, but that was the start of the conversation, really.
Christine Iverson: Yes! It came completely out of the blue from a random conversation. I was writing for the parish magazine just once a month; what to find in the hedgerow, a recipe, and some folklore. So, Claire asked me to submit some of that to her, which I did. The rest is history!
Claire: So, the way a book gets published here is to have a monthly ‘acquisitions’ meeting. Anyone from the company can contribute to that. We create a lot of home-grown books here. So, a lot of what we publish is the I.P. (Intellectual Property) that we generate in-house. But we also accept projects from external writers. So I presented Christine’s book to the meeting, and there was a resounding thumbs up. “Yes, we love this idea!” So, then we began the relatively long process of preparing a book for publication. One of the editors in my team worked hand-in- glove with Christine to make sure that the production quality was the way we wanted it to be. The ‘foraging’ market was growing, but it was growing fast, and there was a lot of competition, so our contribution had to look beautiful.
Christine: Because I’m not a writer in any shape or form, Summersdale really held my hand and guided me along – they were very kind, and gave me lots of hints like “Well, this would sound better if it was like this.”
Tilly: How did you feel about the idea of publishing a book rather than a pamphlet?
Christine: Fantastic! I was really, really excited. But I didn’t quite understand how much work was involved. There was a huge number of hours sat writing.
Tilly: How many hours do you think in total?
Christine: Gosh, I was doing it most weekends, pretty much all day. It takes me about six months to do my part of the initial writing. But I do work as well, so it is a case of fitting it around that. But I really love the research and finding things out and looking at the folklore, history, and superstition. It’s so interesting!
Claire: I think that’s what makes it great; it’s not just a foraging book; it’s all the background information Christine’s sourced that makes it special.
Tilly: Is there any advice you would give someone who’s got a lot of passion and knowledge and is thinking about publishing a book?
Christine: You’ve got to have the right connections, really. Somebody said to me, “How did you get a publishing deal? It’s so difficult to land a publishing deal.”
Luckily for me, it walked through the door. I don’t think it is as easy as that in many cases. But I think if you write about something passionately and research it, then it might get picked up.
Claire: Just to chip in there. As Christine said, it is tough to get a book published. It was a serendipitous moment that created our connection. If you are a brilliant writer, you could write on anything. But it does stand out if you have a passion for something. The easiest way for people to get started is to seek out an agent. Because an agent will do most of the leg work for you and find the right publisher for you. Then, it is also advisable to look at what’s selling. If you wanted to try and get published from the non-fiction perspective, at least love what you’re writing about. Because that will really help you.
Christine: I completely agree with that. If I wasn’t passionately interested in what I was doing, it would be a chore, but it has been a pleasure because I really enjoyed everything that I learnt and researched.
Tilly: So when did The Garden Apothecary, come along?
Christine: Instead of walking around the hedgerows, I was stuck at home during Covid. I’ve got two nieces who are nurses. They said to me; “Our hand’s are so sore!” As they were constantly washing their hands at work. They asked me, “Have you got anything you can make for us?” And I wandered around the garden thinking, hmm, what can I make? And there was a calendula. I came up with this lovely balm for your hands. I got this seed of an idea. If I can make this balm with calendula, what can I make with the other things in my garden? I didn’t have a lot of time to focus on my new idea, as I was working throughout the lockdown. I ran the shop at Tuppenny Barn, which involved making all sorts of jams and chutneys with our excess vegetables, drying herbs and all sorts of stuff.
Claire: Christine was a key worker throughout lockdown which obviously came with a lot of stress and strain, so the garden was an absolute oasis – as it was for lots of people. I think that The Garden Apothecary will be even more popular than The Hedgerow Apothecary. People who’ve loved the first book and who are lucky enough to own their own green space will find so many opportunities to forage from their back garden. And there’s also lots of advice in the book about the types of plants you can plant. Whether it’s roses to herbs, there are lots of ways to make the most of everyday garden plants.
Christine: It is not just limited to those people who have green spaces – if you have a windowsill, you can grow a few herbs.
Claire: I think there is a lot of fun ideas in the gardening one too; bird feeders, hand balms, potions, and even dog biscuits!
Christine: I have been drying herbs and making lovely biscuits for my own dog for ages now. It makes sense to use natural ingredients instead of shop-bought kind. I’m making turmeric biscuits at the moment because my dog has had a few joint problems.
Claire: I also bought the most fantastic elderberry rob that Christine makes and sells through the Tuppenny Barn. You see, when I was suffering from long Covid, I had this terrible sore throat that just wouldn’t go away. So, Christine said, “You need some of this!” It is the most delicious thing. Full of cloves and berries.
Christine: Yes, it is very good for a sore throat as it’s so full of antioxidants and vitamins which boost your immune system.
Tilly: Is a rob a kind of drink?
Christine: Yes, you boil it with water and sugar, and have it as a hot drink. It is wonderful. I don’t think people realise what you can find out in the hedgerows. That is a big part of doing something like this. I wanted people to take a bit more time to look at what is around them. Also to understand that an ingredient like blackberries are versatile. You can make a blackberry vinegar with them, which is also really lovely to gargle with if you’ve got a sore throat. It’s great for salad dressing as well. There are so many possible recipes hiding in the hedgerow for people to discover and share.
Claire: I find that foraging is a mindful activity as well, giving yourself time to slow down and focus on what’s growing all around you when you go for a walk – it is really cathartic.
Christine: It also makes you think about the seasonality of food. People do not realise that you cannot get blackberries all year round, and that half of the fruit and vegetables they are eating either come from abroad or are grown in a greenhouse. I think we need to stop and think, “This is what we can get, this is what is seasonal, and this is what I am going to eat.”
Christine: Claire and I really wanted to make something that people could dip in and out of. Like, ooh, what’s that over there. What can I do with that? We wanted it to be accessible for people and ensure they are not intimidated. Every plant I have included is safe and easy to identify.
Claire: They are easy to make as well, aren’t they?
Christine: Yes. I have received a lot of messages and photos on my Instagram page from people who have tried my recipes and loved them. Which is absolutely lovely to hear.
Claire: I have yet to make something in the original book, but I am desperate to make the beech leaf alcohol. You have to catch the brilliant green colour of the newly formed leaves at the start of the season.
Christine: Yes, that is a lovely drink.
Claire: Sloe Gin is another beautiful drink; is it true, Christine, that you have to wait for the first frost before you can pick them?
Christine: Well, you can, or you can just pop them in the freezer. That is what I tend to do; otherwise, the birds will have them.
Tilly: So, Claire, what is the most enjoyable part of finding and publishing these beautiful books?
Claire: Definitely the creativity. I am bursting with creative ideas. Also, the variety of what we do, and the fact that you can interact with some fascinating people, like Christine, along the way. I have learnt so much from reading Christine’s books. I am also an avid walker. When I am out, I bore my husband to death with “Did you know…”
Christine: You and me both. Foraging is addictive once you start. When I go for a walk, I always take a camera with me so I can identify new plants when I get home. Nearly every time I go out, I find something else I haven’t heard of before. Then I research all the folklore and superstition, which is just as interesting.
Tilly: And passing that knowledge down is really important as well, isn’t it?
Christine: Definitely! Otherwise, we are going to lose it.
Claire: I really feel that what you have done, Christine, has given this traditional knowledge and plant-related folklore a new lease of life. And especially now, when many people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Seasonal knowledge of the local area could help a lot of people start living a more sustainable lifestyle.
Christine: Definitely, so once a month I give talks at the W.I., which I just love.
Tilly: What is the W.I.?
Christine: It is the Women’s Institute; groups of older ladies which have been meeting for over a hundred years. A lot of these women are as knowledgeable about the hedgerows as I am. After I finished my talks, these women would come to me and tell me how during the war they used to go and pick rosehips from the hedgerows when they were children. The government sent women and children out to pick rosehips, because they are rich in vitamin C. The fruit imports had stopped because of the embargoes, so we had to find another way to get vitamin C. The children would pick them, then the women at the W.I. would process them and send them off to be made into rosehip syrup. This syrup would be given out at baby clinics across the country. So, many of these ladies came to me to say, “I was one of those children, I used to do that.” These stories from the older generation will be lost and the knowledge that goes with them if we do not keep them alive.
Christine: I don’t know how the W.I. are faring in Covid times, but there used to be one in Emsworth.
Christine: They are a marvellous bunch of ladies – and feisty, as well. They have quite an impact on politics. They are also expanding, as people from younger generations join them.
Claire: I think it taps into the allotment craze; so many people are on allotment waiting lists. The age range is getting wider and wider as more young people are looking to find a more holistic and environmentally-friendly approach to living. I think it would be lovely if the W.I. had a renaissance where young people got involved and started working with the older generation.
Tilly: When I was younger, I was lucky enough to go to a Steiner school in Brighton. Every Wednesday, we had a lesson involving us all going up to the school’s allotment and learning about gardening techniques, composting, and planning for seasonal harvests. It was a brilliant way to learn self-reliance and gardening.
Christine: It is so important to get young children interested in growing.
Claire: And to understand the providence of food.
Christine: That’s what we do at Tuppenny Barn. We have a lot of school parties, and they will go out. They’ll get to pick something, or plant something, or find seeds, or cook – and they will find out about composting, wildlife conservation, and sustainability. It’s fantastic. Especially when we get schools from the inner city – they don’t actually know where a carrot comes from or where spinach comes from. So they get to pick the spinach and cook with it and make food to take back home. It is wonderful.
Tilly: Are you in contact with any other groups in Chichester or the Sussex area?
Claire: There’s a group in Brighton that we were in touch with, Writing Our Legacy, a group set up to try and bring writing to a more diverse group of people. They are a great group that does a lot of fundraising. So, we ended up supporting that group with a monetary donation. Because one of the things we’ve tried in our publishing is to represent diversity. We have quite a few books written by people of colour, so we got in touch with this group to see if any of their members would be interested in writing for a local publisher. It is really lovely having local contacts. We also do work with Chichester University and its creative courses.
Our staff members also speak at local schools.
Tilly: Thank you both for meeting with me and sharing all of your stories and passions. It has been really refreshing to talk about the benefits of really looking around you when you are out walking, and learning about your connections with the local community.
For those who are interested in foraging and picking wild foods in the hedgerows, there are a few guidelines to follow. Firstly, stay away from busy roads as the hedgerows around them will be heavily polluted.
It can also be quite dangerous to be ducking in and out of the hedges as cars go past. It is important to bring a guidebook with you, so you can properly identify the plants you are picking. Do not pick anything unless you are certain you have identified it. The plants mentioned in Christine Iverson’s books are safe, easy to identify, and easy to prepare and cook. If you are going to forage, it is also advisable to check whether the land is privately owned. If it is, you need to ask permission from the landowner, who will probably not have a problem with you foraging. You can find more information online.
Some of the safe and easily identifiable edible plants which you will be able to find in spring from January to April: