Sunday. Freezing, sunny. Walthamstow farmers’ market. Quiche, hot fritter, tomatoes. Goodies gathered for the day.
I wend my way with my bicycle and my basket down the high street, peacefully peopled in this clear brightness but an absolute contrast to the hawking crowds of Saturday. Down, down, down to the end and over the edge, past the last houses of Coppermill and across the border, the large metal plate that bears you over to the wild side of water and yawking birds. Fly on down – silver cityscape dreaming away on left – under the goldening trees and the crazy low tunnel, head ducked paranoically. Then the marshes. Meadowsweet is long gone; Comfrey banks have been shorn and shaved. The air is pure and sweet. There are sacred groves! There are no sirens! Along and on to the marina crowded with boats, the bridge, Stamford Hill couples crossing solemnly in gigantic fur hats, Russian-style. Such a glorious day here. It’s morning busy – canoes, breakfasters in lovely sunshine in front of the caff, football at play and jolly shouts in Springfield park beyond. I find what I’m looking for. Step aboard! Stormvogel is moored under the bridge and smoke issues gently from its roof. I spy some herbalists…
The Herbal Barge, I gotta say, is quite a magical little domain. Wooden shelves all crammed with ointments, bunches of protective plants hanging from windows, mysterious snuff boxes, jars of teas… a delicious little kitchen with old tiled black iron stove and a mess of pots… You step down from glinting green surrounds reflected in the (today not so murky) canal, colourful boats lined all along, bright blue sky above – into a warm sunlit little space full of enticing smells and discussions. What is this? It’s an awesome little converted barge – ‘London’s first floating apothecary in 350 years’ – resulting from the handiwork of several years of Melissa Ronaldson, a medical herbalist whose creations and achievements to date include her collection of herbal snuffs, formation (with a small group of colleagues) of the London Community Herbalists and a lot of community action: sharing and teaching herb lore, making medicines and developing herb gardens, striving for vigorous and just representation of herbal medicine in this country… you can see the love and power of her vocation shining out of the carefully made spaces and pots of medicine all around you on this boat. Melissa ain’t here today though – I’m sharing the day with Annwen and Siobhan, two blessed herbalist creatures that I got to know at the Green Gathering, documented early on in this blog. Annwen the Welsh elf is listening to Cerys on Radio 6 and pottering about making fragrant tea, Siobhan is talking nineteen to the dozen as she does (she spends the day doing consultations under cover of looong friendly conversations)… ahh, what a happy place to be for breakfast. I put out the hot fritter with chilli sauce and we all sit on deck at the plastic-clothed table drinking tea as various visitors step on and sit and pass some time with us. The lure of Stormvogel is too fascinating to resist I think – as it would be for me if I were some unsuspecting member of the public strolling by. The day goes on like this, making lots of tea, welcoming folks aboard, them telling us things, us talking about health and herbs… most of our Mill workshops people come to hang out which is great. One comes asking for a magic cream that she had from Melissa that enabled her to walk again at a festival after being laid low by her knee complaint… Annwen and I begin a mission to recreate this, going by the ingredients on the old label. Filippo brings lunch of Jamaican stew and rice from the market. We mix teas, we talk, we show people round, we share ideas and knowledge about medicines and what grows around us in the marshes. A long and lovely autumn day spiralled about by sun and light and gentleness and learning.
Melissa has a little consultation room at the back of the boat but it’s not her main place of practice – but the barge will be around on the canals at certain times, with a Christmas floating market on the cards (location to be confirmed – check on the Herbal Barge website) and monthly moorings at Springfield Marina. Do come visit.