Robin Mills went to Nether Cerne in the Cerne Valley, Dorset, to meet medical herbalist Eleanor Gallia. This is her story.
“It was the River Cerne which drew my father to Nether Cerne when he first came to Dorset. I was conceived and christened here, with water from the river filling the 11th Century font.
Going back a generation, my father’s father was a high court judge in Vienna. His family were Austrian and surprisingly artistic: one cousin, Hermione Gallia, had been painted by Gustav Klimt, another, Bettina Vernon, was one of the first “barefoot dancers” to modernise dance. My grandmother’s family were Jewish, and in 1939 when Hitler moved into Vienna my father, Godfrey or Gottfried, was evacuated. My grandfather was interned on the Isle of Man, but eventually the whole family was reunited on a farm in Oxfordshire where Grandpa took work keeping pigs. In 1955 Dad came to Sherborne, where he taught languages. During that time he met my mother, Sylvia Walker, and discovered the joy of fishing the River Cerne. Mum was born at Racedown near Marshwood, a granddaughter of Lady Pinney. At the time she lived at Compton Valence with Granny (Mary) Walker, and still now continues to breed Granny’s line of “East Compton” Springer spaniels. Dad brought one of the first German wire-haired pointers into the UK in the 50s, and my two splendid dogs are descended from this original line. My parents married in 1970, and came to Nether Cerne, Dad immediately creating the lakes, and planting 50 acres of woodland.
My parents’ love of the land has greatly influenced my brother Edward and me. Their understanding of its flora and fauna has been inspirational, and the path to becoming a herbalist has felt very natural. From an early age I would haul plants back from the lake and hedgerows, until Mum said I was only to pick a plant if I knew its name. Thus my love for plants deepened, moving from an instinctive fascination to more of a learning journey. That the plants had names, stories, and uses too, just made them more interesting. Dad used to keep sheep, and I loved lambing time: I looked after the orphan lambs and the sickly ewes, cases that many farmers might call time-wasters. I’d use natural remedies on them, and learned to listen and to watch. They taught me too, with their appetite for ivy to cleanse the placenta after birth, and the way they responded to plants.
I went to school at Hanford, where I climbed trees, rode horses and did handstands; and Sherborne, where, reading Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, from The Canterbury Tales, I first met the mediaeval humours. Chaucer illustrates how we are connected to our environment. The four humours – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, relate to the four elements – earth, fire, water and air, and also the four seasons. Our health depends on the balance between them. Herbs, having both a physiological effect on the body and a seasonal aspect to their growth and harvest, help maintain this balance. The part used is also important, whether fleshy fruit, woody root, fiery seed or watery stem. This view of medicine, as used by the 15th and 16th century herbalists, Culpepper and Gerard, can still be seen particularly in Ayurvedic medicine, and many traditional practices amongst indigenous cultures.
Before going to university to study literature I spent a year in South America. I hitchhiked up through Argentina into Brazil where I visited Mum’s brother in Brasilia and trained as an English teacher. This work took me south to Curitiba and en route I met Binka Le Breton, a writer and forest campaigner, on a bus on her way to the Amazon. Binka comes originally from Dorset, and at the time harboured a dream of transforming her Atlantic Forest farm, “Iracambi”, into a conservation centre. I also discovered capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art / dance, and it completely enchanted me.
In fact it was difficult to leave capoeira and the forest for University. However, reading literature I became fascinated by the deeper meanings hidden within the text in mediaeval fables, and studying them provided insight into the concept of holistic medicine, and the importance of looking beyond the symptoms to the cause of any illness. My interest in healing was growing, being further fuelled by the discovery of “Napiers Herbal Dispensary”, founded in 1860 by Duncan Napier, a baker who was allergic to flour. His time spent in the hills around Edinburgh searching for cures prompted him to establish this widely respected herbal clinic. So in 1996, the summer I graduated from University, I started an apprenticeship with Napiers. Dee Atkinson had taken over from a long succession of Napiers’ sons and she sponsored me to study at the Sussex College of Phytotherapy, at the time the only UK college for herbal medicine.
After seven winters in Edinburgh, I was keen to get out of the city. I wanted to work with fresh plants rather than dried materials, and was hungry for the connection with the environment and the seasons. Through the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) I found work in New Zealand, initially with herbalist Phil Rasmussen who specialised in Maori “bush” medicine. Travelling by horse and by hitching, I WWOOFed my way down through New Zealand (Willingly Working On Organic Farms), growing, harvesting and preparing herbs, and gaining clinic hours in herbal practice. Maori medicine is inspiring, for the physical and spiritual are seen as one, both in the human and plant kingdoms. 11 years on, I’m once again working on an NIMH project with Phil, this time researching the role of herbal medicine in mental health, for The Prince’s Foundation of Integrated Medicine.
Back in Scotland, I worked for Jacqui Hazzard, specialising in herbal treatment for women, on the banks of the river Tay. By then capoeira was becoming popular, and our Edinburgh group “HipHoda” won Millennium funding to take capoeira to the Scottish highlands and islands, teaching and performing in schools and village halls. Now, that was lots of fun, and the tour was set to continue to Brazil. At the same time Binka called: Iracambi had been awarded the support of the Smithsonian Institute, to “research the sustainable development of the forest’s natural resources”. Would I come out and set up the medicinal plant project? So back I danced to the forest, where I was given a hut, and a horse, and the advice to always remove the bridle before crossing a river in flood. My work was with the local healers and hill farmers, revitalising traditional medicines, and reinforcing their concept of value for the forest at a time when there was huge pressure to clear it to grow coffee. Somehow we needed to make the conservation of the forest more attractive than its destruction.
Back home I qualified in 2001, and set up the herbal practice here at Nether Cerne, establishing the clinic and herb garden, and leading herb walks through the summer. One of the first things I did when I joined the NIMH was to start raising awareness for the sustainable sourcing of medicinal plants. I lobbied herbalists, conservation bodies and certifiers: how could we ever hope to improve environmental practices in the forest, if we were not prepared to support the farmers to protect the wild? I soon became actively involved in the international medicinal plant conservation scene, representing herbalists and harvesters in meetings in China, Bosnia and Germany and lecturing in Vienna, and the Isle of Vilm. Recently this work has culminated in the launch of the “FairWild” standard for the fair-trading and sustainable wild collection of medicinal plants. All the herbs used in Nether Cerne clinic are sourced sustainably, either from our garden here or wild harvested, or through traders who support FairWild.
Thinking global, acting local, we host fiestas here at Nether Cerne, fundraising for Iracambi and our parish church, but it’s not just about raising money. It’s about reminding people how we really are connected to our environment, that we need to look after it and ourselves. In the forest or on the farm, we need to save the plants that save lives.”