The Clerk in the Country

Friday 21st July 2023

Fast plants

Before the present spell of showery weather set in, the first combine harvester was seen in action in a barley field nearby.  The return of sunshine will see wheat, oats and rape being gathered, but in the village of Bolton Percy thoughts will be turning to the harvesting of a quite different crop.

On one of the fine sunny days we enjoyed in June, a group of YPS members gathered at Hornington Manor, just outside the village, to learn about the growing and processing of a plant not commonly seen in our countryside.  Because of its psychoactive properties, a special licence is required to grow hemp, even, as here, the varieties bred for their fibrous stems which are useless for the production of cannabis.  Aside from its recreational and nowadays increasingly understood medical properties, Cannabis sativa has since ancient times been exploited for canvas and rope, making it vital for sailing vessels through the ages.  Samuel Pepys “looked over several sorts of hemp” in the ropeyard at Woolwich, carrying out a “great survey of seeing the working and experiments of the strength and the charge in the dressing of every sort”.

Similar experimentation was needed at Hornington Manor to find a way of breaking down the tough fibres to make them suitable for a mattress filling.  An early machine, purchased to break open the bales brought in from the fields, was itself broken within days.  It had to be replaced with one built to deal with heavy duty steel cable.

Hemp is also one of the fastest growing plants on earth and in favourable conditions can reach 16 feet in height within three or four months.  At the time we viewed a field at Hornington Manor, the season so far had been too dry for optimum growth and the plants had not yet reached waist height.  The rain since may have encouraged a spurt.  This rapid growth means hemp takes in considerably more carbon dioxide than it emits; an ideal crop for combatting global warming.

Tall fast-growing plants always put me in mind of John Wyndham’s triffids, those fearsome plants with a lethal sting, the ability to shuffle around on their roots and even to communicate with one another.  When the book was written, concern about global warming was in the future but triffids already had a solution.  Not content with standing in fields absorbing carbon, they set out to hunt down and eliminate the cause of the problem; the human race.

Our group moved on for lunch and further exploration of Bolton Percy village, leaving the hemp plants to increase in size by another 6 inches and discuss among themselves whether they could head us off before we reached the sanctuary of the 15th century church.

For a report on the YPS visit to Bolton Percy, click here