My country life: the Wizard of Esh

Gemma Hall meets Robert Liddle, a village herbalist who has devoted his life to treating the local community's ailments using plants foraged from the countryside

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Remember how the Wizard of Oz turned out to be an ordinary old man? That’s who I have in mind as I drive through the former mining village of Esh Winning in County Durham on my way to meet herbalist Robert Liddle, nicknamed the Wizard of Esh by his neighbours. I’d love him to bellow out of the window when I arrive: “I am Esh, the greatand terrible,” echoing the book – just something to compensate for the unmagical surroundings.Esh Winning is no Emerald City.

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Robert has a kind face and glint in his eye. But that’s where the likeness to the fictional character ends. You see, the Wizard of Esh really does know how to treat ailments.

So how did the son of a pitman become a medical herbalist? In the 1940s, Robert’s grandmother treated people with herbs. She was regarded as a kind of witch, or “wish woman” as Robert says. From the age of four, Robert helped by collecting herbs from the garden and the woods beyond, and mixing potions.

“If I added too much of something or came back with the wrong plants, I would get a clout round the ear,” he recalls laughing. She called him ‘My Little Merlin’.

“When she died, I got the job,” Robert explains. He was just nine. He supplemented his knowledge with that gleaned from library books. “I’d use herbs collected from hedgerows, fields, woodland edges and the beck. Most were ordinary plants such as foxgloves, dandelions, clovers, nettles and watercress,” he says. Neighbours gave him chamomile and marigolds from their gardens and he picked up other ingredients from the chemist.

By the time Robert was in his early teens, the local doctor started referring on patients who couldn’t afford modern drugs. Robert treated coughs, rashes and many miners’ boils (caused by coal fragments getting lodged in their skin), and sometimes more serious problems. “I treated a woman with kidney failure using mainly dandelion, burdock and clover. I couldn’t cure her kidneys but I could flush out the toxins.”

Robert recalls returning from school to find a queue of patients waiting outside his house. “Some days it was two or three, other times a dozen,” he says. Increasingly, people would also bring him objects to mend such as cameras and radios, and later in life he worked as an engineer.

A Lost Art?

As he sits at a desk in the house he shares with his sister, surrounded by oddments (locals still bring him electrical goods to fix), he reveals some of his favourite herbs, including nettles because they are packed with iron, and arnica, which he says is one of the most versatile. I ask Robert if he plans to record his knowledge of herbs. “I’d love to write it down and pass it on,” he responds, “but I’ve no one to teach.”

Robert leafs through a modern copy of the 17th-century herbalists’ bible, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, which I’ve brought with me, comparing the names of herbs with those he learned, such as ‘old man’s baccy’ for giant ragwort. We talk about herbal medicine today and he reveals that he can no longer use the watercress from the beck or grassland plants because they are contaminated with nitrates and phosphates from surrounding farms. “But,” he says, pointing to a small woodland to the rear of the house, “I can treat most common illnesses from over there.”

And sometimes he relies on magic. “My gran told me water could hold a wish. If you can magnetise water for a short period, which should be impossible, why can’t it hold a wish?” He smiles with a mischievous look. Perhaps he’s a real wizard after all.
 

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THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 31 OCOUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!