EP15: The Handmade Apothecary

In this episode I talk with two amazing herbalists about why we need to build ‘health resilience’ using herbal medicine, in an age of NHS cuts and a national health crisis.

When is the best time to self-medicate, and when should you visit the doctor? Why modern medicine isn’t always evil, and what our grandparents could have taught us about how plants, herbs and other foods can empower us.

There is a transcript of this episode underneath the show notes for those with hearing difficulties.

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Show Notes

About Vicky & Kim

Kim Walker & Vicky Chown from The Handmade Apothecary

Kim Walker & Vicky Chown met whilst studying Herbal Medicine at the University of Westminster, became friends and set up Handmade Apothecary as a way to share herbal medicine with local communities.

They now live on a narrowboat, with Marley the dog, travelling across London and beyond using the plants they find along the way.

Transcript

Robin Harford:
This is Robin Harford from eatweeds.co.uk and foragingcourses.com. I am here today with two characters. Do you want to introduce yourself, what your names are?

Vicky Chown:
I’m Vicky Chown

Kim Walker:
And I’m Kim Walker.

Robin Harford:
You are both the authors of a brand new herbal book called?

Kim Walker:
The Handmade Apothecary.

Robin Harford:
So what’s your story? Tell us a little bit about you, what’s your background? Are you just folk herbalists? Are you qualified herbalists?

Vicky Chown:
We are both qualified medical herbalists. We both studied at the University of Westminster, which is actually where we met but we’ve got quite different backgrounds in terms of how we interacted with herbs as children and our journey with herbs. Kim, tell yours.

Kim Walker:
I was brought up in Scotland, in the middle of nowhere in an ancient piece of woodland that used to stretch all the way across Europe. It was a really ancient, lichen dripping, beautiful tree based cottage and I guess that’s where I found my love for plants. But when I was 18, I moved all the way up to London and went around the city working for the London Stock Exchange and having a crazy 20s. At some point during my late 20s, I thought I really need to start healing myself, I’ve been a bit wild and so I enrolled onto herbal medicine and I’ve been with plants ever since.

Vicky Chown:
[two_third_last]Yeah. Kim had a really nice, pretty kind of countryside. You didn’t mention but your grandmother also practised quite a bit of folk medicine using herbs. I grew up in a really run down part of North London surrounded by concrete and I don’t understand where I got my love of herbs from. I just know that ever since I was a very small child, I loved being outside and I loved being in green spaces and picking dandelion heads and making potions from them. I loved all of the folklore behind plants, which kind of led me down my own healing path and led me to enrol at the University of Westminster as well.

Kim Walker:
[two_third_last]I guess that shows the two sides of the way people can come towards plants. One is being part of it from a young age and never wanting to let it go and the other one is a reaction to living in a concrete juggle.

Vicky Chown:
Or just an innate need for it, you know? Humans, as part of nature, is just I needed it. Even now I need country fixes. I know people who live in the country say they need a city fix, I need a country fix. I need to get out in the green even if it’s a green space within London.

Kim Walker:
I think that’s true. When I worked as a temp in the London Stock Exchange … I think this is a really significant moment … you can imagine it was manic. It was getting up at 5:00 in the morning to get there and after six weeks … I was temping … and they offered me a full-time job.I just went, “No. No, way.” I walked straight out there and signed up for college instead at Capel Manor, which is a lovely horticultural college and stayed with the plants.

Robin Harford:
How did the idea for the book come about? The title of it again being?

Vicky Chown:
The name of our business, which is The Handmade Apothecary. Well, me and Kim started working together after we finished university. I think I was still in my last year and Kim had finished. We started doing something that we didn’t get at university, which was more of the practical forging side of things. We did a lot of clinical training, a lot of science training and research-based stuff, but we didn’t get the hands-on herbalism that we really want, that we thought we’d get so we started going out.

Kim’s really interested in botany, we’re both very interested in plants and just forging for ourselves and then decided to teach others how to do the same. That’s how our company, The Handmade Apothecary, started. And just so happened that along the way we got invited to be the Evening Standard newspaper as a feature and the Ham & High because a lot of our walks are in the North London area.

Kim Walker:
Which is a newspaper.

Vicky Chown:
Yeah, the Ham & High newspaper. And we were spotted by a publisher called Kyle Books, who asked us to write them a book. That was always on the cards. We always said we wanted to write a book but we thought it would be 20 years down the line when we were old ladies and we were old hands at it. So it was a bit of a shock but we grabbed it with both hands.

Kim Walker:
It’s something you can’t really turn down. We sat down and went, “Okay, let’s write a book then.”

Robin Harford:
There are differences of herbalism. There are so many books out there that they just glance over things. They’re really just eye candy when it comes to herbal medicine and you kind of get dribs and drabs. I suppose the word is superficial, they’re pretty superficial. But it sounds like, from previous discussions with you, that this is a book that basically you wished you’d had when you first started out.

Vicky Chown:
[two_third_last]We often found that we’d have to buy five books to learn the basics of herbal medicine. So what we wanted to write is a book that encompassed all the things were looking for when we first started our herbal journey. It gives a bit about forging, it tells about how to make your own remedies. The holistic sense of it, in terms of how the body works as well, is really important but it doesn’t just touch on it, we do go quite in depth. It’s a 60,000-word book but it’s also very pretty. We’re quite proud of the balance there. A lot of people say it’s a really beautiful … It could be a coffee table book but it’s got the information in there too. Don’t be fooled by the pretty pictures, it does have a hell of a lot of meaty, meaty stuff in there.

Kim Walker:
We had a fantastic photographer who was just totally on point about everything. Every time we turned up with plants, she’d put them on the table, we’d work with it and it would just work out really well.

Vicky Chown:
Her name is Sarah Cuttle. We also had an amazing editor who managed to, somehow, put everything we wrote in those 60,000 words, in a pretty order and fit with a picture. That’s a really hard thing to do. Yeah, very lucky for that.

Robin Harford:
How many plants do you cover in the book?

Vicky Chown:
I think it’s 80-something.

Robin Harford:
Oh, really? Wow.

Kim Walker:
At least that.

Robin Harford:
Wow.

Vicky Chown:
We should know the answer to that. But we’ve got culinary herbs as well and then also there are herbs that have popped into recipes but don’t necessarily have a full monologue on them. Monograph, sorry, not a monologue.

Kim Walker:
[two_third_last]We probably counted at the beginning but since then we took out and put in. We haven’t actually sat down and counted but it must be 80 to 100.

Vicky Chown:
It’s a hell of it. Lots of wild plants that you can find in your local environment and also ones you can grow at home.

Kim Walker:
Including urban environment as well, which is quite important.

Vicky Chown:
And ones that you can find in the supermarket, funny enough because what we wanted to do was make sure it’s accessible. All of the plants that we covered, even things like garlic and ginger, okay, you’re probably not going to grow that at home, maybe garlic, not so much ginger, but you can use them from the supermarket to help a cold or a bacterial infection for instance.

Robin Harford:
They’re readily available to gather.

Vicky Chown:
Exactly.

Robin Harford:
Some of the ones that you go out and forage for, are they harder? You can’t just pop into a herbal depository and pick them up, they are ones that you’d exactly have to go out and gather?

Kim Walker:
No, not at all. I think we’ve mainly chosen ones that … We’re writing it to make it accessible to all sorts. Even if you don’t have time to forage very often, if you did want some herb you should be able to get them from a local herbalist as well or from a herb shop but they also available for foraging.

Vicky Chown:
[two_third_last]Another thing that we did was emphasise how to store and prepare your herbs so that you can go and do one day of forging and collect maybe five plants and store them in such a way that you can use them throughout the year. For instance, elderberry cordial, you can make that into a mixture with sugar, which preserves it and you can keep that for easily a year in the cupboard. It can be used for any kind of immune problems, so when you have a cough or a cold or if you’re immune system is feeling a bit low. It can be used for so many things. Yeah.

Robin Harford:
A lot of herbal books are, I’ve got a sniffle and a snot cold so I can go and take, I don’t know, something like, I don’t know, yarrow or something.

Vicky Chown:
You could use yarrow.

Robin Harford:
But you seem to be approaching it … I mean this word holistic. What does that mean? Because a lot of people with a perception of herbal medicine, one, they can often confuse it with homoeopathy and also they see medicinal plants as a pharmaceutical drug. I’ve got a headache so I’m going to take an aspirin. But medicinal plants don’t … they kind of can work in a symptomatic way, kind of what I call crash medicine.

Kim Walker:
Which is fine for acute things like if you’ve got a sore throat, why not?

Robin Harford:
Fine or an immediate situation but it’s a little bit more rounded than that it seems.

Vicky Chown:
We give a background on the body systems. For instance, I think we mention … we should go into it. One of my favourite examples is headache. A lot of people say, “I suffer from headaches, what can I take?” I say, “Well, if you want to take something now, have a painkiller,” and that’s what a doctor would give you. But actually, as a holistic therapist, if we sit down … a first consultation would be an hour, even up to two … we sit down and we go through everything. We look at your lifestyle, your family history, all of your body systems.

It could be due to the fact that you have too much stress at work, you’re sitting in a funny posture, you’ve got neck tension, you’ve got high blood pressure, it could be digestive issues. There are so many things that could contribute to you having a headache. Taking a painkiller will take away the pain but it won’t necessarily heal a long-term problem of headaches. Maybe you have inflammatory bowel disease and it’s affecting your headaches, maybe that’s what we need to fix first. That’s the idea of holism in herbal medicine.

Kim Walker:
In the book, it’s saying to people to … it’s looking at the beginnings of when you first start looking at body systems and you’re starting to understand what might be causing things. Having a little sit and think about yourself as well before you just treat symptomatically.

Vicky Chown:
But we were also realistic. We wanted to say to people you can treat yourself to a certain degree but eventually, it needs to be a degree for you to treat yourself. Sometimes we say if it’s this problem you should go and see a herbalist to get to the bottom of it because they are experts in their field just like a doctor would be. Just like if someone had cancer we wouldn’t say, “Hey, eat this leaf. Go and see a doctor.” There’s definitely a practical element to it too and we try to give that advice as much as we can.

Robin Harford:
I think that’s important because I often get back people who come on my walks and I talk about nettle roots and prostate health. I have a number of people who email me, guys obviously, email me and they say, “I’ve just been diagnosed with prostate cancer at this stage, is there any plants?” My immediate response is well, first off, I’m not a medical herbalist. Second is, it’s not something you would self-medicate over, you need to go and see a professional. There is a place for the home herbalist who treats their kids and some of their friends and neighbours and whatever but then there are the more chronic conditions, which do need an expert. Let’s face it.

Kim Walker:
The key for that is, if you do have something like a serious condition, it is all about educating yourself. You can find out what could help you support other treatments but it’s about education as well.

Vicky Chown:
Knowing your body. Knowing what’s normal for you and what’s normal for us as human race is really important and is something that we’re quite passionate about. We feel it should be taught more in schools. A lot of people don’t know when it’s time to see a doctor and when it’s not. That can be a really tricky thing for a lot of people. Some people are over sensitive and go to the doctors for everything and some people hold back for very important things.

Kim Walker:
With an overstretched NHS as well. It’s a really problematic future of serious antibiotic resistance. If people are going to the doctor and demanding antibiotics for a virus, which doesn’t treat a virus, you’ve got a big problem though. If people are a bit more empowered about their own health and they know what simple home remedies they can use in what appropriate situation, then that’s going to help everybody all round.

Robin Harford:
Yeah. I work with a herbalist, who shall not be named, who works with the House of Commons and the House of Lords and the government in all that whole regulatory side. One of the problems with the National Health, with their not being money, he told me that the statistics were, that 50% of people that go into an NHS doctor’s surgery are there purely for social contact, so they’re isolated. The next 25% are there for a sniffle and snot cold, that your work and herbalist like yourself could teach everyday people to self-manage their own healthcare. The final 25% are actually the people who need to be in the doctor’s surgery. You’ve got 75% of people in a doctor’s surgery who don’t need to be there.

Vicky Chown:
So sad.

Kim Walker:
It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Robin Harford:
I mean one of the things when you start talking body systems, it’s kind of like, oh my god, bodily systems. I’m immediately seeing, generally, men in white coats, skeletons, and pictures of internal organs. It’s like, whoa, I’m immediately freaked out.

Vicky Chown:
That’s how we were trained. We were trained as clinical herbalists and we do have a really good understanding of how the body works.

Robin Harford:
How have you translated that academic, tyranny of the cranium, as I love to call it, into something that everyday people relate to?

Kim Walker:
That’s one of the problems, is you’ve got that division between the experts that you go to for your health and a lot of people don’t have any real knowledge of that their bodies are saying to them.

Robin Harford:
Don’t even know where their spleen is.

Vicky Chown:
No.

Kim Walker:
No.

Robin Harford:
Where’s your liver? “Um.”

Kim Walker:
That’s not your fault. It’s something that needs to maybe be addressed in education, for people to just really understand their health, whether it’s at primary school, high school. That’s what we’re doing in the book is trying to get people to be a bit more empowered about themselves. Of course, if they were, then there wouldn’t be that problem, would there, about 75% and an overstretched NHS. Because the NHS is a fantastic service, of free medical care and really amazing discoveries in medicine have really changed humankind, infant mortality and life expectancy has really expanded, but people do need to be a little bit less handheld.

I think that’s one thing I notice between Britain particularly, when we have people from Europe, all over, whether it’s Poland, or France, or Sweden who come on our walks. They actually go, “Oh, yeah, I recognise this tree. We use this a lot. Everybody goes out and picks it in the summer and we use it for this.” They don’t even realise they’re doing that as a herbal medicine self-care thing. They seem to have really maintained this oral tradition of going out and getting plants, which is really closely linked with food and health, which we seem to have really lost over here. If it’s to do with us being an island and different politics, I don’t know what it is but we need to take some lessons on from Europe.

Robin Harford:
Because I travel a lot … when I’m in Europe, I feel there’s more connection when I’m in villages or I watch the old people going out and I’m seeing them gathering plants. It’s just a second nature, it’s just part of the culture of what is done. Even just in somewhere like Italy or Spain, when I visit it’s like wow, we really don’t have that actually in the British Isles.

Vicky Chown:
Not at all.

Robin Harford:
I’m sure it’s got something to do with us being an island state. Then when I go into say, Southeast Asia, where they’re more out. They have to do it out of necessity still, whereas, in Europe, it’s just more a cultural thing. It’s not a necessity, per se, it’s just what people choose to do, but in Asia and Africa, they have to do it. It’s like every time I come back to Britain, I’m quite down about just how disconnected we are to such commonplace practises that we used to be very connected to.

Kim Walker:
I guess it’s to do with our complex history. Just to think all this knowledge that people hold in Europe, we had to go to university for. It’s crazy, isn’t it?

Robin Harford:
I know. Your grandmother didn’t teach you or your mother didn’t teach you.

Kim Walker:
Yeah, we’ve got a complex history of witch burning, I guess, and being scared of wise women and regulation medicine, which in some cases is handy because of safety and really understanding herbs to get new medicines. But people should be more in touch, to be able to go out and say I’ve got a headache or sore throat or I can’t sleep. Oh, there’s a tree over there I can pick it from. Instead of having to wait six weeks for a doctor’s appointment and then maybe getting some help or not.

Especially with chronic conditions. There’s not a great deal of success that people find for things like PMS and period pains over time, except maybe a painkiller or other things like autoimmune diseases. I mean there are great treatments but sometimes the best experts on this are the patients themselves and herbal medicine really works very well the kind of [crosstalk 00:18:04].

Vicky Chown:
There are some real areas where herbal medicine really excels. The immune system, as you said, lots of hormonal issues. Herbs have this amazing way, not all herbs, but a lot of herbs have this amazing way of being synergistic in the body and they just go in and do their thing. The mechanisms sometimes aren’t even fully understand by science, even though they’ve been well studied, they go in and balance. For instance, hawthorn, which is a flower that’s out now, we use it for blood pleasure. I was going to say high blood pressure but it’s actually regulatory. It goes in if you’ve got high blood pressure it can lower it and if you’ve got low blood pressure it can raise it.

Robin Harford:
A bit like ginseng in that sense, isn’t it?

Vicky Chown:

It’s amazing. It’s an adaptogen. We call it an adaptogen. It adapts the body state to what … it modulates. It’s just unbelievable how that works. And stuff that’s very sensitive, like the immune system and like the hormonal system. Say you had polycystic ovary’s syndrome, the doctor would probably put you on a pill that suppressed all of your natural hormones and gave you some extras, which can cause havoc.

It can help a lot of women’s symptoms but as soon as you come off the pill, you’re back to square one. Especially if you want to conceive, you’re back to square one and you can have lots of problems. But there are herbs that can really, really balance that out for you and actually work to getting your body into a much better state of being. That’s something that is very difficult to learn. I don’t know about you Kim, but it took me years of university to realise that that was how herbs worked and just to sit back and relax and trust them a bit. Yeah.

But in the book, we basically, in short of your question, we tried to make it as easy to understand for people as possible. We tested it out on family members and friends and said, “We’ve written about the reproductive system. It’s quite a complicated system, do you understand this?” And we got lots of feedback because being a bit more of an expert in your field, it’s very easy to over complicate things.

Robin Harford:
Yeah, to see the wood for the trees.

Vicky Chown:
Exactly, so we made it as simple as possible without dumbing it down.

Robin Harford:
Yeah. I was quite amazed because obviously, we’re in London as listeners can hear by the traffic and aeroplanes  that are going on.

Vicky Chown:
And birds. A mixture of [crosstalk 00:20:18].

Robin Harford:
Yeah, the rest of the [inaudible 00:20:21] world. I was teaching yesterday with a medical herbalist, doing a wild food, wild medicine day and we had two GPs on it. One of these GPs, who we ended up just going out and having a drink with, was extraordinary. It seems that there’s a bred of younger, really bright young things, like you guys, coming in. Although she’s a traditional GP, she’s also incredibly open to nutrition, predominately nutrition.

One of her biggest frustrations with patients when they’re coming into the surgery is they just want to be given something. They’ll come in and go, “Just give me antibiotics for my cold.” She’s going, “Actually, I’m not going to give you antibiotics.” Now, for a doctor to say, “No, I’m not just going to give you antibiotics, actually. We’re going to start looking at you a little bit differently.” That gives hope that actually there is possibly some shifting going on.

I think, predominately because the NHS is so overtaxed, that the more wise, new, young doctors coming through now, are recognising the power of nutrition, the power of plant medicines and trying to educate the general public that this is how we have to go. It doesn’t matter how angry we get that the NHS is failing people and is basically going bankrupt, the reality is what the reality is. We can either sit and be a victim and whine about the state’s not providing for my healthcare anymore, or we can take control of our own healthcare and start learning about plants as medicine and plants as food. Often, that boundary of that plant is medicinal and that plant is for food is very blurred, you know?

Kim Walker:
That’s a two-way street. If people start to help themselves and they are helping the NHS by not going for minor complaints. That would be the ideal situation, I guess. I think there’s been a lot of research in recent years about this kind of qualitative … like not just does this drug help people but also looking at people’s lifestyles and the things that people can help themselves. Doctors are looking into that more and saying, “Okay, I’m not going to give the antibiotic.” I think as more and more research grows, that will be more accepted and it is happening.

Vicky Chown:
But it’s the attitudes of people as well. As a practising  herbalist, you get some patients who are not willing to make any challenges, dietary, they won’t stop smoking.

Kim Walker:
… and they say, “Give me something.” You go, “Well, I can give you something but it’s not going to change the fact that you’re allergic to gluten. If you keep eating gluten there’s nothing I can do for you. I can help you as much as I can but I can’t stop your allergy in total.” Yeah. It’s about your social ideas and the fact that people need to take control of their own health as well.

Robin Harford:
To wrap and pack the interview. How do people get in touch with you? One of the reasons I’m interviewing you folks is because I get really good feedback and hear about you through other people. About one, your knowledge base, two, your ability to make complexity really simple to teach people about plant medicines. Have you got a website that people can find you on?

Kim Walker:
Yeah. It’s www.handmadeapothecary.co.uk.

Robin Harford:
Okay, and the name of the book is Handmade Apothecary.

Kim Walker:
Yeah. The book’s called The Handmade Apothecary but our website’s handmadeapothecary.co.uk. We have Instagram and Facebook and Twitter as well, so people can find us on there as Handmade Apothecary.

Robin Harford:
Okay. That’s really cool. All right. Thank you, folks.

Vicky Chown:
Thank you for having us.

Kim Walker:
Thank you.

Vicky Chown:
It’s lovely talking to you.

Kim Walker:
Yeah, a pleasure.

11 thoughts on “EP15: The Handmade Apothecary”

  1. A very interesting interview, which touched many areas most of us would like more info on, and gave a good few tips too. The new book sounds easy to read, and very educational, maybe a good book too to educate school children about the benefits of herbs, as this subject is rarely taught in school. Look forward to reading it, well done you two. Regards from Julie

  2. It is so good to know there are young people relearning this important skill. I have studded Culpeper’s complete herbal written in 1653. People understood so much more about herbs then. Big Pharma has tried to suppress this knowledge so people rely on there patented drugs, natural plants cannot be patented, so there is not any money to be made from them. Big pharma create drugs to manage sickness not to cure, that way they get more customers hooked on their drugs for life. Thank you for all the valuable knowledge you are giving to everyone.

    • Stuart – I get what you are saying, but people make the choice to advocate their own healthcare on to mainstream medicine. And let’s face it, if you get hit by a truck, sticking a spit poultice on your multiple fractures might not be that effective. For me it’s both/and rather than either/or, and blaming predatory medicine is a bit like complaining when you get bitten by a lion in the wilds. It’s what they do, so best to avoid them. No one can avoid a lion for you, you have to do it yourself 😉

  3. You might be interested in Functional Medicine, which looks at patients as people with a history, not just a collection of symptoms. Dr. Mark Hyman is one person to contact for more information about functional medicine.

  4. What a great interview – couldn’t agree more about treating the body as a whole. I’ve been inspired to go and buy the book and regain that lost knowledge 🙂

  5. Lovely to listen to the three of you.I agree completely with the need for education and people should hear about helping themselves using herbs so often that it becomes normal to do and talk about it.

  6. Great podcast! How times change regards use of the NHS. When I grew up, I NEVER saw a doctor, I was left to sweat fevers away and hot honey and lemon was prescribed by Nan for all URTIs.
    By coincidence, I bought the book just recently. It looks great so makes an ideal present but the information within is well worth the read. A great summary of what I am learning at herb school.

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