Lichen and the Decline of Spume

Xanthoria polycarpa

Lichen has always been at the heart of Soddenham, in both literal and metaphorical senses. We’ve already touched upon the origination of  subsidence lichen farming, and also seen the legacy of the later commercial processing and milling in our village.

The very idea of lichen as either a foodstuff, agricultural crop or an instrumental part of the growth of British seaside holidays during the Victorian era, seems impossible to many outside Norfolk, but this slow growing composite organism has reluctantly offered its meagre nutrients to weary travellers since time began, as well as providing the essence of the British seaside for generations.

An image taken from the 1959 Geo. Thos. Murrow Proposal Brochure courtesy of Unwin S. Schreiber

Its proclivity to this area in particular allowed a settlement to form and grow into a thriving community, whose relative prosperity was built around the husbandry and exploitation of this unique resource.

A detail from Soddenham Life (R. Gaze, 1957)

The lichen that has both sustained and tainted Soddenham all these years is a sub species of Xanthoria polycarpa which is similar to Xanthoria parietina (common to most parts of mainland Britain.) It is a foliose, or leafy, lichen with a distinct mustardy colouring. Much study has been undertaken on the organism (largely driven by commercial initiative rather than any ecolonomical concern) and it has featured in a number of scientific and agricultural publications, along with a plethora of local pamphlets, books and articles, some of which can be seen on our Bookshelf.


The connection to British seaside holidays is all down to spume. I’m sure that most of us will have a memory like this:

More importantly, you will have noticed that the spume on our sea sides is noticeably less luxuriant:

soddenham-spume-2 soddenham-spume-3

Lichen, and in particular, Soddenham lichen was a prime ingredient in the manufacture of high quality British spume, which was once exported to all parts of the British Empire in order to provide our bureaucrats and their families with a touch of home whilst posted abroad. It is not widely known that Spike Milligan, who spent his formative years in India, originally wrote about British spume in one of his most famous poems, but was sadly rewritten during the Burmese monsoon season of 1933:


Lichen, when ground into a fine powder and slowly dried, was the base ingredient in manufacture of spume. The enzymes within the hydrated ground lichen, when mixed with specific quantities of several other minerals, created the perfect compound to make a rich, foamy skirt along the coastline that quickly became a favourite feature of the late Victorian seaside holiday.

soddenham-spume-6Early every morning all over the nation’s beaches, whatever the weather, a veritable army of spume makers (who were affectionately known as Spumedore’s by the turn of the century!) would purposefully walk their allotted stretch, sprinkling a carefully measured amount of the compound onto the sand approximately 3 feet and 4 inches from the waters edge. As the tides rose the powder rehydrates in the salt water causing a chemical reaction that releases volatile compounds (mainly pyrrol, methyl acetate and pyridine) that create millions of tiny bubbles that have the added benefit of clinging together, forming the frothy apron so intrinsically linked with the British seaside. This small amount of powder sprinkled along the coast would provide a full day of creamy brown spume for children and adults to frolic in.

Alas, times always change, and as Britons became more enamoured with the white beaches and clear blue waters of the Mediterranean during the 1970’s, the demand for high quality spume dropped dramatically, and Murrows Mill, like many others around the country, were finding it difficult to continue.

During the late 1980’s, the British Seaside Commission and the Spume Marketing Board teamed up with the Marketing Dept. at Geo. Thos. Murrow to create this harrowing advertising campaign which ran from April 1988 to July 1989:


In 2001 Murrows made its last delivery and closed down in the face of increasing competition from Indian and Chinese lichen suppliers (whose product produces a noticeably inferior quality of spume and has none of the longevity) and the inevitable lack of government support. British seaside holidays may never recover, but we in Soddenham shall never forget…

8 thoughts on “Lichen and the Decline of Spume

  1. Good article. Don’t get me started on cheap imported lichen! Whilst we were holidaying in Sheringham a few years back the council, noticing that their imported lichen was producing such a poor quality spume, decided to bulk it out with detergent flakes. This produced such an over-abundance of bright white spume (up to 2 feet 3 inches deep in places) that our over-excited Border Terrier ran off into it. We haven’t seen him since. Bring back British spume!

  2. Dear Les,

    The detail in your article is impressive. It prompted me with a few of my own memories of Spume and perhaps something few people remember about the influence lichen has had over the years.

    I have fond memories of beach holidays in the UK. As a child back in the day, spume was just something magical, which is exactly how it should be for a child. I had no knowledge of how or why spume appeared on our coastlines. The fact that it was a natural product meant parents had no worries about their children playing in spume. How many families haven’t got a photo of their child playing or standing in spume? As an adult your article offers information that I hadn’t considered all those years ago. Fascinating as always.

    You rightly note lichen will always be at the heart of Soddenham and even now whenever I notice lichen when I’m out and about I am reminded of the place I still think of as home.

    It does seem that nowadays Lichen is underated as one of natures wonders. This of course was not always the case. Are you aware that further afield back in the early 1970’s a radical pioneering community was set up in Ireland based on the growing cycle of Squamulose lichens. The people in the community strongly believed that Lichen held the secrets to a long and healthy life. They based their lifestyle, diet, farming and industry on their understanding of lichen. The key principles of community living were firmly anchored in the science available at that time regarding Squamulose. With attitudes as they were in the early 70’s the people who moved to set up the community were viewed as hippies or drug casualties from the 60’s. In fact the truth was quite the opposite. Many were respected members of their former communities. Some even had degrees. One woman was a qualified doctor, which was conveniently overlooked at the time. Generally back then women weren’t seen as doctors let alone suspected of even being qualified in anything! Some would say things are different now but mention a doctor and most people think of a bloke. Anyway I digress. The Lichen community struggled because of opposition and prejudice and after 5 years it folded. The only thing that bears witness to the people who lived there is the timber henge and it’s wonderfully abundant and diverse lichen. In the nearby villages the locals rarely mention the community and the henge is said to be a place of wickedness. You won’t find it on any maps. Such was the strength of opposition in the late 70’s all records from the community were destroyed. I only heard about the it from a relative in America who knew someone from the community who had been forced to emigrate to the States and who is now living under an assumed name.

    It would be hard to think of a community like this emerging in the 21st Century. The window of opportunity to fully explore a lifestyle based on lichen has been firmly closed. It is a shame that modern science moves forward motivated by profit rather than inherited wisdom.

    I’ve rattled on long enough but I thought I would share my scant knowledge of the Squamulose Community. Although it may be little off topic from Soddenham I feel that lichen is something which not only links people and places but also the past with the present. Maybe others out there know more about what went on during those dark days in Ireland back in the 70s.

    Thank you for all the hard work that goes into making this website such a place of interest and of value in the future.

    Kindest regards
    Mr Pickard

  3. Thank you for your kind words Mr. Pickard, and thank you for your information upon the Squamulose Community – this is most helpful news as we are currently researching what we now believe to be the headquarters of a local chapter of this organisation; a building that has been shrouded in mystery for many years and is only now beginning to yield some clues of its usage. You may know it as ‘The Establishment’ – a place that filled local children with fear and dread, and adults with deep suspicion, the place was obscured by the construction of the enterprise zone on the old Savilles site and largely forgotten about. We have recently been inside and found some remarkable things. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you posted here!

  4. Dear Les,
    I will look forward to reading future posts about the possibility that there was a chapter of the Squamulose Community anywhere near Soddenham let alone on its doorstep! The first mention I heard of the Squamulose was in correspondence with my relative in America.
    I know how thorough you are in your research but to unearth something so hidden and yet so significant would be a real feather in your cap.
    I know little about The Establishment because as a child my parents said it was dangerous to go near the place. They talked about the risk of unexploded munitions from the second world war but I think that was just to provide a fear factor so that we steered clear. Some of my friends would play a game of dare where the dare would be to run and bang on one of the windows or to throw stones at the door. I never joined in and preferred playing Cricketball believing that one day I’d make the local team.
    In the old tin of photographs that I acquired recently there are many envelopes and one is marked The Establishment with a few old pictures of the building but nothing that provides any information about what went on inside. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any photographs of the inside. There are random pictures just thrown in the tin which aren’t in envelopes so possibly a few of those could be but I would have no way of knowing or verifying them. These darn photographs have left me with far more questions than answers. Maybe with your help some of the answers will become clear.
    It is strange how as a child we see the world as a place of adventure and excitement and our understanding isn’t coloured by money, scandal, local politics or even the history of where we live. When I look at the old photographs I wonder their significance or if they contain information about Soddenhams past. I am curious as to their secrets but I’m no Columbo! I can imagine him holding up a photograph of The Establishment and saying to the parish vicar “Just one more thing…!” At which point we find out the vicar has a dark secret. (Not that I’m suggesting the current vicar has a dark secret of course). If only unravelling the complex history of Soddenham was as straight forward as an episode of Columbo we would all have a clearer picture about our past.
    In the meantime Les, I think you are doing a marvellous job of pulling together information about Soddenham. I have sent links to your site to my relatives in America and New Zealand and they love it. Your work has allowed them to share with their friends a bit about where they grew up and they are hooked! After years of occasional cards and letters I now have more emails from them than ever. They even want me to see if I can find some of the books you have featured and mail them out! You have definitely stirred some strong memories but also helped share some common ground. I’ve suggested they contact you directly but they have busy work and family lives (I’ll keep at them because they have interesting history in Soddenham). My cousin John-Paul is currently having conversations with his sons school about the idea of making Cricketball as an after-school club. He loved it when he was in the UK and is keen to show his son something of his past. I thought you’d be pleased to know that your site has ignited conversation and interest in so many people.
    Once again I find myself going on so perhaps I should sign off now.
    Kind regards
    Mr Pickard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.