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