Edward Bach - a fascinating insight
by Jane Stevenson and Alice Digby
We’re all familiar with the famous sepia photograph of Dr Bach posed at a slightly oblique angle, in a crisp white shirt looking rather ‘smart’, both intellectually and sartorially. That he was a well educated, cerebral man is without question, but what about his lifestyle, habits, reputation and appearance outside of his professional job as a physician? Those who knew him paint a portrait that somehow belies that famous photo, a fascinating insight into the real Edward Bach.
Back in 1988 I was interviewed for small local magazine North Folk about my experiences as a Flower Essence Practitioner. Following its publication a local man called Archie Wright contacted me to say he had known Dr Bach when he lived in Cromer, North Norfolk. It turned out that Archie lived at Thwaite Common just a few miles from my home at the time in Ingworth. I arranged a meeting with Archie and asked along my friend and business partner Viv. I didn’t know what to expect, how well he knew Bach or even if he’d be able to recall those days - 50 years earlier - with any clarity, but I was exited at the opportunity to spend some time with someone who actually knew Edward Bach.
We arrived at a little cottage at the foot of a loke, near the Common, which I knew well as I’d lived there myself, previously, for several years (but I’d had no idea that, all that time, a friend of Bach’s had lived just a short walk from my house!) Archie welcomed us in, he was an elderly Norfolk man, must have been in his 80s, and was warm, friendly and clearly couldn’t wait to tell us about his dear friend Dr Bach. For him, I believe, it was nice to have another chance to reminisce about ‘the good ol days’, and to two people who really, really wanted to hear his stories. Viv set the tape to ‘record’ and I took some sketchy notes which is just as well because, when we got home, we found the tape hadn’t recorded. And so this account is taken from those (often barely legible) notes and from memories of that meeting with Archie, over 22 years ago.
Bach would happily spend time with “poor people” including making friendships with the Romany gypsy community, in Archie’s words: “Real gypsies”. He told of how Bach would meet the travelling gypsies at the Belle Vue pub, which Archie ran. “He would sit with them in the bar and they would exchange knowledge on herbal remedies and natural cures, "He was extremely knowledgeable, with a very active mind, yet associated with the poor.” When the gypsies passed though they would always ask ‘Has the doctor been in recently?’ One of them was a character caller Jimmy Milton who lived in a horsebox and who Bach would visit. Archie did think this amusing and a bit unusual and I suppose he had a point. When you think about it, it’s unusual for someone of Bach’s stature, a doctor - nay a Harley Street surgeon - to regularly socialise with people of a ‘lower class’, let-alone build close friendships with them. It seems, at this time in his life, Bach sought acquaintances that were mostly about friendship and the pursuit of knowledge and never about social convention or ‘what was expected’. “He didn’t like hierarchy at all,” said Archie, “when he had money he’d give it to down-and-outs or spend it right away.”
Now, with the knowledge of his prestige as a surgeon and when we look at that formal sepia photo, it’s hard to imagine that, certainly during his time in Cromer, he is said to have looked more than a little dishevelled. Indeed in Archie’s own words he “Looked like a tramp.” With “very fair – blonde, un-groomed hair” (which Nora used to cut; “he never went to the barbers”); open shirts; flannels; tatty tennis shoes - always worn without socks; and a big old Mac “that he would sleep in”, he probably fitted in very well with Cromer’s artists, gypsies and local hobos! Archie, his friends and, it seems, much of Cromer, were clearly fascinated by this prestigious London doctor known as ‘Teddy’, evidently he was pretty hard to ignore. People in Archie’s posh saloon bar used to say (either disparagingly or affectionately, you decide): “That old doc, look at him; looking like a shambles.” A doctor wasn’t supposed to look like that, especially in those days. They were ‘pillars of the community’ expected to be suited and booted.
"That old doc, look at him, looking like a shambles"
Archie burst into laughter when he told the peculiar story of how Bach made a pair of trousers for himself. Apparently, rather than buying a pair of trousers, like most people from his class (actually most would probably have them specially tailored), Bach decided to make his own. Fair enough, you might say, nothing particularly odd about that. Except that Bach elected not to use a standard pattern of a mans’ trousers, nor to copy the pattern of some of his own trousers. No he made a pattern from Miss Tabor’s fashionable slacks! Retelling this story had Archie and me in, excuse the pun, ‘stitches’. After all, women’s trousers in the 1930s, of the very few who wore them, looked very different to men’s. It does indeed show another intriguing aspect to Bach’s character. A bit rebellious? A bit of a maverick? An eccentric? Or perhaps - being someone so able to tune into his feelings (something essential to discovering and analysing the emotional effects of the Remedies) - also meant that he was unusually in-touch with his feminine side!
Archie said that Bach ate healthily and that, yes, he enjoyed his pipe and pint (he was known by some as ‘Tobacco Ted’), but that he was also known for his watercress sandwiches and enthusiasm for foraging in hedgerows for berries, herbs and nettles to eat. Archie also said: “Teddy and Mary were thought of as queer because they were vegetarians!” Bach clearly had a strong constitution and Archie was amazed at how he was never ill “not even so much as a mild cold” and this is despite the fact that he wore those old tennis shoes, without socks – “even in the snow. Teddy’s chest was red raw from the elements in the winter months, but still didn’t get ill.” The fact that Bach was never ill was something Archie returned to throughout our conversation.
Amused yet mildly worried looks were exchanged at this depiction of Bach - with his unconventional habits and ‘tramp-like’ appearance. Might it suggest to some (particularly sceptics) that he had ‘lost his way’, or worse, ‘lost his mind’? In my opinion no. But there are countless artists, philosophers and scientists throughout history whose ‘genius’ could be said to be on the edges of madness, (or if not that then many were certainly accused of this at the time, by people unable to appreciate the vision). Such visionaries have enriched the world and taught the world. And Bach himself gave birth to a new system of healing that has helped thousands, probably millions, of people and animals throughout the world so, in a sense, does it matter how it came about? But I reiterate – all accounts of Bach, both personal and literary, confirm that he was of sound mind if, on occasion, eccentric. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: Bach was able to express himself in the relative freedom of a Norfolk town, liberated from the stifling conventions, restraints and responsibilities of London life as a surgeon. This is all speculation of course but 1930s Britain should be put into context: this was a time, between the Wars, when a few progressives were experimenting with new ideas. I say ‘new’, but their ideas were often about looking back and re-learning old customs such as herbalism. Following widespread mechanization in the Industrial Revolution plus the recent horrors of WWI (for which Bach was a casualty medical officer at UCH) for some it was often about a deep-seated craving to ‘get back to nature’. So although some of Bach’s behaviour seemed and seems a bit wacky compared to much of the population at the time (and certainly compared to his professional peers) it certainly wasn’t abnormal.
In some ways those 1930s ‘radicals’, like Bach, were the first hippies. You could say, for Bach, it wasn’t ‘flowers in the hair’ – it was flowers in the bottle! Never mind the peace, love and revolution of the 60s, that handful of special folks, in the 30s, had planted the seeds thirty years earlier. Their ideas were effectively put on hold for WWII but, thankfully, grew again, and bigger, in the 50s, 60s and to this day.
Another solid indicator that Bach was of sound mind is the fact that, despite the unconventionality, he was rational, reliable and responsible; this is confirmed throughout the conversation with Archie. Though of a logical scientific background he was experimenting with other therapies, as all pioneers must. And his dedicated research into this brand new medium, Flower Remedies, inevitably meant that he lived unconventionally and looked unconventional - total immersion was absolutely necessary.
In keeping with his love of nature, Archie told me how Bach would make pieces of furniture out of found pieces of wood. He would collect fallen boughs and branches to make small tables, chairs and simple ornaments (some of which are now on display at Mount Vernon – the place Bach lived after his time in Cromer). Clearly someone with a working knowledge of woodcraft, he also showed Archie how to make a wheel for a wheelbarrow. But Bach’s aesthetic interests weren’t just limited to the traditional; “He was interested in new architecture” … “A man of his time.” Bach also owned a small cottage, outside Cromer, for which he drew up plans for “an unusual chimney stack” which he asked Archie to build for him. Unfortunately I didn’t get the details of that cottage from Archie, but I would have loved to see that chimneystack to see what made it so unusual.
Bach still had, or made, time for recreation and, from Archie’s account, he certainly knew how to enjoy himself. Whether it be in the pub, or enjoying time in his ‘permanent hire’ beach hut which, after leaving Cromer, he would return to for several months each year, or in the ostensibly conformist aspect to Bach’s life - his membership of the Masons. Unsurprisingly, given the secretive nature of the Masons, information on this area of Bach’s life is limited. But Archie did say that Bach was given the Masonic moniker ‘Royal Ancient Order Of Buffalos’ and that he was a founder member of Bath Lodge by the pier in Cromer, “A poor man’s Masonic!” Bach would attend meetings there and it seems his presence and influence was important as ‘Bath Lodge’ was jokingly called ‘Bach Lodge’ (for Bath to rhyme with Bach one assumes his name was incorrectly pronounced as in Johan Sebastian’s and not as it should be, as in - batch). According to Archie most Masonic Lodges weren’t the mysterious, sometimes slightly menacing places often portrayed: “Nearly every other village had a lodge in those days”. It seems they were more like glorified pubs. At Bath Lodge: “More often than not they were used as a place to get-together for ale drinking and a sing song … Teddy, especially, used to enjoy that – he was fond of a drink, although,” he insists, “I only saw him properly drunk once.” It’s because of the Masons that Archie and Bach first met. In 1922 Archie had been in service at 93 Harley Street in London. His main job was as a footman but whenever there were Masonic meetings, held at that address, Archie was employed to welcome members and serve drinks. From what we’ve learnt it seems apposite that Bach should befriend a ‘mere’ footman. Archie fondly remembers how they met again, years later, when Bach walked into the Belle Vue pub in Cromer to find Archie behind the bar: “It was wonderful to see him ... we reminisced about our past together in London.” Bach did eventually give up the Masons but Archie didn’t say why and there didn’t seem any controversy. Who knows, perhaps he needed all his focus for the Remedies he was discovering.
"Doctors said he was 100 years ahead of his time"
Throughout our conversation some uncanny personal connections with Edward Bach kept coming to light. It is well known that Bach found many of his first Flower Remedies in the banks and meadows in and around Cromer, Archie explained how Bach would make-up his remedies in his Cromer home of Brunswick Terrace. He also told of how Bach looked for Gorse on Thwaite Common and discovered Water Violet at Scarrow Beck. I hadn’t been aware of this before and was personally moved to hear it as, years previously, I’d made Remedies there. Scarrow Beck is a little brook, just 7½ miles long, that takes in a spring just outside of Cromer, runs through the Blickling Hall estate (where I make several Remedies), and ends in the village of Ingworth (my former home). Also, in the 70s, I had lived in a remote little commune of cottages called The Lowlands. We would walk to nearby Scarrow Beck to swim at a clearing and the only access is via the long lane that runs through The Lowlands – a route Bach himself may well have taken. Archie also told of Nora Weeks would go looking for remedies on her loop-framed bicycle, just as I had done (it was our only form of transport!) Unknowingly I’d made my Bach Flower Remedies in some of the same spots she and Bach made theirs. It occurs to me that, quite by accident, I have lived in three places that were in some way or other important to Edward Bach: Thwaite Common, Scarrow Beck, and now Cromer. I must admit that gives me a slight shiver down my spine. A nice shiver mind!
Bach would use his remedies and preparations on his friends including once when Archie had an eye infection. “The ordinary doctors couldn’t do anything for my eye, so I asked Teddy if he could help ... he gave me some drops and they cured it.” He continued: “Teddy could see how someone was, and what was wrong with them, just by looking at them – it was almost as if he could X-RAY people!” Archie and his friends weren’t the only ones full of praise for Bach’s abilities, or ‘gifts’, as Archie exclaimed: “Other doctors said he was 100 years ahead of his time.”
As we were coming to the end of our fascinating conversation Archie movingly described the impact that Edward Bach had made on him: “I’ve met many, many people in my time, I’ve been half way round the world, but I’ve never met a man like Teddy.”
"I've never met a man like Teddy"
I had always intended to arrange another meeting with Archie but as the years passed it sadly never happened. I have always regretted that. However, what I learnt from Archie that day, back on the 16th of January 1989 was not at all what I’d expected. It revealed Edward Bach, Teddy, as someone with charisma and charm, blessed and burdened with visionary gifts and eccentricities. But it also exposed someone with foibles and passions that, somehow reassuringly, meant he wasn’t just the almost saintly figure he’s often portrayed, no in many ways he was just a regular man.
© Copyright 2011 Jane Stevenson and Alice Digby