The ‘Lichen Lady’ of Studland

‘Bare patches; don’t forget the bare patches…’ Joy Fildes has been careful to keep the sharing of her apparently boundless scientific knowledge to an elementary level in keeping with the degree of understanding in her one-man class.

Thankfully, at 87 years young, a lifetime of teaching has more than prepared her for the task. After all, ask the woman they call ‘The Lichen Lady’ about the epithet it’s only reasonable to expect some discourse on lichenology. Mycology (fungi) is the natural next step.

Joy Fildes with the view she describes as ‘one of the most beautiful in the world’

‘Fungi are Nature’s recyclers; they are far better at it than we are because there is nothing left over, absolutely everything is recycled. Each fungus has the enzyme it needs to decay what it is supposed to. So, if you have an oak tree you need a fungus to decay the leaf matter, another to decay the vein and others the bark, inner wood, acorn cup and acorn inside and outside – that’s seven different fungi required to decay an oak tree, so no wonder there are 9000 species of fungi in this country, of which about forty are poisonous.

‘The trouble is those that are poisonous are very poisonous indeed and a long, slow death from eating Death Cap would be deeply unpleasant. Contrary to popular belief though there is an antidote. I read about a couple in New England who ate a fungus called Destroying Angel, a first cousin of the Death Cap. They were treated with alpha lipoic acid, which is a first cousin of Vitamin C and you can’t overdose on Vitamin C.’

There’s more to come on Vitamin C, but for now… bare patches?

‘Oh, the perfect conditions for us to see the fungi are in woodlands with a canopy that is heavy enough to prevent the growth of anything green on the ground. So bare patches are good for fungi. I’ve travelled to woodlands all over Dorset and learned most of what I know about fungi from a very knowledgeable man called John Keylock of the Southern Fungus Recording Group. I even found a white fungus in the Woodland Walk at the Knoll Beach in Studland that was a first for Dorset.’

Joy grew up in Parkstone, the daughter of ‘very sociable parents’ who regularly took her on day trips to Studland, instilling in her a lifelong love of the village. She retired from teaching in 1984 and ever since has lived in the home on the Glebe estate she named Lichen Haven after her life’s passion.

‘It’s a wonderful place to be. All I have to do is look at the view and my spirits are lifted. It’s one of the most beautiful in the world I believe.’

A science teacher by trade, Joy had A-levels in Physics and Chemistry, but not Biology and it was on a course to address the missing qualification that her love of lichen was ignited and she subsequently took a MSc in Lichen Ecology, studying lichen as a means of discerning pollution levels.

‘It’s very sensitive to acid rain, you see. Understanding that lichen are not plants, but separate organisms that need both algae and fungus to exist seemed an impressive co-operation and the interest grew from there. Since then I’ve realised the arrangement actually benefits the fungus most, but in the case of the fungus and the tree, the fungus is able to feed the tree’s root system with water and nutrients extracted from the soil and the tree feeds the fungus with sugars produced by photosynthesis. It’s called mycorrhiza and it is the most perfectly balanced symbiosis.’

Balance is important in Joy’s doggedly independent life. She belongs to the village book club, avidly reads the New Scientist and the newspaper she buys for the crossword and when she wants to find something out thinks nothing of leaving Swanage Library with five books a week. She was particularly ardent in her quest for information about controlling cancer, having survived brushes with disease in 2001 and 2004.

Her investigations brought her to a book about ascorbate, a group of salts found in ascorbic acid – vitamin C – and its role in disease prevention and cure. Two doctors wrote the book based on the findings of 575 separate research papers and since reading their work Joy has taken daily doses of vitamin C.

Other medical knowledge Joy has unlocked in her studies includes finding that not eating proteins for three days, combined with hydration, is an effective remedy for gout, but she’s equally ready to acknowledge the help of others – not least Rev Tony Higgins, resident priest at St Nicholas’ Church in Studland.

She confides: ‘I’m diabetic and manage my medication extremely carefully. I usually eat before I inject my insulin but for some reason one morning I wasn’t hungry so I injected first and then fell asleep again for another four hours although I had just had nine hours good sleep. I came round to the phone ringing and it was Tony. I couldn’t move my leg and obviously sounded confused so he called an ambulance. 

‘Isn’t it ironic that the one day I did the injection in the order that we are supposed to do it was the day I was whisked into hospital?

‘His call came in the nick of time. If he’d called a few minutes earlier I would have been fast asleep and a few minutes later I wouldn’t have had the strength to pick up the phone, so he saved my life that day. I promised the diabetes doctor at Poole Hospital that I would never again inject before eating.’

A mainstay of the choir at St Nicholas’, Joy also sings with Purbeck Village Quire and there’s no shortage of folk with kind words and stories to share about her. One in particular though warrants a direct response: did she really cover her car with cling film and drive around to collect fungi spores?

Joy shakes her head as she laughs and her eyes twinkle even more brightly: ‘No, but that’s a marvellous tall tale. What I did do though was coming back from Dorset Wildlife Trust at Kingcombe I strapped a baker’s tray containing fungi to the roof of the car so the spores would scatter as I drove along, perhaps that’s where the idea came from.’

Studland Heath is home to a rich variety of lichen species

A lifetime’s study has rewarded Joy on many levels although some would say she hasn’t had the recognition her knowledge deserves. Still, she’s happy to have contributed one small thing to lichenological slang – ‘jam tarts’. 

‘There are 2000 species of lichen in this country so distinguishing them to children is difficult. The most knowledgeable lichenologist in the country was Peter James and I was lucky enough to have him as my tutor. I used the term ‘jam tarts’ to him once when describing lichen made up of small circles with raised edges and coloured ‘filling’ like a jam tart. He said nothing at the time but used the description himself later that day and ever since it has appeared in all the literature. I’m quite tickled by that.’

‘Ode’ from Joy

Joy loves to write verses for pleasure and it’s inevitable that her life’s passions should find their way into her poetry. Here are two couplets from a longer piece, O Praise Ye the Lord for all Things Obvious, she wrote for her poetry group.

O praise ye the Lord for the woods and the fields where mushrooms grow without any gardening fuss

O praise ye the Lord for the amazing recycling gift of each fungus

O praise ye the Lord for the life of each lichen, centuries old

O praise ye the Lord for the brief span of each second as time unfolds

• First published by Dorset Life The County Magazine.

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