Harry, get out of the woad!

PUBLISHED: 15:55 08 June 2007 | UPDATED: 22:51 28 May 2010

When I was 11, I was taught history by a man called Harry Plant. We liked sitting next to him at school dinner because he would always eat up the pile of pale green slime that was ladled on to our plates. He d eat up anything, not just cabbage. He was a b

When I was 11, I was taught history by a man called Harry Plant.

We liked sitting next to him at school dinner because he would always eat up the pile of pale green slime that was ladled on to our plates. He'd eat up anything, not just cabbage. He was a big man.

In the course of the year, he made one joke. Having told us the ancient Britons daubed themselves with a blue dye called woad and how the Romans built straight roads, he then asked us what the Romans shouted as they raced their chariots across Britain. The answer was "Get out of the woad."

Harry Plant came back into my memory for two reasons - one in connection with the wonderful new College of West Anglia which is to be built near March. More of that later.

The other reason was that I've just discovered the last woad mill in England was at Parson Drove - not because the locals ran around wearing nothing but a few daubs of dark blue woad but because it was used to dye police uniforms.

The woad plant was collected and then crushed to a pulp by huge stone wheels on a platform, the wheels being worked by horses walking round and round in small circles.

The pulp or 'wad' was then shaped into balls and balanced on the wad men's heads (they wore special strong hats) and carried to the drying racks.

The juice or dye trickled down the backs of their necks and, as the dye was permanent, "you could always tell who worked in the wad mill".

The dye was eventually sent away in barrels by train from Murrow station until the business closed in 1914.

It's the first time anything Harry Plant taught me has come in useful. I wonder if West Anglia's "higher education courses" will be more useful (as promised) to the employers in the region.

They will include child care which is indeed handy because mothers no longer stay at home to look after their children. Then they're offering 'fashion'. Quite where the centre of the Fenland fashion industry is situated escapes me.

Finally, there'll be courses in 'motor sport' - which presumably means our lovely new college will be officially encouraging boy racers. I despair.

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