Family puts faith in its vast array of herbal treatments: Liz Hunt reports on the Wigan company which is at the forefront of the renaissance of traditional medicines in Britain

Click to follow
ONE OF Wigan's best kept secrets is located just minutes from the town centre, half-way down a winding, green lane. Here, in wooded seclusion, a team of dedicated workers prepare 'the only officially approved bonking mixture' in the world. Using leaves from the herb, damiana (Turnera diffusa var. aphrodisiaca) and berries from saw palmetto, they concoct the potent elixir which is credited with helping 'male function'.

David Hampson, sales director of the family firm Potter's, let slip this information in one unguarded moment during the Independent's tour of the bulk herb store.

His father, Jeff, the 74-year-old chairman, and his younger brother, Tony, had stepped in several times to prevent earlier transgressions.

As befitting a firm and a family at the forefront of the rehabilitation of herbal medicine in Britain, they prefer to focus attention on their other more respectable licensed remedies.

But David Hampson had an eye to publicity. Half-hidden from Hampson senior by bales of buchu leaves, passiflora herbs and prickly ash bark, he whispered: 'They call it a restorative, a tonic, but it is bloody good for . . . you know. If you feel good, you bonk.'

Herbal treatments, for a range of conditions, are back in favour: with the consumer who is increasingly wary of the toxic side-effects of modern drugs and with governments worried about escalating drug budgets. The World Health Organisation, acknowledging that many drugs will always be out of reach of poorer countries, is actively encouraging a return to their traditional medicine.

The EC is committing millions of ecus to reviving these remedies and promoting their use, while in the UK several of the most recent reference books on over-the-counter (OTC) medicines have, for the first time, listed some licensed herbal medicines.

Herbal medicine is the only category of complementary medicine to be fully licensed by the Department of Health once purity, safety and efficacy are established.

Potter's has the largest range of licensed herbal products in Europe and holds 148 out of about 500 licences issued by the DoH - including one for the 'bonking mixture'. Doctors are free to prescribe herbal medicines on the NHS, and increasing numbers are doing so.

But we still lag far behind other European countries, many of which have never really lost touch with 'tribal' memory of herbal medicines, according to Tony Hampson. 'In France, there has always been 'medecine douce' - soft or gentle medicine - and the major German teaching hospitals were built around monastic gardens and that influence has persisted,' he said.

'Our problems began with the dissolution of the monasteries and the loss of the physic gardens.'

However, in the days preceding the NHS - when it cost to see a doctor - and the advent of 'magic bullet' medicine, people relied on herbs and herbalists to treat many common illnesses.

Most of the extracts, powders, and tablets they bought were made by Messrs Potter & Clarke. In the 1930s, their shop, near Holborn Viaduct in London, was thriving.

After the Second World War, with breakthroughs in the large-scale production of synthetic chemicals, herbs were relegated to the category of 'old wives' tales' and Potter & Clark faced closure. Frank Power, a leading British herbalist, feared the loss of hundreds of formulae, compiled over the centuries and, in the early 1950s, he approached Jeff Hampson, then a Master Brewer, to see if he would buy the company.

Potter's Herbal Remedies was born and the Hampson family's commitment to herbal medicines began, tackling head-on the medical and political opposition to these treatments.

A principal aim of their campaign has been to put herbal medicines on a firm scientific footing, while making some allowances for nature's vagaries.

'We couldn't just leave it to the academics; they were setting standards (for herbal remedies) that were so high, there wasn't a plant alive that could bloody well meet it,' Jeff Hampson said.

In addition, the family has sought to publicise the proliferation of unlicensed remedies and food supplements, which often contain non- therapeutic or toxic doses of herbs.

'There is more than 3,000 years of experience of herbals, years of trial and error,' Tony Hampson said. 'It has killed and maimed people and herbalists have made every mistake in the book, but now we are benefiting from that experience.

'There have been less than 10 adverse drug reactions caused by licensed herbals in 20 years. We know they can work and now we are enjoying seeing science prove it.'

(Photograph omitted)