Christopher Hedley, FNIMH, British medical herbalist and teacher of herbal medicine, died in September 2017 at the age of 71. Hedley was the oldest of three brothers, born just after World War II and raised in Kent, England. His mother loved to garden and his father was an engineering lecturer and keen nature photographer. Hedley remembered being called to plants for the first time at a young age.
In 1965, Hedley attended Sussex University to study math and physics. There, he met Non Shaw, who was studying art. They married and were together for the rest of their lives, living in the same flat near Primrose Hill in northwest London. After teaching in secondary schools, Hedley studied herbal medicine at the UK School of Phytotherapy near Tunbridge Wells beginning in the late 1970s. Non studied the course material alongside him. His relationship with Non was as central to his being an herbalist as his relationship with plants, and he credited her in everything he published.
Hedley joined the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) in 1983, when it was still a professional body of physiomedical practitioners, many of whom had been taught by A.W. Priest. He joined the Postgraduate Training Board in 1993 and served as its chair from 1994 to 1996. He was a NIMH council member from 1993 to 1996 and was made a fellow in 1999. He was a lecturer at the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine from 1996 to 2010 and at Westminster University from 1999 to 2009. He taught materia medica, therapeutics, and pharmacy. He also taught many seminars for practitioners. Along with Non, he published Herbal Remedies: A Practical Beginner’s Guide to Making Effective Remedies in the Kitchen (Parragon Book Service, 1996). He was also a regular contributor to the European Journal of Herbal Medicine.
I was lucky enough to know Christopher for 23 years. I first met him when I went to an herbal medicine evening class in the basement of Neal’s Yard Remedies in Notting Hill. Each week, we did a tea tasting, then talked about the herb, its history, actions, phytochemistry, and different approaches to health care. He told wonderful stories and listened with his ears and heart wide open to all of ours.
As Christopher used to say, “Herbalism is about stories: people’s stories they tell you and yours as you listen and think about how to treat them.” Indeed, his stories were most likely responsible for many people deciding to study herbal medicine. Many of us owe our professions to Christopher.
“How a plant is in the world is how it will be in you,” Christopher would say. “Very generous things, plants. We don’t deserve them, really.” Along with Non, he developed a simple-yet-sophisticated tea-tasting methodology that he used with students and practitioners, arguing that differences of opinion about an herb could almost always be resolved by taking it as a tea.
On herb walks, he would point out a particular plant and say, “And here we have the most beautiful plant in the whole known universe,” before moving on to the next plant: “And here we have the most beautiful plant in the whole known universe.” He loved plants. His awe and love of green nature, combined with his willingness to truly listen and his knowledge about people and plants meant that his practice thrived. Despite never having a website or advertising, he developed a loyal client base.
“When with patients, look closely and listen closely: they will tell you what’s wrong with them; listen longer and they’ll tell you what to do about it,” he would say. “And then they pay you! It helps if you have white hair and look deeply into their eyes; they will think that you are wise!” While humor was a central part of his teaching, he was certainly wise, although he never claimed to have access to knowledge that anyone else couldn’t cultivate. Christopher pointed out that the herbs we need are often under our noses, growing between the cracks in the pavement. He was an urban herbalist, and saw the city as offering up as many possibilities as meadows. He knew his patch like no one else.
People used to ask me how old Christopher was and I would reply that he was something between four and 400. He had the curiosity and twinkle of a four-year-old and the wisdom of the ancients. Non died in July 2017. Christopher followed her just after the autumn equinox. He always did have good timing.
His funeral was a wonderful affair, with about 150 people celebrating his life. There were bright smiles and tears, enough of both to make a rainbow, upon which Christopher no doubt sat and smiled, gently nodding his head.
—Guy Waddell, PhD,
MNIMH Medical Herbalist,
London, United Kingdom